It was quite an honor for a young composer – a chance to play his latest work for a master conductor – and Gustav Mahler accepted it gratefully.
At the keyboard, Mahler glanced up from his score. Conductor Hans Guido Freiherr von BĂĽlow’s hands were covering his ears! Mahler’s Totenfeier trailed off. "No, no," BĂĽlow murmured. "Please, carry on."
Mahler’s first symphony, the "Titan," had premiered in 1889. He’d tried to deny that it had a program, but eventually admitted that what he had in mind was "a strong, heroic man, his life and sufferings, his battles and defeat at the hands of Fate."
With this new work, Totenfeier – Funeral Rite – Mahler was burying his first symphony’s hero.
Mahler arrived at the final notes of the Totenfeier. The room fell silent. Long seconds ticked away. BĂĽlow sat, silent, staring. Then the words poured out: "If what I’ve just heard is still music, then I no longer understand anything about music."
Mahler was crushed. The critics had written after his first symphony that Mahler was a fine conductor – but, like most fine conductors, he had no future as a composer. Now this. "I’m thinking of giving it up," he wrote to his friend Richard Strauss.
He didn’t. Nor did he allow BĂĽlow’s judgement to turn him away from his work. And, as it turned out, BĂĽlow would have yet another role to play in the composition of what would eventually become Mahler’s second symphony.
It took Mahler another 2 years to make further progress on the symphony. By that time a mildly revised Totenfeier had become the symphony’s first movement. Once he’d finished the symphony’s andante second movement in July of 1893, Mahler almost immediately composed the third, a scherzo.
As a study for that scherzo, Mahler had written a song, a setting of a text from the German folk poetry collection Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth’s Magic Horn). The verse he chose was "Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt" (St Anthony’s Sermon to the Fishes). This tale had significance for Mahler, as we’ll soon see. In his Hamburg study – Mahler was chief conductor of the State Theatre there – hung an artist’s image of this aquatic sermon. It was a sermon politely and attentively received by the saint’s scaly audience – and an entirely ineffectual one.
That same month, Mahler briefly set aside the symphony to compose music for yet another Wunderhorn verse. "Urlicht" carried a decidedly more optimistic tone. Initially, Mahler meant it for his collection of Des Knaben Wunderhorn songs.
Now Mahler had the first three movements of his symphony. He’d already realized that the largest orchestra wouldn’t suit the statement he wanted to make with its finale, that he’d need a chorus. But what words would they sing? Nothing seemed quite right. Not even his beloved Wunderhorn collection yielded his text.
So things remained through the rest of the summer and the winter of 1893.
It was BĂĽlow who gave him the answer in the spring – though not in the way BĂĽlow might have preferred. In early February of 1894, BĂĽlow had gone to Cairo, searching for relief from his failing health. But five days on, the spark of life winked out for BĂĽlow.
BĂĽlow’s body was returned to Hamburg. On the 29th of March, Mahler attended his memorial service at St Michaels. "It hit me like a lightning bolt, and everything became plain and clear in my mind!" Mahler told a friend. The choir had sung Friedrich Klopstock’s Resurrection Ode in BĂĽlow’s service: "Aufersteh’n, ja aufersteh’n, wirst du, mein Staub, nach kurzer Ruh!" ("You will rise, my dust, yes, rise, after a brief rest.").
Mahler had the text for his choral finale. Or, rather, for some of it; in the end, he chose what suited him from Klopstock, and wrote the rest of the words himself. Three months later, the finale was finished.
But Mahler was still not satisfied with the symphony’s structure. He thought the lightness of the second movement, the andante, was too much of a contrast with the massive first movement. He didn’t like the transition between the scherzo and the finale, either.
The second problem he solved by inserting the "Urlicht" song between the 4th movement and the finale – the first time any composer had done such a thing in a symphony.
For the first problem, he experimented with placing the scherzo ahead of the andante. Ultimately, though, he decided to go with plan A – andante first – and suggest that the conductor allow an interval of "at least 5 minutes" between the first movement and the andante.* (In one performance Mahler conducted, he also inserted a pause between the 4th movement and the finale. In the end, though, he thought better of it, and said that the finale should immediately follow the "Urlicht," with no break at all.)
So exactly what was it that Mahler needed to say in his second symphony? Why did he need a massive orchestra, two soloists, and a chorus? The subtitle, "Resurrection," might lead you to think that he was expressing a religious idea.
However traditional it may be, though, that subtitle is not Mahler’s. He was not a religious man. Though he’d been born and raised in Judaism, Mahler didn’t much adhere to its precepts as an adult.
Mahler converted to Catholicism early in 1897, but that too had little spiritual significance for him. It was really just a way round Vienna’s virulent official anti-semitism, which had stood in the way of his directorship of the Vienna Court Opera. (As he left the conversion ceremony, he remarked to a friend, "I have just changed my coat.") Later, asked why he’d never composed a mass, Mahler replied that he couldn’t state the Credo and still maintain his artistic and spiritual integrity.
The real meaning of this music can be found in Mahler’s own words: "My [first] two symphonies are nothing but the full substance of my whole life."
Over a period of nearly 5 years, Mahler gave his listeners much more specific information about his second symphony, in the form of movement-by-movement programs. He wrote three in all. Even though he eventually withdrew them, I think they still provide useful context for the music.
Gilbert Kaplan, the businessman and amateur musician so taken with Mahler’s second symphony that he created the Kaplan Foundation to support study and preservation of Mahler’s music, and even studied and learned to conduct the work, has developed an analysis which draws from all three of Mahler’s programs. Here is a somewhat abridged and paraphrased version.
Movement 1: Allegro Maestoso. Mit Durchaus Ernstem Und Feierlichem Ausdruck. We stand at the coffin of a beloved person. His whole life, his struggles, his passions, his sufferings, his accomplishments, all pass before us. The distractions of everyday life are lifted like a hood from our eyes, and a solemn voice chills our hearts: "What next? What is life? What is death? Why do we live? Why do we suffer? Is it all nothing but a huge, frightful joke?" We must answer these questions if we are to go on living â€” indeed, if we are to go on dying! This answer I give in the final movement.
Movement 2: Andante Moderato. Sehr GemĂ¤chlich. You are struck by a memory, a ray of sunlight, pure and cloudless, out of the departed’s life. Surely you’ve had the experience of burying someone dear to you. Perhaps, on the way back, some long forgotten hour of shared happiness suddenly rose before your inner eye, sending a sunbeam into your soul â€” and you almost forgot what had just taken place.
Movement 3: Scherzo: In Ruhig Fliessender Bewegung. You awaken from that blissful dream. The surge of life in ceaseless motion, never comprehensible, suddenly seems eerie, like billowing dancers in a brightly lit ballroom that you gaze into from a distance so great that you cannot hear the music. The movement of the couples seems senseless. You imagine that, to one who has lost his identity and happiness, the world looks like this â€” distorted, as if reflected in a concave mirror. Life for such a person becomes meaningless. Disgust for every form of existence seizes him. He cries out in anguish.
Movement 4: Ulricht. Sehr Feierlich, Aber Schlicht. The voice of simple faith rings in our ears: "I am from God, and to God I will return! The loving God will give me a small light, will light me to blessed eternal life!"
Movement 5: Im Tempo Des Scherzos. Wild Herausfahrend. The finale starts with the same anguished scream that ended the scherzo. The Last Judgment is at hand. The earth trembles; the Last Trumpet sounds; the graves burst open; all the creatures struggle from the ground, moaning and trembling. They march in a mighty procession: rich and poor, peasants and kings, the whole church with bishops and popes. All cry and tremble alike because, in the eyes of God, there are no just men. Their fearful cries for mercy and forgiveness ring in our ears.
The wailing becomes more terrible. Our senses desert us; all consciousness dies as the Eternal Judge approaches. The trumpets of the Apocalypse ring out.
Finally, the graves are empty; the earth lies silent and deserted. Comes now the long note of the bird of death. Even it finally dies away.
What happens now is far from what we expected. All has ceased to exist. Then: the soft, gentle sound of a chorus of saints and heavenly hosts: "Rise again, yes, you shall rise again!" The glory of God comes into sight. A wondrous light strikes us to the heart. All is quiet and blissful. Behold: there is no judgment, no sinners, no just men, no great, no small. There is no punishment and no reward. A feeling of overwhelming love fills us with bliss and illuminates our existence.
"The whole symphony 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 angelsâ€™ wings to the greatest heights."
Gustav Mahler: Symphony #2 in c minor "Resurrection"
Christine Brandes, soprano; Lucille Beer, mezzo-soprano
Canton Symphony Chorus; Malone University Chorale; Walsh University Chamber Choir; University of Mount Union Concert Choir; [College of] Wooster Chorus
Canton Symphony Orchestra
Gerhardt Zimmermann, conductor
Alto (or Mezzo-Soprano)
(From the German folk poetry collection Des Knaben Wunderhorn [The Youthâ€™s Magic Horn])
|O RĂ¶schen rot!||O little red rose!|
|Der Mensch liegt in grĂ¶Ăźter Not!||Mankind lies in greatest need!|
|Der Mensch liegt in grĂ¶Ăźter Pein!||Mankind lies in greatest pain!|
|Je lieber mĂ¶chtâ€™ ich im Himmel sein!||I would much rather be in Heaven!|
|Da kam ich auf einen breiten Weg;||Then I found myself on a broad path;|
|da kam ein Engelein und wolltâ€™ mich abweisen.||Came then an angel who would divert me.|
|Ach nein! Ich lieĂź mich nicht abweisen!||No, no, I will not be diverted!|
|Ich bin von Gott und will wieder zu Gott!||Iâ€™m from God, and intend to return to God!|
|Der liebe Gott wird mir ein Lichtchen geben,||The loving God will grant me a small light,|
|wird leuchten mir bis in das ewig selig Leben!||will light me to blessed eternal life!|
|Finale: Auferstehen (Arise)|
Soprano, Alto (or Mezzo-Soprano) and Chorus
(1st 2 verses: Friedrich Klopstock; remainder: Gustav Mahler)
|Aufersteh’n, ja aufersteh’n wirst du,||You wil rise, yes, rise,|
|mein Staub, nach kurzer Ruh!||my dust, after a brief rest!|
|Unsterblich Leben! Unsterblich Leben||Immortal life, immortal life|
|wird, der dich rief, dir geben.||He who called you will give you.|
|Wieder aufzublĂĽhn, wirst du gesĂ¤’t!||You were sown to bloom again!|
|Der Herr der Ernte geht||The Lord of the Harvest|
|und sammelt Garben||goes forth and gathers us in,|
|uns ein, die starben!||the dead, like sheaves!|
|O glaube, mein Herz! O glaube:||O believe, my heart, o believe:|
|Es geht dir nichts verloren!||You have lost nothing!|
|Dein ist, ja Dein, was du gesehnt,||All you have yearned for is yours,|
|Dein, was du geliebt, was du gestritten!||Yours, for which you have loved and striven!|
|O glaube: Du warst nicht umsonst geboren!||O believe: not for nothing were you born!|
|Hast nicht umsonst gelebt, gelitten!||You haven’t lived and struggled in vain!|
|Was entstanden ist, das muss vergehen!||What has come to be must pass!|
|Was vergangen, auferstehen!||What has passed, arise!|
|HĂ¶r auf zu beben!||Cease your trembling!|
|Bereite dich zu leben!||Prepare yourself to live!|
|O Schmerz! Du Alldurchdringer!||O all-penetrating pain,|
|Dir bin ich entrungen!||I am wrested from you!|
|O Tod! Du Allbezwinger!||O death, you who vanquish all,|
|Nun bist du bezwungen!||Now you are vanquished!|
|Mit FlĂĽgeln, die ich mir errungen,||With wings that I have won for myself,|
|in heiĂźem Liebesstreben||in heated pursuit of love,|
|werd’ ich entschweben||I will soar aloft|
|zum Licht, zu dem kein Aug’ gedrungen!||to the light which no eye has reached!|
|Mit FlĂĽgeln, die ich mir errungen,||With wings that I have won for myself,|
|werde ich entschweben!||I will soar aloft!|
|Sterben werd’ ich, um zu leben!||I will die, so that I may live!|
|Aufersteh’n, ja aufersteh’n wirst du,||You will rise, yes rise,|
|mein Herz, in einem Nu!||my heart, in an instant!|
|Was du geschlagen,||What you have vanquished|
|zu Gott wird es dich tragen!||will lead you to God!|
|Translation: David Roden â€“ Creative Commons 3.0 BY/NC/SA|
*In today’s (25 November 2012) broadcast of the work, we’ll honor Mahler’s request – and simultaneously deal with our legal obligation to the FCC – by taking time out between the first and second movements for a station identification.