Driving through northern Ohio in any sort of winter weather is never a pleasant experience, particularly when you are surprised to find yourself out of wiper fluid, particularly when you find yourself in such a predicament during rush hour traffic, peering through dirty smears on your windshield to find out if you are, in fact, in a lane. Should you find yourself in this situation, dumping coffee on your windshield as a desperate measure is surprisingly effective. As if I needed another reason to be grateful to coffee.
Needless to say, I breathed a sigh of relief upon parking in the Severance Hall garage.
This was my first time inside Severance Hall in Cleveland, and I have to say it is one of the most beautiful halls I have ever seen. The lobby area is decorated with elegant marble, and a series of hallways winds through gift shops, restaurants, and gathering spaces. The inside of the hall literally took my breath away. It is ornate but tasteful, spacious but warm and inviting. Sound floats through the hall and is perfectly balanced. As with Cincinnati, I was able to sit in on a dress rehearsal and experience the clarity of hearing the orchestra in an empty space.
Watching a world class orchestra rehearse is a fascinating experience. The musicians are constantly alert, making notes in their music and minor adjustments to their instruments. They are constantly communicating with the conductor and one another, moving in unison as a single entity rather than a group of individuals.
The rehearsal opened with a tuning note and the traditional handshake between concertmaster and conductor. The orchestra then dove into the sweeping, haunting harmonies of Maurice Ravel’s Mother Goose. The delicate innocence and romance of this ballet score highlighted the orchestra’s versatility, providing contrast with the epic symphony to follow.
§ Mahler Symphony No. 7 §
I have to wonder what concertgoers were expecting to hear when they stepped into the concert hall in Prague to hear the 1908 premiere of Mahler’s Seventh Symphony. Each of his symphonies had been completely unique, from the quirky, tuneful movements of the First Symphony to the sweeping grandeur of the Second and Third, followed by the surprising lightness and innocence of the Fourth. The Fifth, a battle, the Sixth, a tragedy. I’m simplifying of course. Each symphony contains a stunning range of emotions and characters. But each has its own life, its own universe. If Mahler were alive today to compose an eleventh symphony (or tenth, depending on who you ask), I would have no idea what to expect. Were I one of the lucky people who attended the world premiere, having heard the crushing hammer blows of the Sixth, I might be afraid to hear what comes next.
So we arrive at the Seventh: a five-movement work nicknamed “The Song of the Night,” though not by Mahler, who merely titled the second and fourth movements “Nachtmusik” (though far removed from the Eine Kleine variety).
The first movement immediately grabs the listener’s attention for a number of reasons. The opening music sounds almost transitional, as though we have entered a speech in the middle of an idea, or even mid-sentence. The work begins with a low rhythmic string figure for only a few measures before launching into a tenor horn solo. “A what?” you ask. The sound is slightly shocking at first, as listeners may be taken aback by the “is-that-a-horn-or-a-trombone” sound and the “is-that-a-baby-tuba” appearance. Mahler uses a number of unconventional instruments in this symphony, including said tenor horn (also known as a baritone) as well as mandolin, guitar, and cowbell (cue Christopher Walken jokes). But I digress. The first movement is a riot of sweeping strings, percussive effects, and textural play.
To me, the Cleveland horn sound is like velvet: dense and substantial but with a soft edge. It is showcased in the second movement, which opens with a haunting horn solo and often features a rich four-horn texture. The movement is in turns a march, a dance, and a song. That Mahler titled this movement “Nachtmusik” shows that he thought of night not merely as a period of darkness, but as one of restfulness, mystery, and merriment.
The third movement seems almost a continuation of the second in its character. It is a playful waltz tinged with dark humor. It begins as though we are hearing the thought of a waltz slowly occur to Mahler, being built beat by beat in the low strings, horns and clarinets. The dance fluctuates throughout the movement, at times slowing down or halting altogether before being rebuilt.
The fourth movement, another of the “Nachtmusik” movements, shows a more romantic side of night time, opening with singing violin and horn solos. And in case you thought you had this movement figured out, expecting tear-jerking string melodies with song-like wind solos here and there (a fairly standard slow movement), Mahler throws in mandolin and guitar solos, just to keep you on your toes. The movement comes to a soft, calming close, and then…
Wake up! It’s the finale and we are in C Major! The fifth movement is a colorful pageant of brass fanfares, hymns, and playful marches. If the symphony does in fact reflect night, then the last movement is the glory of daylight breaking through the darkness.
The Seventh Symphony was not well received in its day, and though it has gained favor, it remains one of his least popular works. Many listeners feel that the symphony is disjunct, that the movements do not flow one into another. To me, it seems like Mahler used his Seventh Symphony as an outlet for experimentation. It is full of sound effects, unconventional textures, and unique orchestration. Like each Mahler symphony, the Seventh has its own color palette, character, and landscape. Though it may not be as gripping or popular as some of his other symphonies, I believe the Seventh is a gem worth exploring.
Up next: I interview the Cleveland Orchestra horn section about their sound concept and history. Stay tuned!