“Frühlingschor” from Manuel Venegas; “Elfenlied”; “Der Feuerreiter”
musicians would rank Hugo Wolf as the greatest lieder composer after Franz
Schubert. Prone to severe depression throughout his short life, he composed at
white-heat speed during his more stable periods, producing songs at the rate of
up to three per day. Responding to poetry with subtlety and insight, he molded
his flexible vocal lines to the emotional nuances of the words rather than
packaging them in standard strophic forms.
Great as he was in the intimate song world, Wolf longed to be something more.
Writing to his friend Oskar Grohe in 1891, he cried out: “I really and truly
shudder at the thought of my songs. The flattering recognition as ‘songwriter’
disturbs me down to the depths of my soul. What does it signify but the
reproach that songs are all I ever write, that I am master of what is only a
small-scale genre?” Wolf tried to break out with a large orchestral tone poem Penthesilea, but the work never made it
past a disastrous rehearsal by the Vienna Philharmonic in 1885. His only
completed opera, Der Corregidor, was
dropped after its first performances in Mannheim in 1896.
Wolf had more luck with his choral works “Elfenlied” (“Elves’ Song”) and “Der
which were warmly received at an orchestral
program in Berlin in January 1894.
“Elfenlied” is a German translation of the song “You spotted snakes” sung in
Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s
Dream in Act II by Titania’s fairy
attendants as a charm against nocturnal dangers as she falls asleep.
Thrilled with its effect at that performance,
Wolf wrote that the orchestration “so glittered and glowed in moonbeams that
you could forget to hear for sheer seeing.” Originally written in 1888 for his
superb collection of songs by the Romantic poet Eduard Mörike, “Der Feuerreiter”
(“The Fire Rider”) is a highly dramatic and terrifying tale of an equestrian
madman who rides through the countryside into a blazing mill—was he perhaps the
arsonist?—and a fiery death; the horror of the story is enhanced by one of the
most diabolically difficult piano parts in the lied literature. In the early
1890s when Wolf began orchestrating about 20 of his songs in order to reach a
broader public, this piano part with its implied orchestral colors made the
song an obvious candidate for enlargement. The poem’s panicked onlookers also
suggested choral treatment.
In September 1897, the worsening effects of syphilis finally brought Wolf to a
complete breakdown. The preceding summer, deluded that he had now replaced
Mahler as director of the Vienna Court Opera, he worked feverishly at his
second opera, Manuel Venegas, based
on the Spaniard Pedro Antonio de Alarcón y
Ariza’s novella El niño de la bola (The Infant on the Globe). He completed about 60 pages of music and
in mid-September summoned his supporters to hear it. Horrified by his manic behavior,
they realized that, although the music was good, Wolf now needed to be
hospitalized. He spent the rest of his few remaining years in asylums, although a period of remission early in 1898
enabled him to orchestrate Manuel Venegas’s
opening chorus, the “Frühlingschor”
or “Spring Chorus.” In this lilting bucolic song, the townspeople welcome spring’s arrival to bless their festival in
celebration of the infant Jesus. It is a deceptively light and joyous
beginning to a dark story of jealousy and violence.
Symphony No. 2 in C Minor, “Resurrection”
Second Symphony began its slow gestation in 1888 when Mahler was still
completing his First Symphony. At that time, he composed a large work called Totenfeier (Funeral Rites), originally intended to be an independent symphonic
poem. When the First Symphony was poorly received, he set aside orchestral
composing for several years, instead concentrating on his burgeoning career as
one of Europe’s most gifted opera conductors. But by 1893, when he had become
principal conductor of the Hamburg Opera, his creative juices were flowing
again. For that summer, he found an idyllic retreat: the village of Steinbach
am Attersee in Austria’s Salzkammergut district of mountain-girt lakes. In such
beautiful surroundings, Mahler experienced one of his most productive summers,
composing the second and third movements of the Second Symphony, for which the
revised Totenfeier would become the
first movement. He also turned one of his previously composed songs, “Urlicht”
(“Primeval Light”), based on poetry from the German folk anthology Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth’s Magic Horn), into the
sweetly childlike fourth movement.
At summer’s end, as he returned to his duties in Hamburg, Mahler knew he wanted
to cap his symphony with a choral finale in the manner of Beethoven’s Ninth.
The composer ransacked books of poetry and philosophy that winter in search of
a suitable text. On March 29, 1894, he attended the funeral in Vienna of the
renowned conductor and pianist Hans von Bülow, who had championed Mahler’s
conducting career while remaining unmoved by his compositions. During the
service, the composer had an epiphany. As he recalled, “All of a sudden the
choir ... intoned Klopstock’s ‘Auferstehung’ (‘Resurrection Ode’). It was as if
I had been struck by lightning; everything suddenly rose before me clearly!
Such is the flash for which the creator waits.”
Mahler returned to Steinbach in the summer, he had already sketched some of the
enormous finale—at 35 minutes, it is longer than most complete symphonies—that
closes with Klopstock’s radiant words sung by chorus with soprano and
mezzo-soprano soloists. Waiting for him on a peninsula jutting out into the
Attersee was the first of his spartan one-room composing cottages, built to his
specifications during the spring. On three sides, its windows framed lovely
vistas of water and mountains. But they always remained closed, so that no sound
from the outside world would disturb his inner music. The Second’s finale was
swiftly finished. Mahler chose only to use the first two stanzas of Klopstock’s
ode, adding several stanzas of his own, beginning with “O glaube” (“O believe,
my heart”), which make Klopstock’s universal statement of faith into something
much more personal and passionate.
Second is the most dramatic—one could even say cinematic—of Mahler’s
symphonies, showing the composer’s experience in the world of opera
at every turn. It begins with the death of the protagonist—Mahler identified
him as the hero of the First Symphony, but he is also Everyman, who faces the
certainty of extinction—and closes with what Mahler scholar Henry-Louis de La
Grange calls “a huge apocalyptic fresco of doomsday.”
In C minor, the first movement is one of the first of the great funeral marches
that reappear throughout Mahler’s symphonies. Faster in tempo, however, than a
conventional dirge, this one is full of youthful energy and audacity. Under a
ferocious string tremolo, a growling principal theme is proclaimed by unison
cellos and basses; it haunts the entire movement, often as a rumbling
accompaniment. Oboes and English horn reverse this downward trend into an
ascending fanfare idea that sets the march’s tone of heroic resistance.
Countering the grimness, the violins offer a message of hope: a lovely melody
that yearns upward to the light: This is the movement’s other important theme.
We also hear an optimistic brass chorale; it is the first hint of the finale’s
This march music builds to a big climax, then subsides into a massive two-part
development section. A new pastoral theme led by oboes appears here: a
remembrance of life’s sweetness. The reality of death returns with crushing
force as the second phase of the development opens with an explosion of sound
from the battery of drums and the gong. Ultimately, this section ends in
catastrophe: an ear-splitting scream of dissonant chords ending in two
shattering thunderclaps. After the recapitulation of the opening music, the
closing coda is quiet and fragmented. But Mahler adds a last theatrical gesture
of destruction: a huge, chromatically descending scale by the full orchestra.
So utterly different is the second-movement
Andante moderato that Mahler asked
for a considerable pause to be taken after the first movement. In the
program he originally wrote for the work, he explains: “The second and third
movements are conceived as an interlude. The second is a memory—a shaft of
sunlight from out of the life of this hero. It has surely happened to you, that
you have followed a loved one to the grave, and ... there suddenly arose the
image of a long-dead hour of happiness ... you could almost forget what has
just happened.” This happy memory takes the form of a graceful, lightly scored
Austrian ländler dance.
The third movement is a more disturbing interlude: the first of Mahler’s
diabolical scherzos. It begins innocently enough with the music of a comical Wunderhorn song—“St. Anthony Preaching
to the Fishes”—that Mahler composed simultaneously in 1893. But in Mahler’s
work, humor and tragedy are close companions. The aggressive trio section, led
by brass, undermines the humor, and when the whirling scherzo returns, it has
become fiercer, more dissonant, and altogether unhinged. The trio’s second
appearance pushes matters over the edge, culminating in a shattering “cry of
despair,” in Mahler’s words. “To someone who has lost himself and his
happiness, the world seems crazy and confused, as if deformed by a concave
mirror. The scherzo ends with the fearful scream of a soul that has experienced
Over the shuddering gong that closes this nightmare emerges Mahler’s purest,
most untroubled vision: the song “Urlicht,” sung by the mezzo-soprano soloist.
Mahler asks the singer to use “the tone and vocal expression of a child who
thinks he is in heaven.”
But such serenity is premature, and the finale opens with a reprise of the “cry
of despair” from the third movement. This music returns us to the drama of the
first movement and its implicit questions: What is the meaning of life, of
death? It unfolds in a series of vivid musical-dramatic tableaux. We hear
distant horn calls from another world. The brass chorale theme from the first
movement returns, now clearly based on the old Gregorian “Dies irae” chant that
obsessed so many composers. But here it is most apt, for the Day of Judgment is
truly upon us. A solo trombone then trumpet sound the “Resurrection” theme.
Flutes and English horn introduce an anguished, fearful theme that also reappears.
In one of the most stunning moments in any Mahler score, a great crescendo of
drums depicts the earth cracking open to yield its dead.
A huge and surprisingly jaunty march now ensues. Mahler: “The dead arise and
march forth in endless procession. The great and the small of the earth, the
kings and the beggars, the just and the godless, all press forward. The cry for
mercy and forgiveness sounds fearful in our ears.” A distant series of brass
fanfares, which Mahler called the “Grosser
Appel” or the “Last Trump,” sounds across the empty planet. In another
spine-tingling moment, we hear the “Bird of Death” (flute and piccolo) crying
out: the last sound of Earth.
next sound issues from another world. It is the softest, most haunting of all
choral entrances as the choir intones the “Resurrection” theme and Klopstock’s
words: “Rise again, yea, thou shalt rise again.” Now with Mahler’s own words,
the mezzo-soprano soloist, then the soprano, transform the anguished theme into
joy: “Oh believe, my heart ... Thou were not born in vain.” With bells and
organ pealing, all the assembled forces proclaim Mahler’s triumphant if
provisional answer to life’s riddle: “With wings, which I have won me, I shall
soar upwards, I shall die, to live!”