The central movement of this five-movement symphony is in the keys of D major and D minor and is structured as a scherzo-trio. The scherzo material has the feel of something of a moto perpetuo, and this is not Mahler’s first effort in this vein. It grows from the tiny seed of a half-step (Bb-A) in the timpani and low strings, gathering momentum over the first twelve bars, with each new aspect of the texture–first the horns, then the woodwinds, then a dotted-note flute motive, and finally the arrival of a theme in m. 13–seeming to grow out of the existing material. If the goal of this study is to unlock some of Mahler’s compositional secrets, I think I have started to find them. Just as Mahler’s Mahler-ness–his cliches, the predictable aspects of his style–begin to pile up in my mind, I am coming to see how it is that he is able to structure large-scale pieces and more importantly, to maintain the interest of the listener over what may seem an excessive length of time.
A summary, then, of what I’ve learned thus far:
- introduce new material sparingly, and base new ideas on old ones. The first 100 bars of this movement are a fantastic example of this. The first 24 bars are based on Mahler’s elaboration of the material presented in the introductory passage. That material is then used to preface a new theme beginning in m. 24, and accompanied by motives that have already been stated. The suggestions of hemiola made by the opening statement–does it begin on an upbeat or a downbeat–are played out in this theme, as in m. 30ff.
- Use harmony sparingly. Mahler extends the horizons of his pieces by avoiding, at all costs, things that I encourage my undergraduate theory students to pursue with a vengeance, in a harmonic sense. While my students–and admittedly, I myself–tend to write one chord per melody note (chorale style) or one chord per measure (probably an anachronistic reflection of our familiarity with 20th-century popular styles), Mahler tends to have long swathes of music that are based on the same chord. These aren’t exactly pedal points, but Mahler is thinking in terms of a chord being a key area rather than a single harmonic event. In some ways, the harmonic rhythm present in much of Mahler is more reminiscent of Mozart or Haydn than it is of composers closer to Mahler in time. Even Brahms tends toward a more regular harmonic rhythm that I would consider to be a hallmark of the Romantic style.
- Repetition is not a dirty word for Mahler, even though exact repetition is rare. When material returns, it is almost always reorchestrated, if not completely reworked. There is a great deal of repwithout insipidness as a result. Repetition is welcome in this music.
- At the same time, Mahler’s music is filled with variety of every type. Even when he is being his most Mahleristic, there is no sense that we have heard this before. While I have always perceived the Seventh Symphony as being third in the middle grouping of Mahler’s symphonies, a rehashing of the previous two–the bold Fifth, the cataclysmic Sixth–as I dig deeper, there is less evidence of that.
So, that said, here are some interesting spots in this movement. I have Schenkerian training, and some might consider me a Schenkerian, but I am always open to other explanations. However, the passage in mm. 54-62 is so striking an example of an upper neighbor being used to extend a melody that it can’t go without comment. There is literally nowhere for the G in the violins in m. 58 to go except back to the F# from whence it came, which it does in m. 60.
The transitional section beginning in m. 108 is sublime. Again, Mahler is being tight with his material, but we see much of the motivic material used thus far in this little passage that also brings the music to D major in m. 116. The quasi-echo effect of this phrase is a wonderful transitional device.
As mysteriously as it appeared, the scherzo vanishes beginning around m. 155. Triplets have been replaced by eighths, drifting away into an awkward contrabassoon solo in m. 159. When the triplets reappear, it is in a muted allusion to the opening material beginning in the following bar.
The Trio material, beginning in m. 179, is a reworking of the woodwind theme first stated in m. 38, only now in the major mode, and in inversion. As always, Mahler is somewhere between major and minor, and steadfastly refuses to commit to either.
Beginning in m. 210, a persistent call-and-response begins, first between solo viola and celli, then between violins and horns (m. 218ff), then bassoons and brass (m. 226ff), then between trombones and horns (m. 236ff) leading to a climactic moment in m. 243 (marked “Pesante”). This build-up, however, has not been to some grand release of tension that we would expect of Mahler, but to a prefunctory gesture that dissolves into a new theme (composed of old motives) in the horns and celli. This theme, begining in m. 246, is a parody of material from the Third Symphony, as if Mahler is poking himself in the ribs. A further question–is this self-parody, or self-plagiarism? Unlike some composers (including me), Mahler was a tireless revisor of his own works, and the Third Symphony was foremost among these, so at any rate, it could not have been accidental. As a composer who engages in a fair amount of quotation, both of others and myself, I always hope that the listener will catch it–surely an act of parody rather than plagiarism.
The trio ends with the indication Wieder wie am Anfang (“Always as the beginning.”) Unlike earlier composers (even as late as Brahms and Dvorak), Mahler does not simply indicate a Da Capo and repeat the Scherzo verbatim. After a transitional section in E-flat minor, which is the perfect setup for preparation for the Bb that begins the scherzo proper, a significantly expanded introduction ensues (m. 293ff). This allows Mahler to incorporate material from the trio (the call-and-response motive in m. 306ff).
An orchestrational concern–if Mahler could have written a timpani solo in mm. 323ff, would he have done so? The basses seem to be covering the unavailable timpani notes.
Measure 408 includes the first use I am aware of of the “snap” or “Bartok” pizzicato; certainly the first in Mahler, and an interesting reworking of the introductory material, now being used to introduce a coda. Trio material appears, now fully voiced, in the form of the Third Symphony quote in m. 417, and from this point, the movement peters out as gradually as it faded in. If the idea behind this piece is night, then this movement steals in and out in the manner of a dream. As for myself, I am a night sleeper, and when I remember a dream, it is almost always just before waking. Perhaps Mahler would have a more receptive audience for this Symphony in my wife, who frequently naps in the evening, only to wake for quite some time around midnight. I barely know that night happens, but Becky lives a great deal of her life there.