Gustav Mahler, one of the last great figures of the Late Romantic movement, was at the same time one of the harbingers of twentieth century music. He had a volatile and complex personality and overtly expressed his emotional and physical suffering. That plus his Jewish birth – if not religion – was socially unacceptable to turn-of-the-century Europeans who hid behind a facade of stability and superficiality. Most of Mahler’s music expresses his battle against fate and the uncertainty of existence – which may explain how he could have written two of the Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children) following the birth of his second daughter.
In spite of his difficult personality and Austria’s open anti-Semitism, Mahler’s ascent as a conductor was spectacular. In the summer of 1880, at the age of 20, he had his first conducting job in a minor summer theater; 17 years later he was Kapellmeister and then Director of the most prestigious musical organization of the time, the Vienna Hofoper. He nevertheless found time to compose and in 1894 finished his Symphony No. 2.
The Symphony took Mahler six years to complete, not entirely surprising in light of its bizarre conception. In 1886 Mahler had made the acquaintance of Baron Carl von Weber, the grandson of the composer Carl Maria von Weber, who wanted Mahler to complete an unfinished comic opera by his grandfather, Die drei Pintos (The Three Pintos). Mahler took on the project – along with a love affair with Weber's wife – receiving tremendous acclaim at the premiere (of the opera). After the performance, alone in his bedchamber filled with wreaths and bouquets, Mahler had a hallucinatory vision of himself on his funeral bier surrounded by flowers. The dream inspired what was to become the Symphony’s first movement, which he entitled Todtenfeier (Funeral Rite). In part unable to decide whether the work should be a separate tone poem or the first movement of a full symphony, he became blocked and did not resume composition until the summer of 1893, finishing sketches of all but the last movement by the end of the summer. Still unsure how to finish the work, Mahler at least knew that he wanted to incorporate the human voice. The answer came to him “like a thunderbolt” during the memorial service for Hans von Bülow, who had been a close friend and promoter of his conducting career but had been unreceptive to his music. In contemplating death, Mahler perceived that the purpose of life’s pain and suffering was life beyond death. It is important to note, however, that Mahler was not thinking of resurrection in a Christian sense, but rather as the destiny of all humankind, regardless of religion, nor did he append the title to the Symphony.
At the time he was composing the Symphony, Mahler was also setting to music some poems from the anthology of 300 years of German folk literature, Des Knabens Wunderhorn (The Youth’s Magic Horn). The anthology had been collected around the turn of the nineteenth century by Clemens Brentano (1778-1842), the son of a rich Italian businessman who settled in Frankfurt, and Achim von Arnim (1781-1831), the son of a Prussian Junker of literary bent. Mahler used one of the poems, "Urlicht" (Primeval Light) as the text for the fourth movement. For the fifth movement he chose the first two stanzas of a religious ode by Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock (1724-1803), but completed the rest of the text himself.
Mahler succumbed at least three times to the temptation to provide a programmatic explication of the Symphony, in spite of his ambivalence about such devices. Since his notes all differ and were written long after the fact, they probably never served as a guide for the compositional process. Nevertheless, they do explain the first movement of the Symphony as a fundamental human question that receives an answer in the last. The three middle movements Mahler considered as interludes. He made a connection between his previous symphony and the new one, writing to the composer and critic, Max Marschalk, that the funeral rite was for the “hero of my First Symphony, whom I bear to the grave and whose life I can see reflected in a pure mirror…”
Mahler wrote of the first movement, "Todtenfeier:" “We stand by the coffin of a well-loved person. His life, struggles, passions and aspirations once more, for the last time, pass before our mind’s eye. And now in this moment of gravity and emotion which convulses our deepest being…our heart is gripped by a dreadfully serious voice… What now? What is this life – and this death? Do we have an existence beyond it? Is all this only a confused dream, or do life and this death have a meaning?” To this Mahler added that we must answer this question if we are to live on.
The orchestral forces required for this Symphony can easily provide work for all the freelance musicians in a small city: 4 flutes, 4 piccolos, 4 oboes, 2 English horns, 5 clarinets, bass clarinet, 4 bassoons, 2 contrabassoons, ten horns, 8 trumpets, 4 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, military drum, triangle, cymbals, high tam tam, low tam tam, rute, glockenspiel, 3 low bells, 2 harps, organ, significantly augmented strings, soprano and alto soloists and chorus.
The opening of the Symphony, with its cello and bass tremolo and descending open fifths has elicited considerable comment for its similarity to the first measures of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, and the jury is out as to whether it is a deliberate allusion. Although Mahler was certainly aware of the relationship, his treatment of the musical idea is quite different from Beethoven’s. While Beethoven saved his idealistic resolution until the final movement of the Ninth, Mahler immediately delivers a broad hint as to the direction in which he is headed, using a motive that will recur as the culmination of the Symphony. There follows a series of themes that elicit the various emotional states people undergo when confronted with death: the celebration of the life of the deceased, in this case the "hero;" moments of reflection; and determination in the face of grief. But even the most intense emotional turmoil bears with it the promise – although not yet the realization – of resolution and peace.
Mahler described the second movement Andante as a memory, recalling a happy moment in the life of the departed, plus a melancholy recollection of his youth and lost innocence. It consists of two themes that are varied each time they return. The middle section picks up the tempo and is a delicate duet for flute and harp.
Mahler envisioned the third movement as if watching a dance from a distance through a window, without being able to hear the music. The movements of the couples seem senseless, because the observer does not catch the rhythm, which is the key to it all. The whirling motion is interrupted, seemingly at random, by unrelated, sometimes even threatening, musical forces. Towards the end, there is an appalling shriek as the dance dissolves into momentary chaos. Snatches of past and future motives settle it down.
Mahler originally set “Urlicht” as a separate song, only deciding to incorporate it as the fourth movement fairly late in the compositional process. It provides both an interlude and a comforting change of mood between the dizzying motion of the third movement and the opening shriek of the fifth. It is “the moving voice of naïve faith.” Each line of the text is set to new music appropriate to its meaning so that there is no musical theme to follow. The first notes, however, capture the somber but comforting spirit. Later, when the singer sings of meeting the angel, Mahler indulges in classic tone painting, with faint echoes of the fiddles of the shtetl, the Jewish villages of Eastern Europe.
The fifth movement takes up, and ultimately resolves, the anxious questioning of the first, but not before restating the issues addressed in previous movements. The longest of the five movements, it presents a group of musical ideas, partially derived from motives heard earlier in the symphony, and takes them through a series of transformations that lead to transcendence. It opens with the grumbling bass from the first movement and a reprise of the“shriek” from the third that forces the confrontation with the dreadful question of existence. The melody, however, incorporates at the end an ascending scale motive, also derived from the first movement, that symbolizes resurrection. As if emphasizing the journey, Mahler introduces a march, whose first four notes suggest the Dies irae chant from the Mass for the Dead. A third theme will later be taken up by the alto soloist on Mahler’s reworking of Klopstock’s poem on the words “Oh, glaube, mein Herz” (Believe, my heart). Within the context of Mahler’s existential ideal, the transformations of these themes point to a series of trials, in which they are battered and distracted by irrelevant issues until they emerge cleansed. It is a matter Mahler returns to throughout his symphonies.
Throughout the movement offstage horns and trumpets periodically call out, as if announcing that there is a way out of the existential dilemma if only people would listen. Finally, when the last trumpet sounds again from beyond, the noise and confusion fade away, and in the silence “we think we hear a nightingale in the farthest distance, like the last quivering echo of earthly life!” The chorus begins softly and simply: “Aufersteh'n, ja aufersteh'n” (Arise, yes, arise) to the march theme. But after the chorus and soprano soloist sings the words "unsterblich Leben/ Wird, der dich rief, dir geben " (He who called you will give you eternal life) the solo trumpet plays the resurrection motive from the first movement. After a final impassioned plea to believe by the alto soloist, "Oh glaube, mein herz," the movement comes to an extended close, with tolling of bells and culminating in the resurrection motive.
Program notes by:
Joe & Elizabeth Kahn