Mahler: Songs and Symphonies

Symphony No. 2, “Resurrection”

Program from 1908 Carnegie Hall premiere of Mahler's Symphony No. 2

The Carnegie Hall and US premiere of Mahler’s Second Symphony took place on December 8, 1908, with Laura Combs, soprano; Gertrude Stein-Bailey, contralto; the New York Symphony Orchestra; and the Oratorio Society of New York conducted by the composer.

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Fri, Mar 26, 2010 at 8 PM
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Michael Tilson Thomas, Music Director and Conductor
MAHLER Symphony No. 2, “Resurrection”

The Symphony at a Glance

Its powerful opening movement, a funeral march, gives way to a gentle andante moderato that recalls the graceful 18th-century minuets of Haydn’s Austria. Bringing us forward in time with a thump, however, is a phantasmagorical scherzo—an expansion of Mahler’s satirical song on St. Anthony’s ineffective sermon to the fish with moments of almost grotesque humor. A single voice enters in the fourth movement, “Urlicht,” one of Mahler’s most sublime and serene songs. At the climax of the finale, vocal soloists, the entire orchestra, and a full chorus bring the work to its ecstatic conclusion.

The Symphony In Depth

I shall die in order to live!
Arise, yes arise,
You shall, my heart, in just a moment.
What you have borne
Will bear you to God!

Ecstatically intoned by the chorus, these optimistic lines of Mahler’s own poetry conclude his “Resurrection” Symphony, the second of his symphonic works. Its prolonged six-year genesis was perhaps the most crucial episode in his career: this would be the work that put Mahler, the composer, on the musical map of Europe.

Mahler was already establishing himself as a notable operatic conductor in Leipzig when he finished his First Symphony, which he began in 1884, during the early months of 1888. In January of that year he premiered his own completion of Carl Maria von Weber’s unfinished opera Die drei Pintos, which drew widespread acclaim. Weber’s sketches for Pintos had been entrusted to him by the composer’s grandson, whose wife, Marion, Mahler was having an affair with. The First Symphony’s “Blumine” Andante (later suppressed by the composer) was Mahler’s birthday gift to Marion, and two other movements of it quote extensively from his Songs of a Wayfarer, a cycle of four lieder on his own texts about unrequited love and suicide. Not surprisingly, the conductor Bruno Walter, Mahler’s friend and disciple of many years, would later dub the First Symphony “Mahler’s Werther,” alluding to Goethe’s epistolary novel of a tragic love triangle.

Audio Audio Excerpt 1

Excerpt from Mahler Symphony No. 2, "Resurrection" (I. Allegro maestoso)

But even before he penned the triumphant conclusion of that work, Mahler had launched its dark counterpart in the grim C-minor funeral march that would at long last become the cornerstone of his Second Symphony. (Audio 1) While working on it amid the floral trophies he had received at the Pintos premiere, he was suddenly seized by a vision of himself dead on a bier, bedecked with flowers and wreaths (which Marion von Weber had to remove for him). Mahler completed a draft of this movement and made a few sketches for the second; then he was stumped. A position in Prague took him away from Marion and Leipzig, and by September 1888 he was soliciting performances of the funeral march, now (or soon to be) entitled Todtenfeier (Celebration of the Dead), before he had any notion of how to finish the Second Symphony.

Mahler probably borrowed the Todtenfeier title from a fragmentary dramatic epic by the 19th-century Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz, which appeared in 1887 in a German translation by Mahler’s longtime friend and mentor, the poet-philosopher Siegfried Lipiner (who also provided a lengthy critical essay). One portion of Mickiewicz’s “Todtenfeier” seems suspiciously close to Mahler’s own circumstances in 1888: it is the tale of a love triangle, based on Werther, whose principal characters are named Gustav and Marie; the tragic denouement is Gustav’s suicide, followed by the realization that he has been transformed into a wandering spirit condemned to hover in the vicinity of his beloved. As in the First Symphony, Mahler incorporates notable allusions to his Songs of a Wayfarer into Todtenfeier: Both its main theme and the gnashingly dissonant fortissimo climax just before the recapitulation are derived from the explicitly suicidal third song of the Wayfarer cycle, “Ich hab’ ein glühend Messer” (“I Have a Burning Knife”). And he cites as well the Dies Irae chant from the Requiem Mass.

To be sure, no explicit documentation confirms that Mahler based his Todtenfeier movement upon the poem. However, since their student days both Mahler and Lipiner had embraced a view of tragic art and its redemptive power, which they derived from the philosophical writings of Schopenhauer, Wagner, and Nietzsche according to which Promethean defiance leads toward self-transcendence and redemption. That is the overriding issue of the “Resurrection” Symphony as a whole, triumphantly celebrated in its conclusion. The musical rhetoric of Todtenfeier, which inaugerates this vast musical epic, conveys far greater anguish than do Mahler’s veiled comments about it, such as his oft-cited program note of 1901: “We are standing at the coffin of a beloved person. His life, struggles, sorrows, and will pass once again, for the last time, before the eye of our soul ... What now? … Is all this only a desolate dream, or do this life and this death have some sense?—And we must answer this question if we are to go on living.”

By 1901, determined not to become mired in the polemical debates between Brahmsians and Wagnerians, Mahler had largely forsworn programmatic commentary on his music. He believed it would succeed without such verbal appendages, and history has certainly proven him right. Nevertheless, a full century later, scholars and critics have come to realize that if not taken too literally, Mahler’s metaphorical remarks about his early symphonies can enhance our access to their contexts and musical imagery.

Audio Audio Excerpt 2

Excerpt from Mahler Symphony No. 2, "Resurrection" (II. Andante moderato)

Audio Audio Excerpt 3

Excerpt from Mahler Symphony No. 2, "Resurrection" (III. In ruhig flie├čender Bewegung)

The deaths of his parents and a sister, new conducting posts in Budapest and Hamburg, the failure of the First Symphony, and a lack of inspiration brought Mahler’s creative work to a halt for four years following Todtenfeier. Then in January 1892 he turned again to Des Knaben Wunderhorn (Youth’s Magic Horn), the collection of folk poetry he first encountered at Marion von Weber’s. The extraordinary result was “Das himmlische Leben” (“Heavenly Life”), ultimately the finale of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, and the earliest of the childlike yet sophisticated orchestral songs that would find their way into his next three symphonies. He finally resumed work on the Second in summer 1893, completing the Andante moderato (Audio 2) and Scherzo. Mahler subsequently told his confidante Natalie Bauer Lechner that both movements were “episodes from the life of the departed hero,” and that “the Andante concerns love.” The Scherzo (Audio 3), however, is based largely on another Wunderhorn song, which was composed almost simultaneously, “Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt” (“Saint Anthony of Padua’s Fish Sermon”). Mahler characterized the “Fish Sermon” as “my satire on mankind”: the swirling piscine congregation listens and swims away “not an iota wiser, even though the holy one has performed for them!” In transforming a lied into Scherzo, Mahler opens with a solo for timpani, intensifies the song’s contrasts and orchestration, adds a rather idyllic trio section dominated by a solo trumpet, and near the end (a late modification in the compositional process), interpolates a “fearful scream” foreshadowing the onset of the finale. He summed up the results with a visual comparison: “when you look at a dance from afar through a window, but are unable to hear the music, the turning and commotion of the couple seem absurd and pointless ... Likewise, to someone who has lost himself and his happiness, the world seems crazy and confused.” (It is noteworthy that precisely such a scene occurs just prior to Gustav’s suicide in Mickiewicz’s “Todtenfeier.”)

Audio Audio Excerpt 4

Excerpt from Mahler Symphony No. 2, "Resurrection" (IV. "Urlicht")

Audio Audio Excerpt 5

Excerpt from Mahler Symphony No. 2, "Resurrection" (V. Più mosso, "Sterben")

Audio excerpted from Carnegie Hall presents Leonard Bernstein: The Mahler Symphonies / Sony Classical

Yet the problem of the finale remained. Mahler was struck by the now-famous “lightning bolt” of inspiration for it at the funeral—Todten-Feier, the bulletin reads—of the renowned conductor Hans von Bülow on March 29, 1894. Not coincidentally, according to the psychoanalyst Theodor Reik: in 1891, Mahler hoping for a performance, had played his Todtenfeier movement for Bülow, who had harshly rejected it; Mahler’s creative logjam may have been broken by his emotional triumph over the authoritarian master. In any case the sound of the boys choir singing Klopstock’s hymn “Auferstehen” (“Resurrection”) in Hamburg’s St. Michael’s Church ignited Mahler’s creativity, and he moved quickly. Adopting two stanzas of the Klopstock text, he wrote six more of his own, and determined that his earlier Wunderhorn song “Urlicht” (“Primal Light”) (Audio 4) would serve marvelously as a miniature prelude to his emerging vision of Doomsday. By June 29, 1894, three weeks into his summer holiday, he had finished the draft of his extraordinary choral finale. (Audio 5)

The events that Mahler described in his commentaries or marked in the autograph score can be readily heard during the finale’s long instrumental exposition: the initial “scream of death,” the quaking of the earth on the day of the Last Judgment, the marching forth of peasants and kings, the Great Roll Call, and the bird of death, signaling the end of earthly existence. At the entrance of the chorus, Mahler explained, “now comes nothing of what all expected; no divine judgment, no blessed and no damned; no good, no evil ones, no judge! … softly and simply swells forth: ‘Arise, yes, arise …,’ to which the words themselves are sufficient commentary.” Or almost: this is no traditional Christian vision of resurrection, but one based on Faustian striving, self-transcendence, and belief in universal salvation—all of which had been tenets of Mahler’s and Lipiner’s worldview for nearly 20 years.

Suffering from a severe migraine, on December 13, 1895, the composer himself stoically conducted the premiere of the work, having hired the Berliner Philharmoniker at his own expense. The critics would prove almost unanimous in their scorn, but the audience’s enthusiasm grew steadily throughout the performance; there were tears and gasps at the hushed choral entrance, and heartfelt ovations following the jubilant conclusion. As Bruno Walter aptly observes, Mahler’s ascendancy as a composer can justly be dated from that evening; henceforth he and Richard Strauss would be regarded by connoisseurs as the leading modern Germanic composers.

—Stephen E. Hefling
© 2005 by The Carnegie Hall Corporation