The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection”: Movement II

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Mahler turns aside from the devastation of the opening for … a dance?

Where We’ve Been

Movement I was a massive and terrifying portrait of death.

And now …

Mahler asked that there be a five minute pause between the first and second movement of this symphony.  (Not every conductor will do this, however, especially if the concert is being recorded for broadcast.)  The main reason for this pause is quite simply that this movement sounds nothing like the one before it.  It’s not just the fact that this is the slow movement of the symphony. It’s almost as if we’ve started listening to another symphony entirely. . . at first glance.  What is happening in this movement is that Mahler, after confronting us with death in the first movement, is now taking a nostalgic look back at the past, and reminding us of the “good old days”.  The way he does this is to bring in the music of a ländler (an old Austrian dance).

The movement is in five sections, which are pretty easy to distinguish from one another:

(0:00) Section 1 is the first appearance of the dance.  Just like a glorious waltz from a 30s movie, it sweeps in very delicately with lots of sliding strings and Viennese charm.

(2:04) Section 2 is a rather agitated-sounding theme that completely contrasts with the laid-back charm of the dance.

(3:50) Section 3 is a more elaborate return of the dance.

(5:58) Section 4 is the agitated theme again, but this time it enters in loudly, casting a dark shadow over everything.

(8:27) Section 5, however, brings us out the other side.  The dance returns, but this time the strings play pizzicato (plucked), making it the most delicate moment in the whole symphony.  Very gently, the movement winds to a close, ending with three plucks like the first movement.  But where those plucks were ominous, these plucks are charming and graceful.

The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection”: Movement I

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The opening movement of the Mahler 2 portrays death at its most devastating. Rather like this painting by Felix Nussbaum (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

This first movement, if you remember from the last post, started life as Mahler’s Funeral Rites music. I can’t think of many other classical pieces that assaults its listeners like this one does …

(0:00) The whole thing begins with a tense vibration (a tremolo) on the violins . Under that, the low strings play an urgent theme. Like a vast thunderstorm, this music continues, growing in power and violence, as more and more instruments enter. Throughout it all, however, the low strings never stop playing. It climaxes in a mighty brass crash (2:40), which dies away on the woodwinds.

(3:09) A more gentle theme tries to enter on the violins, but the low strings are still hinting at trouble underneath and gradually this new gentle theme gets hijacked, and (4:19) we return to the tremolo of the opening.

(4:51) Then soon a military march emerges. It has a vaguely heroic sound, but it too gets hijacked, this time by the brass, which drag the whole theme down in a noisy passage of crashing cymbals and drum rolls. Everything becomes quiet again, and we wait to see what has happened in the aftermath . . .

(5:53) With the low strings providing the beat, a new march emerges – a funeral march. It is very quiet, with the woodwinds singing in a lonely desolate manner over the top. Also listen out for the harps which come in right at the end of the march. They play a kind of tolling sound, like a bell.

(7:05) And then, while the tolling continues, the strings again attempt the gentle theme. And this time it works! Gently soaring, and then moving into the brass and the woodwinds, we move into a miraculous passage of delicate beauty, like an oasis in the middle of a storm. One of the joys of listening to Mahler’s music, is that even in the middle of the worst circumstances, there will be flashes of  beauty. (Like life, really.O

(9:15) Gradually, however, the music starts to change. It’s still quiet, but it gradually morphs into another quiet funereal tune. (10:36) Then after that, the brass enters, and we head into another loud passage. As earlier, a heroic military march tries to win the day. But it gets stifled again, this time in an even more chaotic passage. (11:27) With crashing cymbals and pounding drums, the whole music literally seems to sink into the floor.

(11:47) But then, the gentle music starts again. However, it’s only the harps and flutes this time, so it sounds very small and vulnerable, when we consider the kind of devastation it has to match. More instruments join in, and the music comes to a happy little ending of its own.

(12:55) But we start to hear trouble brooding. With a crash, the opening urgent theme begins again on the low strings. This time, however, the music sounds even darker.

(13:20) Another funeral march begins, again with low strings providing the rhythm, and lonely woodwinds singing over the top. (14:25) As the music builds, the brass play a tune that sounds vaguely like an anthem of some sort. (This is actually – spoiler alert – a small hint of the music that the choir will sing at the end of the symphony.) The first four notes of this tune would have also been famous to its listeners – those four notes opened a famous Gregorian chant from the 13th century, the Dies Irae (the Day of Wrath – have a listen here to the original) and ever since then, composers had been borrowing those four notes any time the wanted to drop a hint about the Day of Judgement. All of which just adds to the weight of this movement, right?

(14:48) Triumphantly, the music swells up, again attempting to be heroic. Again, it gets taken over by a whirl of cymbals, discordant notes and pounding drums. Horrible brass take over, rushing the music along to the most horrendous climax imaginable:

(16:20) A hideous chord (group of notes), made up of as many clashing notes as possible, plays over and over. Musically it is like being hit hit over the head with a sledge hammer and it’s meant to leave an audience cringing in their seats. Unlike our traditional Western concept of death, where we sanitise things, Mahler presents us with death in all its devastation and horror.

(16:47) When this is over, Mahler returns to the music of the opening. So the urgent strings enter again. Everything’s a bit shorter than the first time, but we hear all the familiar parts we know: the brass climax (18:10), and the gentle oasis music (18:36). This time, however, there is an edge of sadness to the oasis music which wasn’t there the first time. It’s as if, confronted with the fact of death, the music now has a sad outlook on life.

Mahler himself said that in this movement he was looking down into an empty grave and asking the questions: “What’s the point of life? Why are we even born if all we’re going to do is die? What’s the meaning of it all?” (Remember these questions: they become important later.)

(21:24) The gentle theme leads into another funeral march again – very slow, solemn and quiet. It builds up to one last climax from the full orchestra again. (Listen out for the tam-tam – a huge gong – which lets out a massive sound at this climax.)

(23:40) The music dies away into a lonely and bleak passage. At the very end, a trumpet sounds out one last note, which for a split second sounds like it might be triumphant. But it quickly turns sour and with a rush, the orchestra plays a descending scale, and ends with three low plucks on the strings, “like dirt being thrown on a coffin” as one conductor described it.

 

For several years after I first heard it, it was the Twin Towers I would see in my head during this movement, because that seemed to fit the devastating sound world Mahler constructs. Other people might hear different things. But whatever your experience of it, this is the darkness that is waiting to be overcome in the final movement – overcome by resurrection.

But first, the music takes an unusual detour – which you will hear when we come back for the second movement. See you soon!

The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Up Next: Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection”

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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!