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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 8, No. 3

The Maestro's Choice - Mahler's 2nd Symphony (Resurrection)

by Yoav Talmi / November 2, 2002

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When asked by La Scena Musicale to share my view with readers about a work of my choice, I chose Mahler's Second Symphony almost instinctively. My forthcoming performances of this giant work in November with the Quebec Symphony Orchestra makes this choice all the more relevant. I "lived" intimately with this work for the past 25 years--but I'm still totally obsessed with the music every time I conduct it. When I conducted this symphony with the Munich Philharmonic in 1980, there were moments in the Finale where--during the softest passages--I was afraid to move a finger, for fear I might disturb the inspiration of the moment.

Mahler himself had a special love for his Second Symphony and conducted it thirteen times! He chose it for his memorable farewell concert in Vienna to mark the end of his ten-year reign as director of the Vienna Opera. This was also the first of his symphonies that he performed in America (in New York in 1908) and the first of his own works that he conducted in Paris in 1910 (saying he could never be accepted in that city until there was a performance of the Second Symphony).

Mahler – the Composer versus the Conductor

How ironic it is that Mahler, who today enjoys unprecedented popularity all over the world, found such little critical support during his lifetime. He was considered one of the greatest conductors of his time, but as a composer, however, he was regarded mostly as a pretentious failure--not only during his lifetime but also for many years after his death. Yet, like Bruckner, he remained convinced that his "time would come." For almost 50 years after his death, his music seemed to go nowhere and was seldom performed. Now, thanks to the unwavering support of such conductors as Bruno Walter, Otto Klemperer, Jascha Horenstein, John Barbirolli, and later Leonard Bernstein, Mahler's music is recognized as the height of the Austro-German symphonic tradition and the great summation of the late Romantic epoch.

At the same time, Mahler undoubtedly opened the gates for the music of the twentieth century. He had a profound influence on composers such as Schoenberg, Shostakovich and Bernstein, who found in his music powerful expression of hope and faith along with doubts, fears and anguish. There is no question, also, that many of the great film composers of the past 30 years were strongly influenced and inspired by the sounds Mahler created in the Second Symphony's Finale.

Why the early rejection?

Musicologists explained the early rejection of the Second Symphony as a result of Mahler's new harmonies. Never before had these been found in music. He overstepped the boundaries of what was considered "beautiful." Music critics and concertgoers found his music too long, too complicated, too bombastic, too neurotic, overly melancholy, and so on. Leonard Bernstein, who led the Mahler revival of the 1960s, claimed that "There was something much deeper in the rejection of Mahler's music." He suggested that "Mahler's music simply hit too close to home, touched too deeply on people's concerns and their fears about life and death. It simply was too true--telling something too dreadful to hear."

Fortunately, the above elements, which were so strongly rejected by the musical establishment of Mahler's day, are now passionately embraced by new generations of listeners. His genius lies in his unique ability to draw together such wildly contrasting elements as intense post-Wagner/Strauss/Bruckner harmonies, Austrian peasant music, Jewish childhood motifs, children's innocence, and a distressing fascination with death. He moulds all of them into a convincing and compelling musical structure.

A fascinating historical background

The story of how Mahler created the Resurrection Symphony (as it is also known) is one of the most fascinating in the history of music, and is indirectly but poignantly connected to Hans von Bülow--the greatest German conductor of his time. It is hard to imagine today that a work as powerfully impressive as Mahler's Second Symphony could have had such a painful and prolonged birth, yet more than six years passed between his initial sketches of the first movement and the completion of the vast Finale. Mahler was only twenty-eight in 1888, when he began to toy with the idea for this symphony. The opening movement was soon completed, but for the next five years it existed independently as "Todtenfeier" (Funeral Ceremony).

Three years later, in 1891, Mahler was appointed conductor of the Hamburg Opera and soon attracted the attention of Hans von Bülow, the doyen of German music and a lifelong champion of new music. Von Bülow conducted the first performances of Tristan und Isolde, became Brahms's preferred interpreter, and "discovered" Richard Strauss. Mahler was hoping that von Bülow would similarly support him as a composer. He called on him in order to give a piano rendition of the Second Symphony's first movement. After a few minutes at the piano, he turned around to see von Bülow, with a long face, covering his ears.

"If what I have heard is music," said the conductor, "I understand nothing about music!" He upped his disapproval by adding: "Compared with this, Tristan and Isolde is a Haydn symphony."

Devastated by von Bülow's opinion, Mahler wrote Richard Strauss, saying that after his experience with von Bülow he was leaving his scores in his desk. "You have not gone through anything like this and cannot understand that one begins to lose faith," wrote Mahler. Evidently von Bülow's rejection was deeply wounding, especially coming from a man the young Mahler so admired.

Three years passed before Mahler could overcome his mental block and resume work on the Second Symphony. He completed the second movement, Andante in A-flat, followed by the third, the Scherzo, based on his song "Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt". To the three existing movements he added another of his songs, "Urlicht," for contralto voice and orchestra. It was to serve as an introduction to the final movement.

Mahler made many attempts to continue with the Finale, but was could make no progress. Then in February 1894 Hans von Bülow died. Mahler attended his memorial service and as he described later, he felt a sense of a shock: "The choir, in the organ-loft, sang the "Resurrection" chorale [by Klopstock]. It was like a flash of lightning, and everything became plain and clear in my mind!" On his return home, he immediately sat down and began the first sketches for the Finale based on the resurrection idea. The actual composition was completed the following summer within three weeks.

Von Bülow's life and death were catalysts in Mahler's creation of this symphony. If his cruel remarks about the first movement weakened Mahler's confidence, his death effectively removed the composer's mental block and brought him back to the creative process.

A transcendent moment

Mahler conducted the premiere of his Second Symphony in Berlin on December 13, 1895, under terribly discouraging circumstances: First, in order to finance the concert, he had to use his own funds and borrow money from friends. To fill the hall, tickets were given away to musicians and students from the Berlin conservatory. Some critics refused to attend the concert and to top it all off, on the day of the concert Mahler was struck down by a massive migraine. Nevertheless, he dragged himself to the podium and forced himself to conduct. After the performance he collapsed in his dressing room. What happened during the concert was a transcendent moment in musical history. Those in the hall knew they were witnessing a once-in-a-life-time experience of creation.

The Music

Within the limits of this article, I can only touch briefly each of the 5 movements. I remember how utterly overwhelmed I was with the first movement when I heard this symphony for the very first time: It was a dark funeral march that could be compared with those of Beethoven's Eroica or Wagner's Götterdämmerung, but far more stormy and dramatic. Bruckner's shadow could be felt over the opening bars, with their long initial tremolos that set the tensed background for the first theme in the cellos and double basses. This angry music is followed by a contrasting, lyrical second theme in the violins, expressing yearning and longing. In a huge development section, Mahler then repeats and modifies both the first and second themes, introducing several new ones and hints of the ancient Dies Irae theme. The entire orchestra ends the movement with a tremendous, shuddering chromatic scale.

The second movement, Andante moderato in A-flat major is a graceful intermezzo--much needed after the mighty and disturbing first movement. It always reminds me of the Schubert Impromptu in A-flat for piano. It is an Austrian Ländler in the tradition of Schubert and Bruckner, with a middle section that hints of the drama still ahead. Particularly notable is the return of the first theme, now played pizzicato by all the strings, creating a sound of folk mandolins and guitars (Mahler even requested that the musicians hold down the violins and violas like mandolins and pluck the strings with their thumbs).

Two frightening tympani strokes announce the opening of the third movement, the Scherzo. The music begins with an endless spinning and twisting of its main theme. In typical Mahlerian manner, this movement evokes a mixture of the grotesque, combined with pessimism, humour, and tragedy. Mahler's program says this movement portrays a distorted world. He deliberately uses shrill, distorted sounds in the orchestra. Near the end, the tension builds to a frenzy as the music depicts to a frightening degree the "scream of anguish"--as Mahler described it in the accompanying program. Winding down, the movement ends, as did the first movement, with a chromatic scale, this time leading to a final note on the tam-tam, and proceeding to the fourth movement without a pause.

The fourth movement-- "Urlicht" ("Primal Light")--is one of the most beautiful and inspiring songs Mahler ever wrote. The appearance, for the first time, of the human voice in pianissimo and a low register is quite staggering. It is music of naïve faith: "I am from God and will return to God," sings the contralto soloist, who, said Mahler, "should sound like a child who imagines he is in heaven." A solemn chorale, gently stated by the brass, asserts the calm and innocent faith of childhood. Later, an expanded version of this chorale will become the final movement's "Resurrection" theme.

The Finale

In the wild outburst of the Finale, inspired by Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, Mahler too recalls earlier episodes from previous movements. In this colossal movement he introduces sounds and effects never before heard in symphonic music. The use of a distant band placed in the wings on both sides, the huge crescendos of the percussion section alone, the giant chorus that begins singing in the softest dynamic ever written for choir--all serve this unique creation. Aufersteh'n ("Rise again, yes you shall rise again") opens with the choir in a pianissimo, a cappella rendition in which Mahler introduces his resurrection belief. The composer explained in his program: "The earth quakes, the graves burst open, the dead arise and stream on in endless procession. The trumpets of the apocalypse ring out. All is quiet and blissful. There is no judgment, no sinners, no just men, no great and no small; there is no punishment and no reward. A feeling of overwhelming love fills us with blissful knowledge and illuminates our existence."

The last pages of the Finale create an unparalleled, powerful, and triumphant Coda. Mahler brings in the organ, bells, tam-tams, ten horns, six trumpets, and two harps, and asks the conductor and orchestra to end with the "greatest possible strength." It is hard to imagine a more persuasive and magnificent conclusion to the young Mahler's most ambitious work.

This mammoth work will serve as the festive Centennial Concert of the Orchestre symphonique de Québec--Canada's oldest orchestra. For this special event on November 6 and 7, Mahler's Second Symphony will be performed with the largest combined musical ensemble I have ever conducted: 115 musicians and a choir of 250 strong.

Recording data

There are close to 40 (!) different recordings of this work still on the market, from 1951 until today. Bruno Walter is the only conductor who attended the first performance led by Mahler conducted in 1895 and therefore his recording (with the New York Philharmonic and Maureen Forrester) is a 'must' for me. The closest to my own taste is the passionate yet beautifully balanced Claudio Abbado recording with the Chicago Symphony and Marilyn Horn. The recording by Simon Rattle (Birmingham Symphony) with Janet Baker's magnificent singing is warmly recommended as well.

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