The Maestro's Choice - Mahler's 2nd Symphony (Resurrection)by Yoav Talmi
/ November 2, 2002
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
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
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
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
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"
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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