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Mahler - Symphony No. 2, Resurrection (1888-94)

  • 1. Allegro maestoso
  • 2. Andante moderato. Sehr gemächlich
  • 3. Scherzo. In ruhig fliessender Bewegung
  • 4. 'Urlicht'. Sehr feierlich, aber schlicht>
  • 5. Finale

Mahler's Second Symphony was already begun before his First had received its première. Indeed, the composition in 1888 of a movement in C minor, later to become the first movement of the Second Symphony, seems to have overlapped with the completion of the First. It shares with the Finale of the First the same tone of high drama and desperate heroic struggle, but now played out on a grander, more objective scale. Moreover, there is good evidence to suggest that it had its origins in the same upheavals of Mahler's life - not least, the ending of his affair with Marion von Weber. By the autumn of 1888, Mahler had decided that this movement was a single-movement symphonic poem, which he called Todtenfeier (Funeral Rites). The scholar Stephen Hefling has shown that the title and the mood are probably derived from the long dramatic poem, Dziady, by the Polish poet, Adam Mickiewicz, translated by Mahler's close friend, Siegfried Lipiner, early in 1887. And, much later, after the symphonic poem had become the first movement of the Second Symphony, Mahler specifically underlined the overlap between the two works, insisting that in this movement 'it is the hero of my D major symphony [the First] whom I bear to the grave'.

So why, if the huge first movement was already in place by the summer of 1888, did it take Mahler seven years to bring his Second Symphony to completion? The disappointing reception of his First, in 1889, may well have been a factor, and he was certainly preoccupied with forging his career as a conductor (he became Director of the Royal Hungarian Opera in Budapest, 1889, and Principal Conductor at Hamburg Stadttheater in 1891). But with the revision of his First Symphony in 1893, and the promise of a second performance, he seems to have returned to the idea of a second symphony. In the intervening years Mahler was certainly not inactive as a composer. This is the period in which he wrote the majority of his Wunderhorn songs, a first group for voice and piano, and a second group conceived as orchestral songs. And it was through the Wunderhorn settings that Mahler seems to have found his way back to symphonic composition.

He spent the summer of 1893 in the small village of Steinbach on the Attersee (one of the beautiful lakes of Austria's Salzkammergut region). As he turned 33 years old that July, Mahler had written two 'symphonic poems' and some songs, but nothing currently designated as a symphony. The day after his birthday, he completed the Wunderhorn song 'Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt' and, within eight days, had turned it into the symphonic Scherzo that would become the third movement of the Second Symphony. A few days later he completed his setting of 'Urlicht', which would become the fourth movement, and by the end of July he had completed the genial Ländler movement that would become the second (based on two themes sketched back in the summer of 1888).

The following year Mahler revised his symphonic poem Todtenfeier as the first movement of his symphony, which was now essentially complete except for its Finale. Mahler's increasing frustration at being unable to 'discover' the elusive conclusion to his symphony was famously broken during a memorial service held for the great Wagnerian conductor, Hans von Bülow, in March 1894. The sound of a boys choir, placed high up in the cathedral, singing a setting of Klopstock's Resurrection Chorale, mingled with the funeral bells, seems to have crystallised Mahler's thinking. After conducting a performance of Siegfried's Funeral Music from Wagner's Götterdämmerung on the steps of the cathedral, he reportedly hurried home to sketch the ideas for his own Finale.

Whatever its personal origins, the first movement of the Second Symphony conveys an overwhelming sense of collective catastrophe. It shares its C minor tonality and dark tone with Siegfried's Funeral Music and takes from that orchestral interlude something of its slow processional character. It has a Wagnerian scale about it too, not just because of its large orchestral forces but because of the extended timescale with which Mahler works. Great lines of marching figures seem to emerge from out of the distance as far as the eye can see; the writer Rudolf Stephan referred to the Second Symphony as 'music drama without scenery' and it is certainly hard not to think of movements like this one in such visual or even filmic terms. The ferocious opening of the work (more a sudden violent gesture than a musical motif) and the ensuing march figure give way to one of Mahler's most pleading second themes, but its vision of quiet deliverance is, at this stage, still impossibly distant. The movement as a whole seems defined instead by the snarling returns of the opening and the implacable force of the heavily orchestrated march.

Mahler was so concerned about the difference in character between the first movement and the gentle Andante that follows, he noted in the score that the conductor should take a pause of several minutes between the two (most take considerably less). It seems an odd anxiety for a composer whose symphonies generally proceed by extreme oppositions between one movement and the next. Marked Sehr gemächlich (Very leisurely), this wistful dance movement is certainly a world away from the stark opening movement. Its echo of Schubert underlines the sense that Mahler's music here is an act of nostalgia, a recollected moment of earlier happiness from the life of his symphonic hero, as Mahler was to characterise it later. If Schubert is evoked by the opening dance, the contrasting section that follows is closer to the fairy music of Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Night's Dream or some of Weber's evocations of the supernatural. The movement is not without its passing clouds, and distant rumbling on the horizon, but the successive returns of the leisurely Ländler seem progressively removed from reality and the enduring sense of the music is that of an ethereal memory.

The Scherzo third movement is an orchestral expansion of Mahler's setting of the Wunderhorn song 'Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt', which tells of St Anthony's sermon to the fishes. The satirical thrust of the poem derives from the fact that, although the fish listen patiently to the sermon and find it excellent, they afterwards all revert to their usual bad ways. The orchestration makes this ironic intent clear enough - the running semiquaver figure sometimes spirals out of key, moments highlighted by the E flat clarinet, which Mahler often uses to comic or grotesque effect. This figure, running like a thread throughout the movement, is generally heard as expressive of what Mahler referred to as 'this ever-moving, never-resting, never-comprehensible bustle of existence'. There are moments of impatience with this futile circling as the music is interrupted by unprepared moments of breakthrough, fleeting anticipations of the great apocalypse of the Finale. For a moment, suspended on a higher plateau, with the distant rumblings of earthly music sounding far below, the Scherzo guesses at a different perspective, before the incessant wheels start turning again.

If the Scherzo is a picture of an inauthentic chattering world, with no time for the divine, the fourth movement shatters it with quiet, focused intensity. Following directly on from the end of the previous movement, 'Urlicht' begins with the exposed sound of the human voice, the female soloist accompanied by the brass, solemnly intoning a chorale. The humour, ironic play and loquacious repetition of the previous movement give way, in a single moment, to the simplicity and sincerity of this new presence. In fact, the religious tone is only the first of three distinct 'voices' Mahler deploys in this short movement. The sacred opening yields to a folk tone for the start of the second verse describing a meeting with an angel (Mahler's angelic topic is clearly signalled by the bright sounds of glockenspiel, harp and solo violin).

But the tone changes once again: the protagonist of the song will not be turned back from the path, even by an angel: the words 'I am from God, and will return to God' are set to a harmonic sequence that draws on an impassioned, operatic mode. And with that, the timeless perspectives of religious and folk music succumb to an urgent sense of the present moment. It is the turning point of the work. This one line might serve as the motto for the entire symphony, and Mahler will return to it, sung by both soloists, as preparation for the climax of the Finale.

The vision of that Finale is hardly an orthodox Christian one. The symphony acquired the title Resurrection because of its use of Klopstock's Resurrection Ode but Mahler was rarely content to leave texts unchanged and, in this case, to the two verses taken from Klopstock he added a further six of his own. The tone of these is quite different. After the solidity of faith of the opening chorale, Mahler's own text introduces a far more modern anxiety: 'O glaube, mein Herz' ('O believe, my heart') sounds more like a desperate urging to oneself to believe, rather than any calm statement of faith. And the resurrection of the dead, in Mahler's eschatology, suggests he was influenced by contemporary ideas on religion, like those of his friend Siegfried Lipiner or the psychologist Gustav Fechner, whose ideas were to help shape the philosophical programme of the Third Symphony. 'And behold,' Mahler wrote about the ending of his symphony, 'there is no judgement; there are no sinners, no just. None is great, none small. There is no punishment and no reward. An overwhelming love illuminates our being. We know and are.'

But that is a long way off. The Finale opens with a kind of musical chaos, a 'cry of disgust' that parallels the 'fanfare of horror' at the start of the Finale to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony (the larger parallel of a choral finale naturally caused Mahler some anxiety). It subsides to a startling emptiness in which the sound of distant horn calls mingles with disembodied orchestral sounds. A slow marching chorale begins, interspersed with the anxious motif that Mahler later uses for the line 'O glaube' ('O believe'). 'The earth quakes, the graves burst open, the dead arise and stream out in endless procession' - Mahler's programme note hardly sums up the vast march that follows. But all of this is preparation for what will become the threshold upon which the whole symphony is transformed and this, typically of Mahler, comes out of a deep silence and a sense of vast spaciousness.

In Mahler's words: 'The last trumpet is heard - the trumpets of the Apocalypse ring out: in the eerie silence that follows, we can just catch the distant, barely audible sound of a nightingale, a last tremulous echo of earthly life.' For this, Mahler produces a bold soundscape that still sounds utterly contemporary. Distant horns are answered by four trumpets placed at different offstage locations, on the right and the left, variously closer and further away. These echoing brass sounds, apparently coming from a great distance, mingle with the sound of a bird given by a flute and piccolo from within the orchestra. There are few passages in symphonic music that come close to the way in which Mahler stops time here. Any sense of metre is suspended, and with it any sense of measuring time or forward motion. In a large hall it makes for an astonishing scene. The orchestra sits in silence listening to calls from outside the space of the music, and we, the audience, watch and wait for something to arrive, as if from elsewhere. What does arrive is the 'Resurrection' chorale, sung by the chorus in such hushed tones one hardly hears it begin. The threshold has been crossed, and the mingling of voices and orchestra expands steadily, wave upon wave, towards the shattering climax of the symphony.

One should not be fooled by the force of the closing bars, generated by Mahler's relatively conventional treatment of the brass and organ. The end of this symphony is neither comfortable nor bombastic. It is not just that the music has been preparing, for over an hour, the arrival at the climactic 'Sterben werd' ich, um zu leben' ('Die I shall, so as to live'), nor that Mahler has held back the vast power of his combined choral and orchestral forces for this moment. It is that, when it arrives, it is not experienced so much as a point of resolution that will subside, but rather as an unending torrent of incandescent intensity. Across a vast span of time and in five very different movements, Mahler's music has explored the human experience of time - of loss, anticipation, memory, cyclical repetition and, above all, of waiting, straining for the dawn. The ending seems to draw up all of this, and with it the whole of historical and eschatological time and to focus it, urgently and intensely, in this very moment, here and now. It's all you can do to stand your ground as this wind of fire streams out at you.

© Julian Johnson