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Carnegie Hall Premieres: Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, “Resurrection”

Carnegie Hall audiences know the excitement of a premiere—thousands of compositions have debuted at the Hall since it opened in 1891. It’s especially thrilling when the composer is on stage to conduct the work. On December 8, 1908, all the stars aligned, and Gustav Mahler led the New York Symphony Orchestra in the United States premiere of his Symphony No. 2, “Resurrection.”

The Road to New York

Mahler reached a crossroads in 1907. He was director of one of the world’s most prestigious theaters, the Vienna Hofoper (now known as the Vienna State Opera), and an internationally acclaimed conductor. That year he signed a contract to conduct at New York’s Metropolitan Opera in its 1908 season. But tragedy intervened: His young daughter died, he was diagnosed with a dangerous heart condition, and backstage politics made his life at the Hofoper untenable, leading him to abruptly resign and depart for New York in November. Mahler conducted Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde in his Metropolitan Opera debut the following January; by the end of 1908, he made his Carnegie Hall debut.

Composing the “Resurrection” Symphony

It took Mahler nearly seven years to complete his epic symphony. In 1888, he began composing a symphonic poem (a descriptive orchestral piece) called Todtenfeier (Funeral Rites), but he wasn’t sure if he wanted the piece to stand alone or be the first movement of a symphony. Years later, he realized it was the latter, and between 1893 and 1894 composed additional movements. Mahler conducted the Berliner Philharmoniker in the world premiere of his Second Symphony on December 13, 1895.

The Sound of the Symphony

Cast in five movements and scored for a massive orchestra, soprano and contralto soloists, and chorus, Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony is nearly 90 minutes long. It contemplates life and death on a cosmic scale, opens with an inexorable funeral march, and culminates in an ecstatic hymn of resurrection—one of the greatest of all music climaxes.

No less remarkable is what follows: a showcase of Mahler’s technicolor orchestration and dramatic flair. Following the harrowing opening movement, Mahler brings the listener to a calmer place with a ländler, a gentle Austrian folk dance. He then shuffles the psychological deck in the next movement with some of his trademark musical grotesquerie: an orchestral version of his song depicting St. Anthony of Padua’s sermon to the fishes from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth’s Magic Horn), a collection of German folk poems that was a frequent source of inspiration for Mahler. Sardonic and driven by off-kilter dance rhythms, there’s a klezmer-inspired clarinet solo and rattling col legno strings (hitting the strings with the back of the bow). After a loud climax, the music fades away as the ethereal voice of the solo contralto sings the “Urlicht” (“Primal Light”), a meditation on simple faith also based on a Wunderhorn text, to begin the fourth movement.

The final movement is an apocalyptic tableau that portrays the Day of Judgment and Resurrection. There’s a crashing orchestral cry of despair, a relentless march of the dead as graves open at the Last Judgment, and the sound of the final trumpet. All is desolate but for the distant sound of bird song. In a stunning dramatic stroke, the chorus enters quietly intoning poet Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock’s “Die Auferstehung” (“The Resurrection”), singing, “Rise again, yes, you will rise again.” The orchestra swells, bells grandly chime, and all the voices sing joyously in the climax, “I shall die, that I may live!”

Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony meditates on big metaphysical matters, but ultimately touches our hearts—not our heads—with its emotional power, drama, and beauty. In a letter to a friend, he wrote, “The whole thing sounds as though it came to us from some other world. I think there is no one who can resist it. One is battered to the ground and then raised on angel’s wings to the highest heights.”

Experience the 1908 Concert and More Mahler on Recordings

Our Carnegie Hall Premieres: Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 playlist features the complete “Resurrection” Symphony, with recordings of several notable Carnegie Hall artists featured in each movement.

Fast Facts About Mahler and His “Resurrection” Symphony

  • The “Resurrection” is not the first Mahler symphony to be performed at Carnegie Hall. His Symphony No. 4 had its US premiere when Walter Damrosch conducted the New York Symphony on November 6, 1904.
  • Mahler did not give his symphony the “Resurrection” subtitle, but alluded to its subject matter in correspondence with friends.
  • Mahler’s first Carnegie Hall appearance was with the New York Symphony Orchestra on November 29, 1908. He conducted music by Schumann, Beethoven, Smetana, and Wagner.
  • In the score of the “Resurrection” Symphony, there is a directive to observe a five-minute pause between the end of the first movement and the start of the second. In performance, however, most conductors abbreviate this break in the music.
  • Mahler became the New York Philharmonic’s principal conductor and returned to Carnegie Hall each year until his death in 1911.

Assets: Mahler by Moritz Nähr, Mahler caricature by Hans Schliessmann, Klopstock by Jens Juel, 1904 program page and 1909 flyer courtesy of the Carnegie Hall Rose Archives.

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