Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Mahler - Symphony No. 2 'Resurrection'

Mahler was most well-known in his lifetime as a conductor of opera and orchestral works. He did most of his compositional work on his summer holidays from his conducting duties.  All of his symphonies show an intimate knowledge of the orchestra gained by his experience as a conductor.

Mahler's 2nd Symphony was his most popular work in his lifetime, and was a favorite of Mahler himself. It remains his most popular work to this day. It is written for a  huge orchestra (parts of which play offstage) with a large percussion section, two soloists, a mixed choir and organ.  It premiered in 1895 in Berlin and was conducted by the composer. It is in five movements:

1st Movement - Allegro maestoso 
The first movement of Mahler's 2nd Symphony was originally intended as a symphonic poem written in 1888 entitled Totenfeier (Funeral Rites) and reflects Mahler's life-long struggle with the meaning of life and the mysteries of death. When Mahler played the piano score of the work to Hans von Bülow his mentor,  he labeled it as incomprehensible.  Mahler set the work aside until 1893 when he completed the middle movements on his summer vacation from his conducting duties, but the finale continued to give him problems until the death of von Bülow in 1894. When Mahler attended the funeral of von Bülow he was inspired by a choral work sung at the services and finished the symphony shortly after.

Hans von Bülow
While the funeral march in the third movement of his first symphony is a sardonic parody of the tune Frère Jacques (also known as Brüder Martin in German and  Are You Sleeping? in English), the funeral music in the first movement of the 2nd Symphony very different. It is brutal in places, tender and longing in others, and has a different feeling to it all together.

The movement is in a modified sonata form and some of the material used in the development section of the movement is used later in the symphony. Mahler's instructions called for a five-minute pause between the first and second movements, but this is seldom done in current performances.

2nd movement - Andante moderato 
A German Ländler, a dance popular in Southern Germany and Austria. A much-needed respite from the seriousness of the first movement, but it isn't exactly brimming with sunshine and Tyrolean joy.

3rd Movement - In ruhig fließender Bewegung (With Quietly Flowing movement)
A scherzo in all but name, this movement is an adaption of one of Mahler's songs, St. Anthony Preaches To The Fishes set to the folk poem collection Das Knaben Wunderhorn  Near the end of the movment there is a climax for orchestra that Mahler called a death shriek. 

4th Movement - Urlicht (Primeval Light) 
Another movement originally written to a Das Knaben Wunderhorn poem, scored for Alto voice and orchestra.  There are no less than 15 time signature changes in the short movement, which to my ears lends a restlessness to the music that serves as an introduction to the huge final movement. The poem as translated from The Knaben Wunderhorn
Primeval Light 
O red rose!
Man lies in greatest need!
Man lies in greatest pain!
How I would rather be in heaven.
There came I upon a broad path when came a little angel and wanted to turn me away.
Ah no! I would not let myself be turned away!
I am from God and shall return to God!
The loving God will grant me a little light,
Which will light me into that eternal blissful life!
5th Movement - Im Tempo des Scherzos (In the tempo of the scherzo) 
A sprawling movement that last roughly thirty minutes and is in two sections, the first section for orchestra alone, the second for chorus, soloists and orchestra..  The first section begins with a restating of the 'death shriek' heard at the climax of the third movement. A procession of time changes, key changes and mood swings, plus music played by horns and percussion that are off stage,  leads to what amounts to the development section of this first part, which is in a very free type of sonata form. This development section begins with two tremendous percussion crescendos that lead to what Mahler called 'The March Of The Dead'.   The orchestra is answered by the offstage brass, themes bound in and out of the frantic march until the choral section of the movement begins quietly.

Tee rest of the movement is guided by the text sung by soloists (alto and soprano) and chorus. The music grows in intensity and volume, with bells and organ joining the chorus and orchestra full strength for the final 'resurrection' of the dead that have gone before.  Ecstatic and almost overwhelmed, the orchestra ends in a glory of sound and  emotion. Mahler himself said of the ending "The increasing tension, working up to the final climax, is so tremendous that I don’t know myself, now that it is over, how I ever came to write it."

The text for the final section by Friedrich Klopstock the German poet, and Mahler himself.
CHORUS AND SOPRANO 
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 again thou art sown!
The Lord of the Harvest goes
And gathers in, like sheaves,
Us who died.
-Friedrich Klopstock
ALTO 
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! 
SOPRANO 
Oh believe, thou were not born in vain!
Hast not lived in vain, suffered in vain! 
CHORUS 
What has come into being must perish,
What perished must rise again.

CHORUS AND ALTO 
Cease from trembling!
Prepare thyself to live! 
SOPRANO AND ALTO 
Oh Pain, thou piercer of all things,
From thee have I been wrested!
Oh Death, thou master 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. 
CHORUS 
With wings, which I have won,
I shall soar upwards I shall die, to live! 
 CHORUS, SOPRANO AND ALTO 
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!
-Gustav Mahler
When Mahler was asked about the negativity generated by his music, he calmly replied "My time will come."  Mahler was a bellwether that helped usher in the modern world, for better or worse. Among the deterrents to his music was anti-semitism of the 20th century and the fact that Mahler's music is not 'easy' to perform (or even listen to on occasion). But as with all great music, there is something in it that speaks to many, regardless of their musical education or expertise. He is a composer that was as much a philosopher as anything else. His 'words' are musical notes, his 'books' are his symphonies.  His time has indeed come, and shows no sign of slacking off.

1 comment:

  1. I must admit that I prefer Symphony No 4. I know it’s a slighter work but it gets into my CD player far more often than No 2.

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