Symphony Study No. 61 | Mahler: Symphony No. 2 in c minor, “Resurrection”

by Glenn on June 3, 2017

Gustav Mahler (1860–1911)
Symphony No. 2 in c minor, “Resurrection”
Allegro maestoso
Andante moderato
In quietly flowing motion
Urlicht (Primal Light): Very Solemn, but simple
In the tempo of the scherzo—Allegro energico—slow, misterioso

first complete performance:
4 March 1895 | Berlin Philharmonic | conducted by the composer

I intended to save the Mahler symphonies for the end of this study, but when the Oregon Symphony presented Mahler’s Third last year and his Second last week, these seemed like appropriate opportunities to reflect on this glorious music.

In addition to the chapter in Michael Steinberg’s The Symphony: A Listener’s Guide (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), I went back and reread from David Hurwitz’s The Mahler Symphonies: An Owner’s Manual (Pompton Plains, NJ: Amadeus Press, 2004), Constantin Floros’ Gustav Mahler: The Symphonies (Portland, Oregon: Amadeus Press, 1985), and Deryck Cooke’s Gustav Mahler: An Inroduction to his Music, Second Edition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988).

These are all excellent guides though each of these authors takes a different approach. Hurwitz is the most approachable. He is focused primarily on the music but speaks enthusiastically in layman’s terms about it. Floros goes into great detail about the origins and context of this music and provides a highly technical analysis of its structure. Steinberg is somewhere between them, providing context for and explaining the music at a higher altitude. He seems most committed to the idea of a narrative structure for his writing. Cooke’s book is the most indispensable. It is densely packed and tackles most directly the issue of the meaning of this music.

In addition, I listened to the lecture that was created by Benjamin Zander to accompany his recording of this symphony. It’s nearly as fun listening to his lecture as to the performance. As a conductor, Zander brings a particular enthusiasm for trying to communicate what’s going on in this music. There is one gorgeous passage in the first movement that is striking with Zander’s narration of it. It’s wonderful,  like listening to Vin Scully call a Dodgers game.

(Sadly, Linn Records, who published Zander’s recording of M2 with the Philharmonia has discontinued the link for this lecture. It was available as a free download. In Zander’s previous recordings of Mahler symphonies on TELARC, he included a bonus disc with similarly-styled introductions to the music. These are terrific resources.)

Hurwitz refers to this passage as

“an orchestral miracle and a classic instance of Mahler’s use of a huge orchestra at the lowest dynamic level to create the most delicate threads of sound. … The colors are constantly changing, always in perfect instrumental balance, without ever breaking the long, seemingly endless lines of melody.” (Hurwitz, 17)

*  *  *

If symphonies were children, each of Mahler’s were astonishingly unique, with big personalities and yet, clearly, part of the same family.

The Second Symphony comes in the middle of a progression from big (the First) to gargantuan (the Third). They are competitive, each making a statement, the First attempting to outdo previous symphonic practice and the Second and Third each more expansive than the one before it. And then the Fourth comes along as a reaction, introducing almost Mozartian stylings and proportions (comparatively).

These first four Mahler symphonies are known as his “Wunderhorn Symphonies” because of their connection to Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Boy’s Magic Horn), a collection of German songs and folk poems that Mahler enjoyed so much he set a number of them to music. In his Second symphony, Mahler features two songs he wrote from this collection, one using words, “Urlicht” (Primal Light), and one without, “Saint Anthony of Padua’s Sermon to the Fishes.”

Mahler eventually settled into two-year composing cycles, beginning something one summer and finishing the next, but his Second symphony had a gestation of seven years. It began as a tone poem, Todtenfeier (Funeral Rites). He played it for the conductor Hans von Bülow, who had a terrible reaction to it. This was demoralizing for Mahler. It was at von Bulow’s memorial service that Mahler heard Klopstock’s “Resurrection Ode,” which both inspired him and gave him a way to finish the symphony. Totenfeier became the first movement of a five-movement symphony. Mahler tells the story in a letter to Dr. Arthur Seidl:

“The way in which I received the inspiration for this work is very typical for the nature of artistic creativity. For a long time I had been pondering the idea of including a choir in the last movement. Only the fear that this might be considered an overt imitation of Beethoven made me hesitate again and again! When Bülow died, I attended his funeral. The mood I was in as I sat there thinking of the deceased was very much in the spirit of the work I had on my mind at that time. Then, from the organ loft, the choir sang Klopstock’s chorale Resurrection! This hit me like lightning, and everything appeared clearly and distinctly before me! Every creative artist waits for that stroke of lightning; it is a kind of holy conception!”

Mahler wrote program notes for this symphony, which are helpful to make some associations with the music. Though he later withdrew these notes because he didn’t like the idea of a “crutch” for the listener, the title, “Resurrection,” sticks because of the text in the finale.

The orchestra for this symphony is enormous, including my favorite … ten horns. Mahler’s creativity with the big orchestra is phenomenal. It’s not loud all the time, though when it gets loud, it’s really something. Living in this culture, you get used to loud sounds, but there is such a difference between volume produced acoustically by people through instruments and volume produced by electricity and amplification.

Mahler’s is sparing in his use of these enormous resources, so that while this is a big work, it’s surprisingly intimate as well. It really is chamber music much of the time, with all sorts of interesting instrumental combinations. There is a great moment in the last movement when a solo flute is accompanied by an off-stage band. A significant number of the performers—the choir and organist—participate in just the final ten of the 78+ minutes of music.

The Resurrection Symphony was not readily received in its time because it seemed so different from what had come before, but David Hurwitz takes considerable pains to show how connected this music was with the inherited musical tradition, for example,

“The opening of Mahler’s Second Symphony has Wagner’s agitation, Beethoven’s melodic energy, and Verdi’s dramatic pacing and theatrical sense of dread.” (Hurwitz, 16)

As a composer, Mahler is looking both forward and backward. He is connected to the past and yet so original in the moment that his music still feels fresh today. When Mahler received criticism for lack of counterpoint in his music, he went back and studied Bach before creating his Fifth symphony. Mahler uses instruments and combinations which, if they weren’t used by him for the first time, were certainly used most strikingly.

Among the joys of his music is the way it contrasts so much. He takes very simple forms and creates profoundly original and nuanced creations from them.

It’s fascinating to be in the room with people who don’t (apparently) have much awareness of or affinity toward Mahler’s music. At the concert a week ago Monday, a couple sat down behind me just before the performance began. The husband said, meaningfully, “Big orchestra tonight.”

Then, after the first movement, she said, “Kinda loud.”

He responded, “Yeah.”

Mahler certainly makes an impression.

*  *  *

The symphony has five movements. And because a choir comes in at the end, it does seem like Mahler was imitating Beethoven. (The comparison of Beethoven’s Ninth and Mahler’s Second was the subject of a college essay I wrote, the whereabouts of which I wish I could determine.) But where Beethoven’s cellos in the opening of the fifth movement rejected the previous four movements before introducing his “Ode to Joy” theme, Mahler takes what has come before and transforms it. While both the Beethoven and the Mahler are inspirational at the end, the way they go about it is world’s apart—for starters, Beethoven moves things along quickly using tempo to create energy while Mahler takes his time.

The “Resurrection” Symphony is a dramatic musical event, but I don’t know that it follows a typical dramatic arc. For me, the emotional content is so heavy in this symphony that it’s an inverted arc, which takes you down and down until the final moments. I’m playing with a picture of the emotional line of this symphony. I’m not sure it’s quite right, but it’s how I see it these days.

As far as musical drama, what Mahler is doing is unique. The typical dramatic pyramid includes rising action that leads to a climax before a denouement. Instead, Mahler takes us to the depths. Rather than building tension, Mahler increases the sense of despair before, ultimately, lifting us to new heights.

Movement I

In the first movement there is a death. Because these symphonies are often both intra- and inter-connected, Mahler has noted that this death is that of the hero of his first symphony, which metaphorically is probably Mahler as these are somewhat autobiographical works. There are a number of motifs in this first movement, but the main point is that there are descending lines and ascending lines—darkness and light—that are in contention throughout the movement, indeed throughout the symphony. Darkness will rule the day in this first movement and gets the last word at the end where you get this series of major chords, which sound like the movement could end positively. But underneath is this menace in the rumble of the percussion and low strings. And then a trumpet turns the major chord minor and everything comes crashing down. Two quiet thuds indicate it’s over.

(This example and those that follow are from Simon Rattle’s recording with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Out of all the recordings I’ve heard, it remains my favorite. The examples included here come from this recording and are used in the spirit of fair use for educational purposes. If you like this music, please purchase it.)

Movement II

The second movement is a moment of earthiness in a symphony about ultimate things. If the second movement is a kind of reprieve, it is just barely so. The form of the second movement is A-B-A-B-A. The A sections are based on a simple, Austrian Ländler. I love how Mahler so often alters material when he repeats it. The first A section is that lovely tune. The second A section is that lovely tune with a beautiful counterpoint in the cellos. The third A section has the strings playing pizzicato in a delicate way, sort of like a music box, with little punctuations by the flute and piccolo. Here are brief excerpts of the three presentations of this A theme.

Of course it’s not all sweetness and light. Separating these delightful moments are the B sections, which introduce a restlessness and anxiousness to this otherwise restorative music.

Movement III

The third movement is an instrumental version of the song, “Saint Anthony Preaches to the Fish.”

While the text is not included in the symphony, the choice of this story and music isn’t by accident. Saint Anthony shows up to church to give a sermon but no one shows up—the church is empty. So he goes out to a nearby stream and preaches to the fish—carp, pike, and eel. They love his sermon. “The sermon has pleased them,” the translation reads, “but they remain the same as before.” Floros calls it “a parable of senselessness.” He continues,

“The programmatic idea of the Second Symphony’s Scherzo is the dreadful recognition that the meaning of existence cannot be understood and that life itself seems senseless.”

The music in this movement is varied–there is “humor” as well as “lyric” and “solemn” elements, but there is a “sinister” quality, too. (Floros, 64). I would add that it often sounds sarcastic. Steinberg writes that this movement includes “a certain element of the groteque.” (Steinberg, 287) Near the end of this movement is a colossal scream from the orchestra that will return in the final movement. Zander in his lecture maintains that Mahler is the first composer to introduce intentionally ugly sounds into a symphony. Here is that first scream. It’s unsettling.

Movement IV

After a movement signifying death, a bucolic yet conflicted interruption, and a movement exemplifying life’s meaninglessness, a lone voice enters. It’s an extraordinary moment. She comes in a half step higher making it clear that something new is happening. The opening of this movement is comforting, because it sounds like a traditional chorale like you might have heard in church, but unusual, because there are so many meter changes—there is no regular pulse. The opening makes this great statement:

“O little red rose!
Man lies in greatest need!
Man lies in greatest pain!
How I would rather be in heaven.”

And then there’s a change of mood, where the soloist tells this story:

“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!”

(The soloist here, Anna Larsson, is extraordinary. But so is the oboe player, Albrecht Mayer who, just before the mood/scene change—at the 46′ mark—can be seen—though not heard—doing some circular breathing. Also extraordinary.)

But it seems (at least in the moment) it was all for naught. This lone voice is quickly crushed as the last movement follows immediately and opens with that orchestral scream and we begin another descent into darkness.

Movement V

The last movement is the longest. There are moments of light, but as in the first movement they are reversed, until the ultimate reversal at the end. It’s a culmination for which Mahler is in no hurry.

After the turbulent opening things quiet down and we get to hear a couple of interesting effects for horn. I mentioned earlier the symphony was scored for ten horns. The presence of ten horns provides the opportunity for some big sounds, but early on in this movement Mahler goes the other direction. The following clip has two examples—the first has horns at ppp playing what Floros identifies as the Eternity and Ascension motifs.

The second, and just a short moment later, has off-stage horns playing to sound as though they are off in the forest, a great distance away. Both examples show Mahler’s ability to use restraint, one by a notation of dynamics and one by a placement of the instrumentalists.

According to Mahler, this second example indicates,

“The voice of the Caller is resounding; the end of all living creatures has come.”

Since the heading in the score for this section is “The One Calling in the Wilderness,” Floros [p. 70] traces Mahler’s literary source to Isaiah 40:3–5:

“A voice of one calling:
‘In the wilderness prepare
the way for the Lord;
make straight in the desert
a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be raised up,
every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
the rugged places a plain.
And the glory of the Lord will be revealed,
and all people will see it together.
For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’”

In fact, the whole movement is filled with Biblical and apocalyptic symbolism, though with Mahler’s uniquely personal and unorthodox take on the eschatology. Mahler explains it best:

“we are confronted once more with terrifying questions. A voice is heard crying aloud: ‘The end of all living things is come—the Last Judgement is at hand’. . . . The earth quakes, the graves burst open, the dead arise and stream on in endless procession. The great and the little ones of the earth—kings and beggards, righteous and godless—all press on; the cry for mercy and forgiveness strikes fearfully on our earts. The wailing rises higher—our senses desert us, consciousness fails at the approach of the eternal spirit. The last trumpet is head—the trumpets of the Apocalypse ring out; in the eerie silence which follows, we can just catch the distant, barely audible song of a nightingale, a last tremulous echo of earthly life. 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 judgement; there are no sinners, no just. None is great, none small. There is no punishment and no reward. An overwhelming love illuminates our being. We know and are.”

When Mahler says “the glory of God” appears, he does his best to illustrate it through music. The question that listeners must ask is how well did he do? On the one hand, it’s seems the height of arrogance to claim to be able to depict the glory of God. On the other hand, if the heavens declare the glory of God, perhaps other elements of creation should at least make an attempt. The only problem is that Biblically-speaking, God’s glory is often cause for a human’s undoing (see Isaiah 6). This glory is more thrilling than terrifying.

Earlier, I referenced a moment in this symphony when a solo flute is accompanied by an off-stage band. That moment occurs in this last movement. It’s the nightingale that Mahler refers to. Here is that glorious moment:

As far as what comes next, it’s unreal. I have this picture of the solo voice that was rebuffed in the fourth movement finally getting an answer and now a choir of angels has shown up to respond. Darkness will no longer have any say. The angelic voices speak (sing) softly because there is no one to shout down. They have unopposed authority. And they pronounce:

“Rise again, yes, rise again,
Will you My dust,
After a brief rest!
Immortal life! Immmortal life
Will He who called you, give you.”

These are words by Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock. Mahler abbreviated Klopstock’s text and added his own words for the end of the symphony, including these:

“O Death, You conqueror of all things,
Now, are you conquered! …
Die shall I 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!”

*  *  *

The Oregon Symphony played marvelously, although I will say I found myself in evaluative mode for the first two and a half movements. The first movement felt a little fast. That English horn solo referenced above in the first audio clip, went by so quickly. I wanted just a little rubato.

I thought the same thing about the second movement. It felt unnecessarily driven and a little mechanical—so clean and precise, but sterile, lacking any give—no pulling back or pushing forward.

The first orchestral scream really drew me in, though, and the rest of the performance was thoroughly compelling and enthralling—a fabulous concert. I have no memory of the Oregon Symphony ever performing this work. It may be that there wasn’t a lot of risk taken with tempo because it was unfamiliar and it was more important for it all to hold together when so much is on the line. If they were going to perform it again in, say, a year or so, you wonder what kind of nuance they would add.

A performance is a moment in time. But my sense is that this is an orchestra that is getting better, if it’s possible to say that without sounding condescending, particularly when you are talking about people who are far better musicians than you are.

While the concert was an unqualified success, I feel like you always need to have an asterisk with performances at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. You want to say that they performed well in spite of their surroundings. (Or if you don’t care for the performance, you wonder if the concert hall itself was part of the problem.) It’s a very cramped stage and so it has to be extended to make this Mahler orchestra possible. The stage is littered with devices to protect players from the instrumentalists behind them—the bassonist from the trumpets, the horns from the percussion, etc. You wonder what the sound would be like in a larger space. And the building itself lacks resonance. How would the strings sound in a more vibrant room?

My memory of Mahler’s Third last year is that the strings sounded seriously under-powered. At this concert, their numbers and sound felt present. I could still take more string sound, particularly from the low end, but it seems like they may be bowing pretty hard just to be heard. My not careful count of the strings was 16-14-12-10-8. I feel like the brass (trumpets and trombones) could back off. Still, balance was good with the exception of the harps, which seem to have the same problem as the strings, and some of the percussion—tam-tam and rute, especially—were unnecessarily subdued. It could be, though, that on stage the percussion is just too much and they need to stay in a metaphorical box for the orchestra to function.

For reference purposes, I listened to a performance by Markus Stenz with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. This is a fascinating comparison. Their performance hall has almost too much resonance so that every note nearly sounds twice.

The one disappointment about the concert came before the performance at the pre-concert talk. The host, Robert McBride, interviewed the conductor, Carlos Kalmar. But the conversation didn’t feel well-planned. For example, McBride asked Kalmar what he was looking forward to performing next season even as he admitted he couldn’t remember what had been scheduled. Wouldn’t it have been helpful to bring a list of concerts for the 2017–18 season, mention a few of the concerts, and ask the conductor which of these concerts he was especially looking forward to conducting? Or, better, spend more time talking about the great work of music that was going to be performed within the hour.

McBride later suggested this was a great time of year for this symphony to be played. I thought he was going to add because we were in the weeks following Easter, but he referred to Spring and the way everything comes back to life. I hope I’m not too pedantic when I say that this is a work about “resurrection” and not “rebirth.” While Mahler was certainly not an evangelical Christian in his thinking, he was not talking in a general way about how life comes out of death, but in a very specific way about how life will come after death. For me it’s a statement of faith, not observation; it’s about rising from the dead, not a renewal of life.

On the other hand, it’s not like the idea of rebirth isn’t a Christian idea (see: Nicodemus, the Gospel of John chapter 3).

Mahler’s Second is a problem-solving work, in this case answering the question What do we do in the face of human mortality? Or, as Mahler put it in a letter to a young composer/journalist,

“Why did you live? Why did you suffer? Is it all nothing but a huge, frightful joke? We must answer these questions in some way, if we want to go on living.”

Mahler’s answer, which comes in the last movement, “is a reaffirmation of the Christian belief in resurrection and immortality.” (Cooke, 52)

*  *  *

I am moved by the way this symphony is often part of an occasion. I used to have a VHS tape of a performance of this symphony by Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic at Masada. The New York Philharmonic performed this symphony on the tenth anniversary of 9/11. And some time ago I found a recording by Bernard Haitink and the Staatskapelle Dresden. This one is especially poignant—a performance “on the 50th anniversary of the destruction of Dresden, February 13, 1995.”

Here is a link to a upbeat article that begins, Mahler’s Resurrection symphony is basically great, and we’re about to tell you precisely why.” Basically great. That’s exactly how I feel about this phenomenal work.