The Seventh in Severance

4 Apr

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.Image 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!


38 Responses to “The Seventh in Severance”

  1. Kathleen Pinkham 04/05/2013 at 12:11 pm #

    Great post, Jessie! I can’t wait to read about the horn section. Yay for coffee!

  2. Kate Lester 04/17/2013 at 9:46 pm #

    I recently attended my first concert at Severance Hall. It does, indeed, take your breath away just to glimpse that beautiful hall. And the orchestra? Superb. They always bring me with tears.

  3. Prometheus 04/17/2013 at 10:10 pm #

    Great place to be. I wonder how breath taking it would be to watch an opera there.

  4. tinatames 04/17/2013 at 10:29 pm #

    Great post! Now I’ll have to listen to all of Mahler’s symphonies again. 🙂
    Live long and prosper and congrats on the freshly pressed.

  5. deejayiwan 04/17/2013 at 10:34 pm #

    Reblogged this on deejayiwan.

  6. kazhustle 04/17/2013 at 10:48 pm #

    Wow, this was right on point!!! I definitely will be checking out more from you!! Incase you have a free second 😉 Thank you so much!!!!! You are awesome in my book….

  7. apsolut 04/18/2013 at 12:16 am #

    Reblogged this on Apsolut and commented:
    Seven is magic

  8. scribblingscarlett 04/18/2013 at 1:06 am #

    Great post! Severance Hall is an amazing space. I’ll never forget when I was in junior high and the orchestra took a field trip to listen to the Symphony. It was the best musical experience of my life to that point.

    • Jessica 04/18/2013 at 11:53 pm #

      Isn’t Severance gorgeous? It’s a little ways from where I am, but I hope to make it there more often in the future. Really it’s one of the best halls I’ve ever been in.

  9. segmation 04/18/2013 at 1:17 am #

    The Cleveland Orchestra is one of the best. I love though going by boat to the Cincinnati Pops in Riverbend! Thanks for this awesome blog!

  10. lauramccain 04/18/2013 at 1:33 am #

    I like this “…like velvet: dense and substantial but with a soft edge.”

  11. andy1076 04/18/2013 at 2:42 am #

    I’ve never been to a live orchestra before, But I imagine the feeling of being around everyone playing a masterpiece symphony must be amazing 🙂

    • Jessica 04/18/2013 at 11:52 pm #

      I cannot recommend it highly enough. Do yourself a favor and look up your local orchestra! There is a common misconception that you have to be snobby and dressed up to go hear classical music live, but that is definitely not the case. Just go and enjoy the music. The only thing I would recommend is to learn a little about the piece before going or listen to a bit of it online. This will help you understand the music better and appreciate it.
      Happy listening! 🙂

      • andy1076 04/18/2013 at 11:57 pm #

        That’s good to know! Definitely will do the research before I go to the symphony orchestra here in Vancouver the next time it’s here, That’s how I will be able to follow the music along huh? 🙂

  12. motnguoibantintuong 04/18/2013 at 10:48 am #

    Reblogged this on motnguoibantintuong.

  13. Lady Fancifull 04/18/2013 at 11:39 am #

    Really interesting post – thanks for this

  14. Jason 04/18/2013 at 1:02 pm #

    I’ve not really studied a lot of Mahler. It seems as though by the time my professors in college got around to talking about Mahler and his contemporaries, the scene was crowded by so many names and divergent styles that he was more or less swept along with the rest of them leaving his uniqueness to be discovered only at the student’s discretion (unlike the pillars of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms who were constantly being showcased ad nauseum).

    That being said, what I have heard of Mahler — his 5th Symphony and his wrenching song cycle Der Kindertotenlieder — he is certainly worthy of a prominent space in my CD collection. Reading your detailed account of his 7th Symphony encourages me to go find a copy and have a listen — especially since it might be dubbed his “underdog symphony”. I always root for the underdogs. 🙂

    • Jason 04/18/2013 at 1:05 pm #

      I forgot to note that I’m an oboist so that’s probably yet another reason why I’ve not studied a lot of Mahler. If composers were all asked to divide themselves into two groups — woodwind or brass — I’m pretty sure Mahler would be standing with the brass group. 🙂

      • Jessica 04/18/2013 at 11:47 pm #

        Thanks for your feedback! I always love hearing perspectives from other instrumentalists. I highly recommend all of the Mahler Symphonies. I feel like there is always something new to hear and experience every time I listen. Mahler did love his brass, but he also wrote some gorgeous oboe and English horn lines in many of his symphonies, and often asked the oboes to play with their bells pointed straight at the audience! He was no slouch in the percussion department, either. You should see the amount of percussion he uses in his Sixth Symphony! The strings have beautiful melodies, too, but let’s be honest – they’re always a little spoiled in that department.

  15. sspsagroup 04/18/2013 at 4:46 pm #

    Really great post, jessie. Keep active on your work 🙂

  16. bdh63 04/18/2013 at 10:48 pm #

    There’s no beating live music played well. It lifts the soul, and give heart to your life. Yeah for horns, violins, drums, violas, cellos, flute, clarinets, oboes, and all the rest!

  17. Hoài Văn 04/19/2013 at 5:43 am #

    Nice post. Reading this while listening to the Mahler’ Symphony No.9, conducted by Sir Georg Solti, London Symphony Orchestra.

  18. Lasseter 04/19/2013 at 7:05 pm #

    Lovely post. As someone who attends concerts at Severance often, I was very happy that this post quite accidentally popped up on a reader I glance at from time to time. You might have found some particular delight in last night’s concert with it’s premiere of a piece by the young composer Sean Shepherd: he made some use of the horns, including a six-note chord he was so delighted to have written that he pointed it out particularly at the pre-concert lecture.

    The Cleveland Orchestra has been a dear friend to Mahler for all the time I’ve been attending. There’s no shortage of his works in their calendar. Here is a nice performance they gave under the direction of Pierre Boulez of the Adagio from his Tenth:

    And now I shall have to bookmark this page and take the time to read some of your other posts, such as your interview with the horn section. Thanks for posting this.

    • Jessica 04/19/2013 at 10:17 pm #

      So glad you stumbled on my blog and enjoyed it! I am listening to the Mahler recording you posted. What a gorgeous performance! His music is so moving; it can be absolutely heart-wrenching. Always glad to meet a fellow Mahler fan.

  19. mirkinfirkin 04/19/2013 at 7:50 pm #

    I do enjoy most of Mahler’s stuff. I lived in Jihlava, the town where he grew up for a number of years, and often attended concerts or recitals of his works held in sv. Ignac Church on the the main square.

  20. cookie1986 04/19/2013 at 11:18 pm #

    I love reading other musician’s interpretations of musical works. We all feel different things when performing or listening, and I felt like I could hear the Symphony through your descriptions.
    Well done!

  21. Riedstra 04/20/2013 at 1:17 pm #

    Hi, interesting blog! Do you know Roberta Alexander, the great American opera singer?
    Do you have music by her? Thanks…

    • Jessica 04/20/2013 at 6:10 pm #

      I am still new to the world of opera, so I am not familiar with Roberta Alexander. I will definitely do some research on her though! Any performances I should look up?

  22. Fiona McQuarrie (@all_about_work) 04/20/2013 at 5:23 pm #

    I loved reading this – you described everything so vividly. Thanks!

  23. Bold Wandering 04/21/2013 at 4:01 am #

    Congrats on being freshly pressed. I am very excited to see my hometown on the front page. Wonderful writing.

  24. lucasbrice 04/21/2013 at 5:18 pm #

    Great post. Here is a limerick that I wrote especially for you:

    There was a composer named Mahler,
    Who wore ties he bought for a dollar,
    When he tied one too tight,
    It gave him such a fright,
    He took the damn thing off his collar.

  25. inedu2 04/22/2013 at 11:33 am #

    Reblogged this on vidhyadotme and commented:
    very good

  26. Kat at travelgardeneat 04/23/2013 at 8:29 pm #

    Mahler’s 7th is not one I have paid much attention to in the past, but given that I have a high school-aged French horn player, perhaps I need to add it to our family’s music library! Your post brings it to life.

    • Jessica 04/25/2013 at 5:48 pm #

      Thank you! I hope you will check out this symphony, as well as his other works. There are fantastic horn parts throughout. Best of luck to the horn player! Feel free to pass on any comments or questions that he/she might have. 🙂

  27. The Fine Duchess 04/24/2013 at 4:32 am #

    Fantastic! Love your descriptions of the movements and the colours presented. As a pianist, I haven’t studied much of Mahler but upon reading this, I feel the urge to seek out his works.

    • Jessica 04/25/2013 at 5:46 pm #

      Thanks for your feedback! I hope you will take some time to explore Mahler’s works. His music is just breathtaking. I highly recommend Symphony 1 or 5 to start!

  28. dirigent82 05/07/2013 at 11:43 pm #

    In 2003, some friends and I took a road trip (like a 16 hour road trip!) to Cleveland for the specific purpose of seeing the Cleveland Orchestra one night and the Vienna Philharmonic the next. Cleveland was performing Mahler 3 with Pierre Boulez and Vienna performed Schubert’s 4th and Dvorak’s 9th with Niklaus Harnoncourt. This is the only time I’ve been in Severance and heard either of these ensembles live, but wow, what an experience! I still think the Mahler 3 is the best concert experience as an audience member I’ve had. The last chord was like an organ – and you weren’t quite sure when it ended – it just floated away into the rafters. Pretty unbelievable.

    It’s an amazingly beautiful hall with a top orchestra. People in the area are lucky to have this group!

    • Jessica 05/08/2013 at 2:55 pm #

      Wow! I’m so jealous that you got to hear Mahler 3 performed in Severance! I would certainly seize that opportunity if it came along. It is one of the most incredible pieces I have ever heard. Cleveland is very lucky to have such an incredible orchestra in their city. Happy to meet a fellow Mahler fan!

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