Wednesday 20 November 2013

Mahler’s Mysterious Symphony No 7

Mahler’s 7th Symphony stands unique among the composer’s symphonic cycle for many, many reasons.  Most of all, there remains huge uncertainty over what it is actually about.  Does it have an over-arching message, or programme?  For the conductor, it presents huge difficulties in determining what it is, musically, that you want your interpretation to say.  The magnitude of this uncertainty is not to be underestimated.  Indeed, there has been at least one major international conference of musicologists devoted exclusively to analysis and interpretation of this one piece.

What did Mahler think about it?  The composer was known to be very particular about his compositions, and was an acknowledged master of complex musical form.  Each of his symphonies has a clearly discernible span, making a journey from one place to another, or examining a set of complex emotions or feelings with great clarity.  Analysts have long pondered over the Symphony’s 5-movement structure and tried to tie in the meanings of the outer movements in relation to the inner three.  You would have thought Mahler himself would have recognized such weaknesses, and yet he expressed himself more satisfied with the 7th than with any of his other symphonies.  He obviously saw something different in it.

Mahler undertook work on the 7th immediately after finishing his 6th Symphony, a relentlessly somber and anguished composition.  Yet none of these tragic elements make their way into the 7th Symphony.  It is clearly its own piece, born of its own musical ideas.  He began by composing what would become the 2nd and 4th movements, both called “Nachtmusik” - hence giving the Symphony its commonly used sobriquet “Song of the Night”.  Between those two is the Scherzo, another sinister-sounding movement of evidently nocturnal character.  What ties these three central movements together?  The answer to this must surely be the key to unlocking the mystery of the whole symphony.  Let’s look at them more closely.

The second movement is a beautifully crafted evocation of a quiet night in the forest.  We hear small animals scurrying about, calling to each other.  Hints left and right of things that might be happening if only we could see.  There is a kind of musical darkness that is evocative without being revealing, if I might put it that way.  It is almost a pastoral setting in total darkness.  Yet this darkness is one without any sense of menace.  Like Beethoven’s 6th Symphony’s stroll through the countryside on a fine summer’s day, this movement is a stroll through the forest in the middle of the night.  Humans have a natural trepidation when faced with darkness and night, and this movement seems to want to illustrate that it needn’t be so.  It is uplifting music.

But then along comes the Scherzo.  Now our community of nightlife is scurrying about with an obvious sense of nervousness, with an unspoken threat of something dangerous lurking unseen and probably very close by.  The Scherzo is unsettled from beginning to end.  Even as calm tries to break out from time to time, it is a nervous calm, and never seems to entirely free itself from the dangers hiding in the background.  But these dangers seem to be content, for the time being, to lurk, and never manage to leap forward and give their fears a name.

The fourth movement is the second “Nachtmusik” movement, and is a different beast entirely.  Here the protagonist is taking a leisurely, moonlit, late-evening stroll.  The restrained urgency of the forest has gone, along with its menagerie of small furry animals.  The feral menace of the Scherzo have evaporated, and instead the charms of the night are assembled to serenade us.  We are left with an overwhelming impression of contentment.

These three movements are the core of the Symphony, and were written first of all, with the 1st and 5th movements not being added by Mahler until the following year.  I think Mahler had said most of what he wanted to say in these three movements, but realized that they did not stand up on their own as a Symphony without the weighty bookends of suitable opening and closing movements.  I think this is what was in his mind when he knocked out the 1st and 5th movements in little over a month in the summer of 1905.

The first movement is one big introduction.  It is seen by many analysts are representing daybreak, and indeed it can be readily interpreted - on its own - in that light.  But it doesn’t really make a lot of sense to celebrate daybreak before three movements which set about celebrating night.  It is my contention that the first movement celebrates not nightfall as such, but - and here there is no word for what I want to say, so I am going to have to make one up - “nightbreak”.  We live in a daylight world, and in our world day breaks and night falls.  But in a nocturnal world the opposite happens, night breaks and day falls.  So the 1st movement of Mahler’s 7th represents “nightbreak” as a dawning process.  That it takes its time doing so, is necessary mainly for the purposes of creating an opening movement of suitable weight and depth.

The opposite happens in the finale.  Here the night is gradually giving way to day.  The dark tonal colours give way to conventionally brighter ones, and the music works its way to a celebratory conclusion.  We have been blessed with another wonderful night, which is now drawing to its conclusion with the dawn, and God willing, once the day passes the music’s nocturnal protagonist can hopefully look forward to the next night.

Because of the interpretive difficulties I have mentioned, there are many different and viable performances of this difficult work available on record.  I must admit, this has always be a very tough symphony for me, as nobody has yet come up with an interpretation that - to my ears at least - makes real sense of this challenging symphony.  I would have said that, with my hand on my heart, I haven’t yet heard a single recording I can recommend.

But that has now changed.

I recently posted about the Michael Tilson Thomas recording with the San Francisco Symphony, which is being made available in DSD by Blue Coast Records at a stunning price (until the end of November).  It is a stunning recording too.  This is finally the definitive Mahler 7th for me.  Those of you who already know the piece can be forgiven for wondering what the hell I am talking about in my out-of-left-field analysis.  But I think Tilson Thomas just about nails it for me in this recording.  In particular, the middle three movements are spectacularly spot on - quite the best I have yet heard.  Only the final movement is arguably weak.  The first movement is a great exposition of my “nightbreak” Introduction theory - and has the amusing bonus that the famous Star Trek theme which makes its appearance half way through is voiced to sound just like it does on the TV show!  I would expect nothing less from a bunch of San Franciscans!  The core central movements are breathtakingly magnificent.  A truly captivating performance.  Well done, Tilson Thomas, and quite unexpected given his unconvincingly austere rendition of the 1st (albeit a superbly recorded, unconvincingly austere rendition), also available from Blue Coast.

I provided a link to it in the previous post I mentioned, so here instead is a link to a YouTube video of Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony performing the 7th at a Prom concert in London, England a couple of years back.  Nowhere near as polished as the recording, from an interpretative standpoint, but still an hour and a half of compelling viewing.