The first movement of the Mahler 7 goes for around 20 minutes. It’s roughly in sonata form (which you can refresh yourself on over here). So, in short, there are some themes laid out at the beginning of the movement (the exposition), we go on a bit of a magical detour (the development section) and then return to the opening themes for the home stretch (the recapitulation).
Things to notice as we go along:
- This is (arguably) Mahler’s most richly orchestrated piece. In fact, it’s almost over-orchestrated. Because of Mahler’s knack of being able to run several melody lines with real clarity between them (i.e. you can pick out each instrument) it does mean that when he decides to use lots and lots of instruments at once like he does in this symphony, it sounds really complex in your head. (As opposed to other composers, who might use the orchestra more like a choir, with solo instruments occasionally arising out of the mix.)
- The whole symphony is laid out like a bit symmetrical arc. Movements I and V are big, sweeping orchestral numbers that sound huge. Movements II and IV are variations on night-time. Movement III is all about spooks and shadows.
- The first movement calls for the prominent use of an instrument known as a tenorhorn. It’s a more obscure member of the brass family, sounding (to me) a little bit like a cross between a trombone and a tuba, but with a powerful singing sound. From what I’ve been able to read, Mahler didn’t say an awful lot about what this symphony was about, but one throwaway comment he did make, according to Constantin Floros’ book on Mahler symphonies was “nature roars [like a stag in rut]” in the opening of his first movement. I don’t quite hear this as much as Mahler did (maybe brass players are just not savage enough on the tenorhorn solo?) but the instrument certainly lends a bellowing quality to the proceedings.
- Finally, every mood under the sun is contained in this first movement. It’s almost like having a mini-symphony within the symphony.
So let’s have a listen. (Note: the Claudio Abbado recording I have selected – just to keep the rotation of famous conductors somewhat fresh – breaks the movement up into several different tracks. So I will be detailing track numbers and times so you can keep up.)
(Track 1 – 0:00) Notice the shuddery rhythm at the beginning. (Apparently, this came to Mahler while he was in a boat being rowed on a river, so he might describe it less as a shudder and more of the sound of a boat in water.) Either way, a big solo begins on the tenorhorn, a quite distinctive sounding brass instrument that has a deep and bellowing sound that soars over the rest of the orchestra.
(Track 1 – 1:40) A march begins on the woodwinds and then gets louder.
(Track 2 – 0:21) Back to the tenorhorn, now even more epic.
(Track 2 – 0:54) The introduction of the galloping sound. I love the little shrieks from the strings here.
(Track 3 – 0:00) The main theme takes off at a full-blown gallop. It’s similar to the opening tenorhorn theme, because they both have a jerky rhythm and descending melody (i.e. it tends to go down the notes rather than up).
(Track 3 – 0:33) The next bit sounds (at least to me!) like a dance being played by a drunk band with the hiccups.
(Track 3 – 0:49) For a second, Mahler gives you the illusion that the orchestra is about to play something nice and lovely for the old ladies in the audience, but then it’s back into the gallops before too long.
(Track 4 – 0:00) The second theme is much more sweeping and gentle and mostly about the strings, with the brass in the accompanying role now. Reaches a high climax …
(Track 4 – 1:02) Now to the march theme that we heard back in the intro, which leads back to the gallop …
(Track 5- 0:00) … which leads back to the drunk bit. The orchestration now includes a tambourine, just to be particularly obnoxious.
(Track 5 – 0:35) And then our friend the tenorhorn introduces us to a much quieter section with schmaltzy violins, but the underlying rhythms are the same as before.
(Track 5 – 1:07) Then everything gets stressful again, like alarms going off. A lot of the jerky, descending rhythm, the drunk sound and everything else all thrown in together for a couple of minutes
(Track 5 – 2:27) And then – out of the blue – everything drops back to a shimmering on the strings (this particular sound effect, where the violins repeat the same note over and over again at a rapid speed is called tremolo – Italian for “trembling” – which is about the most perfect name imaginable) and an awesome trumpet solo. Then, like a hymn, the low strings come in underneath everything. This quiet oasis in the middle of the craziness is as good as the symphony gets, so enjoy it while it lasts.
(Track 6 – 0:00) The schmaltzy violins again, but quietly. The march creeping in.
(Track 6 – 0:43) Back to the trumpet solo moment again, and the low strings. I’ve just worked out – and you might have too – that the tune they’re playing is actually the march, slowed down to an absolute crawl.
(Track 6 – 2:04) The most gorgeous moment in the whole symphony – as the strings sing out a soaring melody, with the brass supporting, and magical harps. It’s a great moment of orchestral restraint, like a massive beast being finally tamed. It climaxes beautifully, but too soon …
(Track 7 – 0:00) … we’re back to the tenorhorn again. As with all Mahler recaps, it’s similar enough that you can recognise the original themes, but varied in the style, orchestration and what he does with the music. It gradually works its way back up to a dramatic climax that leads to …
(Track 8 – 0:00) … a SPECTACULAR re-appearance of the galloping theme, now sounding like it’s in some epic outer space movie. From here, through to the end, the orchestral sound is just huge, with the brass especially going to town.
(Track 8 – 1:02) More drunk band with hiccups, then back into the gallop.
(Track 8 – 1:49) A majestic transition into the sweeping second theme on the strings. Here it sounds like the finale to some dramatic black and white 40s film, all emotion and over-the-top pathos. “Oh Franz, will we ever meet again?”
(Track 8 – 3:06) Then a huge build-up, back to the march, then on to the gallop, now with mega-crazy tambourine action. Mahler has created a world of absolute chaos, with layers of sounds everywhere. It’s exhausting to listen to.
(Track 8 – 4:24) MASSIVE, MASSIVE, MASSIVE brass finale, which turns the tenorhorn theme into something epic, with trilling strings, lots of trombone. It’s just nuts.
(Track 8 – 4:52) The gallop finishes the whole thing off. In a truly fitting finale the final notes are the jerky, descending motif of the beginning.
So what did you think? Too much going on? Just perfect? While I found it a spiky piece to get into at first, I must confess every time I revisit it, I find myself growing a little more fond of it.