Revisit: Mahler Symphony no. 2, ‘Resurrection’

performed by the Saito Kinen Orchestra and the Shinyukai choir under Seiji Ozawa, Emiko Suga, soprano; Nathalie Stutzmann, contralto; or below, with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra under Claudio Abbado, Eteri Gvazava, soprano; Anna Larsson, mezzo-soprano

The music that can change your life…

Yesterday’s revisit was a breeze. Today’s revisit is intimidating. I am unhappy with my original article for Mahler’s second symphony, but I’m in kind of the opposite position now as I was in when I wrote it. Back then, I used lots of words to describe something I didn’t really fully appreciate or understand, but now I’m rather at a loss for words to describe something that I’ve been so overwhelmed by, so moved to tears by in the past few years since my first go at this work.

Again, if you don’t have any background or context for what The Young(ish) Mahler was doing at this point in his life, or at least what tragedies and struggles his life was marked by, you should go do some reading. His life, no matter how straightforwardly told, is one full of emotion and tragedy, success and failure, struggle, heartbreak, loss, but also the pursuit of perfection, artistic merit, stunning beauty, an exacting leader and uncompromising ideals… larger than life, in some ways. I’ll admit that when I was finishing Lebrecht’s Why Mahler?, reading the author’s description of Mahler’s grave site, I got a little emotional and teared up a bit… music aside, it’s a fascinating story.

And it’s one we can still hear today, but it wasn’t always that way. There were the trailblazing leaders of Mahler’s music in the middle of the 20th century, who recorded the music, presented it in the concert hall, and now more than ever people are coming to realize the man’s genius. The name ‘Mahler’ fills a concert hall like it never has before, I’d say, at least on an international scale. But what about the initial success of one of his now most famous symphonies, and one of the biggest in the concert repertoire?

The work began as a single-movement sketch of a symphonic poem, dating from 1888, which some conductors have recorded, called Totenfeier, or funeral rites. It’s a work the composer struggled with, and even though sketches of the second movement exist from the time, Mahler struggled for something like five years over what exactly to do with this thing, even though he’d labeled it a symphony. He managed to compose the second and third movements by 1893, and showed them to Hans von Bülow, playing them at the piano. Bülow was impressed, and served to encourage the still-young composer at his new post in Hamburg. It was the finale where Mahler got stuck, and perhaps understandably so. After having written what amounts to the length of most symphonies anyway (the first three movements come to around 40 minutes, give or take), it’s quite a task to wrap all this up and top it off in a convincing way. He’d apparently already decided he wanted to do a choral finale, even though he would be risking (likely biased) comparison’s to Beethoven’s still monumental ninth, but the choice of text and all the rest proved to be yet another hurdle, so it came to a standstill.

It was only after attending Bülow’s funeral that the pieces fell into place. Losing a friend and mentor was obviously yet another tragedy in the composer’s life, but the effect was more than just an emotional one. At the funeral, as Wikipedia says, Mahler “heard a setting of Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock‘s Die Auferstehung (The Resurrection), where the dictum calls out “Rise again, yes, you shall rise again / My dust”. And there we have it. What more perfect capstone could you want on this symphony, what more meaningful message? It might seem odd that Mahler didn’t have the entire vision in mind in one go, because the finale seems like such an inevitability, but to be sure, he knew when he’d found the perfect finale.

Odds were stacked against Mahler in more than a few ways. There’s his ‘thrice homeless’ quote (in yesterday’s article) about being a Bohemian and a Jew, but there’s also that daring comparison that Mahler would be drawing to Beethoven. Needless to say, Gustav Mahler wasn’t the revered composer he is today, much less anything approaching Beethoven’s equal at the time, so casting the same kind of choral finale that dwarfs the other movements of the symphony was a bold move.

There’s an overwhelming sense of amazement in this work, in a number of areas. For one, Mahler quickly reached a scope and breadth only hinted at in his (already large) first symphony. If you’ve never sat through a symphony like Beethoven’s ninth, or a requiem or choral work with orchestra, the sheer power of it is almost overwhelming, but even in the hour leading up to Mahler’s finale, the first movement reaches awesome power.

We’ll take this movement by movement, as usual, but more broadly. There is no way humanly possible to convey the heart-crushing, suffocating, awe-inspiring power of this work than to learn a little bit about it and its composer’s background, and then just experience it live (or in a video on YouTube).

The first movement is a funeral march of sorts, but with more fury and fist-shaking than the solemn procession of the first movement. There are elements here that we’ll see splendidly, gloriously, in the finale, so be aware of them if you want, because they give us more than just the awesomeness of the first movement: they tie this entire monstrosity of a journey together, from death to rebirth. After the first fiery gestures of the opening, the funeral march is presented, and it’s obviously in a minor key, this time C minor (eat your heart out, Beethoven).

Another area in which this symphony is (and all symphonies of Mahler, really are) truly epic is in the scope of its contrasts, be it dynamic, emotional, texture… we will hear the fury and roar and despair of the funeral march, but the second theme of the first movement is a heavenly, hopeful bright E major theme, melodious and tender, a sonorous beauty that matches for intensity the fire of the opening. Those are our two ideas for the modified sonata form. It’s not an exact repeat, especially because in this slightly altered second statement, we hear C major, which shouldn’t come until the recapitulation at the end of the movement. Is this a ray of sunshine? A glimpse of hope? It seems not, because when the recapitulation does come, it is backwardly in E major. None of these, though are the relative major of C minor, which should be E flat major, the “eventual goal” of the work, and even it is hinted at. But we have a long way to go before we get there. It’s going to be a long journey, and this first movement gives us lots to enjoy and ponder. Did you hear Mahler’s presentation of a theme that suggests the Dies Irae chant? It’s got kind of a rousing, triumphant spirit to it, despite tragedy and all the rest.

The second movement, in contrast with a modified sonata form, first and second subjects, funeral themes and all the tragedy and fire, is a nostalgic, blissfully simple movement with two delicate themes. Remember the Ländler from the first symphony? It served as the scherzo, but was more scherzo-like in its spiritedness. Here, we have a sort of slow movement with only two basic ideas, a clean, even pastoral, simplicity, serving as a bit of sweet respite from what comes before and after it, a great instance of enormous but effective contrast. Even within the movement, though, there is some internal conflict, with a theme based on triplet rhythm that’s darker than the opening subject. While it’s a milder, softer movement, the narrative line, the overall vision and tension of the enormous structure being built isn’t lost for a second. Actually, speaking of rest, Mahler indicates in the score for a five-minute rest to be given after the first movement. This isn’t really observed by most conductors today, and if it is, it’s a brief coughing session and a chance to retune, or more practically a chance to bring out the chorus and soloists while observing the long pause Mahler wanted.

So we’re finished with the first and second movements, and depending on your recording, we’re already past a half hour, and there’s lots more to come. The third movement, numerically the center of the work, is the actual scherzo. It puts us back in C minor and brings an ominous, eerie atmosphere back to the work. Two timpani strokes cast a spell over the listener, bringing on what develops into a maniacal, crazy-eyed, and intoxicating triple meter movement. There’s an interesting conflict of Catholic and Jewish music here, the latter appearing in the more folksy moments. And Catholic?

Well, we had this similar idea in the third movement of the first symphony, but it’s back. The third movement bears a striking, and undeniably intentional, resemblance to a song from Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn, which is a setting of “Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt.” As Roger Vignoles at Hyperion says, it is:

the musical equivalent of a scene from some medieval German altarpiece. In this tale St Anthony, fed up at the indifference of his congregation, goes down to the river to preach to the fishes, the joke (and the moral) being that however much they all enjoy the sermon they are no more reformed by it than their human equivalents.

This is yet another reference to Mahler’s dependence on or love for vocal music, which we shall see more of later. Also, Hans Rott should get a mention here.

So the second movement is kind of comical, but also quite dark in practice. There’s a spinning, whirring rhythm in the 3/8 meter, but it’s not all bouncy and playful. Toward the end of the movement, there is the ‘cry of despair’ or ‘death shriek’, a truly terrifying crash of tragedy, like the hammer of fate crushing down upon the work, and from here nothing else is the same.

The fourth movement, which I seem to recall was added later, is a turning point in the work, a response to the ‘death shriek’ of the scherzo and/or an introduction to the finale. Titled Urlicht, also a Wunderhorn song, it’s in D flat major, a distant, unrelated key, a good example of how tonality can effectively imply things like “the longing for relief from worldly woes,” not just a cerebral choice. This is quiet, solemn movement, with the first appearance of a vocal part, from an alto. It’s one of the most beautiful moments in music, but is soon to be eclipsed by the finale, to which it leads without break.

The finale, itself over half an hour long in most cases, begins again with the (or rather another) death shriek. It’s in two parts, the first part purely instrumental, the second part marked by the introduction of the chorus, thus beginning the glorious climb to the conclusion.

As we mentioned earlier, there’s use in this movement of some content that’s been presented already, but also quite a bit of new content, and Wikipedia describes it as “very episodic, containing a wide variety of moods, tempi and keys,” but the overall thing, I think, is to keep in mind where we are in the journey. Everything that’s introduced here as new material, or at least most of it, is a setup for the chorus, so that when they enter, we’re rehearing familiar material in a new, awesome glory.

The discussion of this movement on Wikipedia mentions Mahler’s “march of the dead” in the development section, when the recapitulation begins, Mahler’s “Great Summons,” the key areas, like F minor and B-flat minor, but just listen… it’s incredible music. The only two things I would say to pay attention to before the chorus enters are the Dies Irae chant and then right before the chorus, the far-off(stage) brass, horn calls, likened by some to the biblical seven trumpets. This is a long, solemn, transparent passage, and after all the death, destruction and turmoil, listen for a piccolo and flute to present a fluttering, hopeful melody, like a dove that spreads its wings to fly skyward, bringing the slightest glimmer of hope to a barren landscape.

It’s here that our chorus begins to appear, with the first utterance of Aufersteh’n, ja Aufersteh’n. They appear and recede a few times, and the first vocalist to appear emerges from among them to sing her heavenly lines. By this time, we’re already on a soaring, glorious, heartrending journey upward, looking at the heartache and turmoil as if from a distance, to the stars through difficulty. You must read the text, to feel it as its being sung to appreciate the deeply moving message that’s being presented here. As music, it is undeniably gorgeous, but to know what’s being conveyed is almost unbearably hopeful and beautiful. It is this reaching home, the appreciation of the struggle, or what we learned from it, and having prevailed, that makes this work one of the most powerful, awe-inspiring things ever penned, so much so that it’s a work I now listen to with at best irregularity. It’s like the fancy bottle of scotch that you only enjoy on special occasions. There’s nothing common about this work; it is to be respected, revered, although I think no amount of listening to it could rob it of the power that it holds over the listener.

For as monstrous and complex and ambitious a work as this was at its premiere and still is, I think there might possibly be no other work anywhere that could captivate an audience, even a first time audience, who’s willing to be emotionally vulnerable, to know what this music is saying and be moved by it. It’s irresistibly moving and epic, and I hate to use the word ‘favorite,’ to describe just about anything, but I’m hard pressed to think of another piece that means more to me or is closer to my heart, so I feel a bit silly saying that while writing about it from an amateur listener’s perspective.

I don’t have rehearsal marks or dynamics or interpretive notes memorized, I couldn’t perform or conduct or do much of anything with this music except enjoy it, but again, Mahler’s music, and especially this work, is not a piece you listen to, it’s a piece you experience.

That being said, there are a few recordings I enjoy. Tennstedt’s Mahler cycle with the London Philharmonic is a wonderful one, but my go-to for this work for some time was Boulez’s reading with the Vienna Philharmonic. Some may find him cold or unfeeling, but I prefer accuracy and maybe even a bit of restraint compared to Bernstein’s drippy, overcooked eyebrow-searing interpretations of these works. Even a slightly reserved interpretation of Mahler is still a very emotional one, but the advantage is that Mahler’s structure, his orchestration, the bigs and smalls of orchestral color and texture, are all pristinely clear. I find his reading very enjoyable.

Another, perhaps more favorite recording is the Lucerne recording included above. Abbado’s Mahler is spectacular, potentially my very favorite of all conductors of Mahler’s works, and the Lucerne reading is a spectacular one. Mehta’s reading with Vienna is also a very good one, and I should mention the recording from which I came to love this piece, the Atlanta Symphony under Yoel Levi on TELARC… it’s perhaps not a common choice, but they’re my hometown band and give it a compelling reading.

The reason I chose Ozawa is because… I haven’t really been very impressed by Ozawa, at least in works I have other conductors’ recordings of… but this one was strongly recommended to me and I gave it a shot, and I think it is absolutely marvelous, truly a powerful, captivating reading. So I’m acknowledging my error or whatever, because Ozawa’s performance of this work with is Saito Kinen orchestra (like his answer to Abbado’s Lucerne group) is really stunning, and if you don’t hear a cough or two, the roaring applause at the end gives the additional shock that this was performed and recorded live…. spectacular.

In any case, my fingers are tired, and I’m all excited to go give this work (Ozawa’s recording) another listen. It’s been a while. Thank you for sticking around to read this for any of you who made it this far, and please, if you haven’t yet (or in a while), give yourself a chance to enjoy this work. 90 minutes is long for a piece of music, but not too terribly long for, say, a movie. Turn on the Abbado/Lucerne video above and just watch it. Get lost in the music and see if it doesn’t change your life, even a little bit. I’m not kidding.

Phew. Well, we have more Mahler to come this week, another revisit and something new so do stay tuned.


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