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Mahler Symphony no. 7 – Colours of the Night

Gustav Mahler was born in 1860 in Kalischt, at that time part of Austrian Bohemia (part of Czechoslovakia today). The word “Mahler” actually means “painter” and very likely his distant ancestors were indeed painters. He studied the piano, and made excellent progress, giving his first public concert at the age of ten. Accepted as a piano student at the Vienna Conservatoire in 1875, he won prizes but decided to focus on composition, graduating in 1878. He had become an artist, like his ancestors, but using sound rather than paint. 


Mahler’s first paid jobs were as a conductor. He was used to this because the composition students had to conduct their own compositions, played by the Conservatoire Orchestra. He continued to work as a conductor, particularly of opera, for the rest of his working life. This meant he had to compose during his holidays, so some pieces took years to complete. His music is famous for new harmonies, structures, and especially, orchestral colours.


In some of his earlier symphonies, he had included human voices, as in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. However, for his Seventh Symphony, Mahler decided to use instrumental colours only. 


Planned as a work in five movements, the second and fourth movements, both called Nachtmusik (“night music”), were completed during the summer of 1904. The other three movements were to have been completed in 1905, but Mahler experienced problems finding creative ideas, a severe case of “writer’s block”. He was in despair about wasting the summer until the rhythm of the rowing boat taking him back to his lakeside summer house gave him the idea for the opening of the Symphony. The remaining movements were completed within a month. The summer of 1906 saw Mahler continuing to work on the Seventh Symphony.


The premiere took place on 19 September 1908 with Mahler himself conducting. The work was received politely but with little enthusiasm. A few weeks later he conducted it in Munich and Amsterdam but again, the reception was mixed. Mahler’s wife, Alma, wrote that the audience “scarcely understood” the music.


It was only recently that audiences have begun to respond to Mahler’s Seventh. The funeral-march-like opening, the dark colours of the Nachtmusik movements, the strange central waltz, and the rays of light coming through in the Finale are now seen as part of Mahler’s life. Audiences now enjoy the moods and colours, giving the Seventh Symphony its place in the international repertoire.