Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 7 was written in 1904-1905, with repeated revisions to the scoring. It is sometimes referred to by the title Song of the Night (German: Lied der Nacht), though this title was not Mahler's own and he disapproved of it. Although the symphony is often described as being in the key of E minor, its tonal scheme is more complicated. The symphony's first movement moves from B minor (introduction) to E minor, and the work ends with a Rondo-Finale in C major. Thus, as Dika Newlin has pointed out, "in this symphony Mahler returns to the ideal of 'progressive tonality' which he had abandoned in the Sixth". The complexity of the work's tonal scheme was analysed in terms of 'interlocking structures' by Graham George.
In 1904, Mahler was enjoying great international success as a conductor, but he was also, at last, beginning to enjoy international success as a composer. His second daughter was born that June, and during his customary summer break away from Vienna in his lakeside retreat at Maiernigg in the Carinthian Mountains, he finished Symphony No. 6 and sketched the second and fourth movements (the two Nachtmusik movements) for the Symphony No. 7 while mapping out much of the rest of the work. He then worked on Seventh No. 7 intensively the following summer, claiming to take just four weeks to complete the first, third and fifth movements.
The completed score was dated 15-08-1905, and the orchestration was finished in 1906. Mahler laid Symphony No. 7 aside to make small changes to the orchestration of Symphony No. 6 , while rehearsing for its premiere in 05-1906.
Symphony No. 7 had its premiere on 19-09-1908, in Prague with the Czech Philharmonic, at the festival marking the Diamond Jubilee of Franz Josef I, Emperor (1830-1916). See: 1908 Concert Prague 19-09-1908 - Symphony No. 7 (Premiere).
The duration of the symphony is around 80 minutes. There is, however, an exceptionally lengthy recording by Otto Klemperer, which is 100 minutes long, as well as a recording by Hermann Scherchen with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra that is 68 minutes long.
The work is in five movements:
The three years which elapsed between the completion of the score and the symphony's premiere witnessed dramatic changes in Mahler's life and career. In March 1907 he had resigned his conductorship of the Vienna State Opera, as the musical community in Vienna turned against him (which was why he chose Prague for the work's debut); on 12 July his first daughter died of scarlet fever; and, even as she lay on her deathbed, Mahler learned that he was suffering from an incurable heart condition. Musicologists surmise that this is why the optimism and cheerfulness of the symphony was subsequently tempered by the small but significant revisions Mahler made in the years leading up to its premiere.
The harmonic and stylistic structure of the piece may be viewed as a depiction of the journey from dusk till dawn. The piece evolves from uncertain and hesitant beginnings to an unequivocal C major finale, with its echoes of Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg: indeed, at the premiere the overture to this opera was performed after the symphony.
This journey from night to day proceeds via an extraordinary third movement scherzo, marked schattenhaft (shadowy), which may have been what prompted Arnold Schoenberg to become a particular champion of the work. The abundance of themes based upon the interval of a fourth has parallels with the First Chamber Symphony.
The piece has several motifs in common with Symphony No. 6, notably the juxtaposition of major with minor chords, the march figure of the first movement, and the use of cowbells within certain "pastoral" episodes.
Mahler conducted the premiere in Prague in 1908. A few weeks later he conducted it in Munich and the Netherlands. Both the audience and the performers at the premiere were confused by the work, and it was not well received. It remained for a while as one of Mahler's least appreciated works, often accused of incoherence. More recently, scholars and conductors have experimented with a range of interpretations of the work, especially the tempo of the finale, and the work has thrilled more audiences worldwide and has since become more popular.
Score by Ed. Bote (Berlin), Introduction Symphony No. 7.