The Kennedy Center

Symphony No. 2 in C minor ("Resurrection")

About the Work

Photo of Gustav Mahler Composer: Gustav Mahler
© Richard Freed

The title Resurrection has, understandably enough, led to the inference on some parts that Mahler composed this symphony on a religious impulse, and to those unacquainted with the work its presentation at this time of year must suggest even more pointedly a celebration of the Easter theme. This, however, was not a factor in Mahler's composing the work, and is not part of its substance. While it is certainly true that the inspiration for the choral finale came to Mahler in the course of a church service he attended, he specified that the symphony is actually an extension of, or sequel to, the personal narrative represented in his First Symphony. It is thus a more personal, and yet hardly less universal, concept of "resurrection" that Mahler undertook to convey in this music, characteristic of his own vision of human aspiration and idealism which informs so many of his works, and particularly those of his so-called Wunderhorn period—the years in which he set verses from the collection of folk poetry known as Des Knaben Wunderhorn ("The Youth's Magic Horn") as songs and used several of the same themes in his Symphonies Nos. 2 through 5.

Mahler composed his First Symphony during the period in which he served as assistant to the famous conductor Arthur Nikisch in Leipzig, and as soon as he completed that work he began writing the music that was to grow into his Second. In August 1888, as he was preparing to take up his duties as director of the Budapest Opera, he composed a 20-minute symphonic movement, clearly destined to be the opening movement of a symphony; at some point, well before he was able to proceed further with the symphony, he came to call this solitary movement Todtenfeier ("Funeral Rite"). This, he explained, was a direct sequel to his First Symphony, representing the funeral of the hero celebrated as a young man in that just-completed work. It was not until after the premiere of the First Symphony, in November 1889, that he began writing the Andante that was eventually to follow the Todtenfeier in the Second, and that was as far as he got with the new symphony in Budapest. In 1891 he was called to Hamburg, where he was to remain until the beginning of his tenure as director of the Vienna Opera six years later—and where he was to complete his Second and Third symphonies.

What was of most immediate interest to him when he arrived in Hamburg was that Hans von Bülow had been resident there since 1888. Bülow was one of the towering musical figures of his time: an outstanding pianist and conductor (one of the early conductors of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra), a pupil of Liszt, whose daughter Cosima he married and then lost to Richard Wagner. He nevertheless conducted the premieres of Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger in Munich during the period in which his wife left him for Wagner and began a new family. He championed Brahms as well as Wagner, introduced music by Tchaikovsky (gave the premiere, as soloist, of the famous Piano Concerto in Boston in 1875), and promoted the works of the young Richard Strauss, whom he made his assistant conductor with the Meiningen Orchestra. As it turned out, both Bülow, in a posthumous sense, and his protégé Strauss, in a directly active one, played important parts in bringing the Second Symphony into being.

When Mahler called on Bülow in September 1891 to play the Todtenfeier for him, Bülow listened for the most part with his hands over his ears. Whenever Mahler would look up, Bülow would ask him to continue playing, but at the end he said nothing for some time, finally breaking his silence only to remark, "If what I have just heard is still music, then I no longer understand anything about music!" Mahler was crushed, and a short time later wrote to Strauss (with whom he had established a collegial friendship) that he was at the point of giving up as a composer.

He did not give up, of course, and in July 1893 he completed the Andante he had begun in Budapest four years earlier and composed a scherzo; these pieces were to be joined to the Todtenfeier (in its revised form) to constitute the first three movements of his Second Symphony. The scherzo, dated July 19, was based on a Wunderhorn song he had composed barely a week earlier (and in fact identified as "a preliminary study for the scherzo"): Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt ("St. Anthony of Padua Preaching to the Fishes"). Mahler evidently found that legend especially intriguing, for he kept on the wall of his study in Hamburg a print depicting the saint sermonizing to his finny congregation; he described both the song and the scherzo as containing "a certain sweet-sour humor."

In that same productive month, between the completion of the scherzo and that of the Andante, Mahler composed another Wunderhorn song, Urlicht, which would later become part of the Second Symphony. By this time he had decided that he would use a chorus in the symphony's finale (though he expressed concern that such a gesture might be taken as "an imitation of Beethoven"), but the problem of finding a suitable text continued to stump him until the following spring, when none other than Bülow, who had questioned whether the Todtenfeier could even be called music, became the posthumous godfather to the concluding movement, and thus of the work as a whole.

On February 12, 1894, Bülow died in Cairo, where he had arrived five days earlier in hopes of restoring his failing health. On March 29, after his body was returned to Hamburg, a funeral service was held in St. Michael's Church and upon its conclusion the procession to the cemetery paused before the Opera House, from whose terrace Mahler (filling in for Strauss, who had declined the invitation to conduct in this memorial for his benefactor) conducted Siegfried's Funeral March, from Wagner's Götterdämmerung. Later that day he was visited by the Bohemian composer Josef Bohuslav Foerster, to whom he declared with happy excitement that he had found the solution to his finale problem in the church service they both had attended that morning. Foerster understood at once, and without waiting for Mahler to continue began chanting the opening phrase of Friedrich Gottlob Klopstock's "Resurrection Ode" (Die Auferstehung), which they both had heard sung by a boys' choir in that morning's church service. Mahler subsequently elaborated on this in a letter:

It flashed on me like lightning, and everything became plain and clear in my mind! It was the flash that all creative artists wait for—"conceiving by the Holy Ghost!" What I then experienced in sound now had to be expressed in sound. And yet—if I had not already borne the work within me—how could I have had that experience? . . . It is always the same with me: only when I experience something do I compose, and only when composing do I experience!

Mahler completed his finale three months after Bülow's funeral, choosing what he found usable in Klopstock's ode and supplying additional text of his own. The point at which he decided to include Urlicht in the symphony is uncertain; according to his friend Foerster, it was only after he had composed the final movement that he decided to insert the song, to serve as transition from the three purely instrumental movements to the choral finale.
Even after he had extended the layout to five movements, the matter of the symphony's overall structure continued to give him concern. At one point he placed the scherzo before the Andante; after going back and forth on that issue he settled on the reverse sequence, but that left him so uncomfortable about the "overemphasized, sharp and inartistic contrast" between the hugeness of the opening movement and the lightness of the Andante that he considered reordering the internal structure of the Andante. What he did instead was call for a pause of "at least five minutes" between the first and second movements. This was to be the only major pause in the long work, whose third, fourth and fifth movements were to be played without interruption. Strauss, already an influential figure at age 30, arranged for one of his own concerts with the Berlin Philharmonic to be given over in part to Mahler, to conduct the first three movements of the Second Symphony in March 1895, and Mahler conducted the same orchestra in the premiere of the entire work at the end of that year. Several years later he came to feel that the Symphony's contents indicated a "natural division" somewhat different from the one just described. In March 1903, when Julius Buths conducted the Symphony in Düsseldorf with a pause between the Urlicht and the finale, Mahler wrote to him, congratulating him on his insight:

Thus the main break in the concert hall will be between the fourth and fifth movements. I am amazed by the sensitivity of feeling that enabled you to find the natural division of the work, and this contrary to my own indications. I have long been of the same opinion, and all the performances I have conducted have only strengthened it. Nevertheless, a pause must also be made after the first movement, because otherwise the second will seem a mere discrepancy. . . . The Andante is a kind of intermezzo (like a last echo of bygone days in the life of the man who was carried to his grave in the first movement—"for the sun still shines upon him"). Whereas the first, third, fourth and fifth movements are connected as to theme and atmosphere, the second stands alone and rather interrupts the austere progression of events. Perhaps this is a weakness in the plan, but my intention is certainly clear to you now . . .

A review in the New-York Daily Tribune on December 9, 1908, reported that Mahler did take two five-minute pauses when he conducted the Second Symphony in that city, but he made no alteration to the score in this respect. His confidante Natalie Bauer-Lechner recalled that when he introduced the work in Vienna, in 1899, "he actually repeated the Urlicht because the audience had applauded when it concluded, and Mahler said that the fifth movement had to be played attaca." That was apparently his final decision as well. In any event, the years between the composition of the Symphony and that letter to Buths found him explaining or justifying the work's programmatic content several times. About a week after the full premiere, in December 1895, he wrote to the critic Max Marschalk:

The original aim of this work was never to describe an event in detail; rather it concerns a feeling. Its spiritual message is clearly expressed in the words of the final chorus. . . . The parallel between life and music is perhaps deeper and more extensive than can be drawn at present. Yet I ask no one to follow me along this track, and I leave the interpretation of details to the imagination of each individual listener.

Not long after that, though, Mahler remarked, "In my two symphonies there is nothing except the complete substance of my whole life," and between January 1896 and the fall of 1900 he wrote out no fewer than three fairly detailed "programs" for the Second Symphony. Although he subsequently withdrew all of them, they provide uniquely valuable background for the work. Gilbert Kaplan, who has conducted numerous performances of the Second Symphony and created a foundation for research into Mahler's works and publication of critical editions of them, has assembled a digest combining elements of all three versions:

Movement I
We stand by the coffin of a person well loved. His whole life, his struggles, his passions, his sufferings and his accomplishments on earth once more for the last time pass before us. And now, in this solemn and deeply stirring moment, when the confusions and distractions of everyday life are lifted like a hood from our eyes, a voice of awe-inspiring solemnity chills our heart—a voice that, blinded by the mirage of everyday life, we usually ignore: "What next? What is life and what is death? Why did you live? Why did you suffer? Is it all nothing but a huge, frightful joke? Will we live on eternally? Do our life and death have a meaning?" We must answer these questions in some way if we are to go on living—indeed, if we are to go on dying! He into whose life this call has once sounded must give an answer. And this answer I give in the final movement.

Movement II
A memory, a ray of sunlight, pure and cloudless, out of the departed's life. You must surely have had the experience of burying someone dear to you, and then, perhaps, on the way back, some long forgotten hour of shared happiness suddenly rose before your inner eye, sending, as it were, a sunbeam into your soul—not overcast by any shadow—and you almost forgot what had just taken place.

Movement III
When you awaken from that blissful dream and are forced to return to this tangled life of ours, it may easily happen that this surge of life ceaselessly in motion, never resting, never comprehensible, suddenly seems eerie, like the billowing dancing figures in a brightly lit ballroom that you gaze into from outside in the dark—and from a distance so great that you can no longer hear the music. Then the turning and twisting movement of the couples seems senseless. You must imagine that, to one who has lost his identity and his happiness, the world looks like this—distorted and crazy, as if reflected in a concave mirror. Life then becomes meaningless. Utter disgust for every form of existence and evolution seizes him in an iron grip, and he cries out in a scream of anguish.

Movement IV
The moving voice of naive faith sounds in our ears. "I am from God and will return to God. The dear God will give me a light, will light me to eternal blessed life!"

Movement V
Once more we must confront terrifying questions. The movement starts with the same dreadful scream of anguish that ended the scherzo. The voice of the Caller is heard. The end of every living thing has come, the Last Judgment is at hand, and the horror of the Day of Days has come upon us. The earth trembles; the Last Trump sounds; the graves burst open; all the creatures struggle out of the ground, moaning and trembling. Now they march in a mighty procession: rich and poor, peasants and kings, the whole church with bishops and popes. All have the same fear, all cry and tremble alike because, in the eyes of God, there are no just men. The cry for mercy and forgiveness sounds fearful in our ears. The wailing becomes gradually more terrible. Our senses desert us; all consciousness dies as the Eternal Judge approaches. The trumpets of the Apocalypse ring out. Finally, after all have left their empty graves and the earth lies silent and deserted, there comes only the long-drawn note of the bird of death. Even it finally dies.
What happens now is far from expected. Everything has ceased to exist. The gentle sound of a chorus of saints and heavenly hosts is then heard. Soft and simple, the words gently swell up: "Rise again, yes, rise again thou wilt! Then the glory of God comes into sight. A wondrous light strikes us to the heart. All is quiet and blissful. Lo and behold: 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.

Big effects are achieved in part through the use of huge performing forces, but there are many episodes of intimacy in the work, and none more poignant than the entire fourth movement, in which the voice appears for the first time in Mahler's symphonies. (This may in fact have been the first instance of an existing song's being used in full, and in more or less its original form, to constitute a movement of a symphony, whereas the preceding movement represents a reversal of this procedure.) The text, as already noted, is from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, and it is sung by the alto. This expression of simple faith provides an effective transition from what Mahler called the "narrative" sections of the symphony to the "dramatic" one, and the solo voice initiates the already mentioned transition from the purely instrumental portions to the massive choral affirmation to come.

Urlicht (Altsolo)
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!

Primal Light (Alto solo)
Oh red rose!
Man lies in deepest need,
Man lies in deepest pain.
Yes, I would rather be in heaven!
I came upon a broad pathway:
An angel came and wanted to send me away.
Ah no! I would not be sent away!
I am from God and will return to God.
The dear God will give me a light,
Will light me to eternal blessed life!

The final movement opens with a shattering outburst. Fragments of the Dies irae flash by, along with various motifs introduced or hinted at in the first movement (one of these to be identified now as the "Resurrection" motif itself), and these elements form themselves into a march—irresistible in its drive, awesome in its proportions, with summonses from the offstage band echoed thunderously in the huge orchestra. Following "der grosse Appell" (a marking usually translated as "the Great Call," but actually a reference to a military expression for a roll call), a passage for flute and piccolo represents the hovering "Bird of Death" (destined to make a brief reappearance in Mahler's last completed work, his Ninth Symphony). More than half of this vast movement goes by before the chorus makes its hushed entrance, singing the first two of the five stanzas of Klopstock's ode Die Auferstehung, with the solo soprano lending emphasis to the final line of each stanza.

Aufersteh'n, ja aufersteh'n wirst du,
mein Staub, nach kurzer Ruh!
Unsterblich Leben! Unsterblich Leben
wird, der dich rief, dir geben.

Wieder aufzublühn, wirst du gesä't!
Der Herr der Ernte geht
und sammelt Garben
uns ein, die starben!

Rise again, yea, thou wilt rise again,
My dust, after a short rest!
Immortal life! Immortal life
He who called thee will grant thee.

To bloom againt thou art sown!
The Lord of the Harvest goes
And gathers in, like sheaves,
Us who died.

Here Mahler dispenses with a "Hallelujah" in Klopstock's text, and with the remainder of the ode, substituting his own words from this point to the end of the symphony.

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!

O glaube: Du warst 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
werd' ich entschweben
zum Licht, zu dem kein Aug' gedrungen!

Mit Flügeln, die ich mir errungen,
werde ich entschweben!
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!

Oh believe, my heart, oh believe:
Nothing is lost with thee!
Thine is what thou hast desired,
What thou hast loved for, what thou hast fought for!

Oh believe, thou wert not born in vain!
Hast not lived in vain, suffered in vain!

What has come into being must perish,
What perished must rise again.

Cease from trembling!
Prepare thyself to live!

Oh Pain, thou piercer of all things,
From thee have I been wrested!
Oh Death, thou masterer of all things,
Now art thou mastered!
With wings which I have won,

In love's fierce striving,
I shall soar upwards
To the light to which no eye has soared.

With wings, which I have won,
I shall soar upwards
I shall die, to live!

Rise again, yea, thou wilt rise again,
My heart, in the twinkling of an eye!
What thou hast fought for
Shall lead thee to God!