I don’t intend this to be some sort of academic paper—I’ll still mention sources where ideas are not my own, although no formal citations are offered.
Mahler’s Seventh symphony is one of the more esoteric of his works. It’s also very divisive. I don’t think I’ve ever come across a report of it that speaks of it the way we speak of his other symphonies. It’s either a rip-off of the sixth symphony, lacking in its craft, or, his most “modern” symphony (whatever that means in this context—presumably, most outwardly disjunct and dissonant?)
One of the more interesting interpretations, as with much of Mahler, comes from Adorno—that is, excluding his criticism of the last movement. His primary criticism that I take issue with is the ‘unearned’ feeling that the finale overflows with (which it undoubtedly does.) I have no problem with this description, as I feel it is supported. But what I will do, is attempt to, through using Adorno’s own positive aesthetics, describe why this is actually intentional.
Adorno is quick to point out the durchbruch (breakthrough) that permeates much of Mahler’s work, wherein, through varying means, a work’s arrival (contrasting with the typical narrative of Beethoven) is not the result perseverance of the self that achieved this ‘fulfillment.’ (I highly recommend reading Adorno’s Mahler, as he explains these concepts much better than I can.) Incredibly clear examples are the trumpet call (an established Other from the introduction) that forms the material of climax in the first movement of the first symphony, the sudden heroic chorales in the Stürmisch bewegt of the Fifth, and the final section following the whole-tone line in Der Abschied.
These are all instances of “unprepared” arrivals, not achieved through a forward motion of the self. However, all of these examples occur within one movement! (The examples from One and Five both are reprised in finale movements, albeit they are not reestablished and rely on memory of the prior durchbruch.) What Adorno misses in the Seventh Symphony, is that Mahler has created an even more macro version of this: that a movement itself can be a breakthrough.
The heroic nature that comes with the trumpets’ entrance in this movement is criticized as being ‘unearned.’ But take a listen to the music that the trumpets play: that is not Mahler. That is so clearly not the music Mahler writes when all is well: it’s pastiche, almost blatantly from Der Meistersinger von Nürnberg. What place does this music have following the second Nachtmusik? It is non-sequitur, it is unprepared, it is durchbruch.
I will offer two possible and non mutually exclusive interpretations of why I believe this. The first is the more abstract-music approach. This clear Meistersinger music—which itself interrupts the galloping rhythms that introduced the movement (also resembling the introduction of the first movement)—is this a true Other? While not as clear as the example from Mahler’s First, I believe that this music could be described as “Other.” The Self that has been almost wandering through various scenes in the inner movements does not seem to possess the ethos, at least that the listener has heard yet, to be the subject of such a scene. But does this only establish this music as object, or does it go a step further, into Otherness. In any other Mahler symphony, I would undoubtedly choose the latter. But this seventh is different. The inner movements, the Nachtmusiks especially, rely on the self being abstracted and moving through these ‘objects.’ But, this music here seems to have lost some of the objectness of the inner movements. I would categorize it as Other not because of objectness, but because the distance its narrative-esque quality possesses is so distinct from the known Self. By Adorno’s own logic, this hijacking of the narrative by the other is durchbruch. What does it mean though, for the Meistersinger to be cast, in a cultural context in which it is part of the dominant narrative (the beginnings of intense, racially based, German nationalism which Meistersinger possesses) as the Other, in a piece by someone who is seen by his society as Other? I don’t know if I can non-equivocally answer that, but its many implications, if true, are almost blatant.
My second interpretation relies more on the idea of programatic content. The symphony, though not in Mahler’s time, has been called a Song of the Night, and Journey from Dusk to Dawn. Truly awful titles. But to what extent does Mahler’s Seventh fit these? The fúnebre quality in the opening of the first movement, followed by the blatant nocturnal associations of the middle movements, wouldn’t discount this as an interpretation. I’m not sure I personally would give the symphony such a programmatic arc, but I can’t dismiss it as a possible interpretation. Likewise, this would offer a second interpretation for the durchbruch of the Rondo: sunrise. Again, I highly doubt Mahler was so mono-dimensionally representational, but it does make some sense as a listener. The sun always will rise, and always obligatorily disregarding the night. The sun being the one component absent from the Night’s-Self, every sunrise is itself a breakthrough, in that it is achieved through its own external forces, and not as a consequence of any nocturnal will.
All of this discussion has of course been on just the first minute of the finale! There’s a lot that happens after, but to conclude, since the focus is on durchbruch, I will focus on the final section of the movement. Towards the end, Mahler reintroduces the principal theme from the first movement in the horn, still in its initial minor key. Taking a symphony as an entity, the clearest definition of self is the principal theme. It’s entrance in the context of a movement centered on the Other, pushes Mahler to write one of the most blatantly dissonant passages in any of his music. But this struggle of self and other is ‘ignored’ and the rondo switches back to its Viennese pastiche (staccati, trills, portamenti.) This until the final entrance of the Meistersinger ritornello, the ‘final’ segment of the Rondo. But when the final cadence is prepared, the Meistersinger trumpets which dominate with a Do-Ti-La line—in the context of the counterpoint, requiring resolution—are subsumed by woodwind trills and stop playing. The strongest potential cadence would’ve been achieved by the trumpets moving up through Ti back to Do, and this would complete the narrative arc of the movement. Instead, after the line is lost, during the tonic chord arrival, the trumpet articulates Sol—the tonic note is taken by the horns, who now play the first movement’s principal theme in the major mode. This is not just a cyclic Tchaikovskian symphony, as it is often reductively described as: a second durchbruch has occurred. Except here, unlike in the other examples, it is the Self that acts as the Other had in his earlier symphonies and wrestles back its own arrival/fulfillment from the usurping (and proto-fascistic) Other.
Mahler 7: https://youtu.be/QdxvC7NNSLQ?t=3374