1894: Mahler: Symphony No. 2 [RESURRECTION] in D minor

SUNDAY, December 6, 2020 – 5:39 AM

(Slowly build backward, one section at a time. From there add one movement at a time, slowly, over a longer period. Give it time. Try starting here:

1:09:34 The entrance of the chorus, Gb major

This is the “resurrection” part of the symphony and is one of the most powerful and famous moments in all of music. This “choral symphony” was written with Beethoven’s 9th symphony in mind, and like Beethoven’s symphony the chorus does not sing until the last movement.)

Symphony No. 2 [RESURRECTION] in D minor, age 34


  • soprano, alto
  • mixed chorus
  • 4 flutes (all doubling piccolos), 4 oboes (3rd and 4th doubling cor anglais), 3 Bb, A, C clarinets (3rd doubling bass clarinet), 2 Eb clarinets (2nd doubling 4th clarinet, 4 bassoons (3rd and 4th doubling contrabassoons)
  • 10 horns (7th–10th used only in movement 5, partly offstage), 10 trumpets (7th–10th used only in movement 5, offstage), 4 trombones, tuba
  • 2 sets of timpani (a third player is required but only in movement 5, offstage)
    2 bass drums (2nd with a cymbal attached, used only in movement 5, offstage)
    several snare drums (used only in movement 5), Pair of cymbals, 2 triangles (2nd used only in movement 5, offstage), 2 tam-tams (high and low), rute (used only in movement 3), 3 deep, untuned bells (used only in movement 5), glockenspiel
  • organ (used only in movement 5)
  • 2 harps
  • Strings

The double basses are indicated to have a low C string. The soprano solo is only in movement 5. The alto solos are in movements 4 and 5, The mixed chorus is movement 5.

Valeri Gergiev

German music in Munich with a mad Russian conducting. I’m not sure music can be more intense or electrifying.

1st movement

It says “Allegro maestoso”, meaning fast and majestic, but it does not start fast and it does not end fast. It’s essentially a funeral march, thus the idea of death. The directions say:

Mit durchaus ernstem und feierlichem Ausdruck (With complete gravity and solemnity of expression).

The movement’s formal structure is modified sonata form, but that hardly matters. Mahler only used form to organize his thoughts and perhaps to bring some coherence to gigantic ideas. He started this movement in much earlier and in fact finished it in 1888, and who knows how much earlier he was working it all out. Mahler asked for a full five minute break after this movement before continuing. I think before trying to think about what the form is, or what it all means, it’s best just to experience the music. It is indescribable.

2nd movement

After the intensity of the 1st movement the 2nd starts with the marking “Andante moderato”, “moderately slow”, and it’s a complete change in mood. It is a Ländler in Ab major, dance form somewhat like a waltz. It has been described is the memory of joyful times in the life of the one who died.

3rd movement

It says “In ruhig fließender Bewegung” (With quietly flowing movement), and it’s a scherzo in C minor. It opens with two strong, short timpani strokes followed by two lighter strokes then even lighter strokes that set the tempo. There are many tunes that are sound like Jewish folk music, something that also happens in the 3rd movement of his 1st symphony. Mahler called the climax of the movement, which occurs near the end, both a “cry of despair” and a “death shriek”. For me this is a continuation of the 2nd movement, the joy of life, mixed with life experiences and nostalgia – before the tragedy of death strikes.

4th movement

“Urlicht” means, literally, “origin” plus “light”, so it is the “light” that “begins” or the “original” light. I as originally confused because of another word, “Irrlicht”, which is “error” plus “light” and means “will-o’-the-wisp”, the fantasy creature that misleads through a (glowing) light.

A words sung by an alto serves as an introduction to the Finale. I am no fan of opera or operatic voices, but this time it works for me. The biggest problem is finding a gigantic, low woman’s voice that is also clear. The idea is the longing for relief from worldly woes, moving to eternal salvation. The complexity of it all might be highlighted by the fact that Mahler, who was Jewish and despised by the Nazis, converted to Catholicism. Whatever his true beliefs were, he was a man haunted by death and the fear of death, and I believe this symphony expressed his hope for a better world, both for himself and the world. Bernstein and others believe he foresaw the Holocaust, not the exact details but the depth to which humanity could sink.

Here is just a taste of the words:

Ich bin von Gott und will wieder zu Gott!
I am from God and shall return to God!

Der liebe Gott wird mir ein Lichtchen geben,
The loving God will grant me a little light,

wird leuchten mir bis in das ewig selig Leben!
Which will light me into that eternal blissful life!

This is quite a contrast to the narcissistic world of Wagner, the musical hero of Hitler. I think even those with no religious beliefs whatsoever will resonate with these words so needed right now in this world so full of sadness and violence.

5th movement

This starts with “Im Tempo des Scherzos” (In the tempo of the scherzo), which refers both to the mood and music of what has gone before in the 3rd movement.

The finale It is divided into two large parts, the second of which begins with the entry of the chorus. The first part is instrumental with many of themes from previous movements plus new themes. It opens with a long introduction, beginning with the “cry of despair” from the third movement. In the development section is what Mahler calls the “march of the dead”. Then there is horn call which becomes Mahler’s “Great Summons”, which leads into the choral section. The chorus comes in quietly a little past the halfway point of the movement, and in many ways it might be good to divide this immense movement into two distinct parts, before and after the chorus enters.

About death and resurrection

Such preoccupation with death would seem to be odd for a man only 34 years old, and in fact Mahler completed the first movement in 1888 at only the age of 28. But it turns out that his life would be over at the age of only 50. He died before his 51st birthday. His music went out of favor after his death.

His music was banned

Then the Nazis totally stopped his music from being heard in the one place you would most expect his music to be most admired. So since the end of WWII, for many reasons, there has been a “resurrection” of interest in his music, and some his symphonies are hugely popular, frequently performed and available in many recordings.

The importance of modern recordings

It’s important to find recordings with the best possible sound, and being able to see it all happen is incredibly important for most people. This was not possible until recently. In fact, a good Mahler recording was once nearly impossible. First of all, without great sound – surround sound is by far the best – listening to Mahler is a bit like trying to enjoy something in brilliant color presented in black and white.

Too long?

Ironically music that is really long is heard more today, and with more enthusiasm, because of modern media. Old recordings had to be broken up. A symphony that is 90 minutes long had to be released either on many records, meaning a high cost and inconvenience, or on reel to real tapes. And most people did not ever own an open reel players, although I did. So the music as it should be experienced was inaccessible to most people.

Take it one part at a time

When experiencing his symphonies for the first time, most people simply have to start with one movement or in some cases only one part of a movement. Absorb the immensity of it, then build from there.  I would suggest that people start with only one part of a movement, most likely the end of the last movement. Get to know that. Then slowly build backward, absorbing the whole movement. From there add one movement at a time, slowly, over a longer period. Give it time.


4 thoughts on “1894: Mahler: Symphony No. 2 [RESURRECTION] in D minor

  1. I’ve had the same impression twice, listening to two Mahler symphonies so far. He seems to bring out an individual instrument with its character in a most pleasant way. Music can sometimes feel like a meal heavy in msg, blending all the flavours into one – this feels the opposite and I like it. There is a lot more to this music of course, but that is a thing that struck me.

    He also does not make the singers stretch into impossible notes. Is it that Mahler “knows his instruments”, what to draw out of them, and how to use them?

  2. The chorus entrance was slightly jarring at first, but it quickly became normal. The entrance itself sounded like that there was a lot of emotion put in to it, the deep voices mainly contributing to that effect.

  3. Not to be crass, but earlier we got Harry Potter conducting, now we have Mad-Eye Moody!

    Tell me Gergiev isn’t a dead ringer for Moody!

    That said, this is intense. Everything from the room to the performance is electrifying.

    This will require multiple listens for me to unravel. Mahler is starting to seriously appeal to me.

  4. I’m taking your advice by starting with the end of the last movement.

    The entrance of the chorus, Gb major

    This is very powerful. It is the most solemn, intense, and emotional music I have ever heard.

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