Symphony No. 2 in C Minor (Resurrection): Gustav Mahler's Greatest Work

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A history and analysis of Mahler's super-sized masterpiece, the Second Symphony in C minor, with complete audio/video performance.

Influenced by the highly developed harmonic language inherited from Liszt and Wagner, Gustav Mahler was one of the last great figures of the Romantic Movement. Among the various aesthetics of the nineteenth century, the wave of interest in folk music developed by Brahms, Dvorak and Liszt, to name but a few, ignited a spark in Mahler's fertile imagination. Side by side to his immense symphonic structures, the composer continued as well the tradition of creating art songs which embraced the simplicity and directness of folk music.

This he did without deviating from the mode of expression of the time and fully utilizing the orchestral resources available to him. Starting in 1888, Mahler composed two-and-a-half volumes of songs with orchestra under the collective title of Des Knaben Wunderhorn ("The Youth's Magic Horn"), employing German poems in the folk style from an anthology of the same name by Ludwig Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano. In these songs Mahler captures the essence of the sounds of man and nature, especially those sounds from his childhood environs: bird songs, bugle calls, marches, songs and dances.

Mahler, in a cheerful pose.

It is with great significance that Mahler's Wunderhorn songs had an enormous impact on his symphonies. While the First Symphony quotes liberally from Mahler's own song cycle, Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen ("Songs of a Wayfarer"), the next three symphonies and the incomplete Tenth contain numerous thematic borrowings from the Wunderhorn collection. In fact, Symphonies Nos. 2, 3 and 4 - often referred to as a trilogy and collectively nicknamed the "Wunderhorn" symphonies - not only contain thematic material from the anthology but each of them incorporates actual songs from the cycle as one of their movements. And even the Fifth Symphony was not immune to "Wunderhorn" thematic germs.

Perhaps the most monumental musical work written up to that point, Mahler's Symphony No. 2 in C minor, took over 6 years to write. In 1888, in addition to his first Wunderhorn songs, Mahler completed two large symphonic works. The first, which he had begun in 1885, he originally referred to as a "symphonic poem;" this work, after many revisions and the excision of an entire movement, would eventually become the Symphony No. 1 in D major. The second work, which he had entitled Totenfeier ("Funeral Rites"), took the shape of a gigantic funeral march.

Although he intended this second work to be a companion piece for the first, he soon realized that it could not stand on its own, and that it would be a fitting first movement for his next symphony. With this in mind, he immediately set himself to sketching an Andante movement, but this was not completed until five years later; in the meantime, Mahler continued to create more entries for his Wunderhorn cycle.

In the summer of 1893, he then took his newly-composed Wunderhorn song, Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt ("St. Anthony of Padua's Sermon to the Fishes"), and turned it into a purely orchestral Scherzo, which he intended to incorporate into the fledgling Symphony as its second movement. However, upon the completion of the Adagio that he had begun five years earlier, the Scherzo then took its rightful place as the third movement, following the newly-finished Adagio. Having completed that summer the orchestration of another Wunderhorn song, Urlicht ("Primeval Light"), he tentatively decided to make it the Symphony's fourth movement.

At this point, Mahler knew that he needed a massive finale to balance the gigantic first movement. The middle movements would serve as an extended intermezzo to provide the required, if only momentary, relief of tension between the first and last movements. Various sketches for a Finale were attempted that summer, but they all proved unsatisfactory and were promptly discarded.

The composer once wrote in a letter: "The last movement of my Second Symphony meant so much to me that I searched through really the whole of the world's literature, right back to the Bible, trying to find the right words of release...The manner in which I received the impulse for this has a profound bearing on the nature of artistic creation. At that time I had long carried within me the idea of introducing a chorus in the last movement, and only the fear that this would be considered a superficial imitation of Beethoven caused me to hesitate again and again."

Then in January of 1894, the famous conductor and pianist Hans von Bulow died in Cairo, and a memorial service was held for him in Hamburg two months later. During the service, a children's choir sang a resurrection hymn to a text by Friedrich Klopstock, providing Mahler with the inspiration for the symphony's as-of-yet elusive Finale. It was then that Mahler realized that "death," as the theme of the first movement, could only be followed by "resurrection" as an appropriate and logical conclusion for his symphony. Klopstock's' poem about resurrection would provide not only the inspiration and concept for the Finale, but also the words upon which the movement could finally take flight. With the end so close in sight, Mahler copiously poured his energy into the work at hand, and on July 25, 1894, the Second Symphony was completed.

The first page of Mahler's manuscript of the Symphony No. 2 in C minor

Mahler himself conducted the premiere performance of the Symphony No. 2 in C minor in Berlin, on December 13, 1895. While most of his works up to that point had met with little - if any - enthusiasm by audiences and critics alike, the Second Symphony was immediately acclaimed as a masterpiece, thus providing an unprecedented success for Mahler, and the real beginning of his career as a composer.

Mahler's symphonies are usually concerned with inner struggles arising from spiritual and philosophical problems, which generally find their solution in the work's final movement. The "problem" in the Second Symphony has been summarized by music writer Deryck Cooke as "finding some assurance in the face of human mortality; and the resolution is the reaffirmation of the Christian belief in resurrection and immortality." Although Mahler always preferred that his music be listened to as "absolute music" without the hindrance of hidden, external or literal meanings, this "problem" can clearly be found in a program that the composer reluctantly wrote for a performance of the work in 1901:

"I have named the first movement Totenfeier, is the hero of my D major symphony [No. 1] whom I bear to the grave here, and whose life I catch up, from a higher standpoint, in a pure mirror. At the same time there is the great question: 'Why did you live? Why did you suffer? Is it all nothing but a huge, terrible joke?...He into whose life this call has once sounded must give an answer; and this answer I give in the final movement.

"The second [movement] is a memory - a shaft of sunlight from out of the life of this hero....there suddenly arose the image of a long-dead hour of happiness, which now enters your soul like a sunbeam that nothing can obscure - you could almost forget what has just happened.

"But when you awake from this wistful dream, and have to return into the confusion of life, it can easily happen that this ever-moving, never-resting, never-comprehensible bustle of existence becomes horrible to you...Life strikes you as meaningless, a frightful ghost, from which you perhaps start away with a cry of disgust. This is the third movement.

"Fourth movement: the morning voice of ingenuous faith strikes on our ears.

"Fifth movement: we are confronted once more with terrifying questions. A voice is heard crying aloud: 'The end of all living things is come - the last judgment is at hand'...The earth quakes, the graves burst open, the dead arise and stream on in endless procession....The last trumpet is heard - the trumpets of the Apocalypse ring out... A chorus of saints and heavenly beings softly breaks forth: 'Thou shalt arise, surely thou shalt arise.' Then appears the glory of God: a wondrous soft light penetrates us to the heart - all is holy calm. And behold, it is no judgment; there are no sinners, no just....There is no punishment and no reward. An overwhelming love illuminates our being. We know and we are."

The Allegro maestoso is one of the most strictly organized opening movements Mahler ever wrote, employing a gigantic sonata-allegro structure, complete with double exposition and a lengthy development, the latter of which actually begins during the "repeat" of the exposition. The motif that provides the relentless pulse of the funeral march is put into motion at the outset by unison cellos and basses. Over this motif, the somber, tortuous, main theme ascends on oboes and English horn, with the violins soon joining as the theme continues to unfold.

As if promising an eventual reward, the more lyrical second theme in E-major foreshadows the "Resurrection" theme of the finale, and is presented by the violins; but as it continues, it too becomes tortured with angst. The two themes and the numerous supplementary motifs are developed in dramatic confrontation. During the development section, a hymn-like melody for the horns plays an important part, beginning with the first four notes of the Dies irae chant from the Mass for the Dead.

After an explosive, culminating triple forte the themes receive their recapitulation. Like "a memory - a shaft of sunlight," the Andante moderato second movement begins with a momentary backward glance to Haydn as a charming melody unfolds in the strings. Set in the key of A-flat, the movement assumes the form of a wistful Ländler (an Austrian folk dance in triple time) with an A-B-A-B-A structure. Each repeat, however, is considerably different through the use of variations and evolving orchestration.

The witty and sardonic Scherzo expands and elaborates the aforementioned Wunderhorn song, Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt, from which it takes its ironic note. In the song, St. Anthony comes to a stream and assembles the fishes for a sermon on the thoughtlessness of their lives; at the end of the sermon, the fishes swim away to go on just as before. With great finesse, the relentless, sixteenth-note figuration of moto perpetuo character, portrays the aimless swimming motions of the fishes; while it provides the flowing, forward momentum of the movement, it also serves as the background for all the motivic cells of thematic material.

The gentler Trio section in the middle of the movement does not interrupt the momentum but provides a note of tenderness with a chorale melody on the trumpets. The Scherzo then resumes once more, and continues with an increasing sense of urgency. After a final climactic moment of discord, Mahler's "cry of disgust," the permeating sense of desperation suddenly abates at the end.

Without any perceptible break, the alto soloist takes us into the short hymn-like fourth movement - the Wunderhorn song, "Primeval Light" - where eternal bliss is promised as a relief from earthly suffering. With chamber-like textures in the orchestra, the musical setting is seemingly simple; alternating chorales - first for the brass, then for strings and woodwinds - provide the ideal accompaniment, as the soul sings at the gateway to heaven: "...I am from God, and to God I will return!"

The final movement links back, thematically and emotionally, with the first movement, and is essentially structured in two large sections. The tranquillity with which the fourth movement had ended is instantly shattered with a full orchestral outburst, in a discordant gesture reminiscent of the end of the Scherzo. In the long orchestral passage that follows, a number of themes are introduced, most of which will be used in one form or another in the choral finale.

Most important among these, is the one heard immediately on the flutes and clarinets followed by the horns; this theme is associated with the idea of resurrection after death, as seen in its initial descending interval ("death") followed by a short scale of ascending notes ("resurrection"). Off stage horns bring an augury of the last judgment call and falling figures on woodwinds and strings lead into a theme derived from the first movement - the one whose first four notes are those of the funereal Dies irae.

A solo trombone, followed by a solo trumpet, then introduces the theme of the Resurrection hymn. Flute and oboe present yet another theme; a theme of faith and affirmation, it will be intoned later by the soprano soloist to the words "O believe: thou wert not born in vain." A thunderous roll of timpani and drums, leads to a boisterous march where the themes are tossed frantically against each other and whose character becomes almost crude and vulgar in its desperation.

After an explosive climax the "affirmation" theme is heard in the solo trombone and the cellos against off-stage fanfares bringing the last judgment call ever nearer. Another climax is reached to subside this time to the most serene music in the movement, still building on the same themes. Against the bird-like commentary of flute and piccolo, a complex off-stage fanfare ushers in the chorus intoning the hymn of resurrection.

As the themes acquire literal meaning through Klopstock's and Mahler's words, the "problem" faced in the first movement is resolved. In answer to the questions "Why did you live? Why did you suffer?," the soloists and chorus assert that "What was created must perish, what has perished, rise again....What thou hast fought for shall lead thee to God!" In a mood of joyous, confident assertion, an orchestral coda based on the ascending "resurrection" theme brings Mahler's Second Symphony to its glorious conclusion.

* Author's addendum:

The embedded audio file above is a complete performance of Mahler's Second Symphony.  Lengthy recordings like this don't often appear on YouTube, but this is a bargain at nearly 90 minutes.  The work is indeed long, but given its scope and enormous orchestration with solo singers and oversize chorus, the Second Symphony is an experience in serious study, symphonic perception or simple pleasure for anyone who enjoys Western Music.  As a whole, the performance is not bad, there are weak and strong moments, but charge up your device batteries to watch the file before you settle in.  These are only examples.  Please support working artists by purchasing music and art legally.  Thank you.


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