It is somewhat hard to imagine that a piece as unitary and powerfully structured as Mahler’s Second Symphony was the fruit of a long and painful process, and yet more than six years went by from the first drafts to the completion of the spectacular final piece.
In 1888, at the age of 28, Mahler held the post of conductor for two years at the Leipzig Opera, where he composed his First Symphony at the height of the season. The ink had barely dried on the score when he designed another version in C minor. Finished quickly, the first movement existed independently for five years and was titled Todtenfeier (Funeral ceremony), a title borrowed from the German version of the epic poem by the famous Polish writer, Adam Mickiewicz and thanks to his childhood friend, Siegfried Lipiner. Completed in Prague in August 1888, Todtenfeier’s score remained in Mahler’s books for a long time. This was due to his appointment to the role of Director of the Budapest Opera house at the end of the year, during which time he became too absorbed in his artistic and administrative tasks to resume composing.
Three years later, in 1891, Mahler left the Hungarian Opera house for the Hamburg Stadt-Theatre where, as conductor, he immediately won over the accomplished conductor, pianist and composer, Hans von Bülow. The “Pope of German Music” had always championed new music: after directing the first performance of Tristan et Isolde, he became Brahms’ favourite performer. Sometime later, he discovered Richard Strauss, a rising young German music star. As a result, Mahler convinced himself that Bülow would also support him as a composer and one day decided to play him his Todtenfeier on the piano. Far from raving about the performance, the master made a face, covered his ears and expressed his disapproval in two short and sweet sentences: “If what I have just heard is music, then I no longer understand anything about music” and: “Compared to what I’ve just heard, Tristan sounds like a Haydn symphony.”
Anyone other than Mahler would have felt despondent. But rather than stay stuck in the past, he decided to embark on a solitary path strewn with thorns and pitfalls, a path that only the courage and stubbornness of a real genius could conquer. In the meantime, the Hamburg Opera “slave house” took up all of his time and it was only in February 1892 that he finally managed to start writing music again. In no time at all, he had composed and orchestrated the five spectacular Wunderhorn-Lieder.
Unfortunately, the forward-looking “summer composer” had not yet found the quiet and secluded place he needed for his work. The summer of 1892, therefore, took place in the midst of nature, in Berchtesgaden, Southern Bavaria. However, he did not write a single note. A year later, having learned from his experiences, Mahler moved with his family to a small hostel on the banks of the Attersee, not far from Salzburg. The setting was ideal, and he quickly decided to have a “Komponierhäuschen” (cabin) built on a small peninsula where he could immerse himself in his creative work for most of the summer. It was at this time that he turned his attention back to his initial “Symphony in C minor” project and very quickly composed the Andante in A flat from the drafts he had written in 1888. Following this, he concentrated on the Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt song (St. Anthony of Padua’s Sermon to the Fish) and at the same time the Scherzo for his Symphony, for which the musical style is remarkably similar. His work was progressing at breakneck speed and Mahler made sure to update his loyal friend, Natalie Bauer-Lechner, on a daily basis. An “unknown” force lifted him up and he compared himself to a musical instrument playing “Spirit of the world, the source of all existence”. The second and third movements were then completed between 21st June and 16th July. However, the end of summer and his impending return to Hamburg were looming on the horizon and yet he had not composed a single note for the Finale. Instead, he simply added the Wunderhorn-Lied “Urlicht” to the three existing movements which would go on to serve as an introduction to the last movement.
For this finale, which he already considered a pinnacle of achievement, Mahler thought about following in the illustrious footsteps of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and using a choir. He had already started to search for the “redemptive message by browsing through world literature, starting with the bible”, but did not find anything that a struck a chord with him. Then in February 1894, Hans von Bülow died. Mahler attended his funeral [Todtenfeier]and later described the shock he felt during the ceremony: “At that moment, in the organ loft, the choir sang the Klopstock “Auferstehn” (Resurrection) chorus. I was almost like I had been struck by a bolt of lightning and all of a sudden everything in my soul became clear! It has always been like this for me: only when I experience the sensation (erlebe) can I create (tondichte), and only when I create sounds can I experience the sensation.”
Subsequently, three years after the completion of the Second Symphony, Mahler described the genesis of his immense Finale to the critic Arthur Seidl. The very same day, on his way home, he drew up the first drafts. The actual composition work would be finished the following summer in Steinbach and took just three weeks. Mahler added many of his own verses to Klopstock’s poem, which not only amplified the thoughts of the poet, but also transformed them. The noteworthy passage in which he expresses his confidence in the human race and, in his own words, its ability to shape his own destiny, is this:
With wings I won for myself,
In love’s fierce striving,
I shall soar upwards to the light which no eye has penetrated,
Die shall I in order to live.
The first performances
Unlike the previous symphony which, by Mahler’s own admission, would always be his “child of pain”, the Second, after a few years, would become his most representative and accomplished piece of work. Admittedly, however, this was not the case when Strauss included the first three movements on the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra’s concert programme for March 4, 1895. Mahler was at the rostrum, but the hall was half empty and the next day, the critics pounced. Mahler was accused of boring the audience to death with “noisy and bombastic pathos” and “atrocious, tormenting dissonances”. It was almost as if nobody recognised him as having the slightest talent. But it would take much more to discourage the young composer. Nine months later in Berlin, on 13th December, and with the help of two Hamburg publishers, he organised the first full performance of the piece, this time with soloists and choirs. The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, the Stern’sche Singakademie and Sängerbund des Lehrerverein choirs and two opera singers from the Hamburg Stadt-Theatre, Josephine von Artner, soprano, and Hedwig Felden, alto. They were conducted by Mahler. Since take up for the concert was practically zero, Mahler had to give away a large number of free seats the same day. At the end of the evening, the audience’s enthusiasm seemed reassuring, but the next day, the press continued with their onslaught of fierce criticism. This time, Mahler complained bitterly: “I can’t help but breathe a deep sigh when I see the horde of newspapers blocking the passage of children from my mind again.” Fortunately, the blow was somewhat tempered by the enthusiasm of some distinguished admirers, including conductors Arthur Nikisch and Felix Weingartner, and the composer Engelbert Humperdinck. In addition, his two courageous publishers helped by promising to subsidize the piano duet arrangement of the symphony in Leipzig.
In any event, there was still a long way to go before Mahler would be recognised as a great musical creator. However, the Second Symphony was the first of Mahler’s works to cross the borders of the Germanic world, when the conductor Sylvain Dupuis invited Mahler to conduct it in Liège during a series of New Concerts. Following this, during the winter of 1900-1901, the Munich creation of the same piece caused somewhat of a stir. Mahler’s name had already begun to spread when the almost unanimous success of the Third Symphony in Crefeld, in 1902, made him an overnight success. As president of the Allgemeiner Deutscher Musikverein, Strauss decided to stage a performance of the Second symphony at the next festival and chose Basel Cathedral, a Gothic architectural masterpiece, as the venue. Once again, the work and its composer were enthusiastically received. The Second Symphony became Mahler’s personal favourite. He chose the piece as his farewell to Vienna in 1907, then again in 1908 and 1910 to make himself known in New York and Paris.
It should be noted that the recording of the Second Symphony by Oskar Fried in Berlin, in 1924, is the first known recording of any of Mahler’s work.
The Second Symphony has five movements:
For Mahler, composing a symphony was “expressing the whole content of my life” and of “creating a universe with all means at my disposal”. However, it was still necessary to facilitate access to this universe for uninformed listeners. With this in mind, he wrote several different programmes for the Second Symphony but, in essence, they were all remarkably similar. In the first movement, the symphonic hero is laid to rest after a long battle “with life and destiny”. Looking back at his life, he recalls a moment of happiness (the second movement), then reflects on the cruel turmoil of human existence. On the “tumult of appearances” and the “spirit of disbelief and negation” (the Scherzo) that had taken possession of him. He “despairs of himself and of God” and expresses “utter disgust for every form of existence and evolution seizing him in an iron grasp , tormenting him until he utters a cry of despair.”
In the fourth movement, “stirring words of simple faith” sounded in his ear, offering him a glimmer of hope. In the finale “the horror of the day of days has come upon us. The earth trembles, the graves burst open, the dead arise and march forth in endless procession. The great and the small of this earth, the kings and the beggars, the just and the godless, all press forward. The cry for mercy and forgiveness sounds fearful in our ears. The wailing becomes gradually more terrible. All consciousness dies as the Eternal Judge approaches.
The LAST TRUMP sounds; the trumpets of the Apocalypse ring out. In the eerie silence that follows, we can barely make out a distant nightingale, a last tremulous echo of earthly life. The gentle sound of a chorus of saints and heavenly hosts is then heard: “Rise again! rise again thou wilt!”. Then God in all His glory comes into sight. A wondrous light strikes us to the heart. All is quiet and blissful. Behold: there is no judgement, no sinners, no just men, neither great nor small. There is no punishment and no reward! A feeling of overwhelming love fills us with blissful knowledge and illuminates our earthly life.”
-1- -1- Allegro. Maestoso. Mit durchaus ernstem und Feierlich Ausdruck. [With a serious and solemn expression throughout.]
Here, for the first time, Mahler became a traditional Germanic symphonist in his own right, following in the footsteps of Beethoven, Schubert and Bruckner. Through the use of an eloquent thematic, powerful architecture, the moving breath and concise thought, this funeral march can be compared to Beethoven’s Heroic Symphony or Wagner’s Twilight of Gods. Bruckner’s shadow hangs over the first bars, the long initial tremolo and even the duration and character of the main theme afforded to the bass (43 bars).
However, Mahler’s personality is asserted even more with many features similar to those already experienced during his first score in 1880, Das klagende Lied,
showcasing dominant-tonic melodic progressions, alternating major and minor modes, etc. The structure is still quite classic, with two main thematic elements, the second of which, in E major, already suggests the optimistic conclusion of the work and the Finale’s Resurrection theme. The same second theme, transposed to C major, opens the development with a long and gentle episode, with the English horn enhancing the mood with a peaceful “Ranz des vaches”. After a dramatic and eventful illustration of the first theme, calm is re-established with a new pastoral scene. This time it is brutally interrupted by an angry return of the scales from the main theme, and punctuated by loud tam-tam and timpani beats, and in the “false” key of E flat minor. A slow descending scale immediately interrupts this outburst. It ends at the lowest end of the scale, pianissimo, and then a second development, as extensive as the first, begins in tremolos Soon a new element is added to the six horns, a solemn chorale similar to Dies Irae. This would later play a leading role in the finale. The symphonic outburst that follows increases until the return of the first theme in its original form. The very short
recapitulation is followed by a majestic coda, where the themes gradually fall away. Everything ends with what was described by the philosopher, Theodor Adorno, as a collapse [Einsturz], a descending and rapid scale in triplets.
-2- Andante moderato. Sehr gemächlich. Nie eilen [Very leisurely. Never rushing.]
Because of the disparity that existed between the style and mood of the epic soaring first piece and the idyllic second, Mahler initially requested a few minutes pause between them, but he soon gave up on the idea and it is something today that one would not even consider. There are two alternating episodes, the first a graceful ländler in major, and the second in triplets and minor. Mahler was particularly proud of the superb counter melody of cellos which, after the second episode, accompanies the second exposition of the main theme.
-3- In ruhig fliessender Bewegung. [With a gently flowing movement.]
While both feeding off the same musical substance, the humorous anecdote of the Wunderhorn-Lied (in which Saint Anthony preaches to the fish who understand nothing of his words and observe him with stupid eyes) and the tragic, or at least pessimistic, conception of the Scherzo, seem a world apart. Impregnated with German romantic literature, Mahler drew up a fundamental ambiguity between the grotesque and the tragic. The funny tale also had a deeper meaning for him: in it he saw a faithful image of an artist’s status here on earth, one which was eternally misunderstood by the crowds. It should also be noted that this movement takes on a “negative” meaning in the work’s various programmes. Two beats of the timpani, dominant-tonic, trigger the “futility” of the Scherzo, an uninterrupted and voluntarily monotonous double ostinato, and the sixteenth notes in the treble and the eighth notes in the bass. Mahler deliberately chose sharp and somewhat grotesque timbres like that of the piccolo and the clarinet in E flat. The essential material of the Trio, in major, is also borrowed from the Lied, with the exception of the great trumpet solo, which is one of those banal episodes
that Mahler has so often been criticized for and yet which delight us today with their simplicity. At the end of the movement, the “cry of despair” to which the programme alludes floods the entire orchestra in a vast B flat major tutti.
-4- Urlicht. [Primal light.] Sehr feierlich aber schlicht.Choralmässig [Very solemn but simple. Chorale-like]
After the “torturing” questions of the first movement and the grimacing round of the Scherzo, the human being is returned to a childhood state and is finally freed from uncertainty and doubt. A first ray of light shines in this Wunderhorn-Lied which serves as a portico for the Finale and introduces the human voice for the first time. The first ascending motif, in the bass register of the viola, is already a bearer of hope. It progresses into a solemn chorale by the brass instruments which affirms the naive and
peaceful faith of childhood. Later on, this same ascending theme, in an amplified format, becomes the centrepiece of the Resurrection Finale. In the median episode (da kam ich auf einen breiten Weg), hope is confirmed, doubt is overcome and the Lied culminates in a feeling of certainty and quiet ecstasy.
-5- Im Tempo des Scherzo. Wild herausfahrend. [At the same speed as the Scherzo. In a wild outburst.]
Inspired by one of the most original features of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Mahler, at the beginning of his finale, recalls an earlier episode of the work, the Scherzo’s “cry of despair”. It is answered (Sehr zurückhaltend [very restrained]) very quickly in the form of a hesitant statement on the horns of the emerging Resurrection theme. A first
“voice calling in the wilderness” resonates from the horns in the wings, but once again everything fades away with a motif of triplets which plunges into the bass register. The wind chorale then heard against pizzicato quavers (eighth notes) reveals some of the characteristic intervals of the “Resurrection” theme, while at the same time recalling the Dies irae motif heard in the opening movement. But the time for certainty has not yet come. As the much-feared hour approaches, a long orchestral recitative, repeated in the coda by the two opera singers, elaborates the theme of human frailty and the anxiety of God’s creatures. A reply comes in the form of a chorale to which the lower brass instruments add a note of solemnity. The heavens brighten and the return of the brass fanfare prepares for a new and more assertive statement of the “Resurrection” theme. This series of episodes is linked together in a way that follows a dramatic, rather than musical, path and constitutes a vast prelude of almost 200 bars in length, comparable to overtures which expose, before the curtain rises, the main themes of an opera.
A striking crescendo on the percussion, which Alban Berg will remember in Wozzeck (timpani, snare drum, bass drum and tom-toms) introduces the Allegro energico,
a vast symphonic free-for-all based on most of the themes heard before. A return of the “despairing” passage produces a startling effect, one of the earliest instances of a typically 20th-century “spatialization” effect. The brass instruments in the wings repeatedly superimpose fanfare motifs on an impassioned recitative that pursues a tireless course, first amongst the cellos and then amongst the violins. The nagging sense of anguish grows until the brass instruments enter with another triumphant fanfare. Now,
in an atmosphere of mystery and hope, the cellos softly play and the “Resurrection” theme appears in all its glory , It marks the beginning of the coda in which
chorus, soloists and the whole orchestra come together with a great cry of jubilation.
Everything that follows – the “Grand Appel” of the brass instruments placed in the wings, and the song of the nightingale which chirps on the graves (Mahler alludes to this in his programme) as “a last echo of earthly life”, and then the choir’s triple pianissimo entry to the words of Klopstock’s Aufersteh’n- is one of the most memorable moments in this entire symphonic repertoire. With a last alto solo (“O glaube, mein Herz o glaube!”), all final doubt subsides and a fanatic certainty gradually takes over every single one of the performers. Firstly in increasingly tight imitations, then in unison, the theme of the Resurrection and the liberating words invade the whole choir. One last time, all the voices united in the same fervour proclaim “Aufersteh’n” triple fortissimo, before giving the entire floor to the orchestra which tirelessly repeat the first notes of the theme in a triumphant crash to which the organ, tom-tom and bells add an unforgettable splendour.
Of course, in this vast finale, it would be futile to seek the infallible material organisation and incomparable formal refinement which characterise Mahler’s other monumental works. And yet, is it possible to imagine a more eloquent and better suited conclusion to one of the most ambitious works that a musician has ever conceived and produced? The final apotheosis of the Second Symphony brings to mind those radiant “glories” that one sees shining above the baroque altars in the churches of Imperial Austria and, as such, it does more than satisfy us. It fulfills and enthralls us, silencing every single one of our uncertainties.
The Klagende Lied is a subject that belongs to a universe dear to Mahler and Romantics in general: The Middle Ages, with its flamboyant Gothic, disturbing legends, dreamlike forests and enchanted castles. Analysis of the original poem.
Une jeune reine déclare que celui qui trouvera dans la forêt la fleur rouge qu’elle cherche obtiendra sa main; deux frères, l’un bon et l’autre mauvais partent à la recherche de la fleur, le bon la trouve et la met à son chapeau, puis il s’étend sous un saule pour dormir; le mauvais frère arrive sur ces entrefaites et le tue d’un coup d’épée; le bon sera bientôt enseveli sous les feuilles et les fleurs de l’arbre.
Plus tard, un troubadour errant ramasse un des os qui brillent sous les feuilles; il en fait une flûte qui, lorsqu’il la porte à ses lèvres, chante le récit du meurtre (Das Klagende Lied [Le Chant douloureux]); le ménestrel prend le chemin de la ville.
Le château royal est en liesse pour le mariage de la Reine: dans l’antichambre, le ménestrel joue sa flûte magique; le roi coupable saisit l’instrument et l’embouche; la flûte répète son chant accusateur; la reine tombe inanimée, les invités s’enfuient et les murs du château s’écroulent.