APRIL 6, 2019 | 7:30 PM

Symphony No. 2 in C Minor, “Resurrection”

Gustav Mahler (1860–1911)


For most of his life, Gustav Mahler was known primarily as a conductor rather than a composer and cycled through an impressive list of posts as music director. In between conducting and the associated administrative duties, he composed whenever possible. He premiered his Symphony No. 1 in 1889 in Budapest. This, his first contribution to the symphonic genre, received a poor reception causing Mahler to entertain serious doubts about programmatic music – music following or illustrating a narrative – and embrace a more conceptual writing style. Still, Mahler felt that his first symphony (and the second) contained “the inner aspect of [his] whole life … everything that [he had] experienced and endured.” Along with several of his contemporaries Mahler took the philosophical developments of his day quite seriously and considered it imperative that he respond artistically.

Bruno Walter, one of Mahler’s close friends, explains that despite the use of general programs, the “extra-musical [philosophical] ideas … used to hint at the content of the music … fall short, because only music can express that content fully and with emotional specificity.” Mahler believed that music, more than any other medium, is capable of suggesting meanings, ideas, and emotions that might otherwise be out of reach and commented that he hadn’t “meant to depict … but to communicate something deeper… the Symphony must be a whole world.” 

Mahler had already commenced work on what was to become his Symphony No. 2, “Resurrection,” having completed the first movement of it the previous year. It’s possible that he intended this first movement, which he called Todtenfeier or “Funeral Rites,” to stand on its own as a symphonic poem (à la Richard Strauss). However, some of the early work on the second movement is also dated from 1888, so even if the Todtenfeier wasn’t initially a part of this fledgling symphony, the symphony itself was under way. 

    Mahler’s “Resurrection” is a massive piece both in length and depth, and took him six years to complete, although he continued to adjust the orchestration until 1909. The symphony has five movements, and Mahler calls for a huge orchestra, chorus, and vocal soloists. He even indicates that some of the musicians be placed offstage. Conductor Seiji Ozawa, remarking on Mahler’s excellent craftsmanship, said, “I was amazed that there was someone who knew how to use an orchestra so well. It was extreme – his marvelous ability to put every component of the orchestra to use.”

In 1893, Mahler completed a version of “Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt” or “St. Anthony of Padua’s Sermon to the Fishes,” which would become the third movement of “Resurrection.” Interestingly, he chose to leave out the text, forming a purely instrumental scherzo. By the summer of the same year he also finished the second and fourth movements (the fourth movement is also an orchestration of a song, this one called “Urlicht” or “Primal Light”). At this point he struggled with the symphony’s overall structure and how to pull the movements together into a unified whole. 

    As autumn -- and the beginning of the concert season -- approached, Mahler was forced to put the symphony on hold to fulfill his conducting obligations as he was required to do every season. He began writing again in the spring of 1894 after attending the funeral of renowned conductor Hans von Bülow. Mahler wrote, “I had long contemplated bringing in the choir in the last movement, and only the fear that it would be taken as a formal imitation of Beethoven [Symphony No. 9] made me hesitate again and again. Then Bülow died, and I went to the memorial service.… The mood in which I sat and pondered on the departed was utterly in the spirit of what I was working on at the time … Then the choir, up in the organ loft, intoned Klopstock’s Resurrection chorale … It flashed on me like lightning, and everything became plain and clear in my mind! It was the flash that all creative artists wait for – ‘conceiving by the Holy Ghost!’ What I then experienced had now to be expressed in sound. And yet – if I had not already borne the work within me – how could I have had that experience?” 

    The symphony’s first movement, the Todtenfeier, was written, according to musicologist Charles Youmans, as Mahler became more and more preoccupied with death and what might follow it. “The animating concern of the Todtenfeier was Mahler’s terror at imagining himself ‘dead, laid out in state, beneath wreaths and flowers.’ From this work forward, his mortality would condition everything he created; however different the topics, moods, and styles of his creative products, and whatever other concerns the works might have addressed, they all served in some way to help him come to terms with death. The early example of the Todtenfeier shows us just how easily this fear came to him; we are confronted by “a mighty being still caught in the toils of this world; grappling with life and with the fate to which he must succumb.” The main questions Mahler is confronting here are some of the largest: What’s next? What is life? What is death? Do our life and death have meaning? 

    The second movement displays Mahler’s wonderful gift for “nature painting.” Commentator Richard Freed describes “a memory, a ray of sunlight, pure and cloudless, out of the departed’s life … some long forgotten hour of shared happiness suddenly rose … sending, as it were, a sunbeam into your soul – not overcast by any shadow.” The third movement returns us to reality and displays Mahler’s somewhat characteristic cutting sarcasm and black humor. The fourth movement (as mentioned above) is constructed around a Lied, or art song, that Mahler had completed earlier (“Primal Light”). Mahler took the text for this song from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (“Of the Boy’s Miracle Horn”), a collection of poems that he turned to again and again throughout his life. The text states, “I am from God and will return to God. The dear God will give me a light, will light me to eternal blessed life!”

    In the fifth movement, the chorus and soloists join the orchestra, singing a great hymn about resurrection. Commentator James Keller notes that this does not refer to The Resurrection in the Christian context: “In this apocalyptic movement we witness Mahler confronting the inherited artistic tradition not only as a composer but even as a poet; the text of the finale begins with two stanzas by the eighteenth century author Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock, but these lead to a more expansive textual outpouring penned by Mahler himself.” 

Following the destructive climax, the gentle text can be clearly heard, “Rise again, yes, rise again thou wilt … Then the glory of God comes into sight. A wondrous light strikes us to the heart. All is quiet and blissful … A feeling of overwhelming love fills us with blissful knowledge and illuminates our existence.” 

    The first complete performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 was in 1895 with the Berlin Philharmonic and Mahler himself on the podium. A critic reported, “It was a resurrection without equal, and I gladly confess that the immense wonder of their music was clearer to me yesterday than ever before. [Mahler created music] so noble, beautiful, and convincing, that one can rightly believe in a powerful artistic renaissance, the dawn of a new age of this magnificent artistic institution.” 

    Mahler’s “Resurrection” is scored for four flutes (all doubling piccolo), four oboes (two doubling English horn), four clarinets (one doubling E-flat clarinet and one doubling bass clarinet), four bassoons (two doubling contrabassoon), ten horns, ten trumpets, four trombones, tuba, timpani (but two percussionists), percussion, two harps, organ, strings, mixed chorus, soprano and mezzo-soprano soloists, and an offstage group including four trumpets, additional percussion, and a second offstage group including four horns and timpani.