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Mahler's epic 'Resurrection' symphony, with its dramatic choral finale, was finally completed in 1894 after some six years' labour. It remains one of the composer's grandest—and most popular—works.
Although Mahler’s early symphonies do not tell a precise story, the initial thinking was that the ‘hero’ of Mahler’s first symphony is seen at his burial in the ‘Funeral Rites’ opening of the second (although this subtitle was later removed). Yet Mahler’s focus was on philosophical themes rather than storytelling, and later he tried to do away with extra-musical interpretations altogether, declaring: 'Away with programmes, they give a false picture! Let the public form its own thoughts.'
Mahler shifted between the two positions, writing highly detailed programme notes for the second symphony but then dismissing these as being for the 'naïve reader'. In 1896 he wrote to his friend, Max Marschalk: '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. The conceptual basis of the work is spoken out clearly in the words of the final chorus, and the sudden emergence of the contralto solo throws an illuminating light on the earlier movements.'
In 1897, Mahler explained to another acquaintance, Arthur Seidl: '… my music achieves a programme as the final explanation of feelings and ideas, whereas Strauss’s programme is the result of a planned quota.'
Mahler’s awareness of what others thought of him was acute, sharpened by his ‘frenemy’ relationship with the more successful Richard Strauss, and this shaped his approach to the second symphony. Wagnerians thought the symphonic form obsolete; Brahmsians favoured the tradition of the ‘absolute’ symphony, written without a programme.
Mahler was being pulled in different directions, and his confusion showed on the title page of music composed in September 1888. He wrote ‘Symphony in C minor’ but then crossed this out and replaced it with Todtenfeier (‘Funeral Rites’). In 1891 Mahler offered this movement to a publisher as a ‘symphonic poem’ but was rejected, and he soon returned to the idea of using it as a first movement—although an intense conducting schedule and work politics prevented him from finishing the symphony until 1894.
Personal tragedy contributed to the nature of the second symphony. In 1889 both Mahler’s parents and one of his sisters died, leaving him grieving—and financially responsible for four siblings. Mahler grappled with faith and with existential meaning. He was a Jewish man trying to make his way in an antisemitic world; in 1897 he would officially convert to Catholicism in order to secure the job of Music Director of the Vienna Court Opera. Even so, he suffered an unrelentingly antisemitic press campaign that ultimately brought about his resignation.
Mahler’s friend Ferdinand Pfohl recalled (albeit with the benefit of hindsight) a man who 'had questioned God, and been cast out of the Light and into the Darkness', regarding Mahler as 'one whose crime was Knowledge and who now sought the way back to the lost paradise … undergoing a penance of remorseful contrition in order to rise once again to Heaven, seeking to reach God and the angels, and his brethren, on the soaring bridge of music that joins this world and the hereafter.' Of the second symphony’s opening movement Mahler wrote: 'What is life?—and what is Death? Have we any continuing existence? Is it all an empty dream or has this life of ours, and our death, a meaning?'
Some respite from these questions came in 1893, when Mahler began a routine that would last for the rest of his life: spending the summer composing in the Alps, at Steinbach on the shores of Lake Attersee. The dramatic contrasts of the Alpine scenery could not fail to inspire, and the serenity of the setting breathed life into the symphony’s ‘Resurrection’ finale. Literary sources of inspiration included Jean Paul, whose writings often juxtaposed hellish, apocalyptic visions with elysian, heavenly reconciliation, and Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock’s Resurrection Ode—'Fear no more! Prepare yourself to live!' In 1894 Mahler heard this at the funeral of his friend, the conductor Hans von Bülow, telling Seidl that it 'struck me like lightning'. Mahler set the first two verses of Klopstock’s poem in the final movement of his second symphony, adding words of his own.
The symphony’s first movement establishes the conflicting forces in the spiritual battle that will unfold: a tragic funeral march; nostalgic pastoralism; a mournful theme; glimpses of the final triumph—this last including a brass chorale that transforms the Dies irae (‘Day of Wrath’) chant of the Requiem mass into a bold hymn. In the last bars the funeral music rides roughshod over all else, ending the movement in a state of exhaustion and fear.
Next comes a wistful Ländler (a lilting Austrian dance in triple time), in which a continuous stream of melody occasionally surges into the earful realms of the first movement’s funeral march.
Starting with arresting timpani strokes, the scherzo that follows is based on the Wunderhorn song ‘St Anthony of Padua’s Sermon to the Fishes’ in which the saint, ignored by people, preaches to fish instead. A fast waltz ushers in a parade of life’s distractions, ultimately provoking what Mahler called a 'cry of disgust' from the full orchestra. A sudden calm descends but is curtailed by the death knell of gong, harps and low horns.
From its first bars, the sublime fourth movement allows us to hope that the preceding despair will be vanquished. The contralto unveils a rapt, hymn-like setting of a Wunderhorn poem, ‘Urlicht’, telling us: 'I am from God and will return to God' and accentuating the word 'Leben' ('Life')—a word integral to the final movement, which begins with a reprise of the earlier 'cry of disgust'. Mahler reminds us that fear has not yet been banished, and proceeds to ratchet up the tension between burgeoning serenity—woodwinds, strings, distant horn-calls—and horror.
Dies irae references in the woodwinds and an apocalyptic 'march of the dead'—heralded by viscerally frightening drum rolls and punctuated by offstage bands—build to a terrifying climax: the Last Judgement. Another 'cry of disgust' is magnified by blaring brass fanfares, after which comes stillness, offstage fanfares—the Last Trump—and woodwind nightingales. This is a moment recalled in Paul Stefan’s description of Mahler’s funeral: 'The rain ceases. A nightingale sings, the clods of earth fall. A rainbow. And the hundreds present are silent.'
This silence is softly interrupted by the chorus: 'Rise again, yes, you will rise again'. Soprano and contralto soloists recall and develop the ‘Urlicht’ music, and the movement grows towards its ecstatic climax: 'What you have fought for will lead you to God.' Mahler knew that a vast symphony with choral finale would draw comparisons with Beethoven’s Ninth, and Beethoven’s climactic 'vor Gott' ('before God') seems to find its late-Romantic apotheosis here: 'zu Gott' ('to God'). What makes this moment so profound is that Mahlerian quality of vicarious pleasure: he was never sure that we would be carried 'to God', but found solace in the idea of faith, encapsulating our human yearning for certainty; our longing for release and freedom from pain.
Mahler distanced himself from Christian doctrine in a very personal conception of what ‘resurrection’ means: 'All is calm and bliss … There is no judgement; there are no sinners; no just men; no great and no small; there is no punishment and no reward! A feeling of overwhelming love imbues us with the bliss of knowing and being.' The symphony comes to an end in a blaze of brass, bells and gongs, sustaining to the last Mahler’s exquisite vision.
The second symphony represented something of a personal ‘resurrection’ for Mahler, renewing his own hopes in his abilities and his career—and the work brought him some much-needed encouragement from his peers. In 1903 the symphony was performed in a candlelit Basel Cathedral. The audience was electrified; fellow composer Ernest Bloch praised Mahler’s 'impression of supernatural grandeur'; and the Czech musician Oskar Nedbal, running out of words to express what he had just experienced, simply knelt before Mahler, and kissed his hand.
Joanna Wyld © 2023
The Orchestra gave its first concert of Mahler’s music on 9 April 1951, when the Polish-born Paul Kletzki conducted the Fourth Symphony with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf as the soloist. And, the following year, Wilhelm Fürtwangler directed the Orchestra and baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen. But it was thanks to Otto Klemperer that the Philharmonia really took Mahler to its heart.
During the Orchestra’s early years, Klemperer appeared frequently on the podium, thereby cementing a direct link to Mahler’s world. It had, after all, been on the composer’s personal recommendation that Klemperer was appointed to crucial early roles in his career. Working with the Philharmonia nearly half a century later, he repaid the debt by stripping away any sentimental excess to reveal symphonies of searing intensity. Among the most notable of these performances, thankfully preserved on record, are the Second Symphony, with Schwarzkopf and Hilde Rössel-Majdan, and the Fourth, Seventh and Ninth, as well as Das Lied von der Erde with Christa Ludwig and Fritz Wunderlich.
After such august beginnings, the Philharmonia continued to place Mahler at the heart of its work. Lorin Maazel conducted a complete cycle during the 1978/79 season, and again in 2011, when many of the concerts were recorded, following Giuseppe Sinopoli’s performance of all the symphonies in Japan in 1990.
But it was back in 1983 that Mahler’s music featured at a turning point in the Philharmonia’s history. Michael Tilson Thomas was due to conduct the Third Symphony but was suddenly taken ill. Thankfully, a 25-year-old Finnish conductor was available to take his place: Esa-Pekka Salonen. Throughout his later time as Principal Conductor and Artistic Advisor—now Conductor Laureate—Salonen preserved the link with Mahler’s music.
Salonen’s opening series, Vienna: City of Dreams, revolved around Mahler, while he marked his first decade with the Orchestra with a new recording of the Third Symphony, livestreamed around the world. Just as the spatial impact of Mahler’s soundworld had fostered a new kind of symphonism at the beginning of the 20th century, so the Philharmonia has brought new forms to audiences at the beginning of the 21st. And now the Orchestra’s new Principal Conductor, Santtu-Matias Rouvali, has begun his own approach with these extraordinary works, following the spirit of Mahler’s own declaration that 'tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire'.
Gavin Plumley © 2023