The piece is written for an orchestra consisting of four flutes, piccolo, four clarinets, bass clarinet[?], three bassoons, double bassoon[?], tenor horn[?], four French horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, triangle, cymbals, tambourine, tamtam[?], bells, cowbells[?], mandolin, guitar, two harps and strings (violins, violas, cellos and double basses).
Mahler began work on his seventh symphony in 1904, before he had completed his sixth. He wrote the two Nachtmusik movements first, and the other three movements in the following year. The orchestration was completed in 1906, though Mahler continued to make small changes between rehearsals before the premiere in 1908.
The work is in five movements:
The piece has several motifs in common with the sixth symphony, including the major chord turning into a minor chord which crops up throughout the sixth.
Mahler conducted the premiere of his seventh symphony in Prague in 1908. A few weeks later he conducted it in Munich and he also gave it in the Netherlands. Both the audience and the performers at the premiere were confused by the work, and it was not well received. It remains one of Mahler's least appreciated works, often accused of incoherence.
The opening horn motif of the second movement was was well known in Britain for much of the 1980s and 1990s thanks to it being used in television advertisements for Castrol, a brand of engine oil (sound sample in ogg format, 15 seconds, 48 KB).