Symphony No. 2
Born: 7 July 1860 in Kalischt, Bohemia
Died: 18 May 1911 in Vienna
Mahler is one of my absolute favorite composers, a preference shared with many, many other people. For example, I have yet to meet a brass player who doesn’t adore his music (to cite just one sub-group of Mahler fans). But you don’t have to be a performer to be swept away by Mahler’s emotionally charged compositions, with their brilliant “synthesis of diatonic simplicity and chromatically enriched counterpoint,” as John Williamson has written. And despite the complexities of performing his works, many of which are quite long and require substantial numbers of musicians, Mahler is easily one of the most popular figures in the world of orchestral literature. It thus may come as a surprise to readers, therefore, to learn that this was very far from the case during Mahler’s lifetime and for more than fifty years after his death. But more on that later.
Mahler was the second child of fourteen born to a distiller/tavern owner and a soap-maker’s daughter, but he was the oldest of the six who survived to adulthood (Mahler spent a great deal of time and money helping his siblings once he was earning a regular income). A few months after Mahler’s birth the family moved to the Moravian market town of Iglau where they were members of its German-speaking Jewish community; the move was made possible by an imperial degree that year granting Jews more basic rights than they had heretofore experienced. Mahler’s musical talent manifested itself at an early age, with his first composition written when he was six years old. The piece, titled “Polka with a Funeral March as Introduction,” presciently captured the juxtaposition of popular and serious that was to characterize much of his mature output. He sang in the choir of the local Catholic church, where he performed sacred music by Mozart and Beethoven (among others), and thus had some experience as a choral singer.
Mahler was bundled off to the Vienna Conservatory at the age of 15, where he roomed some of the time with the future brilliant song composer Hugo Wolf. He studied there for three years, winning prizes in piano and composition and becoming friendly with Bruckner, whose third symphony he helped arrange for piano duet; such arrangements were a primary means of learning compositions at the time. Highly intellectual, Mahler also enrolled in courses at the University of Vienna, where his classes included early German literature, art history, and the history of philosophy.
At the age of 20 Mahler received his first conducting job, a summer position at the spa town of Bad Hall. This was the first in a lifelong series of increasingly important positions, and Mahler eventually become known as one of the very greatest conductors of his time. Despite that, it was a profession that Mahler more or less stumbled into, largely because (1) composers were all expected to be able to conduct, and (2) ridiculous at it might sound, conducting was not something that one could study formally at the time; that came about only in the early 20th century. Also, almost all of Mahler’s positions were in opera houses simply because that’s where the orchestras (or most of the orchestras) were. In 21st-century America, opera houses are few and far between (alas!), while professional symphony orchestras are found in all major cities and many smaller ones. In 19th-century Europe, however, professional orchestras were rare (the Berlin Philharmonic was founded only in 1882, for example) but opera houses were ubiquitous. Symphonic works were usually played by opera orchestras or pick-up orchestras hired for the occasion.
After Bad Hall, Mahler held other posts across Germany and the Austro-Hungarian empire—Ljubljana (where the performing forces were a tiny orchestra of eighteen and a chorus of seven women and seven men), Olmütz, Kassel, Prague, Leipzig, Budapest, Hamburg. Mahler also briefly served as conductor of the Münden Choral Society, so his direct experience with choral singers was not limited to those in opera productions.
Mahler’s upward trajectory culminated in his appointment as the Director of the Vienna Hofoper (Court Opera), one of the leading musical establishments of the time. Well aware that his religion would have been a stumbling block to his advancement, he converted to Roman Catholicism on 23 February 1897 in time to begin a decade of work in Vienna, where he also conducted the Vienna Philharmonic from 1898 to 1901.
The time that Mahler spent with the Vienna Hofoper is considered to be a high point in that institution’s history. Mahler involved himself in almost every aspect of production, including the acting, staging, lighting, and sets. He was an uncompromising perfectionist whose demands unfortunately made many enemies among musicians, who complained about the number of rehearsals, his obsession with detail, his impatient and brusque manner, and his tyrannical leadership. He was said to conduct like a fanatic monk. The result was apparently glorious, but the process was far from pleasant for many. And conversion or not, Mahler still faced plenty of anti-semitism.
Mahler also did not hesitate to alter the pieces he was performing (either in the opera house or the concert hall) by way of cuts, changes in instrumentation, doubling of parts, requiring mutes, cutting or adding instruments. He was far from alone in these practices, but he took things to a greater extreme than his contemporaries, convinced that, were the composers alive today, they would themselves make changes because the performing conditions were different. And messing with Beethoven, for example, was not a practice to win him any friends. Mahler made frequent revisions to his own works as well, in part because his ear was attuned to the sound of an orchestra in an opera pit, and things simply sounded different on a concert stage (he premiered his first eight symphonies).
In 1905 Mahler made a series of piano rolls (for player pianos), playing his own compositions; they are the only aural record we have of his performance style. There do exist a series of evocative silhouettes and caricatures by Otto Böhler and others of Mahler conducting that suggest great variety and expressiveness.
By the time Mahler got to Vienna he had settled into a professional routine. During the ten-month opera season his focus was on conducting. Summer vacations, always spent in rural surroundings, were devoted to composing, normally in a woodland hut some distance from his lodgings. In his early years he vacationed at Steinbach on the Attersee in the Salzkammergut; from 1900 through 1907 he was in Maiernigg on the Wörthersee in Carinthia, where he built his own house, and after the trauma of 1907 (more on that below) he summered in Toblach. During the winter months he would then orchestrate the “short score” that he had written during the summer.
On 7 November 1901 Mahler met the enchanting Alma Schindler (whose late father had been an important landscape painter) at a dinner party given by mutual friends. Alma, then 22, already had an impressive list of romantic conquests to her name (metaphorical conquests only; she was a virgin when she met Mahler), including Max Burckhard (the powerful artistic director of the Vienna Burgtheater, 25 years her senior), the brilliant painter Gustav Klimt (18 years older), and the composer Alexander Zemlinsky (only 8 years her elder). In later life those enthralled by her included the painter Oskar Kokoschka, the composer Hans Pfitzner, the founder of the Bauhaus school of architecture Walter Gropius (they had a daughter, Manon, whose death at the age of 18 was the inspiration for Berg’s Violin Concerto), and the prize-winning author Franz Werfel (her third husband).
Alma had brains, beauty, talent, and wit, and Mahler fell hard. Barely two weeks later Mahler spoke of marriage, and on 9 March 1902 Mahler wed his pregnant fiancée.
Alas, this was not a marriage made in heaven, for many reasons. While Mahler was instantly smitten, Alma was much less so. In fact, she was in love with Zemlinsky when she met Mahler, and her diary reveals her conflicting feelings, uncertainties, and self-doubt before she switched her emotional allegiance to Mahler (who by all accounts was an extraordinary individual with a forceful personality). She didn’t initially like Mahler’s music, and becoming pregnant before the wedding led to a loss of self-confidence (even in artistic circles pre-marital intimacy was frowned on at this time). The nineteen-year age difference was huge (and remember, she was only 22. How many of us made good emotional decisions at that age?) She didn’t particularly like his friends, who returned the sentiment. And one of the biggest problems was that Alma also composed. The fact that she assumed she would continue this activity after marriage led to a crisis very early in their engagement, with Mahler stating (via a very long, staggeringly patronizing letter) that the idea of two composers in a family was “ridiculous...and degrading” (he obviously didn’t know about the Schumann marriage) and that her role (should she choose to continue the engagement) was to support him in every possible way, which included giving up composition.
This is an extremely painful letter for us to read today; imagine how Alma must have felt! Actually, we don’t have to imagine, because she tells us in her diary; she was devastated. And as she astutely observed, his manner of laying down the law made it all the more painful (“this way it will forever remain a thorn in my side.”)
It is easy for us to view Mahler as the bad guy here (as I said, this is a very painful letter to read), but his expectations completely matched those of society at this time. And before we criticize Alma for bowing to his demands, we have to remember that—again—she was doing exactly what almost everyone expected of her. It would have been extremely unusual had she not.
All of Alma’s surviving compositions (they are all songs) have been published and recorded, and I (and many others) find them attractive and interesting; I especially like Der Erkennende. It’s impossible to say how she would have developed if she had continued composing, but it’s certainly easy to think of lots of composers who were no great shakes at 22 but eventually came into their own (e.g. Bruckner, Dvorák, Vaughan Williams), and we have to remember that Alma (like other women of her time) had very few options for formal study. Even today (2023) composition studios in music schools have more male students than female ones. And women composers who have been successful over the centuries have tended to be unmarried (e.g. Barbara Strozzi), or childless (e.g. Hildegard), or come from a musical family (e.g. Francesca Caccini), or have a supportive spouse (e.g. Amy Beach), or some combination thereof.
I’ve read a good deal of material by and about Alma (the latter often deeply misogynistic), and—to be frank—she doesn’t exactly seem like BFF material. But both Mahler and Alma were romantics, both wanted a perfect union of souls and a happily ever after, and Alma decided to sacrifice her “talent” on the altar of his “genius” (he for God; she for God in him, as they used to say).
But it rankled.
The establishment of a home and family coincided with Mahler’s most productive period of composition, entailing the completion of symphonies 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10 (orchestration for this last unfinished) as well as his greatest work, the symphonic song cycle Das Lied von der Erde. Whatever we might think about Alma, Mahler adored her and she fulfilled her muse function perfectly (e.g., the gorgeous 2nd theme of the first movement of the Sixth Symphony represents Alma; the fan favorite Adagietto of the Fifth Symphony is a love song to Alma).
The year 1907 brought tremendous changes to Mahler’s life. After ten years of what felt like a constant uphill battle, he decided to leave the Vienna Hofoper and signed a contract with New York’s Metropolitan Opera. That summer, his beloved older daughter died (diphtheria combined with scarlet fever; the vaccines that save so many lives today were not available then). This was a tragedy, of course, made even worse because Mahler had composed two “Kindertotenlieder” songs (Songs on the Death of Children) when his older daughter was not yet 2 and his younger daughter had just been born. Alma was NOT happy about this and saw it as tempting fate.
The final blow in 1907 was when Mahler learned that he had a heart defect that would henceforth limit his activity. It is after this diagnosis that he began composing his most profound work, Das Lied von der Erde, where the question of life and death is faced in a way completely different from its treatment in his second symphony.
From 1908 until his death Mahler conducted in America during the concert season and returned to Europe to compose in the summers. His conducting engagements included work with the New York Philharmonic, with whom he toured twice in 1910. The latter tour included a stop in Rochester (!) on 8 December, where the orchestra performed at the Rochester Convention Hall, which at that time could accommodate 3000 (it is now the much smaller Geva Theater). The concert included Bach orchestral suite No. 3, the Beethoven Pastoral Symphony, and various bits of Wagner, including the Meistersinger Prelude. A pre-concert lecture was given the day before by the director of the Rochester Oratorio Society (yes, an earlier iteration of ROS had existed since at least 1883).
Mahler faced another crisis in summer 1910 when he learned that Alma had gotten involved with Walter Gropius, who would later become her second husband. Belatedly realizing that—just maybe—he had not been the most considerate of husbands, he attempted to make amends in various ways, e.g., the published edition of his 8th Symphony was dedicated to her (none of Mahler’s other works receive dedications). Far more meaningful to her was the fact that he dug out her songs and actually played through them, saying to her “What have I done? These songs are good—they’re excellent...I shall never be happy until you start composing again. God, how blind and selfish I was in those days!” He then arranged for several of them to be published.
Mahler eventually consulted Freud in connection with his troubled marriage. As Freud saw it, Alma functioned as a mother figure for Mahler, and he didn’t need to worry about Alma because her attraction to him was precisely because he was older. The death of her beloved father when she was 13 meant that she was always looking for a father figure. Well, this was not the first time Freud was very, very wrong.
Alma decided to stick with Mahler but more from a sense of obligation than love, and she began composing again but was unable to sustain it. So they were both miserable. Once again, reading about the last year of Mahler’s life is very painful. The manuscript score of his tenth symphony, his final, wrenching, work, is covered with tortured scrawls crying out to her.
What a mess.
The only upside to any of this is a lot of incredible music that we get to experience today without the drama of the actual personalities involved. So that’s the silver lining (for us) of their unhappiness.
Mahler’s music was not popular during his lifetime. There are many reasons for his unpopularity: the extreme length of most works, the unusual structures, his free treatment of traditional formal designs, his use of “reckless counterpoint” (what a great term!), his fondness for huge performing forces (often used in chamber combinations, however) and uncommon instruments. He was especially derided for his rapid juxtaposition of wildly different kinds of melodic material, serious and light, and his fondness for music associated with popular elements (dances, marches, hunting calls, etc. “At times one cannot help believing one is in a low tavern or a stable,” one critic wrote). His favorite texts were taken from a collection of German folk poetry called Des Knaben Wunderhorn (the Youth’s Magic Horn), published in three volumes in 1806 and 1808 and edited by Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano—another seeming link to lower-class tastes. Other criticisms: the use of “progressive tonality,” i.e. ending a work in an unrelated key to that of the opening, his seemingly excessive use of expressive indications, the fact that his music came across as moody, personal, and eccentric. His compositions were called banal, sentimental, uninspired, and plagued by haphazard structure. Whew! And it didn’t help that he was Jewish, conversion be damned.
Mahler’s Second Symphony was the first complete symphony I ever knew (by anyone, not just Mahler), so none of these criticisms made much sense to me. Now that I know many more symphonies and much, much more about music history overall, I can understand these criticisms. Innovators are almost always misunderstood (e.g. Debussy, Stravinsky), and Mahler’s style seemed like an affront to those who loved Beethoven, Brahms, and even Bruckner.
Even during his lifetime, though, he had champions (books were published about him while he was still alive), and several perceptive conductors (e.g. Bruno Walter, Willem Mengelberg) helped spread his music, with performances increasing in the last decade of his life. These continued to grow in number for two decades, but then Nazi poison put a halt to any performances in fascist territory, and recovery was at first slow after the end of the war; performances were sporadic through the 1950s. In 1956 the publishers Bote & Bock, approached about the preparation of new editions of Mahler’s works, said that there was no way Mahler would ever overtake Bruckner in popularity (impressively, though, my mother’s Concert Companion of 1947 includes symphonies 1, 2, 4, 5, 9, and Das Lied von der Erde).
But Mahler had always said “my time will come,” and it finally did in the 1960s. The centennial of his birth in 1960, the advent of the LP not that long before that, and the advocacy of various conductors including the very high profile Leonard Bernstein (whose flamboyant personality was perfectly suited to Mahler’s extremes) meant that Mahler was finally on his way to a firm position in the symphonic repertoire. The first recording of all the symphonies was made by Bernstein in 1967, and dozens more complete sets have been made since then (I learned the symphonies from the Kubelik boxed set—a wonderful Christmas present when I was in college—and can recommend it, but many fine versions exist.) The number of recordings of the symphonies now exceeds 1000. Mahler looks like he’s here to stay.
Symphony No. 2 in C Minor, “Resurrection”
Mahler began his second symphony almost immediately after finishing his first, in 1888. To put this into context, Brahms wrote his first symphony in 1876 and his fourth (and last) in 1885. Even though Brahms and Mahler are of different generations, their symphonic compositions almost overlap.
The first movement was finished in September 1888, but Mahler did not return to the symphony until the summer of 1893. In between he played through the first movement for Hans von Bülow, an excellent conductor (and ex-husband of Cosima Wagner) whom Mahler greatly admired. Von Bülow likewise thought very highly of Mahler’s conducting, but upon hearing the first movement of the second symphony responded that “If what I have just heard is music, then I no longer understand anything about music.” Talk about Debbie Downer! This unpromising reaction probably had something to do with Mahler’s delayed progress.
In the summer of 1893 he picked up the pieces again and finished the second, third, and fourth movements. He had ideas for the fifth movement but found all of his sketches unsatisfactory, so he put the symphony aside again.
On 12 February 1894 von Bülow died, and on March 29 Mahler attended a memorial service for the conductor in Hamburg. At the conclusion of the service a children’s choir sang the chorale Die Auferstehung (the Resurrection) to a text by 18th-century writer Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock. In a flash of inspiration Mahler knew exactly what he wanted to do with the fifth movement; he went home and immediately began composing (and yes, this is a little Freudian). Klopstock’s poem to be used for the choral finale, and it’s what gives the symphony its nickname. The piece was finished that summer, and the premiere of the complete work took place in Berlin the following year, on December 13 (the first three movements had been performed in Berlin on March 4 of that year).
The performing forces for the symphony are massive. The orchestra requires 4 flutes, all doubling on piccolo (this is one more flute than many orchestral works, and four more piccolos than most); 4 oboes, with 3 and 4 doubling on English Horn (again, more than usual); 2 Eb clarinets, with the second doubling on Bb and A clarinets (again....); 3 clarinets in Bb, A, and C, with the third doubling on bass clarinet (and so on); 4 bassoons, with the third and fourth doubling on contrabassoon; 10 horns (Mahler’s first symphony had “only” 7); 10 trumpets, 4 trombones; tuba; 2 harps; organ; 5 pt. strings; and a generous percussion section of 3 timpanists, xylophone, 3 deep, unpitched bells, triangle, cymbals, gongs (high and low), rute (a kind of birch brush), small drum, and bass drum. Some of these instruments are used in the various offstage ensembles that pepper the score, which is crammed with expression indications and directions throughout, including various places where the instruments are instructed to raise their bells for a more pronounced sound (very cool).
For voices, there’s an alto soloist in the fourth movement, soprano and alto soloists in the fifth movement, and, of course, us, the chorus, in the last movement, with our standard four parts often split into eight. In preparation for the premiere Mahler sent scores for 30 basses and 30 tenors, but he thought it would be advisable to have more men. And as we well know, Mahler didn’t skimp on the vocal ranges. My part, Alto 1, goes from F below middle C to G at the top of the staff; Soprano 1 is equally wide (Ab below middle C to high Bb); Bass 2 has an insane range from very low Bb below the staff to the G above middle C (= almost 3 octaves! Who does Mahler think they are, Mariah Carey? but see below on this section), and so on. All choir directors shift the relevant parts around as necessary so that no one butchers their voice (e.g., A1 and S2 normally flip the last two measures), but of course we still have to pace ourselves (and breathe, breathe, breathe). Even though our actual vocal time barely allots to 5 minutes for women and a little more for men, this is still a very demanding work to sing with its wide dynamic range, a cappella music begging to go flat, chromatic part writing, intense climaxes, the huge ranges, and so on.
If you have never sung this piece before, one of the smartest things you can do to prepare is to listen to the entire piece; there are plenty of recordings to choose from online. If you can’t manage that, at least listen to the entire fifth movement. Musicians always perform best when they know how their part fits into a whole, and almost everything we sing is prefigured earlier in the symphony anyway. So do yourself a favor and get to know the symphony in advance. We will have the best seats in the house at the performance, after all.
Mahler once wrote that “From Beethoven onwards there is no modern music that has not its inner programme—But any music about which one first has to tell the listener what experience it embodies, and what he is meant to experience, is worthless.” Despite this conviction, he left a good deal of information about his earliest symphonies before he started suppressing their programs. The main reason Mahler wanted to dig into his second symphony immediately after finishing the first was because he saw the former as a programmatic continuation of the latter, and freely acknowledged that both symphonies “contain the inner aspect of my whole life; I have written into them in my own blood everything that I have experienced and endured.”
The first symphony reflects an unhappy love affair and freely uses material from his orchestral song cycle on this subject Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer). The second symphony picks up with the story of the hero of the first (= Mahler). The first movement was originally entitled Todtenfeier (funeral rite); Mahler said that “the hero of my D major symphony...is being borne to his grave, his life being reflected, as in a clear mirror, from a point of vantage.” The description from an early performance in Dresden reads:
We stand by the coffin of a well-loved person. His life, struggles, passions, and aspirations once more, for the last time, pass before our mind’s eye—And now in this moment of gravity and of emotion that convulses our deepest being, when we lay aside like a covering everything that perplexes us and drags us down, our heart is gripped by a dreadfully serious voice that always passes us by in the deafening bustle of daily life: What now? What is this life—and this death? Do we have an existence beyond it? Is all this only a confused dream, or do life and this death have a meaning?—And we must answer this question if we are to live on.
Elsewhere Mahler wrote “What did you live for? Why did you suffer? Is it all only a vast, terrifying joke? We have to answer these questions somehow if we are to go on living—indeed, even if we are only to go on dying! The person in whose life this call has resounded, even if only once, must give an answer.” Mahler intended the last movement to answer these questions.
The first movement is in sonata form, freely treated, with initial tempo designation of “Allegro maestoso. Mit durchaus ernstem und feierlichem Ausdruck” (with absolutely serious and solemn expression.” It begins and ends in C minor, but explores many distant keys in between, not always following the harmonic expectations of sonata form. The symphony’s dramatic beginning, with its opening tremolo, rushing lines, jagged drops, and sombre low strings is an intentional resemblance to the opening of Beethoven’s ninth symphony, just as the choral finale is meant to invoke Beethoven. Mahler also references melodic material from the final movements of Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen and his first symphony, Wagner’s Walküre and Siegfried, Liszt’s Dante Symphony, and the medieval sequence for the dead, Dies irae. The Wagner and plainchant material will recur throughout the symphony.
Mahler’s score indicates that “a pause of at least five minutes” should follow the first movement, an injunction rarely followed today. This direction came about in part because Mahler had strong reservations about the second movement, thinking it presented too great a contrast to the first movement. This hesitation is striking to observe since he also questioned the second movement of his first symphony, ultimately deciding to eliminate it altogether. In the first symphony this was the correct decision—its “Blumine” (flowers) movement is pretty but too slight for its surroundings, so the symphony changed from its original five movements to four. With the second symphony, however, there was no need for Mahler to question his writing. The movement forms a beautiful and much needed contrast to the forceful opening. And although Mahler left the movement in second place, he contemplated switching it with the scherzo or possibly even placing it immediately before the finale.
The key is Ab major; the gentle triple meter has the tempo indication of “Andante moderato. Sehr gemächlich! Nie eilen! (Very leisurely! Never rush!). The music is laid out in the form of A B A’ B’ A”, where the A section is major and the B section is minor. In a 1910 performance of the symphony in Paris, both Debussy and Paul Dukas—composer of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice—walked out during the second movement—they claimed it was too Schubertian. Mahler tells us that “The andante was composed...as an echo of long past days in the life of the man borne to his grave in the first movement––when the sun still smiled on him” and that it is a “blissful moment in [the hero’s] life and a mournful memory of youth and lost innocence.” It is certainly very beautiful.
We are back in C minor for this movement, the scherzo and trio in the expected triple meter. The tempo indication is “In ruhig fließender Bewegung”—in peaceful flowing motion. The movement is divided into five sections: scherzo / trio / scherzo (varied) / trio (varied) / scherzo (greatly varied). Mahler describes the movement thus: “If, at a distance, you watch a dance through a window, without being able to hear the music, then the turning and twisting movement of the couples seems senseless, because you are not catching the rhythm that is the key to it all. You might 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.” Another description says that “he loses, together with the clear eyes of childhood, the sure foothold that love alone gives. He despairs of himself and of God. The world and life become a chaotic nightmare; loathing for all being and becoming seizes him with iron fist and drives him to an outburst of despair.”
The musical foundation for the scherzo section is a Wunderhorn song that Mahler had written, Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt (St. Anthony of Padua preaches to the fish). The song, whose text is of course not present, tells the story of St. Anthony of Padua, who, finding the church where he was to preach empty, went to the river and preached to the fishes. The fishes loved his sermon, but when it was over they returned to doing exactly what they had done before. St. Anthony’s sermon was thus an exercise in futility (there’s a nice connection here with the literal translation of scherzo: joke). The perpetual motion accompaniment is delightful text-painting.
The trio is new material; it switches to C minor (although it explores other keys) and begins with an imitative texture, just like the trio in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5. The first trio includes a prominent fanfare motive and also an absolutely gorgeous trumpet melody that is one of the most beautiful parts of the whole symphony but is never heard again. The second trio brings back the fanfare and rapidly builds to an incredibly powerful orchestral climax that will return in Movement 5 (another reason to listen to the entire symphony). The final scherzo skitters away into nothingness and a final low C in horn, harp, contrabassoon, and double bass.
The fourth movement is intended to follow the third immediately, but in many performances the soloists will enter at this point. That gives everyone a nice psychological breather before the huge contrast of the fourth movement. We are back in duple meter, but now in the distant key of Db major (a key that will, however, return in the last movement). This is the real slow movement of the symphony, although the full “tempo” indication reads “Sehr feierlich, aber schlicht. Choralmaßig. Nicht schleppen” (Very solemn, but smooth. Hymnlike. Do not drag.” Once again Mahler draws on one of his Wunderhorn settings, this time the poem of one facing death: Urlicht (primeval light). The alto solo sings the opening text (the solemn and smooth part), followed by a brass chorale (the hymnlike, do not drag part). The soloist then presents each of the three stanzas of the poem in this short, expressive setting, whose primary message is “I come from God and wish to return to God.”
By this time, depending on how the concert has been organized, we have been sitting on stage for a good 45 minutes or so and have another 35 minutes (or so) ahead. Mahler, whose conducting changed from performance to performance, never wrote metronome markings in his scores (no point, really, since tempo changes are constant), and modern conductors vary wildly in their approaches to his music; some are brisk, some are quasi-lethargic. But when Mahler wrote his symphony it was the longest one yet written by anyone.
I have been in performances where the first movement is on the first part of the program (preceded by other pieces), and the rest of the symphony is after intermission—not as much fun as being on stage the whole time. However, in 1903 Mahler also sanctioned having intermission after the fourth movement when another conductor wrote to him of his plans to structure the performance thus. Once again, though, the score indicates that the fifth movement should follow the fourth without any pause, which would mean 3/4/5 played nonstop.
Various scholars have attempted to squeeze the formal structure of this movement into sonata form, but it’s an imperfect fit. For Mahler it was a “colossal musical fresco of the Day of Judgment.” To the listener it’s a series of constantly shifting moods, some of which will return. I describe major divisions below, cued to the rehearsal and/or measure numbers of the critical edition.
The opening is a version of the massive orchestral climax from the second trio of the third movement, a vast rushing upwards from the lowest strings through the full orchestra, tonally ambiguous, triple forte, filled with tremolos and tumbling scales, intended to invoke (but exceed) the chaos that similarly opens the final movement of Beethoven’s Ninth. And then (Rehearsal 2, m. 26) a sudden resolution in a clear but mysterious C major (parallel major of the symphony’s key), where there’s quasi-stasis and calm (though the celli and double basses continue to rumble below). This is one of the most incredible moments of the whole symphony, a signal that what’s ahead is going to be very special. And what we hear now is music that will return with our “sterben, werd ich um zu leben” much later in the movement. Magic!
Everything dies away to nothingness, and then at Rehearsal 3, m. 43 we hear the first of what will be many offstage elements in this movement. Offstage musicians go back at least to the early 19th century (e.g. Beethoven, Berlioz), and Mahler had used them in his early Das klagende Lied. Here he writes horn calls that resemble the shofar (ram’s horn) used on Jewish New Year, which is also the Day of Atonement; Mahler would have heard the shofar as a child in Iglau. His instructions for the performance are to employ “as many horns as possible, played with great intensity, and placed far in the distance;” in early versions of the score he called their music “the voice in the wilderness.” The norm is to have horn players 7 through 10 for this, since 6 horns are still needed on stage.
A quiet section threaded through with triplet motion is then joined by, first, the Dies irae motive, and then our “Aufersteh’n” motive (Rehearsal 5), and then the music for “Was vergangen auferstehen.” More offstage horn calls bring us to a new section that begins triple p (Rehearsal 7). We now hear the the alto soloist’s “O glaube” music that grows ever more frenzied and then dies away.
After a general pause (Rehearsal 10) we hear a brass chorale based on Dies irae, immediately followed by our “Aufersteh’n / was vergangen” music. This leads to a bold and wonderful climactic triple forte section (Rehearsal 11) in clear C major, with string tremolos, woodwind trills, rising triplet figures scattered throughout; horns have their bells up to maximize volume. This music will come back later. And then things begin to disintegrate (Rehearsal 12) after this triumph as we skitter off into minor. Listen especially to the trumpet fanfare here, where six trumpets go to a unison high G and then to an incredible high C that they sustain for three full (rather slow) measures, fading from ff to pppp.
The next section (Rehearsal 14) is introduced by two incredible percussion rolls. These build slowly and gradually to maximum volume, at which point “the earth quakes” and “the graves spring open, and all creation comes writhing out of the bowels of the earth, with wailing and gnashing of teeth.” This leads to a march-like section with both more Dies irae music as well as our “Aufersteh’n” material, snappily projected in the trumpets. “The dead arise and stream on in endless procession. The great and the little ones of the earth—kings and beggars, righteous and godless—all press on—the cry for mercy and forgiveness strikes fearfully on our ears.” Bells ring out in jubilation, all ten horns have their bells in the air, and Mahler sneaks in a Marian hymn that adds to the initial celebratory feeling. But this won’t last; we toggle back and forth between major and minor and then everything disintegrates yet again.
When we have dwindled to a single timpani roll (Rehearsal 21), the trombone enters with the “O glaube” music the alto will sing later. This is a key section of the piece, as the music gradually builds and gathers force (more offstage band, representing mindless life against the immortal questions the main orchestra is asking). The frenzy leads to, yet again, the massive orchestral climax first heard in the second trio of the third movement and then again at the beginning of this movement. And its peak is exactly where we stand (m. 402)
Or where we should stand, at least, for the best possible result. Now, this is not where Mahler wanted the chorus to stand. He wanted the chorus to sing everything seated until the imitative entries for “Mit flugeln” begin. On at least two performances that he led, however, he had the chorus stand only at the very end (the final Aufersteh’n).
Neither of these is a good place to stand. In the former, the orchestra is not at all loud, so the rumble rumble of chorus standing will be clearly audible. Also, does the chorus stand when the basses start singing? Or the beginning of the measure where they sing? The final “Aufersteh’n” is not much better; does the chorus stand on the downbeat of “Aufersteh’n”? Or the half rest before that (where we have just finished a crescendo and the tempo indication is ritardando?
Standing at m. 402, on the other hand (as most, but not all, of the performances I have sung have done) is brilliant. Not only does the massive sound of the orchestra cover the inevitable noise when 100 or more people get to their feet, but the visual shock also heightens the effect of the musical climax, something numerous people have remarked to me after performances. Mahler himself told younger conductors that “If , after my death something doesn’t sound right, then change it. You have the right to change; not only the right, the duty to change it.” I’d definitely put the stand cue in the category of things needing to be changed from his original intentions.
So, m. 402. Standing here is another reason to learn the music in advance! If you do, you will not need to fumble with any score xeroxes, as the right place is actually quite evident aurally. I find it easiest to listen to the falling figure in the trombones and then switch to the rising scale in strings and winds, since the brass suddenly move to a triplet rhythm that (to me at least) is not as easy to follow. Plus the trombones are descending—almost everyone else has a rising line. So follow the strings as they ascend to their climax.
And then we stand! Once again, Mahler is brilliant. The instant the strings and winds reach the top of their scales (the moment we stand) they either hang onto long sustained lines or provide rapid tremolo motion, letting trumpet and horn fanfares lead the way forward. And then—an enormous hush (Rehearsal 27) on a pure Db triad, with cellos, then violins, then horns, playing our “sterben werd ich um zu leben” motive.
Rehearsal 29, which follows, is what Mahler initially labelled “The Great Call.” Over a pianissimo bass drum roll we hear the offstage musicians again: first horns and then trumpets. Onstage, piccolo and flute (instructed to play “like birdsong” interweave repeated notes and rapid flourishes. In Mahler’s words, “The trumpets from the Apocalypse call—in the midst of the awful silence we think we hear in the farthest distance a nightingale, like a last quivering echo of earthly life.” Then piccolo, flute, horns, trumpets, and solitary timpani roll all die away. It’s our turn now.
Mahler wanted the effect of extremely soft voices coming from far away, which is why he had the chorus seated and gave us a triple piano dynamic. This opening chorale, since it is unaccompanied and we have been silent for an hour or more, is practically begging to go flat. Do not do that! Breathe, support your breath, and keep thinking “higher, higher, higher”—aufersteh’n, after all; this is supposed to represent rising. And the possibility of going flat is another reason to stand. It’s much easier to sing softly (and stay in tune) if you’re standing. The key moment is when we reach “Ruh,” which is when celli and double bass join us on Ab, which should match Bass 2 and Tenor 1 (a moment where all singers’ hearts should be in their throats—did we stay in tune?)
Assuming we have not gone shamefully flat, we then slowly move away from our clear Gb major (6 flats—pity the poor accompanist) to a more chromatic passage (and more unaccompanied singing) before we return to Gb as the soprano soloist, who has been singing with the sopranos all along, soars above us. Mahler actually gives permission for a few obbligato instruments to double us “if the choir cannot maintain the pitch,” but no self-respecting chorus wants this.
As noted before, Klopstock’s text is the reason the symphony is nicknamed the “Resurrection” symphony, and it’s also one reason people often choose it to represent some kind of rebirth; it certainly got performed a lot when things finally opened up after the pandemic.
A few things to note: in addition to the “Langsam. Misterioso” expressive indication (slow, mysterious) we are also instructed to sing “ohne im Geringsten hervorzutreten” (without standing out in the slightest). That instruction is missing from some p/v scores, and the metronome marking that is present in at least one score is not Mahler’s. There’s more information about the bass part, too (this is where the Bass 2 part sings down an octave from Bass 1): “The 2nd basses should not sing the tones in the upper octave, otherwise the effect intended by the composer would be spoiled. It is not necessary to hear these low notes [!] which are written here only to keep the low basses from taking the higher B-flat, for instance, and thus overpowering it.”
The shifting tempo/rhythmic indications are also intensely Mahlerian: a fermata on the 3rd note, a ritardando on the last beat of the second measure, then a tempo, then another fermata, another ritardando, another a tempo—whew!
It’s another magic moment when we finish this opening stanza, as the orchestra takes over in clear shimmering Gb major, playing motives we’ve now heard many times before. It’s also a bit of a relief—we’ve gotten through what is in some ways the hardest part of the piece for us. And most of the rest of the piece is music heard earlier; Mahler’s just pulling everything together now.
This section is the last of the two stanzas by Klopstock (which Mahler tweaked a bit). The rest of the text is by Mahler himself, who, after reading widely, gave up on trying to find an appropriate continuation and just wrote his own words. The music is a variation on the first stanza, still in Gb, still in chorale style, still moving from consonance to dissonance and back, and still doubled by the soprano soloist who takes flight at the end. Again the orchestral interlude that follows reiterates our motives and leads to a shimmering conclusion.
With this text we switch to the alto soloist and a change in key—we will continue to shed flats as the movement progresses. Here we have gone to five flats and are in B-flat minor. The musical themes are familiar, as they have already appeared multiple times previously.
The entrance of the soprano soloist brings us back to major (Db). Her short solo is followed by a violin solo and then a harp glissando that brings us to:
This section, marked “Langsamer. Misterioso,” is another variant on the opening chorale, continually moving and pulling back in tempo and dynamics, and taking us from B-flat minor to its relative major (Db) and then modulating to Ab by dropping another flat (down to four flats now). This time it is the alto soloist that doubles us before rising above at the end.
This is the final solo section, introduced by a dramatic violin leap of an upward seventh. The alto soloist is first; what is not always evident in p/v scores is that Mahler provides an option for the chorus altos to sing along with her first phrase (O Schmerz! Du Alldurchdringer! Dir bin ich entrungen!). However, I have yet to take part in a performance where the conductor exercises that option (and I see no reason why anyone should).
Soprano soon joins the alto and they trade phrases back and forth until they finally join in thirds for the last line. I always get a little misty when I hear “zum Licht...” as they begin to descend—this wonderful piece is almost over, and from here to the end is the easiest part of the piece to sing—we really are home free.
Thanks to the soloists, we’ve now dropped one more flat and are down to the final key, Eb major, which is the relative major to the C minor of the beginning of the symphony—in other words, the same key signature and thus very closely related (Mahler does not do this in all of his works). The first two lines are sung in imitation (B, A, T, S), the first time Mahler has given us this texture. For those who think I am crazy to say that from here on in things are easy, I recognize that we have various chromatics ahead, some soft dynamics at the beginning of our imitative patterns, and a lot of high notes. But we are no longer exposed; there’s always lots of orchestral support, the tempo is brisk, and the high notes are all loud (= much easier to sing than soft!). Piece of cake!
The third line (sterben werd ich...) is the crux of the work; we’ve heard this motive many times earlier in the piece but never the text, and Mahler presents it in a way that is impossible to miss. In a texture that is new for the chorus, we sing syllabically in fortissimo octaves—the message is unmistakeable. We move back to harmony only on “leben” (live!).
We return immediately to octaves for “Aufersteh’n, ja” before harmonizing thereafter. The tempo is now Pesante (weighty), the dynamic is fff with the added indication “mit höchster Kraft” (with maximum power), the organ has entered for the first time in the entire piece (to play with “volles Werk”—all stops out), the brass all ring forth with the aufersteh’n motive—no holding back here (nice high Bb for the sopranos on “Herz.”) We are back in octaves for “was du geschlagen”and then things get chromatic again for “zu Gott wird es dich,” but that just makes our massive cadence on “tragen” more forceful. And then we’re done.
The orchestra continues its bell-ringing jubilation after we’ve finished singing, and I always want to laugh and cry at the same time; I’m both intensely happy and intensely sad that it’s over. What an unbelievable piece! What an unbelievable blessing to get to sing it!
A Personal Note
Mahler’s Second Symphony is one of those works that can change lives. When renowned conductor Sir Simon Rattle was an eleven-year-old percussion student, hearing this work made him decide to become a conductor. Lawrence F. Bernstein, a noted scholar of Renaissance music, was inspired to devote years of his life to this nineteenth-century symphony by writing Inside Mahler’s Second Symphony: A Listener’s Guide (highly recommended!). And Gilbert Kaplan, an economist, so fell in love with the piece that he studied conducting and used his considerable fortune just so he could conduct this one work with professional symphony orchestras that he hired around the world (eccentric, yes. Good for music? also yes). His generosity has also supported significant research on Mahler and the best critical editions.
I’m another person whose life changed because of this piece. I first sang the work at the beginning of my sophomore year in college. Certainly some undergraduates have this experience, but I did not sing it with my college orchestra (the norm for those who sing it at such a young age). For reasons I still do not understand, the Penn State chorus was chosen to sing with the Pittsburgh Symphony at the re-opening of Heinz Hall after its renovation. We ended up being their go-to choir for the entire time I was an undergraduate, which meant I got to sing with them on numerous occasions and in various venues, including my first performance at Carnegie Hall. At this point Penn State did not have a music school but only a (rather small) music department, and the university is located in the Middle of Nowhere, Pa., hours away from Pittsburgh. But there we were.
We started work on the piece at the end of my freshman year; this was my first experience with German and I was very, very lucky to have a choir conductor who was a stickler for pronunciation (aside from the need to pronounce things correctly, choirs cannot sing in tune if people are pronouncing the words differently from one another). So no dipthong-inflected layeebens for Leben, for example. And NO HARD Gs after the letter N!!! (this is a pet peeve of mine. Pronounce NG as we would in English for singing, ringing, clinging, bringing—NO HARD G!!!).
We returned to Penn State in September and practiced there before taking the bus to Pittsburgh. I was very pleased that I remembered everything (our choirs sang everything from memory, including the Verdi Requiem, Elijah, b minor mass—as I said, everything). At Heinz Hall they were still rushing around madly trying to finish all the details (we arrived two days before the first performance) but it was already beautiful. We immediately went to a small rehearsal room, and while we were waiting for the piano rehearsal to begin, the custodian and two prostitutes entered the room, to my great surprise.
Except that they were actually the conductor (William Steinberg, an excellent Mahler conductor and a native German speaker—good thing we had worked hard on pronunciation) and the soloists. As this was my first performance with a professional orchestra, I was not expecting a little gnome of a man in a blue work shirt (I guess I thought he’d be in a coat and tie), and I was completely unaware that (way back then, this was decades ago) female soloists wore heavy make-up, serious hair-dos, and “look at me” clothing in any professional situation. Really, they looked like they could have been hanging out on street corners waiting for customers. Women who aspire to professional singing careers today are still too often judged by appearance, but at least they can look like normal human beings at rehearsal.
My journal entry for the day before the opening is bubbling over with excitement and nerves. I was thrilled that Samuel Barber was in the hall as we were rehearsing. The only work I knew of his was the gorgeous Adagio for Strings, and I was eager to hear the new piece he had written for the concert (alas, it was a dud). We were told that critics from the New York Times would be coming, as would the governor, plus “tons of rich, important people, dressed to the teeth.” I wrote that “I’m so scared we’ll go flat, be mediocre” and “this is very exciting” and “I keep hearing it in my mind—the soprano and mezzo-soprano duet right before the fugue [Zum Licht...]” and “the orchestra is tremendous, it’s so exciting!”
The next journal entry was written at 2:00 a.m. after the first performance, and opens with the final words that we sing, from “Aufersteh’n” through “tragen,” after which I wrote “that was so tremendous! I can’t in any way capture it!” I then proceeded to describe that exceptional day, which included a morning rehearsal, getting scared, being scared all day, taking a nap and sleeping through dinner (!) before heading down to the hall and “getting more & more scared that we’d go flat.” Soon we were filing onstage and singing the Star-Spangled Banner and then listening to Beethoven’s excellent Consecration of the House Overture.
And when it was time for us to sing: “my heart was pounding as we stood up—so scared—and then we sang—we were perfect—and from then on it was tremendous—so gorgeous—the fugue—the tremendous ending—singing our hearts out—the tears right there—feeling so great—everyone immediately stood up & cheered & applauded—SO FANTASTIC—me singing with the Pittsburgh Symphony!”
Yes, this is a gushing teenager, but you know what? This is how everyone should feel when they have the opportunity to perform a thrilling work with professionals of the highest caliber—an opportunity I’m so happy to be approaching yet again. My Mahler performances with the Pittsburgh Symphony tipped me towards pursuing a life in music. I knew then—and I know even more now—how incredibly fortunate I was that Mahler opened this unbelievable world for me.
Works (almost complete; in approximate chronological order)
Das klagende Lied, (The Lamenting Song)
This large-scale choral/orchestral work, often identified as a cantata but in reality rather fluid generically, was originally in three parts. When Mahler revised the work, he eliminated the first movement (“Waldmärchen”).
Lieder und Gesänge [aus der Jugendzeit]; voice and piano
This collection of 14 songs includes 9 on texts from Des Knaben Wunderhorn. The “aus der Jugendzeit” (from the time of youth) title was added by the publisher.
Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer)
This four-movement song cycle exists with both piano and orchestra accompaniment. The first song is based on a text from Des knaben Wunderhorn.
Symphony No. 1 in D Major (The Titan)
4 movements, but originally 5 movements; the original second movement, “Blumine” (flowers) was discarded. The first movement uses material from the second song of Songs of a Wayfarer. The third movement is a minor-mode version of the canon Bruder Martin (also known as Frère Jacques in French, Are you sleeping? in English, Broeder Jacob in Dutch, and so on).
Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth’s Magic Horn)
This collection of twelve songs, all to texts from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, exists in both piano and orchestra versions.
Symphony No. 2 in c minor (Resurrection)
5 movements; Mvt. 4 has alto solo; Mvt. 5 has chorus + soprano & alto solos. Mvt. 3 uses material from Mahler’s song Des Antonius von Padua fischpredigt in his Des Knaben Wunderhorn collection. Mvt. 4 is the song Urlicht from the same collection.
Symphony No. 3 in d minor
6 movements; mvt. 4 has alto solo; mvt. 5 has women’s choir and boys choir on a text from Des Knaben Wunderhorn. Each movement has a programmatic title; I like to play this at the beginning of summer each year as “Summer marches in” is one of the descriptions for the first movement.
Symphony No. 4 in G major
4 movements; mvt. 4 has soprano solo on a text from Des Knaben Wunderhorn.
Rückertlieder (Songs on Poems by Rückert)
5 songs with both piano and orchestra accompaniment.
Revelge and Der Tamboursg’sell
Two songs on texts from Des Knaben Wunderhorn; each has both piano and orchestral versions.
Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children)
Orchestral song cycle of 5 songs.
Symphony No. 5 in c# minor
Symphony No. 6 in a minor
4 movements; “Tragic”
Symphony No. 7 in e minor
Symphony No. 8 in Eb Major (Symphony of a Thousand)
2 movements (hymn Veni creator spiritus + closing scene from Goethe’s Faust); double chorus, boy’s choir, SSSAATBarB soloists.
Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth)
Orchestral song cycle. 6 movements: 1, 3, 5 use tenor solo; 2, 4, 6 use alto solo.
Symphony No. 9 in D Major
Symphony No. 10 in f# minor
First movement “completed;” 5-movement performing version by Deryck Cooke created from Mahler’s draft for entire symphony.
All translations by Honey Meconi.
May 27, 2023