Gustav Mahler. This composer gives me trouble. Usually I do not feel attracted by his music, I hardly ever listen to his works. But if you would press me to give you a reason, I would not know what to say. Prejudice? Perhaps. Nevertheless, every now and then I end up in a concert hall and have to listen to one of his symphonies. And then it strikes me that I do not listen to his works more often. And perhaps the reason for my ambiguous feelings are the simple dimensions of his works.
Take his symphony No. 2 also known as the “Resurrection Symphony”. It is huge, a typical performance takes between 80 and 90 minutes. It is massive as it requires a huge orchestra, a chorus, a soprano and an alto singer. It is also massive in terms of sounds, massive, impressive, oppressive, frightening. Huge. And of a striking beauty. Emotionally intensive. I read somewhere that Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 took the music to the outer rim of symphonic music as such, a bit like a spaceship crew may travel to the outer rim of a galaxy knowing that the fuel will only be sufficient for a one-way trip. Mahler has passed the point of no return with this work. When he finished it in 1894 and presented it to the public the world of symphonies would no longer be what it was before.
Mahler is not at the origin of the title “Resurrection Symphony”. It has its origin in a hymn written by the German poet Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock called “Die Auferstehung” (The Resurrection). The composer had heard a setting of it for choir and organ at the funeral of Hand von Bülow, a German conductor, pianist and composer of the Romantic era. “It struck me like lightning,” Mahler later wrote, “and everything was revealed to my soul clear and plain.” He used the first two verses of Klopstock’s hymn, then added verses of his own that dealt more explicitly with redemption and resurrection. Originally the symphony had four movements, but Mahler expanded the work by adding “Urlicht” (Primal Light), a song he had written earlier, between the third movement and the finale.
This symphony commands respect, it also requires an attentive audience. Mahler’s work has multiple layers of music and only a focused mind can absorb it altogether and grasp the deep emotions that Mahler intended to express and the to fathom the importance of the question that Mahler saw embedded in this majestic work: What is or was the purpose of your life?
I recommend the recording by the New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein.
© Charles Thibo