Memories of the Night

By Fred Kirshnit

Written for the concert After Carmina Burana: an Historical Perspective, performed on May 16, 2001 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Symphony No. 7 came to Mahler, uncharacteristically, in two lightning flashes of inspiration. He wrote the two serenades in 1904 and the other three movements in one amazing spurt of creative energy the following year. As a result, the music is not Wordsworthian recollection in tranquility but rather Proustian immediate recall. Rather than laboring through many revisions, Mahler put the work away for three years and then rushed it into premiere in Prague in 1908, after tantalizingly thinking of christening it in America, making changes in the orchestration right up to the evening of the performance with the help of several colleagues including Alban Berg. Memories overtake us immediately as the first movement’s main theme is granted to a military band instrument, the tenor horn, a tuba-shaped member of the horn family invented by Adolphe Sax of saxophone fame. Mahler loved to reminisce about the band music of his childhood village of Iglau and recalls the contemporary popularity of Sousa in this multi-layered essay wherein the theme reappears so often in various guises that it seems to be like a familiar recollection by the end of the movement.

The three inner sections are in many ways a complete work in themselves that plays circularly with the image of memory. The second movement opens with two horns, the first calling out forte and the second (actually the third in positioning within the section) echoing piano with mute in place. We have entered the world of memory immediately. A ghostly march, sometimes said to have been inspired by Rembrandt’s Night Watch, follows. A ländler mixes with the march in the signature Mahlerian way. The horn echoes break the mood as they reassert themselves as an arhythmic recitative soon accompanied by the composer’s uniquely familiar symbol of lost civilization, the Herdenglocke (cowbells). This remarkable passage has not only elements of suspended motion but also the absence of tone (only cowbells will do here; glockenspiel or xylophone would be in pitch and would ruin the moment). The chiaroscuro watchmen march by again accompanied by military fanfare and vanish into the realm of yesterday.

Mahler’s most inventive movement follows. Schattenhaft (“like a shadow”) is a collection of fits and starts contrasted with a rolling melody in three-quarter time. It is as if Viennese life is constantly trying to reassert itself and calls to mind the tentative self-image of this creatively febrile society between the shattering events of Mayerling and the outbreak of World War I. This was the era of neurasthenia (Freud himself treated both Mahler for depression and Bruno Walter for hysterical paralysis during this time) and the constantly appearing and disappearing musical figures of this nervous study underscore the plight of the Viennese intellectual of the day. In this highly charged universe, the elongated melodic line seems like the nostalgic memory while the disjointed and dotted figures seem to be the new surrealistic state of the world (compare the perceptions of Berg’s hallucinatory Wozzeck twenty years later). The movement ends with a startling two beat figure played by timpani and viola that leaves the listener off balance.

This figure instantly becomes a memory when it is immediately recalled by the solo violin as it opens the fourth movement with both ends of an octave leap, starting this charming Andante amoroso off on a slightly tipsy note. Continuing the nocturnal theme, Mahler recreates an Italian style serenade, complete with parts for mandolin and guitar, that transforms the music of the night from the frightening to the comforting and prepares the change of mood for the enchantingly positive finale of the piece, the most optimistic movement in this angst-ridden man’s entire output (I’m sure Dr. Freud was fascinated with his patient’s creation of such dark music as the Tragic symphony and the Kindertotenlieder during his happiest time as a husband and father and his subsequent publication of such joyous music after the actual death of his daughter Putsi). The accompaniment of strings and Mediterranean street instruments evokes the memory of the gentle breezes of a summer vacation (as the harried music director and principal conductor of the Vienna Opera this was the only time that Mahler ever actually composed). The last nine measures of the serenade are pure bliss as the clarinet starts a pianissimo trill, the flutes and oboes whisper a final farewell and the guitar softly plays the ending three notes, marked morendo (“dying away”). Walter describes these three inner movements as one large intermezzo, a recollection journeying from anxiety to tranquility.

The gloriously upbeat Finale recalls the last movement of Schubert’s “Great C Major”, an echo from fin-de-siècle Vienna of its most brilliant musical past. This conclusion, summoning again and again the character of the original tenor horn theme, is the most controversial of all of Mahler’s movements, as if happiness were beneath the dignity of a great artist. But, as any veteran concert-goer or discophile can tell you, the ending of this miraculous work can elicit paroxysms of cheers and applause like no other piece in the entire repertoire. Mahler, acknowledged by many of his contemporaries as the greatest of all interpreters of Wagner’s Ring, has taken his own Siegfried on a journey from darkness into light. Perhaps after the grousing of the critics (including the composer’s own wife) has subsided, the best view of Mahler’s “Song of the Night” is that of filmmaker Ken Russell, who ends his biographical exploration with the unexpectedly joyous protagonist exclaiming

…we are going to live forever!”