At a Glance
Mahler, in his 20s and 30s, was a very busy man on the rise. He devoted most of
his time to building a conducting career, chiefly of opera, and meteorically
ascended from provincial theaters to the most prized position in Europe: music
director of the Court Opera in Vienna. Such a demanding pace left little time
for composing, most of which he did during the summer months. Mahler was
conflicted about the kind of music to write and concentrated on songs and
program music. What we now know as his Symphony No. 1 was premiered in Budapest
as a “Symphonic Poem in Two Parts,” and for some time he planned a sequel with
a massive single-movement piece called Todtenfeier (Funeral Rites), which became the first movement of the Second
Symphony we hear tonight.
It is remarkable that the Second Symphony, composed over the span of nearly
seven years (the longest gestation for any of Mahler’s works), should emerge as
one of his most powerful and seemingly unified compositions. When he began
writing it in 1888 at age 28, he had no idea where it would go, and the process
of discovery—and self-discovery—addressed issues no less weighty than the
meaning of life and death. How to conclude the symphony posed a particular
problem, and the solution, when it came, proved a revelation: a choral finale
setting a “Resurrection” poem by the 18th-century German writer Friedrich
Gottlieb Klopstock, which Mahler adapted with his own words.
What became known as the “Resurrection” Symphony is one of the longest, most ambitious,
and profoundly moving orchestral works ever composed; its unusual impact and
philosophical import has been recognized ever since Mahler conducted the
premiere in Berlin in 1895.