So here we are – one last Mahler Symphony left. There are lots of debates over which is the “best” Mahler symphony and it’s a highly personal choice. But this one is my personal favourite, and there are some statistics to indicate that I’m not alone. A few years ago, Australia’s ABC Classic FM radio station (not to be confused with the UK’s Classic FM) had a Classic 100 Symphony survey. Listeners voted for their favourite symphony and then the radio station played selections from each of the top 100 symphonies over eight days in a big countdown from 100 to 1.
While there was no Mahler in the top 10 (he’s less mainstream in some ways), he had nine featured in the countdown. (Das Lied von der Erde was one of them, Symphony No. 7 was not. Poor old Mahler 7. It just never wins any popularity contests.) And the one that got the highest up the list? In 14th place, the Mahler 2, the “Resurrection” symphony. So until someone comes up with a more far-reaching poll, I’m declaring the Mahler 2 the most popular of the Mahler symphonies!
This symphony is also personal to me because it particularly pushed me to move into the classical music industry. I remember first hearing it in 2002 and being absolutely moved and exhilarated by it. I think it was some combo of its themes of resurrection and life after death, contrasted with the kind of world we were now living in post 9/11.
But as I listened to it more and more, the music reinforced the power of live music. While there are some fantastic recordings of the Mahler 2, as you hear it, you can’t help be struck by the thought that no matter how good it sounds on CD, it would sound 10 times better in a live performance. (And now that I’ve been to four performances of the Mahler 2 live, I can confirm that this is true.) The thought came to me, If a day ever comes where you can’t hear this stuff live, then we will have lost something from our culture. And that was the catalyst. From then on, I was desperate to work in the classical music industry, doing something to keep live music alive and I’m still here nine years later …
But back to the symphony.
The story behind the Second is rather unusual. It started with a dream. Mahler dreamed one night that he was laid out on a funeral bier, surrounded by flowers. It was that image which inspired him to write a devastating piece of orchestral music called Funeral Rites (Totenfeier). The story goes that he took it round to show the famous conductor, Hans von Bülow, and played it for him on the piano. Hans told him in no uncertain terms that he didn’t even consider it music. It was too modern, too challenging, too harsh. (Which was pretty rough given that Hans conducted lots of Wagner, known as the most modern composer around.)
Depressed by this reaction, Mahler put the piece aside for a long while. However, he knew in his mind that it was the opening of a great symphony (it later became the first movement of the Mahler 2). But he didn’t know how to finish the piece. After writing an opening of such heaviness, how do you find an ending that can match it or balance it out?
In the end, the finale came to him in a rather ironic way. Hans von Bülow died, and it was at his funeral that Mahler first heard the hymn Aufersteh’n (Resurrection), being sung by a boys’ choir. “Like a thunderbolt”, to use his words, the theme he needed to end his symphony was found. And thus was born the astonishing “Resurrection” symphony of Gustav Mahler.
The symphony consists of five movements:
Movement I is the original funeral rites, one of the most devastating pieces of music ever written.
Movement II is a nostalgic look back at the dances of Mahler’s past.
Movement III is a quirky orchestral adaptation of a song that Mahler wrote a couple of years before.
Movement IV is a short five-minute piece sung by alto called “Primal Light”. It’s five minutes of pure beauty.
Movement V is the resurrection, one of the most incredible stretches of music ever composed with a massive choral climax.
There are many good recordings out there of this one. In fact, it’s a piece that is, on the whole, so good that even a lame performance is still going to sound fairly awesome. But the one I’ve landed on is the 1988 CD by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic. It’s a lot slower than some of the others, but Lenny turns this into an unmatched epic experience. Also, after hearing it, if you want to own your own box set of Mahler symphonies, you can go pick up the complete Bernstein box set for a bargain price nowadays. (It used to be freakishly expensive back in the day.)
See you soon for Movement I!