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33. Mahler's Uncertain Hopes in His Seventh Symphony

Mahler's Seventh Symphony was the major work performed in the concert of Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra under the conducting of Edo de Waart at the Concert Hall of Hong Kong Cultural Centre on September 11, 2010. The performance of the Orchestra was very impressive and appealing. Gustav Mahler (1860-1911), an Austrian composer in the romanticism most prevailing period, wrote nine symphonies as well as the incomplete Tenth Symphony. His symphonies as a whole show deep concern of the existence of human beings and earnest quest for the significance of life and death, and, thus as a consequence, pessimistic tendencies are obvious almost in all of them. However, his Seventh Symphony may be an exception! A seemingly delightful mood, and hopes, though vague and uncertain, can easily be sensed in the course of listening to the symphony.

Of the five movements of the symphony, the two outer movements are "Allegro", the second and fourth movements are named as "Nachtmusik", which means night music, and the middle movement is a "Scherzo".

The first movement "Langsam - Allegro", lasting almost twenty minutes, though grand and powerful in superficial gesture, demonstrates an impression of uneasiness of the unsteady and unclear future. The predominating brass sounds are so loud and strong that sounds from the woodwind and the strings can barely be heard. Some passages of the music are rather discontinuous and weird that one could have evoked an imagination of the chaotic beginning of the universe. The following is what the programme notes describe about this movement: The slow introduction to the massive first movement takes the form of a sorrowful aria given out by the melancholy tones of a tenor horn. Bitter and auguished cries emerge from various members of the woodwind and brass families, and after a passionate climax, the pace quickens and the music launches into a strangely confused dance which is countered by a wonderfully lyrical theme introduced by a pair of horns and featuring violins which sway and swoop in true Viennese style. A magical passage later in the movement was clearly inspired by the wildlife and scenery of the Carinthian Mountains in summer, but an abrupt return to the mournful theme of the introduction - now given to the double basses - heralds the inexorable buildup of passion which finds its final resolution in the brisk and robust - but curiously bitter-sweet - march with which the movement ends.

The second movement "Nachtmusik (Allegro moderato)", the first "night music" of the symphony, lasting about fifteen minutes, is a description of the peaceful rural life. The sound of a solo trumpet is frequently heard here and there with occasional intrusions of the calm expressions of the woodwind and the strings. Sounds of different instruments are often entwined together so abruptly that awkward passages of music are too apparent to escape any notices at all. Occasionally, the sound of music turns to a very low level depicting the arrival of the most tranquil midnight. The following is what the programme notes describe about this movement: The second movement opens with horns calling to each other across the valleys in the gathering dusk. The first of the two "Nachtmusik" movements, this is said to represent a "walk by night", while Mahler drew a comparison between this and Rembrandt's painting "The Night Watch". Scampering woodwind pass off into the distance as the horns introduce a rich, somewhat bucolic theme, surrounded by dancing strings. The rural mood is heightened by a gentle, rustic dance - typical of Mahler at his most carefree and childlike - as well as high fluttering woodwind bird-calls and the gentle clanking of distant cowbells, and the movement gradually descends into silence; night has finally fallen.

The third movement "Scherzo (Schattenhaft)", relatively short lasting less than ten minutes, rather eerie and awesome in presentation, has quite strange percussion and trombone passages integrating occasionally with the charming tender rhythms of the strings producing a joyful atmosphere of a celebrating feast. The following is what the programme notes describe about this movement: There is an undercurrent of night about the spooky third movement which is marked "schattenhaft" (shadowy). Eerie timpani and low wind instruments set off on a decidedly threatening waltz, complete with unearthly woodwind shrieks and ghostly shimmerings from the basses. Curious instrumental effects give this movement a strongly nightmarish quality.

The fourth movement "Nachtmusik (Andante amoroso)", lasting about twelve minutes, the second "night music" of the symphony, starts with a mourning tune of a solo violin with strings accompaniment only. Here the sound of a mandolin is introduced to give a murmuring effect of people talking quietly and cautiously to each other. This tender andante movement gradually diminishes to the ultimate tranquillity and peace of the dark night. The following is what the programme notes describe about this movement: The fourth movement - the second "Nachtmusik" - with its "amorous" marking and reduced instrumentation - trombones, tuba and trumpets silent and woodwind reduced by half - has been described as "a long stretch of chamber music set amidst this huge orchestral work." A solo violin introduces the movement, while a horn solo above the gentle tones of a guitar and mandolin create a magical serenade character.

The final fifth movement "Rondo - Finale (Allegro ordinario - Allegro moderato ma energico)", lasting about sixteen minutes, almost immediately bursts into an exuberant full orchestral pomp and pageantry with brilliant and exciting sounds of the brass interwoven with the delightful songlike woodwind's dancing melodies, all vibrating together to produce a queer sensation of a combination of joy and sorrow. The seemingly insinuating hopes this movement alludes to, nevertheless, remain vague and uncertain though they are readily recognizable here and there. The following is what the programme notes describe about this movement: Boisterous timpani joined in the fray by blazing brass, sets the scene for the riotous fifth movement. Here is quasi-film music, pomp and pageantry and great dramatic gestures all rolled into one delightfully messy piece of orchestral display. Little wonder that of all the symphony's movements this has come in for the greatest amount of criticism and puzzlement: its virtually unrelenting mood of celebration seems quite at odds with the dark character of the earlier movements. Mahler described it simply as a depiction of broad daylight and the outrageously exuberant ending, with passing references to the very opening theme, seems to encapsulate the blazing brilliance of the noonday sun.

The mood and character of Mahler's Seventh Symphony is definitely at odds with all his other symphonies. There are especially distinct contrasts between this Seventh and his Ninth, the last complete work of his symphonies, which, a sheer elegy of human existence, is utterly pessimistic and hopeless, while there are still hopes, though uncertain and vague, in his Seventh Symphony. We may take his Seventh Symphony as a transient temporary state of happiness in Mahler's life, which once finishing ends abruptly to total depression and hopelessness. Although some critics had made harsh criticisms to Mahler's Seventh, Schoenberg (1874-1951), another Austrian composer who is renowned in his innovative modern music, however, was highly impressed by the Seventh, saying "......perfect repose based on artistic harmony; something that set me in motion without simply upsetting my centre of gravity and leaving me to my fate; that drew me calmly and pleasingly into its orbit......in a manner so measured and preordained that there are never any sudden jolts......I felt so many subtleties of form."

(Written on November 30, 2010)