Notes by TŌN cellist Pecos Singer
Mahler produced his second symphony in short bursts of creativity over a six-year period. The inspiration was a visceral, emotional response to a room full of flowers after a performance. Mahler suddenly imagined that he was attending his own funeral and soon after began writing a tone poem titled Totenfeier (“Funeral Rite”) based on the experience. The title page of the manuscript reads, “Symphony in C minor/First Movement,” implying that he always intended it to be part of a larger work. The piece eventually became the first movement of his Symphony No. 2, Resurrection.
The second movement of the symphony is noticeably lighter in character and texture than the symphony as a whole. In the program Mahler wrote to accompany the symphony, he describes the movement as attending a funeral of a close friend and “the picture of a happy hour long past arises in your mind,” nearly distracting you from the somberness of the occasion. Mahler eventually withdrew his own programmatic text, evidently preferring the audience to develop their own reactions to the music.
As with many composers, much of Mahler’s inspiration stemmed from vocal music. The inner movements of the symphony drew from a set of songs for voice and piano that Mahler wrote based on German folk poems called Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth’s Magic Horn). Mahler describes the third movement as an abrupt end to the “nostalgic daydream” of the previous movement. Upon waking you are struck with horror, and “life can seem meaningless, a gruesome, ghostly spectacle, from which you recoil with a cry of disgust!” The fourth movement of the symphony is a reworking of one of the Wunderhorn songs for mezzo-soprano soloist and orchestra.
Musicians are no foreigners to harsh criticism, and Mahler was no exception. Upon hearing Mahler play the first movement on the piano, the celebrated conductor Hans von Bülow reportedly covered his ears and said, “Beside your music, Tristan sounds as simple as a Haydn symphony!” Deeply wounded by this criticism, Mahler set the work aside for several years. Coincidentally, the music for the final movement was inspired by events from Bülow’s funeral six years later. During the memorial service, Mahler heard a children’s choir perform Klopstock’s Resurrection chorale. Mahler’s close friend, Josef Förster, recalled finding him after the service, having just jotted down the germ for the fifth and final movement, in which Mahler calls for a full chorus singing the text from the first eight lines of Klopstock’s poem, Die Auferstehung (The Resurrection). The rest of the words Mahler wrote himself.
What to Listen for?
Mahler is particularly skillful in his ability to move smoothly between passages with a massive orchestration to others that highlight smaller groups within the orchestra. This “chamber music” approach to symphonic writing is a hallmark of Mahler’s style and adds to the deeply personal and moving character of his music, especially evident in the fourth movement with the solo violin and voice.