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Gustav Mahler: The Second Symphony

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Gustav Mahler
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It flashed upon me like lightning, and everything became clear. It was the flash that all creative artists wait for.
On wings that I have won I shall rise up again. I die to live again.

Gustav Mahler's second symphony is in the key of C minor. In addition to the traditional symphony orchestration, it includes parts for soprano and alto soloists, and for a mixed chorus.

Musical Form and Outline

  • 1st movement: Allegro maestoso
  • 2nd movement: Andante moderato
  • 3rd movement: In ruhig fliessender Bewegung (In calm, flowing movement)
  • 4th movement: Urlicht (Primeval Light)
  • 5th movement: In tempo des Scherzos. Wild herausfahrend (In the same tempo as the Scherzo. Wild outburst)

In this symphony, we reflect on the life of the hero of the First Symphony and then lay him to eternal rest. In the first movement, we are standing by the side of the grave; in the second, happier times are remembered; the third reflects on the hero's sometimes noble, but futile efforts. In the fourth movement, the hero's soul is borne aloft by angels (a precursor to Part II of the Eighth Symphony?) and the Finale deals with the Day of Judgement and resurrection to Eternal Love.

First Movement

The large-scale first movement opens with a slow funeral march in C minor. The first theme is in the woodwinds and brass, with menacing snarls in the celli and double basses. The second, a brighter theme in E major, is given to the strings. This is followed by the first appearance of a chorale theme in A flat that will reappear in the last movement as the Dies Irae. These first two themes are extensively developed throughout the remainder of this movement, before it ends with a two-octave downward scurry, C to C, and two pizzicato notes on the tonic. At this point in the score, Mahler specifies that there should be a pause of at least five minutes before the start of the second movement, to emphasise the contrast with the first.

Second Movement

The second movement is one of Mahler's gentle Ländler movements, the Ländler being a kind of rustic waltz peculiar to Austria. The structure in this instance is ABABA, the A section in A-flat with the alternating B section in G sharp minor.

Third Movement

The third movement is a setting of the Des Knaben Wunderhorn poem 'Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt' ('St Anthony of Padua's Sermon to the Fishes'). In this poem, St Anthony preaches virtue to the fishes, who listen intently until after the sermon, when they swim away — forgetting all they have learned and going back to their old ways. Mahler composed both this movement and the corresponding song in the Wunderhorn cycle more or less concurrently. The movement starts and ends in the symphony's home key of C minor, but modulates through many tonalities during its course. Shortly before the end, we hear the 'cry of despair' with which the Finale will open.

Fourth Movement

The fourth movement, which follows on immediately without a break, is a setting for alto solo and orchestra of another Wunderhorn poem, 'Urlicht' ('Primeval Light'). This apparently simple statement of childlike faith (the soloist is asked to sing as though with a child's innocence) is far from simple. In the first 35 bars alone, there are no fewer than 21 changes of time signature: 3/4, 4/4, 5/4 and 6/4 all figure. The key is D flat major.

Fifth Movement

Following the quiet close of the Urlicht movement, we are launched immediately into the Finale, with the 'cry of despair' from the third movement heard triple forte in the full orchestra. As the cry dissipates, we get the first statement, in offstage brass, of the Resurrection theme. A very slow section leads to the Dies Irae chorale we heard in the first movement. The mood broadens; the brass sound the Dies Irae and the Auferstehn chorale themes, leading to a tremendous percussion crescendo. A quick march follows — 'The dead arise and stream on in endless procession...' — with the Dies Irae in the strings and the Resurrection chorale in the trumpets. The tension rises and eventually spills over into a tremendous climax — 'The cry for mercy strikes fearfully on our ears.' The climax subsides and the offstage band sounds the Last Trump, leaving a desolate sound field with a flute and piccolo in the main orchestra warbling a bird song.

Now the chorus, triple piano, intones Klopstock's 'Resurrection Ode'. From their midst, the soprano solo's voice slowly emerges: Auferstehn, ja auferstehn wirst du (Rise again, yea, thou shalt rise again). The orchestra takes up the Resurrection theme. Then the alto solo, accompanied by the violas, joins in with the words that Mahler himself added: O Glaube, mein Herz, o glaube (O believe, my heart, O believe). The movement, and the symphony, now builds inexorably to its climactic coda. The tenors and basses take up the Resurrection chorale; the soprano and alto soloists swoop and soar in an ecstatic dialogue. Now firmly in the key of E flat, the full chorus builds layers of sound with a final statement of the 'Auferstehn' theme. The full orchestra, triple forte, are now joined by the organ and bells in a shattering, concluding chord of E flat major.

Composition and Première

Mahler began composition of the first of his three Wunderhorn symphonies in 1888, but did not complete it until 1893 - 4. The opening Allegro maestoso movement was certainly conceived as the first movement of a symphony in C minor, but at some point between 1888 and 1891, it acquired the title Todtenfeier ('Funeral Rite'). The manuscript seems to indicate that Mahler intended to use it as (possibly the first part of) a symphonic poem1. Some sketch work on the second movement was also started in 1888, but left unfinished.

In September 1891, Mahler was allowed to play his Todtenfeier on the piano to Hans von Bülow. The great conductor stood listening with his hands clasped to his ears. His opinion, as expressed to Mahler, was, 'If what I have just heard is music, then I no longer understand anything about music!' Three years later, von Bülow was to have an ironic hand in the completion of the Second Symphony.

Following this verdict from the maestro and his humiliating experience at the première of the First Symphony, it is not surprising that Mahler put the work aside. In fact, the lack of progress was more likely to have been caused by pressure of work; in March, 1891 at the age of 30, Mahler was appointed first conductor at the Hamburg Opera, one of the most prestigious opera houses in Europe.

When Mahler did return to the symphony in July, 1893, he composed the three inner movements, albeit with a different performance order to that in the version with which we are familiar today. The Des Knaben Wunderhorn song, 'Urlicht', already existed in a version for voice and piano; Mahler orchestrated and used this for the (present) fourth movement. This was two-way traffic; the sketch for the Scherzo movement became another Wunderhorn song, 'Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt'.

Although Mahler always had in mind the use of a choir in the final movement, he was reluctant to do so for fear of being accused of imitating Beethoven2.

The following year, 1894, Hans von Bülow died while in Cairo. A memorial service, which Mahler attended, was held for him on the morning of 29 March, in the Michaeliskirche in Hamburg. Just before the funeral oration, the women's and the children's choirs sang Klopstock's chorale Auferstehn. As he listened, Mahler realised that suddenly he had the answer to the problem of how to complete the Second Symphony: life after death, Resurrection.

That same afternoon, Mahler sketched some ideas. The Klopstock Resurrection Ode would form the heart of a great Finale, a second pillar to counterbalance the weight of the first movement, with the Andante, Scherzo and Urlicht movements functioning as an arch between them. The Finale was completed by the end of June, 1894 and the fair copy of the complete symphony is dated 18 December, 1894.

Richard Strauss asked if he could include the first three movements, ie, the purely instrumental section, in the ninth of that season's Philharmonic concerts in Berlin in early March. Mahler's workload in the first two months of 1895 was enormous. In addition to nightly appearances at the Hamburg Opera, he had opera rehearsals to deal with, three subscription concerts to conduct, preparation of his own orchestration of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony to complete for a fourth subscription concert due only a week after the Berlin première and find time to hold rehearsals in Berlin. These sometimes meant he had to travel from Hamburg to Berlin after the evening's performance, rehearse the next morning and then return to Hamburg in time to conduct again at the Opera in the evening!

Mahler himself conducted the relevant section of the première concert programme3, which took place on Monday, 4 March, 1895. The performance met with the approval of the majority of the audience in the hall, Mahler being called to the podium four times. The reaction of the critics, however, was overwhelmingly negative, a reaction that in the future would be repeated many times in Berlin.

The first full performance of the Second Symphony was given, again in Berlin, on Friday, 13 December, 1895. The concert management would not chance financing the concert and it only took place thanks to the beneficence of two of Mahler's friends in Hamburg, Dr Hermann Benn and Wilhelm Berkan, who met the considerable costs incurred. As feared, few tickets were actually sold and a large part of the audience comprised professional musicians4 and students from the conservatory, who were given complementary tickets.

The response of the audience, albeit not in the main a fee-paying one, was enthusiastic. Mahler heightened the magical effect of the quiet, unheralded entry of the choir at 'Auferstehn' by the stratagem of arranging that they should remain seated until after this passage. The audience gasped at the effect. At the conclusion everybody, including the soloists and choruses, joined in the applause and Mahler took many curtain calls. The critics of the musical press however, albeit predictably, were even more scathing than they had been at the performance of the first three movements in March. Despite the press, this première of the Second Symphony was a pivotal moment for Mahler the composer; from now on, his star was very definitely in the ascendant.

Mahler seems to have had a special fondness for the Second Symphony. It was the first that he conducted in the cities of Vienna, Munich, New York and Paris.

1On the title page of the manuscript, the inscription 'Symphonie in C moll' has been crossed out, leaving the inscription 'I. Satz' (1st movement).2Beethoven's Ninth Symphony employs soloists and a chorus in its last movement.3Richard Strauss conducted the remainder of the programme, which included Mendelssohn's Fingal's Cave overture, Saint-Saëns' Piano Concerto No 4 and Weber's Oberon overture.4Including Engelbert Humperdinck, Arthur Nikisch, Bruno Walter and Felix Weingartner.

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