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Gustav Mahler was one of 14 children born in an abusive,
loveless household. Some biographers suggest that he suffered from a traumatic
upbringing; all of them note that in 1910, he had a session with psychoanalyst
Sigmund Freud, who suggested that the strange, almost grotesque references to
popular songs and dances in Mahler’s symphonies might have something to do with
his upbringing. We definitively know, however, that Mahler broke from the norms
of conventional four-movement symphonic composition by including folksong
borrowings, unusual instruments, radically dissonant harmonies, and solo as
well as choral singing.
He opened up the boundaries of sonata form—the three-part
structure that had dominated symphonic first movements since the early 18th
century—and expanded it to enormous, encyclopedic lengths. Like Beethoven
before him, Mahler dispensed with the notion that a symphony should comprise
instruments alone. No fewer than half of his symphonies are scored with voices
in different combinations.
The logic of the genre is subverted, sometimes made
senseless, as if the composer were trying to tell us that there was no way for
him to express himself without making his music incomprehensible. Philosopher
Theodor Adorno thought that it was all too much, and argued, in a devastating
indictment, that Mahler’s symphonies were at once profoundly nostalgic and deeply
We can, however, look at works like his Second Symphony as a
meditation on broader, universal matters of life and death—what Richard
Taruskin terms an “eschatological” consideration of “human fate.” The “Resurrection”
Symphony has points in common with a Requiem, and it brings together numerous
quotations from composers of the 19th century, Beethoven included. The first
movement derives from an abandoned single-movement composition called Todtenfeier (Funeral Rite). Of its re-conception, Mahler commented: “I have
named the first movement ‘Funeral Rite,’ and, if you are curious, it is the
hero of my First Symphony that I am burying here and whose life I am gathering
up in a clear mirror, from a higher vantage point. At the same time it is the
great question: Why have you lived? Why have you suffered? Is all this merely a
great, horrible jest? We must resolve these questions somehow or other, if we
are to go on living—indeed, even if we are only to go on dying!”
Answering these questions required Mahler to compose
the largest symphony ever made in terms of forces, length, and harmonic
boldness. Earsplitting chords of seven different notes are not uncommon, used to
astonishing effect in the transition from the middle to the final section of
the first movement and throughout the third movement—a musical adaptation of
the 13th-century parable of Saint Anthony of Padua preaching to the fish. In
Mahler’s setting, Padua’s sermon takes on transcendental force, but the fish,
rather than being moved, swim away uncomprehending. The fourth movement is a setting
of a text from a German folklore collection (adored by Mahler) called Das Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth’s Magic Horn), where the alto
soloist seeks release from the burdens of life. The fifth movement is blessedly
brighter and proposes renewal—the “Resurrection” promised by the title.
Sir Simon Rattle conducts the Berliner Philharmoniker in a performance of Mahler's Symphony No. 2, "Resurrection".
Jeremy Geffen on Mahler's Second Symphony, which he calls "a miracle and a question mark at the same time" and "about as personal a statement as any composer could make."
Berliner Philharmoniker | Sir Simon Rattle, Conductor | EMI Classics
See Sir Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker perform Mahler's Symphony No. 2, "Resurrection," at Carnegie Hall on February 25 or listen to a live radio broadcast or interactive webcast on carnegiehall.org/wqxr or wqxr.org.
Limited ticket availability.
Please call CarnegieCharge at 212-247-7800.
View a full list of events that are part of A Golden Age of Music >