Dedicated to my dear friends, Egha & Arfan
Mahler spent 7 years to finally complete this symphony. During those 7 years, Mahler encountered tragic loss of his father, mother, and sister who died within few months one after another in 1889. Initially, Mahler had to postpone his composition of what it would be ‘Second Symphony’. He also had to take up some conducting works in several orchestras. Thus, he even grew far from his composition. Nevertheless, summer 1893 became a moment where he went back to his composition of what would be the Second Symphony.
As known by its name, ‘Resurrection’, Mahler’s Second Symphony deals with Mahler’s view of afterlife and resurrection. Born as Jewish, later converted into Catholicism, we can find those ‘religious’ clues through five movements which shape this symphony. The entire ~90 minutes of this symphony could also be taken as a pictorial symphony of the end of a mortal life, what makes life and death so meaningful aside of being contrast to each other.
The first symphony is started with allegro maestoso. This movement is marked with an instruction to play “With complete gravity and solemn expression” (Mit durchaus ernstem und feierlichem Ausdruck). Once, Mahler had set this movement as a single, symphonic poem that he named ‘Funeral Rites’ (Todtenfeier). Mahler started ‘this story’ from the end of a human life. The death. It is interesting takeaway to put ourselves as the spectator of someone who died here as we watch the body is being buried. As the notes become somber and evoke the feeling of uncertainty, there we are questioning not only to the lifeless body but also to us, the living ones, in sadness, “What does life truly mean?”.
The second movement then comes as a flashback movie of our life. As a flashback, it seems like a slow-motion effect. Mahler wrote to play this movement in andante moderato with the instruction to play it ‘Very leisurely. Don’t rush” (Sehr gemächlich, nie eilen). Just like a flashback movie where things move in slow motion as we recollect our unforgettable, meaningful moments in life.
The joy and grief that we have experienced during our life leads us, the spectators, to keep questioning the real meaning of life. “Why does life have to be so unknown?”, “Why can’t we see what waits us after the end of our life?”. The beauty of life indeed entices us to the point where we do fear death for its unknown nature of what awaits us after the death. This form of fear is what Mahler described as a piece of despair in third movement.
The third movement is marked to play with “Quietly, flowing movement” (In ruhig fliessender bewegung). In this movement, Mahler started it with a story about St. Anthony of Padua who preached to a group of fishes out of his frustration due to indifference shown by his congregation. Although the fishes enjoyed his sermon, they were no different than the humans. They still continued to do bad things.
Personally, I take this as a way of Mahler wanted to note that no matter how we fear death, we somehow tend to forget by indulging ourselves in superficial happiness just so we don’t remember the ‘harsh’ truth of what awaits us at the end of our life. Therefore, as it goes to the end of this movement, we are presented again with the feeling of uncertainty. After all those superficial indulgences, we remember that we will die at some point in our life. As we fear what we don’t know, of what is the meaning of life and what is waiting for us after death, the fourth movement comes.
The fourth movement is known as ‘Primeval Light’ (Urlicht). This movement has the choral section that sings the part of old German folk songs from The Boy’s Magic Horn (Des Knaben Wunderhorn). This is what they sing in German for Urlicht.
“O Roeschen rot!
(O little red rose!)
Der Mensch liegt in groesster Not!
(Man lies in greatest need!)
Der Mensch liegt in groesster Pein!
(Man lies in greatest suffering!)
Je lieber moecht ich in Himmel sein!
(How much rather would I be in Heaven!)
Da kam ich auf einen breiten Weg.
(I came upon a broad road.)
Da kam ein Engelein und wollt’ mich abweisen.
(There came an angel and wanted to block my way.)
Ach nein! Ich liess mich nicht abweisen
(Ah no! I did not let myself be turned away!)
Ich bin von Gott und will wieder zu Gott!
(I am of God, and to God I shall return.)
Der liebe Gott wird mir ein Lichtchen geben,
(Dear God will grant me a small light,)
Wird leuchten mir bis in das ewig selig Leben!
(will light my way to eternal, blissful life!),”
The fourth movement comes as if the spectator receives a divine enlightenment that no matter how grievous the life that leads to death, the spectator rises back to the ultimate truth to answer our mortal questions: “Where do we go after death? What are waiting for us?”. To God, we shall return.
Mahler closed this symphony in the fifth movement named as ‘Resurrection’ (Auferstehung). In the early part of this final movement, Mahler showed us the scene of apocalypse where the deads are arised and march to the place where the Day of Judgment will be commenced. Through the notes that evoke fear and despair, we are presented with the turbulence of sounds marked by loud brass section. It is so loud, enough to get you shivered.
Progressively through the last 15 minutes of this symphony, the fifth movement moves to calmer notes. In this part, we can hear a slow build up of choral section that leads to the ‘Auferstehung’ poem by Friedrich Kloppstock. This poem inspired Mahler a lot when he attended the funeral of his friend, fellow conductor from Hamburg named Hans von Buelow. Originally, the fifth movement didn’t have the choral finale like what we’re listening right now. Mahler’s encounter with Kloppstock’s poem at the time of funeral moved him so much that it then provided Mahler with how he wanted to end the Second Symphony.
Aufersteh’n, ja aufersteh’n wirst du,
(Rise again, yes, you will rise again)
Mein Staub, nach kurzer Ruh!
(My dust, after a short rest!)
Wird der dich rief dir geben.
(He who called you will give to you)
Wieder aufzublüh’n wirst du gesät!
(To blossom again you are sown!)
Der Herr der Ernte geht
(The Lord of the Harvest goes)
Und sammelt Garben
(and gathers, like sheaves)
Uns ein, die starben.
(we who died)
Following ‘Auferstehung’ written by Kloppstock above, Mahler also added his own writing sung alto solo, sopran solo, choral and alto, sopran and alto solo, and ended by choral. Kindly read and take it as a personal reminder for you, dear reader. I personally think that whoever or what kind of God that Mahler had in mind, God in his thought is whom he longed to return.
Alto Solo Part
O glaube, mein Herz, o glaube:
(Oh believe, my heart, oh believe:)
Es geht dir nichts verloren!
(Nothing is lost to you)
Dein ist, was du gesehnt!
(It is yours, what you desired)
Dein, was du geliebt, was du gestritten!
(It is yours, what you loved, what you struggled for!)
Sopran Solo Part
Du wardst nicht umsonst geboren!
(You were not born in vain!)
Hast nicht umsonst gelebt, gelitten!
(You have not lived, suffered in vain!)
Choral and Alto Solo Part
Was entstanen ist, das muss vergehen!
(What came into being, it must cease to be!)
Was vergangen, auferstehen!
(What passed away, it must rise again!)
Hoer’ auf zu beben!
Bereite dich zu leben!
(Prepare yourself to live!)
Sopran und Alto Solo Part
O Schmerz! Du Alldurchdringer!
(Oh grief! You all-penetrator!)
Dir bin ich entrungen!
(I am forced to you)
O Tod! Du Allbezwinger!
(O death! You all-conqueror!)
Nun bist du beqwungen!
(Now you are defeated!)
Mit Fluegeln, die ich mir errungen*
(With wings that I won for myself)
In heissem Liebesstreben*
(In fervent pursuit of love)
Wer’ ich entschweben*
(I will waft away)
Zum Licht, zu dem kein Aug’ gedrungen!*
(To the light that no eye has penetrated!)
*also sung by choral section
Sterben werd’ ich, um zu leben!
(I shall die in order to live.)
Aufersteh’n, ja aufersteh’n wirst du,
(Rise again, yes, you will rise again,)
Mein Herz, in einem Nu!
(My heart, in a moment!)
Was du geschlagen,
(What you bested)
Zu Gott wird es dich tragen!
(It will carry you to God!)
It is not too much to say that these last two parts are enough to move your heart. It is not sad nor happy notes. It is an ultimate peace that comes in form of majestic sounds that, for a lack of better word, feels divine. People always have personal expression towards these last two parts, but most people might be agreed with me if I draw the “Aufersteh’n, ja aufersteh’n wirst du… mein Herz in einem Nu!” line as a heavenly light that welcomes us with the warm embrace which then is highlighted by the organ sound. As we move to the last minute of this symphony, the bell chimes in and the sound of orchestra, dominantly marked by the brass & percussion section ‘closes the curtain’.
Firstly, I intended to write about this symphony just like how I tried to write my review on Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 (that I wrote here). I also wanted to write this in Bahasa Indonesia too, but I still don’t feel satisfied with what automatic translation here doing its job (and now, somehow it doesn’t work?) to translate the nuances in Bahasa Indonesia to English. The latter somehow works for translation from English to Bahasa Indonesia.
Personally, it is quite challenging to write, let alone to sum up, this symphony without getting emotional. The last two parts (‘O Schmerz’ and ‘Pesante’) are enough to make me cry especially the ‘gradually emotional’ sounds from these lyrics that are also sung by the choir section together with solo soprano and alto:
Mit Fluegeln, die ich mir errungen in heissem Liebesstreben. Wer’ ich entschweben zum Licht, zu dem kein Aug’ gedrungen!
…to this lyrics:
Sterben werd’ ich, um zu leben!
…and finally the rest of the lyrics in Pesante.
If I was asked, what recording by which conductor and orchestra I would suggest listening to, I would suggest recording by Gilbert Kaplan. When I was exposed to the ‘wonder of die Auferstehung‘ (yes, I would totally say that for this symphony), I listened to it first from his recording. It was like the first time I discovered Rach’s Piano Concerto No. 2. It was very moving to the point of I couldn’t listen to it without choked up.
However, the part for ‘O Schmerz’ and ‘Pesante’ from Kaplan’ recording are separated tracks, so it’s quite tricky to listen in non-premium service in Spotify or Youtube (and Youtube music) without getting disturbed by ads (or even worse, random track after the previous one). Nevertheless, I’ve found a recording by Sir Simon Rattle who happened to have ‘O Schmerz’ and ‘Pesante’ in one track. You can listen what I meant about that ‘gradually emotional’ sounds on minute 1:10 until 2:24.
If you happened to read until this part, then give it a try to listen at least to these parts (‘O Schmerz’ and ‘Pesante’) of the 5th movement. Read the lyrics. Try to give time for yourself a time to reflect on those lyrics, on your life, and on what it really means to be alive.
See you on the next post!
Have a nice day! 🙂
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