Mahler’s 2nd Symphony

Thursday, August 22, 2019 , 6:30 PM

Mahler: Symphony No. 2 in C Minor, “Resurrection”

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)

Symphony No. 2 in C Minor, “Resurrection”

Composed: 1888-94
Instrumentation: Solo soprano, solo mezzo-soprano, full chorus, 4 flutes (all doubling piccolo), 4 oboes (3rd and 4th doubling English horn), 4 clarinets (3rd doubling on bass clarinet, 4th doubling on E-flat clarinet) plus E-flat clarinet, 4 bassoons (3rd and 4th doubling on contrabassoon), 10 horns (4 also playing offstage), 8 trumpets (4 also playing offstage), 4 trombones, tuba, 2 timpani, 6 percussion (bass drum, crash cymbals, suspended cymbal, 3 triangles, 3 snare drums, 2 tam-tams, 3 bells of indefinite pitch, rute), offstage timpani, triangle, bass drum and cymbal, 2 harps, organ, and strings

Mahler had complex feelings about sharing the programs he had in mind when composing his symphonies. Theoretically, he wanted the music to stand on its own, allowing each individual listener to draw their own conclusions. In a moment of particular frustration, he wrote, “No music is of any value if its pre-musical experiences first have to be reported to the listener, thus determining his own reactions…. Perish all programs!  A residual mystery always remains – even for the creator himself!”  (Now is your chance, dear audience member, to heed Mahler’s advice and close your program book, though I promise even if you do not, abundant musical mystery will remain.)

At the same time, Mahler often did have specific ideas in mind as he wrote his symphonies; works designed to “encompass everything” in his words. Regarding his Symphony No. 2, he wrote that it might be best if “the listener is provided with signposts and milestones on his journey—or rather, with a map of the heavens, so that he can get a picture of the night sky with all its luminous worlds.”  He ended up providing a number of varying descriptions of the program for his monumental Second Symphony, which match each other in spirit if not detail.

A Quick Tour

The moniker “Resurrection” comes from the title of Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock’s poem which serves as the source of some of the text to the final movement. The resurrection referenced here is not that of Christ, but of man, the final journey of exultant redemption that provides Mahler with the focus of his work. The opening movement of the work—which began as a stand-alone orchestral movement entitled Totenfeier (Funeral Rites)—depicts a loved one being drawn to their grave, prompting the deepest of reflections:

…our heart is gripped by a dreadfully serious voice which always passes us by in the deafening bustle of daily life:  What now? What is this life—and this death?  Do we have an existence beyond it?  Is all this only a confused dream, or do life and this death have a meaning?  We must answer this question if we are to live on.

The second movement serves as a daydream-memory: “…some long-forgotten hour of shared happiness [with your deceased loved one] suddenly rises before your inner eye, sending as it were a sunbeam into your soul—not overcast by any shadow.”  And the third projects a rude awakening from this memory space, creating a disorienting feeling of “an eerie phantom state.”  The fourth movement moves towards a reconciliation between the earthly and the heavenly states, with the climactic finale providing the dramatic answer to the questions posed in the first movement—“the resolution of the terrible problem of life—redemption.”

Digging Into the Music

Initial fragmentary low string gestures open the piece with forceful mystery and coalesce into a powerful musical thread which Mahler endlessly, achingly unwinds. The yearning wind line that eventually enters against the cello and basses isn’t so much a countermelody as a lyrical variant of it. As the tempo stabilizes, the opening begins to resemble a funeral march accompanied by a lament.

After building to a fantastic climax (the first of many!), Mahler introduces a magical tonal shift from C minor to a very unexpected and distant E major, with the violins opening the door to a bright dream-world, a place of almost utopian, pastoral peace. Maestro Neale describes the English horn here as evoking a “slow-motion yodel in an Alpine meadow.”  The balance of the movement can be viewed as a journey between these two worlds. At times, Mahler transitions so gradually that it’s difficult to pinpoint where one ends and the other begins. At other times, the shift is abrupt and startling (and sometimes devastating). The shattering climax that ends the development section—with harshly dissonant chords repeatedly hammered in fortissimo orchestral unison—counts as one of the most spine-tingling moments in Western music. It is a shocking moment, posing the existential question at the heart of Mahler’s narrative, a piercing lightning bolt of a question that will take the remainder of the symphony to resolve. The recapitulation that follows does provide a much-needed period of recovery from the whirlwind. Mahler even suggests a five-minute silent pause between the end of the first movement and the beginning of the second during concert performances.

The second movement’s leisurely lilt contrasts with the emotional drama of the opening. Here, Mahler crafts a graceful, waltz-like evocation of a daydream with music that seems to suspend time with its relaxed, almost nostalgic pace, in the manner of a Schubertian Austrian Ländler. The primary material returns two more times, each repetition enriching the warm string texture by moving the melody first to the cellos, and then by working towards a full string complement through an extended pizzicato section. Interspersed between these sections is more agitated material involving a shift to the parallel minor (technically A-flat major to G-sharp minor!) with a faster, triplet patter in the strings accompanying the expanded orchestra. Mahler’s indications in the score are quite specific:  the conductor is advised not to rush, to allow the music to breathe, and by the end, the performers need to reduce their dynamic from p to pp to ppp to pppp.

The third movement (marked “In peaceful flowing motion”) is a full orchestral expansion of a setting of a poem from Des Knaben Wunderhorn composed by Mahler concurrently with the composition of the symphony.  The humorous imagery of “Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt” (St. Anthony of Padua’s Fish Sermon) makes it irresistible. St. Anthony has arrived at church to give his Sunday sermon only to find the pews empty. Disappointed and—in Mahler’s reading—slightly drunk, the priest finds his way to the river to deliver his prepared sermon to a group of surprisingly attentive fish who had never before heard a sermon so pleasing. Alas, after the sermon ends, the fish swim off only to return to their impious ways of the past. Crafted as a kind of scherzo, the movement is undergirded by nearly continuous 16th notes, with hairpin dynamics, creating a sense of the flowing river. In creating this score, Mahler strips the original song of its sung melody: rather than redistributing the melodic line to the orchestra, he focuses on developing the accompaniment into a full-fledged movement, double the length of the original. The simplicity of the original remains, but the expansive middle section builds to a dramatic and terrifying “death cry” (in Mahler’s words, Todesschrei), suggesting that perhaps this movement is about more than just a school of sinful scaly river creatures.  Mahler describes this moment as a sudden realization of profound and disorienting disconnect:

[The symphony’s protagonist] loses, together with the clear eyes of childhood, the sure foothold which love alone gives. He despairs of himself and of God. The world and life become a chaotic nightmare; loathing for all being and becoming seizes him with iron fist and drives him to an outburst of despair.

The sublime fourth movement also draws from Mahler’s Wunderhorn settings, now retaining the vocals and expanding the piano accompaniment to a full orchestra setting of “Urlicht,” or “Primal Light,” from 1892. The first part of the song for alto is set as a brass chorale and a prayer, with the second portion depicting the mystery and exultation of crossing over the threshold of this life into the next.

The welcoming warmth of “Urlicht” turns out to have been a premature resolution to the existential dread posed in the opening movement. In particular, the death cry from the third movement has yet to be adequately confronted, and that is exactly where Mahler begins the finale, a massive movement that he calls “a colossal musical fresco of the Day of Judgment.”    The music here breaks down into separate episodes, forming a narrative and emotional arc. The offstage horns that usher in the second episode represent what Mahler called “the crier in the wilderness.”

The key moment comes in the middle of the movement, after the orchestra has completed its heavy march with allusions to the Dies Irae chant and elements of the procession from the first movement. The texture thins and the music fades, leaving only the offstage horns to give out their cry again, but this time it is elaborated grandly by two groups of offstage trumpets amidst birdcalls in the flutes. Mahler is representing the so-called “Great Summons” (or “Great Call”) here, the biblical prophecy of the raising of the dead on Judgment Day: “In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the great call: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.”  The chorus enters with their heavenly chorale, proclaiming death’s redemption. The denouement is glorious, a wholly unexpected revelation to our protagonist: “There is no judgement. There is no sinner, no righteous man—no great and no small. There is no punishment and no reward!  An almighty feeling of love illumines us with blessed knowing and being!”


Program notes by Jon Kochavi