• Gustav Mahler

    The oldest of six surviving children born to a tavern owner in what is now the Czech Republic, Gustav Mahler was largely self-taught as a musician until the age of 15, when he entered the Vienna Conservatory. There he studied piano and composition and also took courses at Vienna University. But his true ambition was to be a conductor, and he composed only part-time, during the summer. His first stint as a conductor came in 1880 at a small, underfunded summer theater, but he parlayed the experience with operetta into a better position the following year in Ljubljana, the present-day capital of Slovenia. Slowly he won ever more prestigious postings in Kassel, Prague, Leipzig, Budapest, and Hamburg before landing the job he coveted, in 1897, at the Vienna Court Opera, conducting operas as well as symphonic works with the Vienna Philharmonic.
    His programming was often adventurous, even controversial: The first opera he conducted at the Vienna Opera was by Czech composer Bedřich Smetana; he tried, in 1905, to stage Richard Strauss's Salome, but the licentious opera was rejected by the state censors. Worn down by petty scandals involving disgruntled singers at the Court Opera, anti-Semitic attacks in the press, and myriad run-ins with imperial censors, Mahler chose to relocate for a few months each year, beginning in 1907, to New York City, where he would be spared such trials. (The move would also spare his marriage, by separating his faithless wife Alma from her paramour, Walter Gropius.) He considered moving to the United States permanently but died in 1911 before any such plans could come to pass
  • Notes On the Piece

    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 nihilistic.

    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.

  • Watch

     

    Sir Simon Rattle conducts the Berliner Philharmoniker in a performance of Mahler's Symphony No. 2, "Resurrection".

  • Watch

    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."

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