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Symphony No 2 in C minor 'Resurrection'
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Movement 1: Allegro maestoso
Movement 2: Andante moderato
Movement 3: In ruhig fliessender Bewegung
Movement 4: Urlicht: Sehr feierlich, aber schlicht
Movement 5: Im Tempo des Scherzo

Symphony No 2 in C minor 'Resurrection'
A young admirer once asked Mahler for a key to the ‘meaning’ of his Second Symphony (1888–94). Mahler refused: ‘I would regard my work as having failed completely if I found it necessary to give people like yourself even an indication as to its mood-sequence. In my conception of the work I was in no way concerned with the detailed setting forth of an event, but much rather of a feeling’.

One can understand Mahler’s frustration. At first he’d tried to help people by providing explanatory programme notes; but the public would keep getting the wrong end of the stick. Mahler’s wife Alma remembered how, after a performance of the Resurrection Symphony, an old Russian lady approached the composer, ‘telling him that she felt her death to be near, and would he enlighten her about the other world, as he had said so much about it in his Second Symphony? Alas, he was not so well informed about it as she supposed, and when he took his leave he was made to feel very distinctly that she was displeased with him’. Mahler’s final verdict on this issue was succinct: ‘Perish all programmes!’

But the question remains: how are we to make sense of a work like the Resurrection Symphony? Obviously this is not ‘music about music’. The last two movements have texts dealing with matters of faith and doubt, and how belief in a God of Love can be reconciled with human suffering. Even when there are no words, there are pointers: the first movement, for instance, is unmistakably a gigantic funeral march. So the Second Symphony as a whole marks a huge progression from darkness to light, from death to life – ‘resurrection’. Mahler may have had his doubts about a benign, omnipotent personal ‘God’, but he never really doubted the redeeming power of love. It is also possible to find a humanist meaning: resurrection as a rising from the dead into the fullness of life here and now. As in Henrik Ibsen’s almost exactly contemporary play When We Dead Awaken, the challenge is to rise above fear of mortality. In the words of Klopstock’s Resurrection Ode, with which Mahler closes the finale: ‘Cease from trembling! Prepare yourself to live!’

After the grimly arresting beginning (growls from cellos and basses through nervous string tremolos) the long first movement settles into a steady march tempo. Mahler revealed that he imagined a spectator watching a hero being carried to his grave, and asking, ‘Why did you live? Why did you suffer? Is it all nothing but a huge, dreadful joke?’ A gentler second theme in the major key (violins) briefly holds out the promise of an answer, but it soon fades back into the funeral march – faster now, and more urgent. The alternation of the two themes, one dark and despairing, the other light and hopeful continues, but ultimately the funeral tread returns darker than ever, until the movement is extinguished with a furious final gesture – like Macbeth’s despairing ‘Out, out, brief candle!’

The shorter second movement is, according to Mahler’s original programme, ‘a memory – a shaft of sunlight from out of the life of this hero’. The music is steeped in the kind of Austrian country dance tunes (especially the Ländler, country cousin of the sophisticated urban Waltz) with which Mahler had a lifelong love-hate relationship. After this, the sinister, sarcastic humour of the third movement (a Scherzo in all but name) comes as a shock. ‘It can easily happen’, Mahler wrote, ‘that existence becomes horrible to you, like the swaying of dancing figures in a brightly-lit ballroom, into which you peer from the dark night outside … from which you perhaps start away with a cry of disgust’. The terrifying full-orchestral ‘cry of disgust’ near the end is unmistakable.

Again we have complete contrast. The tiny fourth movement opens with the mezzo-soprano singing the first line of the anonymous folk poem Urlicht (‘Primal Light’). An anguished central section reaches its climax at the words ‘I am from God and will return to God’. At this, peace is resumed, and the movement ends with a beautiful final sigh on the word Leben – ‘Life’. Then the finale erupts with the ‘cry of disgust’ that ended the third movement. But gradually a new stillness comes over the music, with distant horn-calls and stirrings of life from woodwind and strings. A woodwind chant recalls the medieval chant Dies irae – ‘Day of Wrath’. Then an apocalyptic march section (with offstage bands) builds to an awe-inspiring climax as Mahler paints a quasi-medieval picture of the dead arising on the day of judgement. This culminates in another ‘cry of disgust’, now amplified with fanfares from the enlarged brass section. Another moment of stillness, then more offstage fanfares are heard, enriched with sweet woodwind birdsong. A different view of resurrection now follows as the chorus enters: ‘Rise again, yes, you shall rise again’. Soprano and mezzo-soprano soloists recall and develop the Urlicht music. Finally, chorus, full orchestra, and organ lead to a thrilling apotheosis on the final lines of Klopstock’s hymn: ‘What you have struggled for shall carry you to God’. The symphony culminates in massive brass calls and the triumphal clangour of gongs and bells.

from notes by Stephen Johnson İ 2008

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