Overview by Prof. Steven Bruns

Each of Mahler's symphonies has elicited widely divergent critical responses, but none has been heard in so many different ways as Symphony No. 7. Biographer Henry-Louis de la Grange considers the work to be Mahler's most "advanced;' with "incessant dissonances and sudden modulations packed tightly together" (Gustav Mahler, Vol. 3, Vienna: Triumph & Disillusion, Oxford 1999: p. 847). On the other hand, British Mahler enthusiast Tony Duggan hears the piece as Mahler "in a relaxed holiday mood-the least complicated of all his symphonies." One gets a sense of the range of opinions by reading the essays collected in editor James Zychowicz's The Seventh Symphony of Gustav Mahler: A Symposium (Univ. of Cincinnati, 1990). For those interested in exploring the symphony before the January performances, Zychowicz's anthology is highly recommended, as is de la Grange's detailed analysis in the volume cited above (pp. 842-888).

Mahler began composition of the Seventh with the two famous "Night Music" movements that stand on either side of the central Scherzo ("Schattenhaft"). As numerous writers have pointed out, these three "intermezzi" explore the fantastical nocturnal world that had captivated the German romantics (Alma Mahler writes of the "Eichendorffian visions" that had inspired her husband). In the second "Nachtmusik" movement, Mahler includes extraordinary solo guitar and mandolin parts, and those instruments take on a kind of symbolic significance in the work. Flanking the three "night" movements are the darkly eloquent opening movement ("Langsam") — with its aria-like tenor horn solo — and, in de la Grange's words, the "endlessly fascinating and often disconcerting" Rondo-Finale.

In pairing the Meistersinger Prelude with Symphony No. 7, we are following Mahler's program when he last conducted the Seventh. Perhaps this was the composer's way of acknowledging the allusion, near the beginning of the last movement, to the initial chorale phrase from Wagner's opera. Might Mahler have intended further links? In Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Wagner presents characters discoursing on the art of singing — it is Wagner's opera about opera. Theodor Adorno once characterized much 20th-century music as "music about music." and Mahler's Seventh often strikes one as a kind of self-reflective, at times ironic, symphony about "the symphony." The piece calls into question many of our expectations about symphonic form, content, instrumentation, and so forth. The use of guitar and mandolin in Mahler calls to mind Beckmesser's botched lute song in the final scene of Wagner's Die Meistersinger. Just as Wagner satirizes the conventions of pedantically proper singing, Mahler's Serenade is at once sincerely amorous and wryly ironic. The interval of the perfect fourth has special significance throughout Wagner's opera, and the fourth is motivic in Mahler's Seventh as well. Finally, Mahler was surely referring to the sunny C Major of Wagner's Die Meistersinger in his strategic use of that tonality in the Seventh, especially during the closing measures.

As is always the case with Mahler's symphonies, the Seventh is overflowing with musical riches. However one chooses to hear this magnificent composition, we're confident that after hearing Robert Olson lead the MahIerFest orchestra in January, you'll agree with Tony Duggan's enthusiasm for Symphony No. 7: "I love it, by the way, because I think it's a symphony that you can really love all the way through!"