With his Symphony No. 2 in C minor, composed between 1888 and 1894, Gustav Mahler grappled with the most fundamental metaphysical questions. In a letter, he wrote,
“Why have you lived? Why have you suffered? Is it all some huge, awful joke? – We have to answer these questions somehow if we are to go on living – indeed, even if we are only to go on dying!” The person in whose life this call has resounded, even if only once, must give an answer. And it is this answer I give in the last movement. The second and third movements are intended as an interlude, the second being a memory! A ray of sunlight, pure and cloudless, out of that hero’s life.
The “Resurrection Symphony” (a subtitle not provided by Mahler) unfolds as a transcendent journey from darkness to light. Set in five movements and scored for forces which include ten trumpets, ten horns, four trombones, two harps, organ, two vocal soloists, and a large mixed chorus, it rises to a cosmic scale. The heroic symphonic journey, as conceived by Beethoven, is pushed to its zenith. The result left even the composer mesmerized. Following preliminary rehearsals in January of 1895, Mahler wrote to a friend,
The effect is so great that one cannot describe it. If I were to say what I think of this great work, it would sound too arrogant in a letter…The whole thing sounds as though it came to us from some other world. I think there is no one who can resist it. One is battered to the ground and then raised on angel’s wings to the highest heights.
The “Resurrection” of Mahler’s Second Symphony does not reference the Christian story, specifically. Instead, it offers a universal message of spiritual redemption. Mahler, for a time an admirer of the works of Nietzsche, was not a practitioner of organized religion. It was out of political necessity that he converted from Judaism to Catholicism, a move which allowed him to rise to prominence as one of Europe’s leading conductors. Yet he was haunted by questions of mortality. His conception of the symphony was all-embracing, and he once wrote, “what one makes music out of is still the whole—that is, the feeling, thinking, suffering human being.” Filled with complex and often contradictory emotions, Mahler’s music inhabits the Romantic world of nature while anticipating the alienation of the twentieth century. The wrenching ironies of this music are akin to one of the composer’s most vivid childhood memories. Running into the street to escape the brutal confrontations of his parents, immediately he would hear the cheerful, yet banal, strains of an organ grinder. Often, it is to Mahler’s Second Symphony that we turn in times of collective tragedy, such as the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the attacks of September 11, 2001.
The first movement, initially titled Todtenfeier (“Funeral Rites”) was first conceived as a single-movement tone poem. Mahler once described it as a depiction of the funeral for the hero from the First Symphony. The reaction of Mahler’s mentor, the conductor Hans von Bülow, when the composer played the score on the piano in 1891, provides a testament to the radical nature of the music. The older conductor covered his ears and insisted that the piece was so incomprehensible that it made Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde sound like a Haydn symphony. “If what I have just heard is still music,” he said, “then I no longer understand anything about music.”
A ferocious string tremolo, followed by a snarling statement in the cellos and basses, plunges us into the first movement’s tense drama. The English horn initiates a solemn funeral march. The second theme, a slowly blossoming line in the violins accompanied by the horns, brings a glimpse of heaven. Yet, even amid this serene repose, a quietly ominous ostinato in the low strings lurks as a persistent and unsettling presence. The development section arrives as an abrupt interruption. Impatiently, it pushes forward into new territory. Following the model of Franz Liszt’s thematic transformation, motifs such as the Dies irae (the Latin plainchant signifying the “Day of Wrath”) are introduced in the first movement and return later in the Symphony. As with all of Mahler’s music, the first movement is a conversation of voices, each with its distinct persona. Trumpet and horn fanfares evoke the battlefield, while woodwind voices suggest the pastorale sounds of nature. In the most climactic moments, Mahler’s orchestra becomes a titanic Power. Yet, the most intimate moments become chamber music, with individual voices having their say.
In the score, Mahler requests a five minute pause before the second movement (Andante moderato). Moving to A-flat major, it suggests the gentle, charming Austrian folk dance of the Ländler. As the unsophisticated melody returns, it is gracefully embellished, and at one point drifts into delicate pizzicato. Contrasting sections suggest the rigorous motivic dynamism of Beethoven.
Mahler was a composer of song. In his early symphonies, Mahler frequently developed material from his song cycles into symphonic movements. The third movement, a virtual scherzo in 3/8 time, was adapted from the Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt (“St. Anthony of Padua’s Sermon to the Fishes”) from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (“The Boy’s Magic Horn”). It is music filled with quirky, sardonic humor. There are echoes of Jewish folk music and Neo-Baroque sequences. All of this builds up to an earth-shattering climax which stops all of the preceding drama in its tracks. (Mahler described this moment as a “death shriek”). As this cry of pain dies away, a sudden, unexpected glimpse of sunlight emerges, foreshadowing the transcendent final moments of the Symphony.
The fourth movement (Urlicht, or “Primal light”) also taken from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, begins with the solitary human voice—a darkly veiled alto imbued with human tragedy and lament. In a symphony rooted in C minor and E-flat major, suddenly we find ourselves in the remote, ethereal world of D-flat major. The song begins as a solemn chorale. As it continues, we get a sense of aspiration and deep longing. There are primal open fifths and a sensuous upward leap of an octave. Both are recurring intervals in the Second Symphony.
Without pause, the final movement begins with another violent shriek of anguish. Mahler described this dramatic concluding movement as “a colossal musical fresco of the Day of Judgment” and a “bold piece of massive construction.” Silence, elemental open fifths, and the spacial dimension of off-stage brass bring a strange new sound world. Time seems to slow, and we hear the distant, heroic call of the horn. Mahler called this distant voice “the crier in the wilderness.” The episodic nature of this final movement is reminiscent of the sprawling, all-encompassing Finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The Dies irae returns as a solemn brass chorale which leads to a soaring, heroic statement. A few moments later, a thundering drumroll, punctuated with gongs, opens the door to a brisk march. Horn calls, accompanied by birdsongs in flute and piccolo, evoke a “Great Summons.” The chorus’ redemptive hymn begins as a hushed murmur.
For a long time, the essential concluding building block for this vast Symphony eluded Mahler. It was at the funeral of Hans von Bülow that Mahler heard the church choir sing the “Resurrection” chorale by German poet Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock. Following the experience, Mahler said, “It struck me like a thunderbolt and everything became plain and clear in my mind!” The Symphony’s final transcendent moments are augmented by the addition of the organ. Erupting with the crash of tam-tams and pealing bells, the final resolution delivers a visceral moment of transcendence. In the final measures, the recurring interval of the perfect fifth is transformed into a pure octave.
I. Allegro maestoso (Totenfeier):
II. Andante moderato:
III. In ruhig fließender Bewegung (“With quietly flowing movement”):
IV. Urlicht (“Primal light”):
V. Im Tempo des Scherzos (“In the tempo of the scherzo”):
Here is a translation of the text:
O little red rose!
Man lies in greatest need!
Man lies in greatest pain!
How I would rather be in heaven.
There came I upon a broad path
when came a little angel and wanted to turn me away.
Ah no! I would not let myself be turned away!
I am from God and shall return to God!
The loving God will grant me a little light,
Which will light me into that eternal blissful life!
In the final movement, the first eight lines were taken from the poem, Die Auferstehung, by Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock. Mahler omitted the final four lines of the poem, and wrote the rest himself (beginning at “O glaube”):
Rise again, yes, rise again,
Will you, my dust, after a brief rest!
Immortal life! Immortal life
Will he who called you, give you.
You are sown to bloom again!
The lord of the harvest goes
And gathers sheaves,
Us, who have died.
O believe, my heart, O believe:
Nothing is lost to you!
Yours, yes yours, is what you desired
Yours, what you have loved
What you have fought for!
You were not born for nothing!
Have not lived for nothing,
What was created
What perished, rise again!
Cease from trembling!
Prepare yourself to live!
O Pain, you piercer of all things,
From you, I have been wrested!
O Death, you conqueror of all things,
Now, are you conquered!
With wings which I have won for myself,
In love’s fierce striving,
I shall soar upwards
To the light which no eye has penetrated!
I shall die in order to live.
Rise again, yes, rise again,
Will you, my heart, in an instant!
That for which you suffered,
To God shall it carry you!
Five Great Recordings
- Mahler: Symphony No. 2 in C minor, “Resurrection,” Leonard Bernstein, Barbara Hendricks, Christa Ludwig, The Westminster Choir, New York Philharmonic Amazon
- Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony
- Lorin Maazel and the Vienna Philharmonic
- Otto Klemperer and the Philharmonia Orchestra
- Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra