Simon Rattle conducts Mahler’s Seventh Symphony

A grandiose interpretation of Mahler’s Seventh Symphony in 1999 made a significant contribution to the Berliner Philharmoniker selecting Simon Rattle as their chief conductor. The work has been programmed once again, kicking off the 2016-17 season. According to the composer, it is “predominantly of a cheerful character”. But the optimism, particularly of the jubilant Finale, always remains fragile, threatened ambiguously by the abyss.

Berliner Philharmoniker

Sir Simon Rattle Conductor

Pierre Boulez

Éclat (1st Version for 15 instruments from 1965)

Gustav Mahler

Symphony No. 7

Dates and Tickets


In his work Éclat the sound – said Pierre Boulez – behaves like fish in an aquarium. “They hover motionless for a long time – all we can see is the slow gliding of colours.” This piece composed in 1965, in which the piano, similar to a billiard cue, repeatedly nudges the musical sound and passes it on to other instruments, was composed under the influence of Morton Feldman’s music. Boulez wished to write contemplative music that has no direction or development, the basic feature of which is its timbre.

Éclat has in common with Gustav Mahler’s Seventh Symphony, which follows, the use of guitar and mandolin. All the same, the two composers use these two instruments unusual in the symphonic context in very different ways: Boulez as special facets of the overall sound, Mahler on the contrary as a symbol for the musical ambiance of a nocturnal serenade. The serenade atmosphere which Mahler conjures up in the second night music of his symphony is part of the characteristic world of sound of the middle movements, as is the idyll of the first night music marred by ominous march rhythms and will-o’-the-wisp natural phenomena, and the spectral, grotesquely distorted waltz sounds of the Scherzo. These form a musical unit of their own and are framed by two massive outer movements: the opening movement, which goes to the limits of tonality, whose solemn, pathetic style seems like an ironic swan song to the model of the symphony, and the jubilant Rondo-Finale, in which one can perceive here and there a parody of Wagner’s Meistersinger overture.

Pierre Boulez, in his lifetime himself a celebrated Mahler conductor, said about the Seventh Symphony: “I was very, very impressed with how Mahler handles the form, with how he connects the movements [...] And the last movement is telling for the overall coherence.” Incidentally: Sir Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker already performed this unusual programme once, in June 1999, shortly before the orchestra selected a successor to Claudio Abbado. Sir Simon was already at the time considered one of the candidates accorded a very high chance of becoming chief conductor. With his interpretation of Mahler’s Seventh Symphony, which the Berliner Zeitung attested to being of “the highest order”, the British conductor convinced the orchestra once and for all.

About the music

Pen-and-Ink Drawing and Oil Painting

Works by Boulez and Mahler for the Opening of the Season

Explosion with Éclat

Éclat, said the composer Pierre Boulez, means first of all “splinter” or “fragment”. It can also mean “explosion” and “reflections of light”, however. These different meanings can be applied just as well to the form of the music as to its substance and poetic expression, and that is precisely what held such a great fascination for him. Éclat as the epitome of an experiment in listening, a positive aesthetic appeal. A bold spirit once compared the piece to the first stage of a rocket firing or to the beginning of a work that is still almost unwritten. The musical reality combines both approaches, the materialistic as well as the philosophical.

There is in fact an “explosion” in Éclat. For the most part, it is the piano that provides the impulse here; the other instruments work with the “material” it introduces, always with a resolute, “flashing”, fragmentary gesture that gradually diffuses in dialogue. The instrumentation is mainly responsible for this tempering of the overall sound. Boulez divided the ensemble into two parts; first, there is the group of “soloists”, whose instruments need a resonator to sound: piano, celesta, cimbalom, glockenspiel, vibraphone, tubular bells, harp, mandolin and guitar. Juxtaposed is the group of instruments which can easily sustain a note: alto flute, English horn, trumpet, trombone, viola and cello. The result of this ingenious combination is a crystalline sound that rejects the extremes of high and low register. Éclat is also an attempt to focus on the essence of the sound itself, on its variety and ability to modulate, thus reflecting the “controlled freedom” also advocated by Boulez in other works of this period, which allows the conductor of this music considerable latitude. In several passages he alone determines the order, which means that the interpreters must react quickly in order to be able to contribute to the éclat of the performance. Boulez countered any accusations that this meant the abdication of the composer with a dialectical distinction: the free dimension quasi assumes “a super-competence on the part of the composer”.

The structure of Éclat seems clear: a glittering piano cadenza opens the sequence of sound events as the instruments play freely; this leads to a longer section in which excitement is generated by dynamically varied instrumental interactions and ends with a passage made up of a “wave” of trills. The fourth section consists of an exchange of ideas between the background instruments and the “soloists” initiated by a motif in the cello, which the other voices gradually take up and develop further. The piano again bursts into the midst of this stream of sound, thus causing another éclat, a discourse that ends happily, if you will: sparkling tutti at the close. The magic of harmony.

The World as a Triptych: Mahler’s Seventh

If Éclat suggests a pen-and-ink drawing, Mahler’s Seventh Symphony can be likened to a sumptuous painting. A triptych, whose structure is concentric. The middle panel consists of two Nachtmusik(night music) movements that frame a ghostly, puckish Scherzo. On the left flank is the first movement, on the right, the finale; the latter is the (possible) answer to the question posed by the former. But there is confusion to begin with: how can a symphony whose principal key is indicated as E minor be so elated and sensuous? Is it because it was written “in a furor” (Alma Mahler) that inevitably led its composer per aspera ad astra – “through hardships to the stars”? Or did the “yearning for what is beyond the things of this world”, which Mahler spoke of with Natalie Bauer-Lechner, prevail over the profound doubt from which he suffered all his life? Was Adorno right when he wrote that Mahler’s symphonies discern better than he himself “that the object of such yearning is not to be represented as something higher, noble, transfigured”, since it would otherwise become “a Sunday religion, a decorative justification of the world’s course”? The evidence suggests it, especially since the philosopher and music theorist also had a logical explanation ready in the case of the Seventh, when he characterized the intense, essentially false-relation harmony as a kind of “super-major”. That hits the nail on the head, in that this abstract concept corresponds with Mahler’s Faustian penchant for the superlative, for the absoluteness of the will propagated by Schopenhauer. As paradoxical as it may sound, this symphony does not open the heavens for its composer but rather demonstrates the problems that arise in the collision of the individual with the totality of existence. Fichte’s priority of the ego, transformed into precariousness. Yet this symphony shines, it shines like an evening star, so far away, so near.

That is not yet clear at the opening (“here Nature roars”, Mahler wrote). A subliminal knocking in an indistinct register instead suggests a certain nervousness. In the second bar, however, the warmly resounding solo of the tenor horn begins, and, despite its downwards pointing intervallic structure and setting in a somewhat restless metre, it offers reconciliation and starts a broadly sweeping arioso. The transition to the brisk main section takes place in a strangely austere tonal sphere, which, despite several striking signals, seems strangely hermetic. A traditional sonata form follows, clearly divided into an exposition, development, recapitulation and coda.

The first Nachtmusik is an Allegro moderato; Mahler compared it to the atmosphere in Rembrandt’s The Night Watch. Formally, the movement is made up of several march-like sections changing from major to minor, alternating between two trios – one in folk-song style, the other lyrical and melancholy. The second Nachtmusik is an Andante amoroso: we picture Romeo before us on Juliet’s balcony, a guitar in his hands. He sings a beautiful, simple song, a love song. This melody evokes an association with the music in Viennese beer gardens. For the Mahler biographer Kurt Blaukopf it “anticipates the symphonic chamber style which Arnold Schoenberg ... established with his Chamber Symphony”.

Mahler placed a Scherzo between the two nocturnes that is reminiscent of a grotesque dance scene from the realm of the spirits. A (somewhat different) Midsummer Night’s Dream, through which satyrs and goblins scurry, sometimes grinning sardonically, sometimes blinking dreamily; sometimes sending glaring flashes of lightning, sometimes vanishing behind each other like shadows; sometimes explosive, sometimes contemplative: sweetly subtle eroticism in everything.

Conceptually, the Rondo-Finale returns to the large form. The basic idea is a ritornello. Mahler saw it as the only possibility to externally coordinate the isolated contrasts. It opens with a powerful intonation by the timpani, makes use of various elements such as fanfare, chorale and march, then sets off on a 15-minute journey to the C major apotheosis of the first theme. This is not the only passage where the close conceptual and material relationship to the first movement of the symphony becomes obvious. The structure and melodic texture of the two main themes point to material already heard earlier, although the profile of the rondo idea does not have the same depth or weight as the Allegro theme in the first movement.

Perhaps one can put it like this: Mahler’s music is the reflection of a world which suffers from itself and assigns the role of the sufferer to the individual, who is the cause of this suffering in the first place. His Weltschmerz is pain caused by both the beauty and the ugliness of the world. For him, the most wonderful element dwells directly beside the most hideous, love next to madness, and madness next to death. The images produced in the media every day are already contained in Mahler’s music. To understand the world, its mechanisms, it is enough to hear this music. One must only endure it, over and over again.

Jürgen Otten

Translation: Phyllis Anderson

(photo: Monika Rittershaus)