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Resurrection: The Season Finale

SYMPHONY NO. 2 IN C MINOR “RESURRECTION”
Gustav Mahler
b. Kalischt, Bohemia / July 7, 1860; 
d. Vienna, Austria / May 18, 1911

During the closing months of 1887 and the beginning of 1888, Mahler worked feverishly on two compositions simultaneously: his First Symphony and Totenfeier(Funeral Rites), an orchestral funeral march. He finished them both before the latter year was out. He also made sketches for an orchestral andante, but then put both it and Totenfeier aside.

Three years later, he played Totenfeier on the piano for the eminent conductor and pianist, Hans von Bülow. Shattered by Bülow’s utter rejection of the piece, Mahler fell into a creative funk that lasted two years. By the end of that period, he had decided to use Totenfeier as the opening movement of a new symphony, and to follow its furious drama and grieving with a series of lighter, contrasting intermezzi. Working with materials not originally intended for this symphony (including his 1888 andante sketches and Urlicht (Primal Light), a song for voice and piano), he completed the second, third and fourth movements during the summer of 1893. Aside from a few sketches, the symphony’s finale continued to elude him.

The dilemma was resolved in dramatic fashion, and in a manner appropriately tied in with the symphony’s early history. Hans von Bülow died in February 1894. At his funeral service in March, Mahler heard a choir sing poet Friedrich Klopstock’s Resurrection Ode. He knew instantly he had found the material he had been seeking. He eventually added words of his own to bring the text more into line with his own views on the subject.

Mahler conducted the symphony’s first complete performance, in Berlin on December 13, 1895. His sister Justine recalled, “The triumph grew greater with every movement. Such enthusiasm is seen only once in a lifetime! Afterwards, I saw grown men weeping and youths falling on each other’s necks...It was indescribable.”

Throughout his life, Mahler held ambivalent feelings toward programmatic elements in his music, and the Second Symphony was no exception. He first put forward an explicit program for it in a letter to critic Max Marschalk in 1896. Several even more elaborate descriptions followed, only to have Mahler eventually disavow them all, as he had clearly created them after the music had been written. Yet because of his use of specific texts in Symphony No. 2, it cannot be taken purely as “absolute” music. In finally abandoning more detailed description, however, Mahler left the words he had chosen, and the music he had written, to speak for themselves.

Mahler modeled the opening movement, a minor revision of Totenfeier, on the second movement, a funeral march, from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, the Eroica. But his concept, brought to life through the resources of the enormous orchestra he has chosen, is far angrier than Beethoven’s. Still, he repeatedly leavens it with moments of peaceful consolation, of hopeful prediction. The overriding sense of tragic momentum, however, carries right through to the conclusion.

The first of the three intermezzi is a gentle country dance in the style of Schubert. This section lies farthest in spirit from the other portions of the symphony. Yet even this nostalgic reverie does not know total peace, interrupted as it is by an anxious middle section.

The three remaining movements are played without pauses between them. The scherzo is dotted with menacing intrusions and macabre touches of orchestration. Its flowing, sinuous main theme is also the basis of Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt (Saint Anthony of Padua Preaching to the Fishes), one of Mahler’s numerous song settings of texts from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth’s Magic Horn), a collection of German folk tales that he had loved since childhood.

The fourth movement is another Wunderhorn inspiration, this time retaining the words. Voiced by the mezzo-soprano soloist, the simple, touching sentiments of Urlicht prepare the way for the symphony’s apocalyptic, virtually theatrical finale. The first part of the concluding movement is emotionally uncertain, haunted by the evocative echoes of off-stage horns and whispered, fragmentary allusions to the Dies irae (Day of Wrath), the chilling theme of the Last Judgment drawn from the medieval plainchant Mass for the Dead. A jubilant outburst sets the stage for a thunderous roll of drums and a lengthy, almost frantic processional. In its aftermath, a demonic offstage band engages in dialogue with the orchestra. A peaceful hush at last descends, its stillness broken only by distant brass, a muffled drum roll and wistful, onstage bird calls. 

Only then does the chorus make its entrance, softly, magically, with the hymn of resurrection – the heartening reply to all the uncertainties which have plagued the symphony from the very beginning. From there on, with soprano and mezzo-soprano soloists added, Mahler builds an ever more confident wave of hopeful fervour, climaxing with the exultant mass sounds of singers and orchestra, underpinned by the mighty swell of the organ and punctuated with the joyful clamour of bells.

After the first complete performance, Mahler wrote, “The whole thing sounds as though it came to us from some other world. And I think there is no one who can resist it. One is battered to the ground and then raised on angels’ wings to the highest heights.”

Symphony No. 2 in C Minor “Resurrection”
1. Allegro maestoso. Mit durchaus ernstem und feierlichem Ausdruck.
2. Andante moderato. Sehr gemächlich. Nie eilen.
3. In ruhig fliessender Bewegung…
4. Urlicht (Primeval Light). Sehr feierlich, aber schlicht…
5. Im Tempo des Scherzos

 

PROGRAMME NOTES © 2017 DON ANDERSON


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