Mahler – Symphony No. 2 in C-minor, “Resurrection”

by Max Derrickson

Symphony No. 2 in C-Minor, “Resurrection”

  1. Allegro maestoso. Mit durchaus ernstem und feierlichem Ausdruck
  2. Andante moderato: Sehr gemächlich
  3. In ruhig fliessender Bewegung —
  4. Urlicht: Sehr feierlich aber schlicht (Mezzo-Soprano) —
  5. Finale, on Klopstock’s ode, Auferstehen (Chorus, Soprano and Mezzo-Soprano Soloists)

Gustav Mahler
(Born in Bohemia (now Jihlava, Czech Republic) in 1860; died in Vienna in 1911)


Mahler’s magnificent Symphony No. 2 was named “Resurrection” by others, but it is fitting – Mahler intentionally explored the mystery of life here on earth, and what lies beyond.  Were he to have named it, perhaps it would have been “Death and The Last Judgement.”   Its genesis began in 1888, just on the heels of his First Symphony, when Mahler stood at the coffin of a friend, and wondered what all this living and suffering was about – his Second Symphony began as an answer to this question.  Mahler created a program early on to explain the general story underneath this symphony.  According to Mahler’s program for the piece, this first movement is the death and funeral of the “Hero,” which he left behind in his First Symphony, the “Titan.”  Although he would eventually abandon this narrative program, it nonetheless provides a helpful roadmap to this huge work.   Movement 1, originally entitled Todtenfeier (Funeral Rites), was described by Mahler:

And now in this moment of gravity . . ., our heart is gripped by a dreadfully serious voice . . . : What now? What is this life — and this death? Do we have an existence beyond it? Is all this only a confused dream, or do life and this death have a meaning? — And we must answer this question if we are to live on.

This first movement comes at us in waves of both hysteria and profound quietude.  In it, Mahler set out to create [. . .]  It’s a sprawling 20-minute start to a symphony, beginning with intensity and urgency, a quickening to destiny, and building with frightening magnitude. Although there are ample moments of nobleness and tenderness, dissonance [. . .]


After completing this first Todtenfeier movement, however, Mahler’s creative momentum stuttered.   Making his living mainly as a conductor, Mahler idolized the virtuoso conductor Hans von Bülow and he came to Bülow in 1891 to get his impressions.  As Mahler played through Todtenfeier on the piano, he could see Bülow [. . .]

But the existential questions of life and after-life haunted Mahler’s psyche, and by 1893 more movements [. . .]  Andante in his program for his Symphony as the sun following sorrow:

[Mahler]: You must have attended the funeral of a person dear to you and then, perhaps, the picture of a happy […] 

[. . .] Saint Anthony of Padua’s sermon to the fishes, where the imploring Saint is met with indifference by his fish audience.  Mahler described the movement as an agitated awakening from the sweetness of the preceding Andante:

When you awaken from the nostalgic daydream [of the preceding movement] and you return to the confusion of real life, it can happen that the ceaseless motion,  [. . .]

Then, the fourth movement, Urlicht (Primal Light), is where Mahler begins answering that question that prompted this Symphony as a whole, “do life and this death have a meaning?”   This movement, one of Mahler’s most beautiful creations, is based on a previous song from Das Knaben Wunderhorn [. . .]

Despite its beauty, Mahler had painted himself into a corner.  Urlicht and its meditative mood was not the right way to end such a huge Symphony, [. . .]

His saving grace was ironically the very man who threw Mahler into his first writer’s block years before: Hans von Bülow whose death in 1894 gave Mahler inspiration for the finale.  Bülow’s funeral was attended by hundreds, and Mahler himself conducted part of the remembrances.  It was a setting of the Auferstehen (Resurrection) Hymn by the 18th-century poet Friedrich Klopstock performed by a boy’s chorus  [. . .]  the Finale is colossal, filled with enormous sounds, with offstage calls and moments of terror and which makes what happens after the Last Trump one of the most unexpected and amazing turnabouts in music – [. . .]

[Mahler]: The ‘Great Summons’ resounds: the trumpets [. . .]

The music gathers strength, and the Symphony ends in spine-tingling majesty, with organ, pealing church bells, brass fanfares and crashing gongs, rising into a searing, blazing light.