Next month I will be attending one of the subscription concerts performed by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. My free time is frankly, very limited, but I still find it so very important to attend live music whenever possible. There are so many different ways to listen to music in this modern world, but some music was written and intended to be consumed with one’s full attention. The best way for me to accomplish that is to be in the concert hall, inaccessible to the rest of my life’s obligations for a couple of hours. My focus is entirely on the performance, without any distractions.
The Detroit Symphony Orchestra usually programs at least one weekend when they perform a big bloated late romantic symphony, often by Gustav Mahler or Anton Bruckner. It is a highlight of the subscription series for me, and I try to make myself available to hear the performance. This year features Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, his “Resurrection Symphony”. It was first performed in 1895. The Second is one of my favorite Mahler symphonies, and was one of the most popular during his own lifetime. Our buddy Gustav often composed his symphonies over a two year process. He did the bulk of his work over the summers, while he was off from his conducting duties. He composed usually in a little private hut, with piano and desk, away from his main house. The first summer he would write the music and generate a “short” score, and the next summer he would put the finishing touches on the work and create the full orchestral score. His Second symphony did NOT follow this pattern, and actually took him much longer to complete the work as we know it.
The first movement of the symphony was completed in 1888. On the title page of the manuscript, this movement has the heading “Todtenfeier”, which is german for “Funeral Rites”. Underneath that, Gustav wrote “Symphony in C minor” and “Movement I”, both of which he crossed out. For a few years, he seemed to have decided against adding more movements to the “Todtenfeier” and treated it as a self-contained symphonic poem. Mahler was consumed with his thoughts on death and the afterlife. Constantin Floros writes in his book on Mahler’s symphonies:
“Mahler’s thinking often centered around metaphysical and eschatological questions. All aspects of metaphysics – ontology, cosmology, religious problems and existentialism – fascinated him. The meaning of existence and the paradox of death and dying preoccupied him to such an extent that one might speak of a metaphysical agony. In order to find solutions to metaphysical and eschatological problems, he engrossed himself in philosophy and the natural sciences.”
Mahler’s thoughts on eschatology (of death, judgement, heaven and hell) are what are on display in the 85 minute long Second Symphony. Lighthearted little romp in the concert hall, I know, but really pretty concise given the scope of what Gustav was trying to convey. Mahler vacillated over time on whether he wanted to provide programs for his symphonies. Originally, he provided some form of a story to go with each of his first four symphonies but then, withdrew them. He came around to the idea that his music should portray such programs so effectively that the listener did not need to be provided with a written cheat sheet spelling it out. When he did provide some written words for Symphony No. 2, they generally focused on the questions “Why have you lived? Why have you suffered? Is this all just a terrible joke?”.
The first movement “Totenfeier” therefore is a Mahlerized vision of death, the inevitable gateway to any form of the afterlife. It is a sprawling, dramatic, fist shaking death, not going gently into the good night, and laid out in a long sonata form. There is exposition, development, more development, recapitulation and coda all over 20-22 minutes in performance. Since Mahler wrote almost exclusively orchestral songs and symphonies, I always looked at how he drew from the past symphonic repertoire. There is a clear comparison of Mahler’s second and Beethoven’s ninth, for example, as both end with a choral finale in the last movement. What I have recently thought about is how much Mahler was aware of Beethoven’s late music, particularly his last string quartets. The expanded number of movements, and the apotheosis of sonata form seem to be things that Gustav found in Ludwig’s late quartets. The intensity found in those chamber works are now used by Mahler with a full orchestral palette, constantly developing the musical material. Even the recapitulatory material is not an exact repeat of the exposition, and dramatic expression becomes much more important than clarity of form.
All of the stormy portrayal of death in the first movement is very strongly contrasted with a very pleasant second movement, an Andante moderato in a five part song form with coda. It is typical of Mahler to include music of huge contrast in the same symphony. The great aesthetic challenge for Gustav is to create at the same time some sense of unity, and the feeling that all of this extraordinary contrasting movements belong together in some way. Through the second movement and raucous third movement scherzo, I think Mahler is still relying on some of the conventions of a standardized symphony cycle (with Sonata form, slow movement, minuet or scherzo, and finale). These are the elements that were still part of his conception of what made a symphony a symphony, and not something else.
It is the fourth movement where Gustav takes a left turn away from conventional expectations. Here Mahler gives us an orchestral song, “Urlicht” (Primal light), with a text taken from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, a collection of anonymous German folk poems. Mahler set ten or twelve of these poems to music at one time or another, and included material either from Wunderhorn or based on Wunderhorn in each of his first four symphonies. The German text reads:
O Röschen rot!
Der Mensch liegt in größter Not!
Der Mensch liegt in größter Pein!
Je lieber möcht’ ich im Himmel sein.
Da kam ich auf einen breiten Weg:
Da kam ein Engelein und wollt’ mich abweisen.
Ach nein! Ich ließ mich nicht abweisen!
Ich bin von Gott und will wieder zu Gott!
Der liebe Gott wird mir ein Lichtchen geben,
Wird leuchten mir bis in das ewig selig Leben!
and in English Translation is:
O little red rose!
Man lies in greatest need!
Man lies in greatest pain!
How I would rather be in heaven.
There came I upon a broad path
when came a little angel and wanted to turn me away.
Ah no! I would not let myself be turned away!
I am from God and shall return to God!
The loving God will grant me a little light,
Which will light me into that eternal blissful life!
The song is a brief five minute movement that almost seems out of proportion to the other long-winded movements. By including it in that very place in the symphony , Mahler introduces the voice to his orchestral toolbox for this work, and the song functions as a sort of prelude to the big box finale movement. The five minutes of the song are worth the price of admission all by themselves.
Gustav Mahler, Symphony No. 2, fourth movement “Urlicht”
The massive finale is itself in two large chunks, the first dealing with judgement day, and the second containing Mahler’s choral vision of resurrection. Mahler spent a good deal of time contemplating the finale, and was concerned with creating a movement of equal weight to the opening movement to balance the symphony properly. It was in March of 1894 that Gustav made the final decision to include a chorus in the last movement. Mahler had attended the memorial service of his friend and fellow conductor, Hans von Bülow. During the memorial, a choir sang a setting of a German poem Die Auferstehung (The Resurrection), by Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock. In Mahler’s words, “This hit me like lightning, and everything appeared clearly and distinctly before me!”. The inspiration for the finale was crystallized in his mind, and Gustav went directly to work. He used the first two strophes of the poem by Klopstock, and added six more of his own. The text became the basis of a cantata that is the second half of the finale. Two vocal soloists and a full chorus are featured along with the full force of a large orchestra. The words are critical to understanding the true message of Mahler’s composition.
In Original German:
Aufersteh’n, ja aufersteh’n
Wirst du, Mein Staub,
Nach kurzer Ruh’!
Unsterblich Leben! Unsterblich Leben
wird der dich rief dir geben!
Wieder aufzublüh’n wirst du gesät!
Der Herr der Ernte geht
und sammelt Garben
uns ein, die starben!
O glaube, mein Herz, o glaube:
Es geht dir nichts verloren!
Dein ist, ja dein, was du gesehnt!
Dein, was du geliebt,
Was du gestritten!
Du wardst nicht umsonst geboren!
Hast nicht umsonst gelebt, gelitten!
Was entstanden ist
Das muß vergehen!
Was vergangen, auferstehen!
Hör’ auf zu beben!
Bereite dich zu leben!
O Schmerz! Du Alldurchdringer!
Dir bin ich entrungen!
O Tod! Du Allbezwinger!
Nun bist du bezwungen!
Mit Flügeln, die ich mir errungen,
In heißem Liebesstreben,
Zum Licht, zu dem kein Aug’ gedrungen!
Sterben werd’ ich, um zu leben!
Aufersteh’n, ja aufersteh’n
wirst du, mein Herz, in einem Nu!
Was du geschlagen
zu Gott wird es dich tragen!
In English Translation:
Rise again, yes, rise again,
Will you My dust,
After a brief rest!
Immortal life! Immortal life
Will He who called you, give you.
To bloom again were you sown!
The Lord of the harvest goes
And gathers in, like sheaves,
Us together, who died.
O believe, my heart, O believe:
Nothing to you is lost!
Yours is, yes yours, is what you desired
Yours, what you have loved
What you have fought for!
You were not born for nothing!
Have not for nothing, lived, suffered!
What was created
What perished, rise again!
Cease from trembling!
Prepare yourself to live!
O Pain, You piercer of all things,
From you, I have been wrested!
O Death, You masterer of all things,
Now, are you conquered!
With wings which I have won for myself,
In love’s fierce striving,
I shall soar upwards
To the light which no eye has penetrated!
Die shall I in order to live.
Rise again, yes, rise again,
Will you, my heart, in an instant!
That for which you suffered,
To God will it lead you!
The large scale musical voyage from darkness into light is something that you can find in more than one symphonic work. Beethoven did it in his Fifth and Ninth symphonies, and Mahler takes us on this trip again in his own Fifth and Eighth symphonies. I look forward to visiting Orchestra Hall and hearing the cathartic live performance of Mahler’s Second Symphony. It is definitely one of those things everyone should have the chance to do at least once.
Gustav Mahler, Symphony No. 2 “The Resurrection”, Leonard Bernstein conducting London Symphony Orchestra
I just want to thank you for this blog, and let you know how much I appreciate it.
Thank you so much for sharing all this information! I have only recently (within the past few years) been introduced to classical music and opera, and it is wonderful to gain insight from a more experienced and knowledgable listener!
I love this music, and it’s been quite some time since I’ve listened to his 2nd, though I was playing Das Lied von der Erde with the great Maureen Forrester over and over again all day long the other day, flipping the record again and again, if you can believe that. While you say your “free time” is “limited,” well, that is the way it is, in fact. By hearing music like this, which I’m grateful you’ve posted, we all get to peer deeply into his sonic crevices where everything lies in wait for us. We do not, I feel, “consume” it; rather, it engulfs us, surrounds us, fills us. Thank you.
I only hope that Gustav’s spirit is not offended that I dedicated my appreciation of “Urlicht” to my cat, who died blind and farblonjet at the age of about eighteen; I’ve read that Herr Mahler enjoyed putting kittens in his capacious jacket pockets and taking them with him on walks in the woods.
I come back to Mahler over and over because he created a scaffolding that the heartbroken soul can climb out of despair.