Notes by Steve V. Sinclair
Sometimes referred to as the Song of the Night, though not named this by Mahler himself, this symphony underwent many revisions. Nonetheless, Mahler allegedly completed most of the symphony in just four weeks, especially impressive as he began sketching out the piece while simultaneously working on his sixth symphony. While the work was first composed in the happiest moments of his life and career—he was director at the Vienna State Opera and happily married with two young daughters—three whole years passed between the premiere of the symphony and the date on which Mahler completed the score. During this time his life had turned upside-down: he resigned from the Vienna State Opera, his four-year-old daughter died, and he was diagnosed with a heart condition for which there was no cure.
The symphony thrives on these paradoxes and contrasts ringing through Mahler’s life. It’s written in the key of E minor, and yet the tonality is far more complicated, and at times the symphony is sensuous and elated. He first composed what would become the second and forth movements, both called Nachtmusik, hence the symphony’s commonly referred to title, Song of the Night. The second movement illustrates the walk at night, which Mahler associated with the atmosphere evoked in Rembrandt’s The Night Watch. The Scherzo is found between the two Nachtmusik movements, and while Scherzo refers to a “joke”, this movement is sinister and unsettled, with unique orchestration giving the movement a strongly nightmarish quality. The second Nachtmusik returns to a lighter, leisurely stroll, with reduced orchestration which gives the movement a chamber music feel. This is at the core of the symphony; Mahler did not add the first and final movements until the following year. The first movement brings the symphony into nighttime, and the final rondo returns to daybreak, with the orchestra returning in large form. The symphony travels from dusk until dawn, with the final movement bringing back structural and melodic themes that were heard earlier in the Allegro theme of the opening.