Mahler Symphony No. 2

Gustav Mahler’s Second Symphony, known as the ‘Resurrection Symphony’, was written between 1888 and 1894, and first performed in 1895. It tackles the same great ideas as Strauss's ‘Tod und Verklärung’ – but on a much grander scale.


The Second Symphony is a vast work, lasting almost an hour and a half, and commanding a full orchestra, with extra brass, extra bells, a full choir, soprano and contralto soloists, and a ‘Fernorchester’ – a small extra orchestra outside the concert hall. The great machine surpasses the one required by that other behemoth, Beethoven’s Ninth. Mahler reached the limits of what of a symphony can do - and then he crossed them. He had to: he was trying to express the most august concepts, and ‘mere notes would not suffice’.

The design of the work would occupy Mahler’s mind for years. He completed the first movement in 1888 as a symphonic poem called ‘Totenfeier’ (Funeral Rites). He waited five years before he decided to make this the opening movement of a symphony; in 1893, he composed a second and third part. These three parts saw their world premiere on March 4, 1895, in Berlin.


But that was not all. The problem was coming up with a grand finale. Mahler knew he wanted a vocal movement, just like in Beethoven’s Ninth, but the right text eluded him for a long time. Lightning struck, finally, at the funeral service of the great conductor Hans von Bülow in 1894. There, Mahler heard a setting of Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock's ‘Die Auferstehung’ (The Resurrection), and ‘…everything was revealed to me clear and plain.’ Mahler used the first two verses of Klopstock's poem, and added verses of his own that dealt explicitly with redemption and resurrection. He finished the finale and revised the orchestration of the first movement in 1894, then inserted the song ‘Urlicht’’ (Primal Light) as the fourth movement. This song was part of Des Knaben Wunderhorn, an early nineteenth century collection of German popular poetry that greatly influenced Mahler’s songs and symphonies. The movement was probably written in 1892 or 1893.

Release from a meaningless life

The whole thing was premiered in Dresden, on December 20 1901. There was a programme booklet, in which Mahler explained what the music was about. The first part, Mahler wrote, represents a funeral, and asks such questions as: ‘Is there life after death?’ The second movement is a remembrance of happy times in the life of the deceased; the third represents life’s folly and the fourth movement, Urlicht, is a wish for release from a meaningless life. In the last movement all doubts and questions return, but the segment ends with a great hope for everlasting, transcendent renewal.

After the premiere, Mahler withdrew these programme notes – the music was perhaps conceived as too absolute and abstract for such a simple story. But the grand questions remained obvious, as he repeated in a letter to his friend Max Marschalk: ‘… this is about the big question: ‘’Why have you lived? Why have you suffered? Is it all one great horrible joke?’’ We have to resolve these questions, one way or another, if we want to continue living – yes, even when we want to die! Whoever heard this call once, must answer – and I will give that answer in the last part.’

The answer

And answer he does. In the second part of the last movement, Judgement Day arrives. Trumpets of the Apocalypse sound ‘der grosse Appell’ – the great summons. The choir sings ‘Sterben werd' ich um zu leben’ – I will die, so that I may live – and it is instructed to sing ‘mit höchster Kraft’ - with highest power. The organ comes in at full blast – the score indicates ‘volles Werk’, the whole machine. Church bells ring out; Mahler purchased actual church bells for the first performance, finding all other means of achieving this sound unsatisfactory. He wrote of this final movement: ‘The increasing tension, working up to the final climax, is so tremendous that I don’t know myself, now that it is over, how I ever came to write it.’

As in Strauss ‘Tod und Verklärung’, the symphony’s driving force is man’s profound horror in the face of death. Only an unshakeable faith in resurrection can keep man going. Mahler’s answer to his questions - ’Why have you lived? Why have you suffered?’ is clear: ‘Believe, you were not born for nothing! You have not lived and suffered for nothing! On wings you will rise up, to see the Light.’

Koen Kleijn
Translation: Peter Lockwood