Mahler’s Second Symphony: rising from the dead

January 12 2022, by Patrick Maxwell

There is something strangely ironic about the fact that the piece we know as the ‘Resurrection’ symphony was written by Gustav Mahler. Mahler, the great late Romantic, whose death in 1911 is often cited as the end of the previously total grip of tonal music on the classical tradition. Mahler, whose greatest works have the conceptual vestiges of Beethoven and are embedded in classical forms of structure, whose career as conductor rose the playing of the great Viennese composers to a new level, and yet still proved an inspiration to the figures of Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg who were to do away with the very structures of composition Mahler seemingly held up. And it was this composer who was preoccupied with the idea of mortality, with transcendence, with the all-so-Romantic image of the power of music to do something material existence is denied. And yet it is that style of music that was about to be uprooted by serialism and the twelve-tone technique immediately after his death, just as the culture and landscape Mahler knew came to be taken apart as the twentieth century.

Mahler’s symphonies are the paragons of music at the turn of the twentieth century. Not only because of their grandeur and sheer force, in both aesthetic and logistical terms, but because of the terms upon which they are composed. The works are set-piece events – they encompass themes, emotions, lifes, ideas, more wide-ranging and emphatically than any opera of the time. The scale alone was something not seen since Beethoven seventy years earlier.

Mahler fully embraced the notion of orchestral music as ‘the most Romantic of all the arts’, which could stir up ‘an infinite yearning towards an unknown realm’. (The, admittedly overdone, words are those of the Beethoven-crazy writer E.T.A. Hoffman.) That unknown realm is certainly the goal, if somehow music really can aspire to it. Mahler’s symphonies seem wracked by this doubt, by the emerging notion that the immortality of music was merely our construction, our illusory device for summing up its power when words couldn’t do it – a central notion of the Second Viennese School. Mahler’s faith is a perplexing question, not just because of the widespread anti-Semitism in Vienna when he was making a name as a Jewish conductor, but because of the ambiguity of any faith in his works. Hope, anguish, certainly – they are everywhere in his work. But devotion, let alone certainty, seems far away. The dogmatic power of the will which screams out of Beethoven’s most triumphant works is not to be found in the convoluted structures and fissiparous nature of Mahler’s works. There is no coherent whole, no obvious path to completion, no sense of the ritualistic, the essentially divine. In reality, Mahler can easily be seen as an agnostic. Anyone who listens to his music wouldn’t be surprised.

So why ‘resurrection’? A pretty ambitious topic for an agnostic composer. Mahler’s Second Symphony has all we might expect from a tale of rebirth: the opening funeral march, the contemplation of past happiness is the second, and then a long exploration of redemption and high emotion at the end. It’s a similar format to Beethoven’s Ninth, something which Mahler recognised, especially with a great choral finale.

The symphony was not originally conceived as such. Mahler composed the first movement as a Requiem in 1888 and the other three much later, before the premiere in 1895. In the end the whole piece came under that label. If anything sounded like death, it would be the first movement of this piece. The first few minutes can sound like a hand of death coming out at you; there is a rigid inevitability to the first movement, where the main theme comes round again and again, its momentum sensing the end from far off. The key is C minor (Beethoven’s favourite) and when the climax of the opening comes in a huge cadence, the marching entry of the brass is terrifying – Mahler has to change scene entirely, resorting to his second theme in the sweet heights of the violins. Otherwise the tension is too great: for Mahler the symphonic dramatist, he has already killed his subject and spends the remaining hour and a bit wondering about what’s going to happen to them. The best recording for the incredible brute force of this opening is (unsurprisingly) found under Sir Simon Rattle’s baton with the Berlin Philharmonic.

The first movement is central to the rest of the piece, even if its darkness seems on another planet to the religious solemnity of the final movements. Having composed it without a conception of a wider symphonic movement in 1888, Mahler barely made any changes to the movement when he included the others; as one editor put it, ‘the total conception of the symphony is a derivative of what was instinctively present in the first movement.’ That fearful tread of death, the hand reaching out from beyond the grave, stalks the rest of the music.

Despite the clear, unmistakably German bombast of the first movement, its structure in no way conforms to the ordinary straightforward structures of sonata form. There is an exposition, development and recapitulation, but their order is never clear. Counter-subjects fuse with main subjects, and themes develop as they go along, creating a structure that is inherently dramatic, even instinctive, rather than strictly formulated. Indeed, the first movement gives a first outing of some material not heard until the final movement, musically and emotionally a world away.

Mahler’s dances are strange moments. In the Seventh Symphony, Mahler said he had Rembrandt’s The Night Watch in mind when writing the second movement. Here, it is based on the traditional form of German Lied, a lighter interlude which to some shows the recollection of the previous life – the lightness, even jocularity of it seem too good to be true. It is definitely a completely different mood – Mahler ordered a five minute gap between the first and second movements, and both Claude Debussy and Paul Dukas were so displeased with the second that they walked out on a performance in 1910.

The seeming naivety of the third movement seems hallucinatory, as if the darkness of the first is still lingering and the middle sections only distracting interludes. But the premonition of death is still here: the movement opens with an ascending fourth from G to C in the timpani, reminiscent of the cello’s opening phrase. And the intensity of this movement grows, the climax being a huge tremolando chord with shatteringly high chords in the strings and wind – Mahler called it a ‘cry of despair’.

The two last movements herald the return to the tumult of the beginning. It comes in the form of an alto soloist, in the comfortingly deep key of D flat major. Mahler uses the German poet Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock’s ‘The Resurrection’, a text which seems to express if not Mahler’s beliefs than at least his yearnings. ‘Rise again, yes, rise again’ the growing choir sings, calling out again and again to the idea of ‘immortal life’. Over and over the soloists sing ‘O glaube’ – believe – urging the listener to imagine they were not ‘born for nothing’ and must ‘prepare yourself to live’. But this is not Klopstock. From ‘O Glaube’ onwards it is Mahler’s pen, it is him urging to shake away the doubt and to fully take in the possibilities of eternal life, the same Mahler whose faith in that principle was deeply uncertain. As the choir finishes the symphony in gargantuan E flat major, they sing of the heart being able to carry suffering to god, the same god Mahler could never truly bring himself to accept. Perhaps the only thing we can take from Mahler’s unerring, if naive, belief in the powers of music to do something that religion couldn’t, even if that meant buying into the whole German Romantic idea of redemption and egoistic heroism. This was the same Mahler who was rejected by Debussy and the French establishment as too Tuetonic and Romantic while having the same accusation and more thrown at him by the Viennese managers who resented his ethnicity and personal style. Mahler was a fantastically difficult person, whose behaviour created protests in the Viennese opera house, who proclaimed that his symphonies would be the ones played in concert halls in the decades to come, rather than Beethoven’s. His belief in his own genius was legendary; Schoenberg backed it up when he wrote his obituary for Mahler, prophesying that his music would live on, only by the rule that popular acclaim by contemporary audiences is an immediate mark down on a composer’s music. Perhaps that was merely Schoenberg trying to be kind, or more likely exonerating himself at the same time since most of Vienna or anywhere else was happy to listen to a concert full of his stuff.

Yet Mahler’s position – fully expressed in the conflicted nature of the Second Symphony – bears notice. The prime intellectual standard bearer of the Second Viennese School was the philosopher and theorist Theodor Adorno. In his eyes, Mahler was a radical, as well as an important rebel. In an address Adorno made a hundred years after the composer’s birth, in 1960, he went back to the memory of Debussy walking out on the performance of the symphony. Debussy ‘must have been appalled’ by the work, given his place by 1910 as a dominant figure in French music, and something of the European cultural orthodoxy. To him, the work would have been ‘a monstrosity of inflated dimensions when measured by the criteria of clarity and distinctness.’ Debussy said it sounded too much like Brahms and Schubert – Adorno saw him ‘labelled an exponent of the monumentality of the Wilhelmian age and the Ringstrasse.’ Others said it was too modern a work, too full of the bombast and clamour of an overblown Romanticism. Therefore Mahler is neither a reactionary nor a dogmatic avant-gardist. For Adorno, who espoused the radical New Music which sprung from the same roots yet sprouted wholly different fruit, Mahler pursued a ‘rebellion against the constraints placed on music by private bourgeois conventionality.’ What made him stand out, and what makes his diffuse works last with such acclaim today is his ‘thoroughgoing discontinuity’, their refusal to adhere to usual classical themes or moulds. Mahler does not base his works on the traditional Classical melody, but neither does he forget their role or potential impact; his works are truly the sum of their parts, part of an overall conception which is only as impressive as the multifarious part of the whole. By creating such a command of form and forces, Mahler really was the first ‘to modify the formal language of music.’ His music may not resurrect, since none can, but it brings to a life of its own that unique language, cultivated by neither forms of the past or the future, but yet still bound together by both of them.

Patrick Maxwell, L6

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