Mahler Notes by Michael Steinberg

Michael Steinberg (1928-2009) was program annotator of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the San Francisco Symphony and New York Philharmonic. The Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra and William Schrickel would like to thank the Michael Steinberg & Jorja Fleezanis Fund for the honor of reprinting Mr. Steinberg’s program note.

Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 (Resurrection) Program Note by Michael Steinberg

Gustav Mahler was born at Kalischt near the Moravian border of Bohemia on July 7, 1860, and died in Vienna on May 18, 1911. Mahler originally wrote the first movement of his Symphony No. 2 in 1888 as a “symphonic poem” entitled “Todtenfeier” (“Funeral Rites”). He long wavered about whether to make “Todtenfeier” the beginning of a symphony, and it was not until the summer of 1893 that he composed the second and third movements. The finale and a revision of the first movement followed in the spring and summer of 1894. Later that year, he inserted as the fourth movement the song “Urlicht” (“Primal Light”), probably composed in 1892 and orchestrated in 1893. The fair copy of the complete score of the symphony is dated December 28, 1894. Mahler revised the scoring again in 1903 and was still tinkering with the score as late as 1909.

The score of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 calls for four flutes (all doubling piccolos), two oboes (third and fourth doubling English horns), three clarinets (third doubling bass clarinet) and two E-flat clarinets, four bassoons (third and fourth doubling contrabassoon), ten horns, eight trumpets, four trombones, bass tuba, organ, two harps, two sets of timpani, bass drum, cymbals, high and low tam-tams, triangle, two snare drums, glockenspiel, three deep bells of unspecified pitch, birch brush (played against the body of the bass drum), and strings, plus soprano and alto soloists, and large mixed choir. Four each of the horns and trumpets play offstage in the finale, most of these then moving onstage. There is also an offstage group consisting of another kettledrum, triangle, bass drum, and pair of cymbals.

The Second Symphony is often called the Resurrection, but Mahler himself gave it no title. On various occasions, though, and beginning in December 1895, Mahler offered programs to explain the work. As always, he blew hot and cold on this question. Writing to his wife, he referred to the program he had provided at the request of King Albert of Saxony in connection with a December 1901 Dresden performance as “a crutch for a cripple.” He goes on: “It gives only a superficial indication, all that any program can do for a musical work, let alone this one, which is so much all of a piece that it can no more be explained than the world itself. I’m quite sure that if God were asked to draw up a program of the world he created he could never do it. At best it would say as little about the nature of God and life as my analysis says about my C minor Symphony.”

Not only was Mahler skeptical about the programs he could not resist devising—all after the event—but he changed his mind repeatedly as to just what the program was. His various descriptions all indicated that the first movement celebrates a dead hero. It retains, in other words, its original Todtenfeier aspect, and since the First and Second symphonies were, in a sense, of simultaneous genesis, it is worth citing Mahler’s comments that it is the hero of the First Symphony who is borne to his grave in the funeral music of the Second and that “the real, the climactic dénouement [of the First] comes only in the Second”. The second and third movements represent retrospect, the former being innocent and nostalgic, the latter including a certain element of the grotesque. The fourth and fifth movements are the resolution and they deal with the Last Judgment, redemption, and resurrection.

The first and last movements are the symphony’s biggest, though the finale is much the longer of the two. In other ways, they are as different as possible, partly no doubt because of the six years that separate them, still more crucially because of their different structural and expressive functions. The Todtenfeier is firmly anchored to the classical sonata tradition (late Romantic branch). Its character is that of a march, and Mahler’s choice of key—C minor—surely alludes to the classic exemplar for such a piece, the marcia funèbre in Beethoven’s Eroica. The lyric, contrasting theme, beautifully scored for horns, is an homage to Beethoven’s Violin Concerto.

Disjunctions of tempo are very much a feature of Mahler’s style. At the very beginning, against scrubbing violins and violas, low strings hurl turns, scales, and broken chords. Their instruction is to play not merely fff but “ferociously.” Here, for example, Mahler prescribes two distinct speeds for the string figures and the rests that separate them, the former “in violent onslaught” at about q =144, the latter in the movement’s main tempo of about q =84-92. Later, the climax of the development is fixed not only by maximal dissonance, but, still more strikingly, by a series of three caesuras, each followed by an “out of tempo” forward rush. The thematic material of the second movement, both the gentle dance with which it begins and the cello tune that soon joins in, goes back to Leipzig and the time of the Todtenfeier. Like the minuet from the Third Symphony, this movement was occasionally played by itself, and Mahler used to refer to these bucolic genre pieces as the raisins in his cakes.

The third movement is a symphonic expansion of a song about Saint Anthony of Padua’s sermon to the fishes; the text comes from the collection of German folk verse, Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Boy’s Magic Horn). Mahler worked on the two pieces simultaneously and finished the scoring of the song one day after that of the scherzo.

The sardonic Fischpredigt scherzo skids into silence, and its final shudder is succeeded by a new sound, the sound of a human voice. In summoning that resource, as he would in his next two symphonies as well, Mahler consciously and explicitly evokes Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Urlicht, whose text also comes from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, is one of Mahler’s loveliest songs and full of Mahlerian paradox, too, in that its hymnlike simplicity and naturalness are achieved by a metrical flexibility so vigilant of prosody and so complex that the opening section of thirty-five bars has twenty-one changes of meter. The chamber-musical scoring is also characteristically detailed and inventive.

The peace that the song spreads over the symphony like balm is shattered by an outburst whose ferocity again refers to the corresponding place in Beethoven’s Ninth. Like Beethoven, Mahler draws on music from earlier in the symphony; not, however, in order to reject it, but to build upon it. He arrays before us a great and pictorial pageant. Horns sound in the distance (Mahler referred to this as “the crier in the wilderness”). A march with a suggestion of the Gregorian Dies irae is heard, and so is other music saturated in angst, more trumpet signals, marches, and a chorale. Then Mahler’s “große Appell,” the Great Summons, the Last Trump: horns and trumpets loud but at a great distance, while in the foreground a solitary bird flutters across the scene of destruction. Silence. From that silence there emerges again the sound of human voices in a Hymn of Resurrection. A few instruments enter to support the singers and, magically, at the word “rief”—“called”—a single soprano begins to float free.

Although thoroughly aware of the perils of inviting comparison with Beethoven, Mahler knew early that he wanted a vocal finale. The problem of finding the right text baffled him for a long time. Once again the altogether remarkable figure of Hans von Bülow enters the scene—Hans von Bülow, the pianist who gave the first performance of Tchaikovsky’s most famous piano concerto (in Boston), who conducted the premieres of Tristan and Meistersinger (and whose young wife left him for Wagner), and who was one of the most influential supporters of Brahms. When Mahler went to the Hamburg Opera in 1891, the other important conductor in town was Bülow, who was in charge of the symphony concerts. Bülow was not often a generous colleague, but Mahler impressed him, nor was his support diminished by his failure to like or understand the Todtenfeier when Mahler played it for him on the piano: Bülow said it made Tristan sound like a Haydn symphony.

As Bülow’s health declined, Mahler began to substitute for him, and he was much affected by Bülow’s death early in 1894. At the memorial service in Hamburg, the choir sang a setting of the Resurrection Hymn by the 18th-century Saxon poet Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock. “It struck me like lightning, this thing,” Mahler wrote to Arthur Seidl, “and everything was revealed to my soul clear and plain.” He took the first two stanzas of Klopstock’s hymn and added to them verses of his own that deal still more explicitly with the issue of redemption and resurrection.

The lines about the vanquishing of pain and death are given to the two soloists in passionate duet. The verses beginning “Mit Flügeln, die ich mir errungen” (“With wings I won for myself”) form the upbeat to the triumphant reappearance of the chorale: “Sterben werd’ ich, um zu leben!” (“I shall die so as to live!”), and the symphony comes to its close in a din of fanfares and pealing bells.