Mahler’s Resurrection

by Glenn on March 27, 2016

I can’t quite call it a tradition, yet, but for the second straight year I was awake early on Easter Sunday and listened to Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection.” I revisited a favorite video recording by Bernard Haitink and the Berlin Philharmonic recorded in January 1993.

It strikes me that Haitink is not that fastidious about his phrasing. He doesn’t seem to be about the details. He controls the big picture and lets the musicians play. It would be fascinating to see what goes on in rehearsal. The finished product is wonderful.

Jard van Ness nails “Urlicht.” I love the emotion of this song, but I can’t imagine what it requires of the soloist who has to sing such long lines with a sometimes static accompaniment.

“Urlicht” (“Primeval Light”)
O Röschen rot!
O little red rose!
Der Mensch liegt in größter Not!
Man lies in greatest need!
Der Mensch liegt in größter Pein!
Man lies in greatest pain!
Je lieber möcht’ ich im Himmel sein.
How I would rather be in heaven.
Da kam ich auf einen breiten Weg:
There came I upon a broad path
Da kam ein Engelein und wollt’ mich abweisen.
when came a little angel and wanted to turn me away.
Ach nein! Ich ließ mich nicht abweisen!
Ah no! I would not let myself be turned away!
Ich bin von Gott und will wieder zu Gott!
I am from God and shall return to God!
Der liebe Gott wird mir ein Lichtchen geben,
The loving God will grant me a little light,
Wird leuchten mir bis in das ewig selig Leben!
Which will light me into that eternal blissful life!
—From Des Knaben Wunderhorn (Text and translation from Wikipedia article.)

You can’t call Mahler an evangelical Christian. He was Jewish but joined the Catholic Church as a prerequisite to taking over direction of the Vienna Opera. It feels like you have to do some parsing of the text of this movement because it’s not clear where the singer “is coming from.”

The alto soloist sings of meeting an angel on a broad path, which is fascinating because in the New Testament the idea of a “broad path” is the one that Jesus said led “to destruction.” Then the soloist tells how they demanded that they not be turned away by God. Is it a statement of faith in God? Then it’s hard to think of God not honoring that faith. But if it is impertinence, you wonder under what conditions does God has to do anything we say.

Theology aside, the song is quite moving.

Sylvia McNair is my favorite Mahler soprano. Her tone is clear and forward and her vibrato is delightfully restrained. You can hear and understand her plainly.

In Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, the soprano soloist carries the final movement. Here is Ms. McNair with Mr. Haitink and the Berlin Philharmonic in the finale to Mahler’s Fourth.

The soprano isn’t the star of the show here in Mahler’s Second, but Ms. McNair is delightful. My favorite line is:

O glaube
O believe
Du wardst nicht umsonst geboren!
You were not born for nothing.

This seems to me the main choice we all face, with all sorts of implications. Is our existence purposeful or purposeless?  One of the reasons I resonate with this symphony is that Mahler is not sectarian. His belief in the resurrection feels real and it allows me to share in it and rejoice in it.

This past week I listened to Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 “Pathétique.” The late program annotator, Michael Steinberg, noted “Tchaikovsky’s mastery at achieving astonishing variety—and volume—with a most economically constituted orchestra.” This got me thinking of a comparison between Tchaikovsky and Mahler. Tchaikovsky does more with less. Mahler has more but is remarkably restrained.

When it’s all going, it’s glorious. Here is the finale. Regrettably, I could not find the Haitink performance on the web, but here is Sir Simon Rattle, the current conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic.


Sterben werd’ ich, um zu leben!
Die shall I in order to live.
Aufersteh’n, ja aufersteh’n
Rise again, yes, rise again,
wirst du, mein Herz, in einem Nu!
Will you, my heart, in an instant!
Was du geschlagen
That for which you suffered,
zu Gott wird es dich tragen!
To God shall it carry you!

Perhaps Mahler’s idea of the resurrection is based on the Hebrew Scriptures:

“I know that my redeemer liveth,
and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth:

And though after my skin worms destroy this body,
yet in my flesh shall I see God:

Whom I shall see for myself,
and mine eyes shall behold,
and not another;
though my reins be consumed within me.” (Job 19:25–27, King James Version)

Happy Easter!

He is risen. He is risen, indeed.