Mahler: Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection”
Simon Rattle: City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus and Orchestra
1990 recording. EMI B000EF5MIQ
Mahler has written music which makes full display of the resources of a modern Symphony Orchestra. He makes wonderful use of the different sounds of the orchestra – trumpets, horns, and trombones in strong passages, and the melodious parts for strings, often led by the cellos. In the quiet parts, the woodwinds (flute, oboe) may float above a harp or plucked strings – while in the climaxes enormous percussion sections come to the fore, making tremendous contrasts between the soft and the loud. Exciting, emotional stuff!
The long road
Gustav Mahler was born in 1860, and was brought up in a thriving German-Jewish community in Jihlava, in the Czech Republic, some 120km north-west of Vienna (which is in eastern Austria). His father was a brewer and inn-keeper, the town had lots of folk singers, choral singing, a military band, and operas at the municipal theatre, and Mahler showed a precocious talent for music. At 15, he went to study piano at the Vienna Conservatory, where he would have heard not only Mozart and Beethoven, Schumann and Mendelssohn, but come into contact with Brahms and Bruckner, and heard Wagner’s music. Not surprisingly, perhaps, one can hear echoes of all these influences of his childhood and adolescence in Mahler’s music.
At the Conservatory, Mahler soon abandoned his piano studies to devote himself to composing, and he also interested himself in conducting – then not a discipline, but something self-taught. At 18, he left the Conservatory, but continued at Vienna University, studying principally the great German philosophers.
Faced with the need to earn a living, he began a conducting career, achieving success in conducting operas, in a variety of appointments, in progressively more important centres – Olmütz, Kassel, Prague, and then Leipzig (1886-1888). All this time, Mahler continued composing, particularly under the inspiration of unfulfulled love affairs.
In 1888, Mahler was appointed Director of the Royal Hungarian Opera in Budapest, but his job was made difficult by cultural conflicts among factions which owned the Opera; although his conducting of Wagner’s operas was met with acclaim, his presentation of his own first Symphony in 1889 was not. In 1891 he took up an appointment as chief conductor at Hamburg’s Stadttheater, where his renown as a conductor grew, although (or perhaps because) he was known as being very demanding on singers and orchestra.
His performance schedule was also very intense, but he dedicated himself to composing in a summer retreat – in Steinbach, in Upper Austria. It was there he completed his 2nd Symphony, and wrote the 3rd, and other songs.
The 2nd Symphony
This monumental work was premiered in Berlin in December 1895 – at last to success from public and critics. It reminds me a bit of a Russian novel, being long, complex, full of inner stories and emotions which are referenced as the work goes on. The 1st Movement is a 22-minute Funeral March, which starts with urgent phrases from cellos and basses, which build up with the brass section, and by successively growing stronger and then fading, become more and more dramatic. It calms down, returns with a crash, falls into chaos, and then repeats an agonized discord, which gives way to a very warm passage from the strings, before an ominous descending passage brings it to a stop.
The 2nd Movement is a very melodious waltz, started by the strings, which in the middle is repeated with beautiful variations; again, the music grows very much stronger, before fading, pausing, and then gently repeating until coming to rest.
The 3rd Movement has a sinuous, wandering theme in 6/8 time, with lots of interventions from the percussion. As this goes on, we start to get interruptions from the tímpani and the brass, which sounds a bit like a call to arms, full of military overtones.
Again,this calms down, but sounds even stronger after a repeat of the theme, and the music explodes in a sort of cry for help to introduce the Contralto solo of the 4th Movement. She sings, with help from a chorale of brass and responses from the orchestra – “Man lies in need – I would rather be in heaven – but I will not be turned from God.”
The last Movement
The 5th Movement is vast, strongly reminiscent in its structure of the last movement of Beethoven’s 9th. Here too the music interrupts in the middle for a solo voice, and then builds and builds, with soloists, choir and orchestra, to an immense climax. It opens with a crash, and the music is sometimes distant, sometimes wandering vaguely, sometimes in the middle of deep suffering, interrupted by a stately and very large chorus from the brass (just like film music when the hero’s saving spaceship appears). But still the feeling of struggling against overwhelming odds persists, and after an agonizing effort, the sound dies away. Then far in the distance (in fact, off-stage) a trumpet sounds a reveille, like a distant glimpse of Paradise.
Then, pianissimo the choir begins, and the Soprano soloist sings – “Rise again, He who called you will give eternal life”. Then very slowly the phrases build, with the soloists, and the choir “what has been created must rise again”
… until finally in the last minutes, a feeling of conquest begins to assert itself and we have a full orchestra of 120, a choir of 150, soloists, and organ – “I shall die that I may live – my heart you will rise again”, where the dissonances finally are resolved to full, round immense chords complete with drums and bells…..
After his death in 1911, Mahler’s music remained comparatively unknown for some 50 years. But in the 60s it came right back into the repertoire, particularly in the US. The combination of huge orchestral resources, big scale, intense emotion, the contrasts between suffering, calm, and redemption found an echo in the spirit of the times. Many orchestras played and recorded the full cycle of Mahler’s Symphonies (there are 9 complete).
Another quality of his music is that the emotion which it passes is very dependent on the conductor, and the way he takes the tempos, the time he gives to the pauses, how he builds the climaxes – apart from the technical precision. You can find versions of the 2nd Symphony by many conductors, and all seem to give a slightly different account.
I chose here the version by Sir Simon Rattle with the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, both because it is very fine, and because it can be seen and heard on YouTube (the links have been inserted in the text). It is wonderful how Rattle built a young, unknown orchestra into a fine, disciplined and precise instrument capable of such music.
So Easter time is good for tuning in to the Resurrection …..and Good Listening!