Article By: Melissa Reed
The confusing and complex musical world of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 7 in E Minor, is the composition of focus for this concert report. The concert was performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on October 27, 2010 inside the Orchestra Hall of Symphony Center in Chicago, Illinois. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra was founded in 1891 and is regarded as one of the best symphony orchestras on Earth. The world renowned Pierre Boulez, conducted Mahler’s seventh symphony in this extensive musical performance. The symphony of five movements was rather dark, perplexing and overall lack cohesion.
The conductor Pierre Boulez was introduced by a short narrative preceding the concert which acknowledged his 40 year long career in Classical music, music activism, and recording. The narrative went on to reveal that Pierre Boulez has won an astonishing 26 Grammy Awards for his symphony recordings. Also in the spoken introduction to the concert was a brief history of Gustav Mahler which noted that he was the Director of the Vienna court opera for many years. The narrative ended with a description of the sound of an ore slapping the water, leading to the conclusion that Mahler’s inspiration for this symphony was the sounds and sights of nature and the transition from dark to light. As the audience quieted and the conductor entered stage-left and as the concert began the conductors arm movements were small and subtle. This was somewhat disappointing as it is far more entertaining to see a wild conductor whose arm movements expose his passion for the music.
Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 7 in E Minor is prepared in five movements. The first movement in b minor was in the sonata form and began with a low horn call. The horn bellowed and its sound was rather militaristic and had an eerie feel to it. The horn calls seemed to be a significant theme and as Johnson (2009) deliberates “Such calls construct a complex layering of semiotic activity: their literal quality, drawn from the realities of urban and rural life, seems to suggest an almost theatrical narration.” The horn player’s solo introduction was excellent and was exciting to watch. The music definitely painted a picture, an abstract picture. The music was suspenseful and the introduction of the Timpani gave the music a dramatic edge. In addition, Johnson (2009) found that frequently the horns “shared function as to construct a kind of musical threshold, a spatial field, a suspension of linear motion that prepares the arrival of a new voice and thus a new musical identity” (Johnson, 2009). The chords were long and drawn out for much of the first movement. The horn bellowed over the sound of the rest of the orchestra like it was leading the music into a battle. The violins started to scream loudly and aggressively with sudden changes in meter and harmony. There was a short flute solo and then a beautiful violin solo which added even more emotional feeling to the sound. The trumpets and horn echo back and forth and towards the end of the first movement to texture changes from triumphant and fiery to light and whimsical with the addition of the sound of the harp.
The Second movement (a nocturne in C minor), the third movement (a scherzo in D minor) and fourth movement (a second nocturne in F major) were all rather confusing and lacked cohesion. From one theme to the next was vastly different and did not transition clearly to allow the structure of the musical progression to make sense to the listener. Throughout the entire concert, it was hard to tell which direction the music was going. Edward (1994) explains that Mahler deliberately works against traditional structure in this piece, by fragmenting lines, creating stuttering irregularities, juxtaposing farce and melancholy (Edward, 1994). The best part of the second movement was when all of the violinist tapped their bows on the chinrest of their violins creating a simple and quick drumming effect. Having never seen this technique, it was really surprising and fantastic. There was also an oboe solo in the second movement which was a refreshing sound that contrasted the overbearing sound of the violins. The third movement started with the drumming of the timpani and then led into a series of very imitative phrases. The violin and flute seemed to carry the melody with fast paced chord changes which was impressive. Then near the end of the third movement came the very best part of the concert in my opinion. It was a dreamy and seductive solo played by the principle viola player. This particular solo stood out to me as the most breathtaking by far. The player’s fingers were moving so incredibly fast and the sound was just absolutely spectacular. In the fourth movement, there was an introduction to some new instruments. This movement started out soft and led into a duel of a solo violin which was really awesome and the newly introduced mandolin and guitar. This movement was playful and romantic and had moments than would build to an exciting climax. The fluttering clarinet and mandolin imitated sounds of the violins and the movement ends with the wavering sound of the flute and some deep repeated calls from a single bassoon. The entire middle of this symphony was interlaced with thematic changes that were very drastic. All the different themes in the movements up to that point would all be revisited in the fifth and final movement.
The fifth and final movement of Gustav Mahler’s seventh symphony was in (C major) in the rondo form. This was quite a finale as it was over 25 minutes long. Furthermore, Edward (1994) added that “ The Fifth and final movement, whose celebratory character is often thought to be out of kilter with the rest of the work, was, under Mr. Boulez’s guidance, a continuation of the skewed past rather than a rejection of it” (Edward, 1994). This movement started with the loud beating of the timpani and the blaring progressions of the trumpets. Then as if the melodies were dueling, the melody of the oboe and the flute mimicked each other in what Scherzinger (1995) described as a “large-scale harmonic and thematic logic of transmutation at work. That is, both the keys and the thematic materials that are selected from the opening statement in order to express each ritornello follow a certain pattern” (p. 69). In addition, Scherzinger (1995) also explained that The low incidence of chromaticism and repeated return to the C major key which does not coincide consistently with the ritornelli, and seems puzzling that the momentum of the movement can be maintained at all (p. 88). Later in the fifth movement, everything comes together when the opening theme from the first movement returns. The finale uses all the instruments of the orchestra and really ran up and down the musical scales repeatedly. The sound of the cow bells and tubular bells echoing in the background gave the piece a distant but steady building effect. After considering the length of the symphony, the grand finale at the end of the fifth movement was in my opinion underplayed. The music came to a close and the concert ended. The audience rose to give a thunderous standing ovation that lasted several minutes, and just like that, it was over.
This performance of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 7 by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra was lengthy and mystifying but still incredibly impressive in regards to the pure talent and devotion of the musicians in the orchestra. Throughout the show, not a single noticeable mistake was made. None of the musicians ever even coughed or brushed their hair away from their face for the entire 120 minute concert. The dedication of those in the orchestra must be gigantic. This was the longest classical music concert I have observed and it was a great learning experience for me. In conclusion, the music of Mahler’s seventh symphony is not my favorite by far, but my admiration for the talent and skill of the members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is immense.
Edward, R. (1994, December 12). Music Review; Mahler’s Seventh, Stamped With Boulez’s Style. New York Times. p. 15. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.
Johnson, J. (2009). Mahler’s Voices: Expression and Irony in the Songs and Symphonies. Oxford University Press. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.
Scherzinger, M. (1995). The Finale of Mahler’s Seventh Symphony: A Deconstructive Reading. Music Analysis, Vol. 14, No. 1, pp. 69-88.