Seven facts about Mahler and his Seventh Symphony

On Thursday 6 April, the London Symphony Orchestra will perform one of Gustav Mahler's lesser-known works, Symphony No 7. We have found out some interesting facts about the piece and composer, so you don't 'Gust'-have to. 


Gustav Mahler was born on 7 July 1860 in rural Bohemia (the most Western part of today's Czech Republic). The Mahler family belonged to a German-speaking minority among Bohemians, and were also Jewish. Growing up in this environment, the young composer developed a sense of exile early in his life.

'I am three times homeless, a native of Bohemia in Austria, an Austrian among Germans and a Jew throughout the world.'



When he was four years old, Mahler found his grandparents’ piano andimmediately fell in love with playing. The town in which they lived had a thriving musical presence. Mahler was surrounded by street songs, dance tunes, folk melodies and trumpet calls of the local military band as a young child. This would all later contribute to Mahler's mature musical vocabulary. He developed his performing skills sufficiently to be considered a local 'Wunderkind' (child prodigy) and gave his first public performance when he was just ten years old.


Mahler's father, Bernhard, agreed to let Gustav audition for the Vienna Conservatory in 1875. He was accepted and continued to progress with his piano studies throughout his time there. In his final year, he decided to concentrate on composition and harmony; unfortunately, few of his student compositions have survived due to his dissatisfaction with them.


Symphony No 7 was written over the course of just a few months, albeit with a year's gap between the first and second sitting. Immediately after finishing his Sixth Symphony in 1904, he sketched the second and fourth movements of the Seventh. He then completed the first, third and fifth movements in just four weeks in Maiernigg, Mahler's summer home, the following summer. The piece premiered in Prague with the Czech Philharmonic on 19 September 1908.

The Seventh includes interesting orchestration, similar to some of Mahler's other symphonies (particularly his Fifth and Sixth). The scoring in this work uses a tenor horn, cowbells, mandolin and guitar.


The overall meaning of the symphony is something that has baffled analysts and musicologists. There is evidence to suggest that the original optimism and cheerfulness of the symphony was subsequently lessened by small but significant revisions Mahler made in the years leading up to its premiere. This could be linked to events such as Mahler's daughter Maria dying of scarlet fever in 1907 and Mahler himself learning that he had an incurable heart condition.


The Seventh is widely considered to be the weakest of the Mahler symphonies, though many conductors have expressed their frustration with performing the piece. Former LSO Principal Conductor Valery Gergiev commented in Gramophone magazine:

 'Conducting Mahler's Symphony No 7 was for me the scariest project of them all. It has a strange, unusual shape, it is more about working with light and shadow and different levels of power. It is about maintaining a sense of direction, line and proportion. If it were just a question of technique, there would have been hundreds of successful interpretations of this music.'


After his death, Mahler's work went largely unacknowledged. It took years for the musical community to recognise his influence. He is now regarded as one of the most influential composers of the 20th century, particularly because of his use of progressive tonality - an approach that was misunderstood and rejected by many of his contemporaries.

Mahler however, had become accepting of this kind of behaviour, having experienced the same prejudice and discrimination as a child. Nevertheless, his optimism continued to shine through. As he liked to say,

'My time will yet come.'


The London Symphony Orchestra will perform Gustav Mahler's Symphony No 7 on Thursday 6 April as part of the Janine Jansen Artist Portrait series. The concert will be conducted by Gianandrea Noseda at the Barbican Hall.

A concert that will be simply 'Mah'-vellous.