All I Know³
Information, transmission, modulation, and noise – 3rd Edition

Mahler Seventh!

Went to Thursday’s SF Symphony performance of the Mahler 7th.

It is impossible to understand this work (or any of Gustav Mahler’s music) without an understanding of the context — Vienna 1900. And to my ears, the 7th is all about fin de siecle weltschmerz. Or weMahler7ltschmaltz. But what an amazing work it is, if only for the extreme ranges it covers in any dimension you care to look, or listen.

Northern Europe in 1900 was a contradiction on all fronts that eventually led to two devastating tragedies by 1945. But the breathtaking changes in the arts, sciences, and society that took place in the forty years from 1880 to 1920 seem incomprehensible today.

I discovered Mahler’s symphonies when I was about 9. My dad had an early LP of the 5th conducted by Scherchen (probably the best performance). And the 4th with Walter and soprano Desi Halban. I was amazed by the sheer sound of the full orchestra, and immediately became a Mahlerite. It wasn’t until my teens that I discovered the 7th. Rarely performed, I think it is too often overlooked.

The 7th ranges from the deeply profound to the heights of bombast in the blink of an eye. It’s got all the typical Mahlerian traits: brass band marches, yodeling and faux country-folksy music, klezmer dooby-dooby-dos, cow bells, church bells, and even a mandolin solo. In five movements, the orchestral writing is staggering. I keep imagining Gus sitting in his summer composing cabin in the Alps writing furiously all those notes. So many many notes! How is this possible? To anyone who’s looked at the score, the effort seems almost inhuman. (

The 7th is extremely manic, obsessive, hyperactive, turgid, and oceanic all at once, switching back and forth without warning. It leaves you breathless.

The full orchestra was on stage. 8 double basses, a full complement of brass, including the wonderful baritone tuba that, along with trombones are featured as solo instruments throughout. There were so many people on stage that the layout was very different — 1st violins to the left, 2nds to the right, percussion all along the back wall; basses on the left, brass on the right, violas and cellos in the middle left, woodwinds middle right; and in front of the percussion in the center, the mandolin and guitar players. And everyone got to play! It’s a fantastic piece for orchestra. And what a sound they made!

Mahler unashamedly borrows from his earlier music and even from the music he hadn’t even written yet. I could hear ghosts of the 10th symphony in the fourth movement, and just about every other symphony splattered here and there. There even seemed to be a quote from Richard Strauss! Incredible! Mahler was the Charles Ives of MittelEuropa. At any moment I expected to hear Columbia Gem of the Ocean! (Altho the 7th was the only work on the program with no intermission, I kinda wish MTT had programmed the Ives 4th for the second half! )

MTT conducts a “young man’s Mahler”. It’s swift and full, not plodding or self-reflective. Much more extroverted and athletic version than Walter or Scherchen,or even Bernstein’s. I have to say that I do prefer those more introverted interpretations. I would want to hear a softer, more nuanced performance. But MTT and the orchestra got the work done. And everyone jumped to their feet at the end of the last movement, where everything is whirling around and suddenly it all comes to a full stop!

Seventh symphonies have a great lineage. Beethoven, Mahler, Bruckner, and Sibelius sevenths are all masterpieces. Thanks to MTT and the SFSO for a spectacular evening. I tried to imagine what it might have been like walking out in the Vienna streets after the premier of the 7th in 1905. I tried but I couldn’t. Van Ness is not the Ringstrasse. And we are so far far away in space/time from Vienna 1900.


Richard Friedman lives in Oakland, CA, is a freelance tech writer/editor, web designer, photographer, is a Director of Other Minds, wrote his first computer program in 1962 for the IBM 650. It played dice. He is also a ham radio (AG6RF) operator, and he also takes a lot of photographs, composes music, and does a weekly radio program on KALW called Music From Other Minds.
He is not Kinky.

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