Where We’ve Been: A galloping 1st movement, a swaggering 2nd, a spooky 3rd and a schmaltzy 4th.
And this week, we end up at the finale of the Mahler 7, which is usually the movement that causes the most controversy. And the main reason for that, put bluntly, is that it’s far too happy. We’ve already spoken earlier about major and minor. Obviously, make a movement all minor and it can sound somewhat heavy or sad. But too much major can get to you as well, and that is what happens in this finale.
Technically, it is a kind of movement known as a rondo. In a rondo, a theme A, alternates with other different themes. So if the other themes were called Themes B, C and D, a rondo pattern would look like: A B A C A D A.
In this particular rondo, the A theme, the one that keeps coming back is a huge feel-good brass tune that is not too bad the first time around, but after a while, starts to wear you down with its relentless happiness. (Thus why I refer to it as the Big Brass Rondo Theme below.) And thus the controversy – was Mahler really this happy and just wanted to write a really, really joyful movement? Is it, after all the night music, a return to daytime, a blaze of sunlight? Or is he kind of having a go at his detractors: “You don’t like my music? You want something chirpy and accessible? Well, how about you cop this 20 minutes of loud cheerful brass band music and see how you like that!”
Without further ado, let’s have a listen and you can make up your own mind:
(Track 1 – 0:00) Greatest solo timpani moment of all time, followed by the Big Brass Rondo Theme (BBRT) which, being the Rondo theme, will keep coming back all through the movement. It’s a bit of a rip-off of the overture to a Wagner opera called the Mastersingers of Nuremberg (which you don’t need to know anything about at this stage except that it too is big and brassy). Did I mention that this BBRT is irritatingly brassy?
(Track 1 – 1:50) Alternate Theme B – A quirky little tune that starts on the woodwinds and then moves to the strings. Far too happy for its own good.
(Track 1 – 2:44) BBRT – in a shorter version.
(Track 2 – 0:00) Alternate Theme C – A fussy sort of thing. (Actually, it’s a speeded up version of the BBRT.) It reminds me a bit of Elgar’s 1st Pomp and Circumstance march, which also has a fussy bit for the strings before the big march theme (that everyone loves) kicks in. At the (0:10) mark, a little woodwind dance enters over the top of the twitch accompaniment. This woodwind dance is the main tune from Theme C, and it keeps coming back in weird forms later.
(Track 2 – 0:57) BBRT – shorter version.
(Track 2 – 1:57) Alternate Theme B – in a minor key version, with whatever that thing is that sounds like an egg whisk being tapped against a timpani. (Okay, okay, it’s not really an egg whisk. Its proper name is a rute and it looks something like this. And, look, probably if you tried substituting an egg whisk for a rute in this movement it would sound nothing like that anyway.) So let me just leave that sound and draw your attention to the cute little Disney tune on the woodwinds (2:23).
(Track 2 – 3:01) BBRT – shorter version. (Came out of nowhere, that one!)
(Track 2 – 3:20) Theme C – Fussy beginning again. Then the dance begins again in the woodwinds (3:44). Turns into a slightly weird solo violin piece with lots of trills (4:00). Does have a nice ending though (4:26). Timpanis back in again for a bit of a Turkish dance (5:00) – that’s what they called anything kind of loud with a lot of cymbals back in those days – which builds up into …
(Track 3 – 0:03) BBRT – A full-blown recap of the theme (so a long version, in other words) with lots of counterpoint. If you’re a bit sick of all this happy brass, unfortunately, we’re only halfway. It ends in a typical Mahler collapse (1:09).
(Track 3 – 1:13) Theme B – Here we go with Theme B again. It’s even twitchier this time around. A bit of the old Mahler ice-skating sound.
(Track 3 – 2:41 ) BBRT – Shorter version with tubular bells!
(Track 4 – 0:00) Theme C – the Turkish dance version with cymbals which leads to a mini-climax (0:22) which sliiides and slows down into the little dance on the woodwinds which leads in turn to a quieter version of the Turkish dance.
(Track 4 – 2:00) BBRT – Now we’re up to a minor key version of the BBRT. And then, over the top of it comes the galloping idea (or motif, which is the correct term for a musical idea) from the 1st movement. (Which you all remember after a month and a bit right?). Everything becomes more harsh on the ears for just a little bit.
(Track 4 – 2:59) A moment of counterpoint where Theme C (or is it Theme B? I’m getting lost myself) gets layered over the top of the BBRT.
(Track 4 – 3:35) Theme C waltzes around a bit on the strings. Nobody has any idea where this piece is going … And then, just when it sounds like it’s going nowhere and is just going to happily dance in some light and fluffy fairyland for the rest of the night, out of the blue …
(Track 4 – 4:14) BBRT – Bells, a slide and we’re straight back into the ultra-recapitulation of the rondo theme. And, in a bit that even I like (I’m feeling a bit like the Mahler Grinch at the moment), right at the ending, there is a massive major key version of the original tenor horn theme from back at the beginning (5:49), bringing everything full circle.
(And what a great SNAP! Abbado gives us on the last note in this recording.)
All right. There you go. The finale of the Mahler 7. Did you end up in the Love It camp or the Hate It camp?
And now that you’ve heard all the movements, what did you think of the symphony as a whole?