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Listening for an Easter Afternoon

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Gustav Mahler, Symphony No. 2 in C Minor, “The Resurrection” (“Auferstehung”). Favorite recording: Sir Georg Solti, Chicago Symphony Orchestra (London/Decca)(1981).

T.W. Adorno said of Mahler’s second symphony that it was the work through which most people came to love Mahler, but also the one most likely quickly to fade away. He was right on the first point but wrong on the second. This work has remained loved, among the most consistently popular of Mahler’s works. It plays a curious role in his total output, perhaps the most life-affirming and religiously inspired of all his compositions. It manages to be majestic, lofty and sentimental at the same time, a curious combination, and the fifth movement, from which it takes its name is powerful and emotive, slowly building and unfolding over a period of roughly half an hour.

The first movement, which was originally produced separately as a symphonic poem, is called Todtenfeier and is inspired by Adam Mickiewicz’s great work of that name (in Polish, Dziady). It has a funereal quality to it. The fourth movement, called Urlicht (“Primal Light”) features a song from Des Knaben Wunderhorn sung by an alto, but it is hardly a self-standing movement. Rather it prefigures the great final movement which is the core of the work.

The inspiration for the last movement was chronicled by Mahler. He writes that he attended the funeral of the prominent conductor Hans von Bülow in 1894 and heard there a setting of the poem Die Auferstehung by Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock (the poem comes from the Geistliche Lieder). He didn’t care much for the music—but Klopstock’s profession of faith in resurrection moved Mahler to his innermost depths. He writes shortly afterwards that he was resolved to write a more fitting musical setting for this powerful work.

Mahler was born a Jew, and converted to Christianity at a point in the turn of the century that Austrian historian Gerald Stourzh has called the “apogee of conversions.” There is little doubt that for most of the converts, the adoption of a new religion was a matter of political and social convenience rather than faith. That may be the case with Mahler as well. His famous wife Alma joked with him about his conversion, but after his death, she insisted in the face of all doubters that he was “christgläubig” – a Christian believer. Never the less, Mahler’s engagement with musical aspects of his new faith—redemption through suffering and love, resurrection—was extremely impressive and musically fruitful. Mahler modified the lines beginning “o glaube;” his words are poignant (on the other hand, Mahler is not the equal of Klopstock as a poet).

The fifth movement is complex and impressive; it is something new, but it has roots in the Viennese tradition — of Beethoven’s ninth symphony, for instance. A horn sounds announcing the theme of resurrection, and the symphonic mass builds slowly – led by horns and brass, pressing forward, with some strangely menacing notes. All of this mounts to the entry of the chorus, with a powerful organ accompaniment. The choir gives way to a soprano solo, and later a contralto solo, but the conclusion is ringing, jubilant and massive, involving the full chorus, the organ and a massive symphonic voice.

This work is something new, powerful and also extremely difficult to consume in a single hearing. It’s worth listening to several times. But the message of this work is one of joy, faith and renewal. It is a sonic realization of spring’s green fuse, a very great masterwork.

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