Gustav Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, nicknamed the Tragic because of its famous hammer blows during the finale that seem to presage death, ends in frozen stillness. Life returns into chilled limbs in the Seventh Symphony — or, as the writer Simon Vestdijk states, '…the musical tension rises in the Sixth and falls in the Seventh, like an enlightenment with the arrival of the major key, gradually but […] unmistakeably'. The fact that Mahler finally used only two hammer strokes at the end of the Sixth Symphony — he had originally planned for three — seems to express a promise or an intimation that there is more to come. ‘What Mahler felt in 1903 as complete extinguishment — we would term it the death or collapse of the hero — we now see in another light. Humanity has fulfilled its purpose. From afar this may well seem to be a failure, but the individual concerned has nonetheless achieved a higher level of development. […] Death is no longer an end, but rather an ascent to new spheres […] This is why the third hammer stroke was removed, because it would have overemphasised the idea of a clear and definite ending that in fact was no ending at all.’ (Paul Bekker, Gustav Mahler’s Symphonies, Berlin 1921).
The development of the ‘hero’ begins in the Seventh with a fluctuation between contrasting emotions and, after nocturnal visions in the central movements, erupts into triumphant victory in the finale. Mahler goes through a process of purification and catharsis in this symphony. The piece also portrays his victory over a creative block. It is said that Mahler overcame this block during a crossing from Krumpendorf in the Dolomites to his residence in Maiernigg. The strokes of the rowers may well have inspired the strong rhythms of the themes as well as the atmosphere of the weighty first movement. The beginning of the Seventh is linked to the end of the Sixth by what seems to be a funeral march at first hearing; an ongoing alternation then follows between light and dark colours that culminates in a furious and swift march. The tensions that have been built up are then released at the end of the movement in an unearthly adagio played by the strings.
The opening movement of a Mahler symphony is always unique because of the complex density of its musical information; movements 2 and 4, the two Nachtmusiken that are separated by a ghostly scherzo (schattenhaft), are referring to the Romantic-Impressionistic nocturne. The second Nachtmusik also alludes to the serenade by the use of a guitar and a mandolin in a particularly bizarre and alienating way. It is no easy task for the conductor to keep the sounds of the orchestra and the two plucked instruments in balance. The final movement, that brings back joy and happiness after the experience of the realm of the dead in the central movements, has been the cause of many an argument amongst Mahler scholars; its C major tonality as well as its fierce joy in life and continually positive character are not, on the face of it, characteristic of Mahler. Adorno stated that Mahler intended in this movement ‘to devastate the category of the tragic’.
In contrast to other works by Mahler, Paradise is not presented as a dream — it is simple reality. Mahler also interweaves quotes from Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg and Lehár’s Die lustige Witwe into the finale. At the very end Mahler sets off a grand firework display with the full forces of the brass and percussion. His biographer Jens Malte Fischer notes critically that it can sound ‘as if the Janissaries’ March from Mozart’s Entführung aus dem Serail had been orchestrated by Richard Strauss’ (Gustav Mahler, Der fremde Vertraute, 2003).
Two souls dwelt within the man and artist who was Gustav Mahler. The Rondo-Finale of the Seventh lets us hear something of his positive side; Mahler’s tragic works would be unthinkable without this optimistic contrasting side to his character.
Translation: Peter Lockwood