Mahler as Social Critic: The Finale of the Seventh Symphony
(This article is from my doctoral dissertation, Mahler’s Seventh Symphony, Modernism, and the Crisis of Austrian Liberalism.)
No other movement of a Mahler symphony has engendered the kind of controversy and hand-wringing among critics and scholars as the finale of the Seventh. It could be said in this regard that the finale is the Achilles heel of the symphony, preventing the symphony in the eyes of some from achieving a greatness it might otherwise have attained. For, it also might be said, if Mahler had succeed in composing a finale that could be heard as bringing the prior four movements together in a clearer symphonic focus, the symphony as a whole might be more favorably considered. This is old news to anyone familiar with the Seventh and its history.
But should we automatically assume that Mahler was trying to compose a finale that would provide the kind of predictable close that a movement entitled Rondo-Finale suggests? Or, does this finale provide a suitable–if highly unconventional–close for the four movements that precede it?
The answer depends largely on how one reads the many expressive concerns of the other four movements. I have been arguing that, with the Seventh Symphony, Mahler engages the many crosscurrents of his social, psychological, political, and cultural world in ways that differ from his other work, but that he still succeeds in staying close to what we have come to know as Mahler’s “style.” The Seventh Symphony, on the whole, take Mahlerian paradox, irony, discontinuity, and generic subversion several steps further than any other Mahler symphony. This is particularly so with the finale. When seen in this light and closely read, the finale emerges as an appropriate closing movement for the Seventh.