Symphony No. 7 (Mahler)

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Symphony No. 7
by Gustav Mahler
Photo of Gustav Mahler by Moritz Nähr 01.jpg
Gustav Mahler in 1907
Key (E minor -) C Major
Composed 1904 (1904)–1905 (1905): Maiernigg
Movements 5
Date 19 September 1908 (1908-09-19)
Location Prague
Conductor Gustav Mahler
Performers Czech Philharmonic Orchestra

Symphony No. 7 by Gustav Mahler was written in 1904–05, with repeated revisions to the scoring. It is sometimes referred to by the title Song of the Night (German: Lied der Nacht), which Mahler never knew (and certainly would be unlikely to have sanctioned).[1] Although the symphony is often described as being in the key of E minor, its tonal scheme is more complicated. The symphony's first movement moves from B minor (introduction) to E minor, and the work ends with a rondo finale in C major.[2] Thus, as Dika Newlin has pointed out, "in this symphony Mahler returns to the ideal of 'progressive tonality' which he had abandoned in the Sixth".[3] The complexity of the work's tonal scheme was analysed in terms of "interlocking structures" by Graham George.[4]


In 1904, Mahler was enjoying great international success as a conductor, but he was also, at last, beginning to enjoy international success as a composer. His second daughter was born that June, and during his customary summer break away from Vienna in his lakeside retreat at Maiernigg in the Carinthian mountains, he finished his Symphony No. 6 and sketched the second and fourth movements (the two Nachtmusik movements) for Symphony No. 7 while mapping out much of the rest of the work. He then worked on the Seventh intensively the following summer, claiming to take just four weeks to complete the first, third and fifth movements.

The completed score was dated 15 August 1905, and the orchestration was finished in 1906; he laid the Seventh aside to make small changes to the orchestration of Symphony No. 6, while rehearsing for its premiere in May 1906. The Seventh had its premiere on 19 September 1908, in Prague with the Czech Philharmonic, at the festival marking the Diamond Jubilee of Emperor Franz Joseph.

The three years which elapsed between the completion of the score and the symphony's premiere witnessed dramatic changes in Mahler's life and career. In March 1907 he had resigned his conductorship of the Vienna State Opera, as the musical community in Vienna turned against him (which was why he chose Prague for the work's debut);[citation needed] on 12 July his first daughter died of scarlet fever; and, even as she lay on her deathbed, Mahler learned that he was suffering from an incurable heart condition. Musicologists surmise that this is why the optimism and cheerfulness of the symphony was subsequently tempered by the small but significant revisions Mahler made in the years leading up to its premiere.[citation needed]


The symphony is scored for the following orchestra. As in some of his other symphonies (particularly his 5th, 6th symphonies), Mahler's interest in unconventional instruments in the orchestra is clearly shown in the scoring in this work, with usage of a tenor horn, cowbells, mandolin, and guitar.

  1. ^ Mahler's specification of a Tenorhorn in the scoring of this work has often caused confusion. In Britain, the name 'tenor horn' is often given to the instrument that in the US is called the alto horn (in E or F);[5] in Germany this (a contralto saxhorn) is known as the Althorn in E or F, and is not the instrument requested by Mahler.[5] Nor does Mahler intend a euphonium, which in German is called either Euphonium or Baryton.[6] The German Tenorhorn is actually a B instrument similar to the instrument known in Britain and the USA as the baritone horn.[7]


The duration of the symphony is around 80 minutes. There is, however, an exceptionally lengthy recording by Otto Klemperer, which is 100 minutes long, as well as a recording by Hermann Scherchen with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra that is 68 minutes long.

The work is in five movements:

Langsam – Allegro risoluto, ma non troppo[edit]

(E minor, beginning B minor)

The movement is in sonata form. It begins with a slow introduction in B minor, launched by a dark melody played by a tenor horn.

 \relative c' { \clef treble \key b \minor \numericTimeSignature \time 4/4 \tempo "" 4 = 40 \partial 16*9 fis16\f fis8.( d16) gis,4~ | gis8.[ r32 b64 d] fis8..-> eis64 fis gis8..-> fis64 e ais,4~ | ais4. }

The accompaniment rhythm

 \relative c { \clef bass \key b \minor \numericTimeSignature \time 4/4 b8.-- b32-. b-. b8.-- b32-. b b2 }

was said to have come to Mahler whilst rowing on the lake at Maiernigg after a period of compositional drought.[8] The principal theme, presented by horns in unison in E minor, is accompanied similarly, though much faster and in a higher register.

 \relative c' { \clef treble \time 2/2 \key e \minor \tempo "Allegro con fuoco" e2-> b-> | r4 r8 b g'4. fis8 | e2-> a,-> | r4 r8 a c4. e8 | a4 r8 g f2 }

The second theme is then presented by violins, accompanied by sweeping cello arpeggios.

 \relative c''' { \clef treble \numericTimeSignature \time 4/4 \key c \major r4 g4.\pp\fermata( e8\< f fis | g aes\!) \slashedGrace { a,!( } e''2\sf\fermata\>)( cis8\! d\pp) | \slashedGrace { d,( } d')->( c fis, g) \slashedGrace { b,( } b')->( a cis, d) | f( e16) r e4. }

This theme is infected with chromatic sequences. At one point the violins reach an F7 (the highest F on a piano).[9] The exposition is wrapped up with a march theme from the introduction, which is followed by a repeat of the principal theme.

This leads straight into the development, which continues for some time before suddenly being interrupted by pianissimo trumpet fanfares and a slow chorale based on the march theme from the introduction.

 \relative c' { \clef bass \numericTimeSignature \time 4/4 \key ees \major <c bes g ees>2\pp \breathe <d bes g d bes>4.( <ees bes g bes, ees,>8) \breathe | <ees bes g bes, ees,>1 \breathe }

This section has been interpreted as a "religious vision". It has also been asserted that this section contains the chains of fourths that impressed Arnold Schoenberg.[8] After this section plays itself out, a harp glissando propels the music into a new section based on the second theme and the march/chorale theme. But before a climax can be articulated, the final cadence is interrupted by the music from the introduction and the baritone horn arioso. This leads into the recapitulation, but before the actual recapitulation occurs, there is an incredibly difficult high note for trumpet.[9] In fact, the principal trumpet for the work's premiere even confronted Mahler, saying "I'd just like to know what's beautiful about blowing away at a trumpet stopped up to high C." Mahler had no answer, but later pointed out to Alma that the man did not understand the agony of his own existence.[10]

The recapitulation is very similar to the exposition, although it is significantly more agitated. There is a grand pause during the first thematic section that leads into a massive climax. The second theme is also considerably shortened. The march theme from the introduction leads straight into an epic coda that features march rhythms and multiple high points in the orchestral texture, before ending on an E major chord.

The lengthy and dramatically intense first movement is followed by three distinct pictures of night: two movements entitled "Nachtmusik" (i.e. nocturne) and a "shadowy" scherzo in between them.

Nachtmusik I[edit]

Allegro moderato. Molto moderato (Andante) C major — C minor
The Night Watch by Rembrandt. Mahler compared the first Nachtmusik with this painting.

The first of the two Nachtmusik movements is said to represent a Nachtwanderung ("walk by night"). Mahler, who described the movement in vague terms, compared it to Rembrandt's painting The Night Watch, though he did not intend to evoke the painting itself.[11] Overall, the movement possesses a grotesque quality, but always with friendly intentions. The movement progresses through a series of marches and dances and naturalistic nocturnal descriptions. One remarkable aspect of the movement is its symmetrical form; it is a rondo following the structure (I)-(A)-(B)-(I/A)-(C)-(I/A)-(B)-(A)-(I), where (I) is an introductory section and (I/A) combines the introductory music and the (A) theme.

The second movement opens with horns calling to each other.

 { \new PianoStaff << \new Staff \relative c' { \clef treble \key c \major \numericTimeSignature \time 4/4 \partial 4*1 g4(\ff | c e g c8)[ r16 aes] | g2.\fermata r4 | r1 | r2 r4 } \new Staff \relative c' { \clef treble \key c \major \numericTimeSignature \time 4/4 r4 | r1 | r2^"mit Dämpfer" r4 c8.\p( ees16 | g4->) g-> g->( c8)[ r16 aes] | g2.\fermata } >> }

The second horn is muted, however, to create the illusion of distance. Scampering woodwinds imitating somewhat grotesque bird calls pass off into the distance, as the trumpets sound the major/minor seal from Symphony No. 6. The horns introduce a rich, somewhat bucolic (A) theme, surrounded by dancing strings and a march rhythm from his song "Revelge".

 \relative c' { \clef treble \numericTimeSignature \time 4/4 \key c \major \partial 4*1 g->( | g'8\sf-.) g16-. g-. g8-. aes-. g r f4-> | ees4.\trill d16-. c-. d8 }

This theme leads to some confusion about the key, as it switches between C major and C minor every few beats. The rural mood is heightened by a gentle, rustic dance for the (B) section – typical of Mahler at his most carefree and childlike – as well as by the gentle clanking of distant cowbells in the returns of the introductory section. The malicious (C) theme, upon its return, is arabesqued by the "Revelge" rhythms and bird calls from earlier in the movement.[8][9]


Schattenhaft. Fließend aber nicht zu schnell ("Shadowy. Flowing but not too fast") D minor
The Nightmare by John Henry Fuseli. This painting illustrates the sinister mood that pervades this scherzo.

There is an undercurrent of night about the spooky third movement; while "scherzo" means "joke", this movement is remarkably spooky and even grim. If the first Nachtmusik possessed a friendly mood disguised in grotesqueries, this movement is a demon sneering at the listener. Nonetheless, as the Spanish musicologist José L. Pérez de Arteaga points out,[12] this movement is really "a most morbid and sarcastic mockery of the Viennese waltz".

 \relative c'' { \clef treble \time 3/4 \key d \major \partial 4*2 a\pp( g) | \grace { a,32[( a'] } \times 2/3 { d8)-> fis r } fis2~ | fis8 r a->( b g a) | fis2.~ | fis8 r a,->( bes g a) | \grace { bes,32[( d] } \times 2/3 { bes'8) g' r } g2~ | g8([ bes)] a([ bes) g-. a-.] | fis2. }

The movement begins with a strange gesture: a pianissimo dialogue between timpani and pizzicato basses and cellos with sardonic interjections from the winds. After some buildup, the orchestra sets off on a threatening waltz, complete with unearthly woodwind shrieks and ghostly shimmerings from the basses, with a recurring "lamenting" theme in the woodwinds.[8] The scherzo is contrasted by a warmer trio in the major mode, introduced by and containing a "shrieking" motif beginning in the oboes and descending through the orchestra.

 \relative c'' << { \clef treble \time 3/4 \key d \major fis2( g4) | fis( e fis) | e2( d4) | a2 d8-. e-. | \autoBeamOff fis4. e8-. fis r | a4( g8) r e r | fis2. } \\ { d2\p( ees4) | d( a d) | a r r | s2. | \autoBeamOff a4. g8 a s | fis'4( e8) s a, s | d2. } >>

The brilliance of this movement lies in its extraordinary and original orchestration, which gives this movement a strongly nightmarish quality. Multiple viola solos rise above the texture, and there is a persistent timpani and pizzicato motif that pervades the dance. The theme and its accompaniment are both passed around the orchestra rather than being played by a specific instrument. At one memorable point in the score, the cellos and double basses are instructed to play pizzicato with the volume fffff, with the footnote, "pluck so hard that the strings hit the wood".[9]

Nachtmusik II[edit]

Andante amoroso. F major
Nocturnal Serenade by Jan Steen. This painting depicts an intimate serenade of the kind Mahler parodies in the second Nachtmusik.

The fourth movement (the second Nachtmusik) contrasts with the first in that it illustrates a more intimate and human scene. With its amoroso marking and reduced instrumentation (trombones, tuba and trumpets are silent and the woodwinds are reduced by half) this movement has been described as "a long stretch of chamber music set amidst this huge orchestral work". A solo violin introduces the movement,

 \relative c' { \clef treble \time 2/4 \key f \major \partial 8*1 f8\f\glissando( | f'2)~\sf | f4\<( e8 d)\! | c4\> bes8( g)\! | f4 }

while a horn solo above the gentle tones of a guitar and mandolin create a magical serenade character.

 \relative c' { \clef treble \time 2/4 \key f \major \partial 8*1 c8-.\p | f4-> f-> | g4.-> f16-. e-. | g8-. f16-. e-. g8-. f16-. e-. | aes2-> }

However, sardonic dissonances give this movement a more satirical and even diseased feel. The trio contrasts with this, and more reflects the intimate mood that would be expected from a Viennese serenade. The movement ends in transcendence, providing a peaceful backdrop for the finale's abrupt entrance.[13]

Rondo finale[edit]

C major

Boisterous timpani joined by blazing brass set the scene for the riotous final movement.

 \relative c { \clef bass \key c \major \numericTimeSignature \time 4/4 g8\f g16 g g8 e g g16 g g8 e16 g | b4\trill\sfp }

The long, arduous first movement, after three shorter movements developmental in mood, is finally equalled by a substantial "daylight" finale. The movement is a rondo combined with a set of eight variations, capped off by a dramatic coda. There are parodies of Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg and Franz Lehár's The Merry Widow.[14] There are many strange and abrupt interruptions of climactic buildups, including at the very end of the coda. The texture is, for the most part, based on a banal descending broken scale motif.

 \relative c'' { \clef treble \numericTimeSignature \time 4/4 \key c \major c4-> r8 d-> b4-> r8 c-> | a4.->( b8-|) g-| d->[ e-> f->] | g4-> r8 a-> f4-> r8 g-> | e4.->( f8-|) d-| }

There is also a heavy emphasis on acerbic brass chorales and relentlessly satirical rustic dances. Little wonder that, of all the symphony's movements, this has come in for the greatest amount of criticism and puzzlement. It has been seen by many as something of a let-down and somewhat superficial,[13] dodging questions set by the previous movements; its virtually unrelenting mood of celebration seems quite at odds with the dark character of the earlier movements. "A vigorous life-asserting pageant of Mahlerian blatancy", is how Michael Kennedy describes it, and Mahler himself explained it with the aperçu "The world is mine!"[15] The principal theme of the first movement crops up amidst the outrageously exuberant finale, but is soon quelled and reappears in the major mode. Cowbells from the first Nachtmusik and the unpitched low bells from Mahler's Symphony No. 6 also make appearances. The movement (and therefore the symphony) ends in a very strange way; a seemingly random stray G changes the harmonic quality from major to augmented, the music suddenly drops to piano before a stubborn fff C major chord ends the work.

 { \new PianoStaff << \new Staff \relative c'' { \clef treble \key c \major \numericTimeSignature \time 4/4 <e c gis>1\ff( | <c g e>8 } \new Staff \relative c' { \clef bass \key c \major \numericTimeSignature \time 4/4 <e c gis>1 | <c e, g, c,>8 } >> }

Critical analysis[edit]

The harmonic and stylistic structure of the piece may be viewed as a depiction of the journey from dusk till dawn.[citation needed] The piece evolves from uncertain and hesitant beginnings to an unequivocal C major finale, with its echoes of Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg: indeed, at the premiere the overture to this opera was performed after the symphony.

This journey from night to day proceeds via an extraordinary third movement scherzo, marked schattenhaft (shadowy), which may have been what prompted Arnold Schoenberg to become a particular champion of the work. The abundance of themes based upon the interval of a fourth has parallels with the First Chamber Symphony.

The piece has several motifs in common with the Symphony No. 6, notably the juxtaposition of major with minor chords, the march figure of the first movement, and the use of cowbells within certain pastoral episodes.


Mahler conducted the premiere of his Symphony No. 7 in Prague in 1908. A few weeks later he conducted it in Munich and the Netherlands. Both the audience and the performers at the premiere were confused by the work, and it was not well received.[11] It remained for a while as one of Mahler's least appreciated works, often accused of incoherence.[citation needed] More recently, scholars and conductors have experimented with a range of interpretations of the work, especially the tempo of the finale, and the work has thrilled more audiences worldwide and has since become more popular.



Other appearances[edit]

The opening horn theme of the second movement is well known[to whom?] in Britain since its use in an advert for Castrol GTX oil in the early 1980s.[16] Derivatively of the Castrol advert, the same theme appeared in a British commercial for Alpecin men's shampoo in 2016.


  1. ^ David Hurwitz, 'The Mahler Symphonies: An Owner's Manual', (Pompton Plains 2004)
  2. ^ 'Gustav Mahler' (Works), in New Grove, Macmillan, 1980
  3. ^ Dika Newlin: Bruckner, Mahler, Schoenberg (New York, 1947), p.186
  4. ^ Graham George, 'Tonality and Musical Structure', (London 1970)
  5. ^ a b Alfred Blatter: 'Instrumentation/Orchestration', p.140
  6. ^ Alfred Blatter: 'Instrumentation/Orchestration', p.169
  7. ^ See 'Tenor horn', Grove Music Online
  8. ^ a b c d Floros, C., & Pauly, R. G. (1997). Gustav Mahler: The symphonies. ISBN 1574670255
  9. ^ a b c d Mahler, G. (1992). Symphony no. 7 New York: Dover ISBN 0486273393
  10. ^ Program notes to a performance of the symphony by the Chicago Symphony, written by Phillip Huscher
  11. ^ a b Mahler Symphony No. 7 at
  12. ^ Pérez de Arteaga, José L.: Mahler, Barcelona, Salvat, 1987, p. 148
  13. ^ a b A Listener's Guide to Mahler's Seventh Symphony by Kelly Dean Hansen at
  14. ^ James, Burnett (1985) The Music of Gustav Mahler. London: Associated University Press. ISBN 0-8386-3167-3
  15. ^ Der Merker (1909), no. 2, p. 1
  16. ^

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]