Rembrandt’s massive painting, The Nightwatch

Where We’ve Been: The Mahler 7 is a dramatic arc with movements that mirror each other. So we’ve heard the first movement, which is loud and epic, as is the fifth movement when we get to it. Movements II and IV are both called Nachtmusik (“Night Music”) by Mahler, so we’re about to hear Night Music I.

You might think that with a name like that, this movement might be about nighttime stillness and quiet. Actually, no. While you do get a bit of that with the fourth movement (which acts as the slow movement of the symphony), in this second movement, it’s actually quite noisy.

The story goes that Mahler was inspired by the Rembrandt painting, The Nightwatch, which you can see above. The painting shows a group of local militia heading out on a night patrol (though apparently I was just reading there’s now some scholarly debate as to whether the painting – which was never originally called The Nightwatch – is actually meant to show night time at all, or whether it was just dark-coloured. But let’s just keep pretending that it’s night time for the purpose of this music.) As well as all the militia types, you’ve got a bunch of extra randoms, like the guy on the side with the drum, and the little girl amongst the crowd. In other words, it’s quite possible, that parading around town at night with the local militia was a rather exciting thing to do in the evenings back before you had the latest season of Game of Thrones to download.

I think the idea that Mahler has latched onto in this movement is the idea of a procession. The movement marches along in a slightly tongue-in-cheek manner and moves through a series of rather up-beat episodes. I don’t know exactly why – I think it’s the whole self-important swagger that infects the music – but this has always been one of my favourite Mahler movements in this symphony.

Let’s have a listen:

Here are the various episodes, as I hear them:

Horn Calls (aka The Steampunk Machine Fires Up)
(Track 1 – 0:00) Long, sonorous calls on the horns, echoes from the woodwinds, bird calls, you name it, but it’s definitely a type of call. It also reminds me of  one of those machines from steampunk movies or stories – a vast machine made of of tiny little cogs and wheels that all have to whirr and line up before the machine can start moving (or in this case, before the orchestra can start marching).

An interesting feature – perhaps in a nerdy sort of way – is the group of notes that climaxes this section (1:27). It has a group of notes (a chord, if you want to be more particular) that are in the major key, but then slide down to the minor key, as if the chord is dying out. This is a bit of a nod to a very similar (and much more dramatic) use of the same effect that got used in the Mahler 6. In that symphony, it was a major feature of the work. In this one, it’s more like a little in-joke that points to the Mahler 6. But well worth pointing out on a guided tour (particularly if you’ve heard the Mahler 6 a few times). And if you haven’t, no worries, the procession is about to start.

The Drunk Procession
(Track 1 – 1:31) A grand, amusingly pompous march begins, like everybody’s had a couple of pints and begun marching up the street. (Also, have a listen for the awesome sound of the violin players thwacking their strings with the back of their bows. Very cool stuff.) The march eventually quietens down to just a low mutter – like there’s one drunk who has got a bit further to walk home than the others. The accompaniment to the quiet bit is plucked strings (or pizzicato, if you remember from the Mahler 5), then the band comes back to the march again, with an even more grandiose sound than before. I love the self-importance of the whole thing.

The Tchaikovsky Ballet
(Track 2 – 0:00) Chirpy, dancing music. Sounds a bit like The Nutcracker, but you’ll notice that it’s just a variant on the drunk procession music. For fans of lesser-used percussion instruments, it does feature a bit of triangle action along the way.

Horn Calls
(Track 2 – 1:50) Back again, with an echo from muted trumpets. But then all of a sudden … what the heck is this? Cowbells? (But sadly no Christopher Walken.)

While they sound a bit strange to us today, Mahler often liked to use cowbells to create an other-wordly – almost transcendent – atmosphere, as if we’ve temporarily left the earth behind to enter into a higher plane.

All of this leads into some dubious minor key mutterings of the theme by the brass and the woodwinds, almost like the orchestra can’t remember who’s supposed to be leading the parade. (Mahler often likes to compose music to sound as if it’s coming apart at the seams a little bit.)

Subdued Drunk Procession
(Track 2 -2:56) Begins again, with muted trumpets. Also a bit more quiet this time, like they’re sneaking past the cranky neighbours who might hear them.

Luminous Moment
(Track 2 – 3:53) Ah, a luminous moment in the middle of a movement! It must be a Mahler symphony! Harp pluckings, high strings, fairy trills. It is still a variant on the march, but it’s like we’ve stumbled into somewhere magical, with the emphasis on the woodwinds. This turns back into the vast steampunk machine firing up (4:51) from the opening, leading back to the dying major-minor slide (5:11).

Schmaltzy Café Dance
(Track 2 – 5:18) Low-key version of the dance. Is it only me that thinks it sounds a bit like a tango in a dingy Spanish tavern? Ends with a hint of the Luminous Moment harps (6:22), until there’s a duel (6:39) between a strident trumpet (“Play the march again!”) and some nervous woodwinds. (“Are you sure? We might wake somebody up…”)

The Drunk Procession
(Track 3 – 0:00) This is better! All the band comes back for one last no-holds-barred version of the procession. Sounds like the end of Peter and the Wolf. Starts to get a bit counterpointy (i.e. lots of melody lines playing simultaneously) towards the end as the parade disappears over the hill.

The Tchaikovsky Ballet
(Track 4 – 0:00) Dancing flowers again. And not just the triangle – there’s a cute-sounding glockenspiel in there with just three notes. (0:50) And the cowbell. The percussion section are run off their feet!

Subdued Drunk Procession
(Track 4 – 1:30) The quieter minor-key version of the march. Our drunk band is disappearing into the distance.

Horn Calls
(Track 4 – 2:41) The calls build up to the dying major-minor slide, but this time it’s to close the movement quietly. It begins as it ends, but with an ominous tam-tam stroke and a mysterious pluck of the harp.

And there you have it, a bizarre, wondrous and grand nocturnal march. Did you enjoy it?

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2 thoughts on “The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Symphony No 7: Movement II (Night Music I)

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