Mahler composed his Symphony No. 7 in 1904-05. It resembles the fifth and sixth symphonies in being a purely instrumental work: no solo voices or choruses are incorporated into the score. We know little about the circumstances of its composition. Mahler completed his Sixth Symphony in the summer of 1904 and also found time to write the additional two “night music” movements that would later form the second and fourth movements of his next symphony. It seems he planned the Seventh as a kind of counterbalance to the “Tragic” Sixth which closes with catastrophe. It would be in his own words, “largely cheerful and humorous.”
The following summer, Mahler went on his customary summer holiday to recuperate from his stressful position at the Vienna Opera House. And as always happened, he found himself suffering from composer’s block in the early weeks of the holiday. “I wanted to finish my Seventh Symphony, the two Andante movements of which are already complete. I suffered for two weeks until I nearly went mad, and as you will remember, I escaped to the Dolomites! There it was the same story until I finally gave up. I travelled home, convinced that it has been a wasted summer. You weren’t waiting for me at Krumpendorf because I had failed to inform you of my arrival, so I sat in a rowing boat and took myself across the Wörth Lake. With the first strokes of the oars, the introductory theme to the first movement came to my mind (or rather its rhythm and mode of expression) – and within four weeks, I had written the 1st, 3rd and 5th movements.” Although this frequently quoted letter to Alma Mahler is interesting, it does not bring us any closer to understanding either the composer’s psychology or how this inspiration worked. Since what Mahler must have heard from afar (or within) is nothing other than slow march music (perhaps funeral music, perhaps not.) But how does this introductory music develop in the first movement? Certainly not a funeral march as we find in the Fifth Symphony opening movement. Instead, it the music develops into a splendid, ornamental march which with its increasingly rich orchestration seems to shadow a carnival procession.
The two “Nachtmusik” movements usher in a very different world. Mahler subsequently claimed the first piece was inspired by Rembrand’s famous picture “Night Watch” which he saw at the Amsterdam Rijksmuseum a few year’s earlier on a working visit to Holland. The other movement has more the character of an amorous serenade and its score calls for guitar and mandolin. Its mood evokes the world of the early Wunderhorn songs. The central scherzo should also be considered as night music: shadows, visions, intangible phenomena rise up and then vanish with equal suddenness. Its title “Schattenhaft”, “shadow like”, reinforces this. The finale, which according to Adorno is stagy and a lie, is not in proportion with the earlier movements but can be seen as a relative of Wagner’s Meistersingers overture. It is a cavalcade of sound that culminates in ecstasy.
Mahler’s Seventh Symphony is perhaps his richest and most modern score. It holds some surprise in store in virtually every bar and it is no accident that Mahler’s young Viennese colleagues such as Schoenberg, Webern and Berg held a high regard for it. The symphony received its world premiere in 1908 in Prague, with Mahler himself conducting.