Oregon Symphony


Concert Information

Mahler’s Symphony No. 2

Saturday, May 20, 2017, 7:30 pm
Sunday, May 21, 2017, 2 pm
Monday, May 22, 2017, 7:30 pm

Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall

Carlos Kalmar, conductor
Tamara Wilson, soprano
Elizabeth DeShong, mezzo-soprano
Portland State University Choirs
    Ethan Sperry, artistic director

Symphony No. 2 in C Minor, “Resurrection”
  • Allegro maestoso
  • Andante moderato
  • In ruhig fliessender Bewegung
  • Urlicht
  • Scherzo
  • Tamara Wilson
  • Elizabeth DeShong
  • Portland State University Choir

Text and translations

THE CONCERT CONVERSATION, conducted one hour before each performance, will feature music director Carlos Kalmar and Robert McBride, host for the stations of All Classical Portland. You can also enjoy the Concert Conversation in the comfort of your own home. Visit AllClassical.org to watch the video on demand.

Symphony No. 2 in C Minor, “Resurrection”

Vital Stats

Composer: Born July 7, 1860, Kalischt, near Iglau (now Kališteˇ, Jihlava), Bohemia; died May 18, 1911, Vienna.

Work composed: Mahler drafted the first movement in 1888, the second and third movements in the summer of 1893, the fourth movement in 1892–93, and completed the finale by December 28, 1894. Mahler also made revisions up through 1909.

World premiere: Mahler premiered the first three movements with the Berlin Philharmonic on March 4, 1895; on December 13 of that year, he conducted the same orchestra in the premiere of the entire work.

Most recent Oregon Symphony performance: May 17, 2004; Carlos Kalmar, conductor; Nicole Cabell, soprano; Jane Gilbert, mezzo-soprano.

Instrumentation: Soprano, mezzo-soprano, SATB chorus,
4 flutes (all doubling piccolo), 4 oboes (2 doubling English horn),
5 clarinets (one doubling bass clarinet), 4 bassoons (2 doubling contrabassoon), 10 horns, 6 trumpets, 4 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, chimes, cymbals, orchestra bells, snare drum, 2 tam-tams, triangle, organ, 2 harps, and strings.

Estimated duration: 77 minutes

How important is it for an audience to understand what inspires a composer? How much does that under standing color the listener’s experience? In the case of Gustav Mahler, whose symphonic inspirations spanned a wide range of categories, from poetry to religion to metaphysics, context is helpful. However, we can also make the mistake of assuming we must know the “story” of a symphony in order to fully grasp it.

Mahler was pestered by critics, colleagues and friends to provide a program for his second symphony; bowing to pressure, he did initially suggest a general outline for the work, but over time, Mahler’s attitude towards such explanations soured. In 1901, Mahler described the program outline he had provided to King Albert of Saxony (at the king’s request) as “a crutch for a cripple,” and added, “It gives only a superficial indication, all that any program can do for a musical work, let alone this one, which is so much all of a piece that it can no more be explained than the world itself. I’m quite sure that if God were asked to draw up a program of the world he created he could never do it. At best it would say as little about the nature of God and life as my analysis says about my C-minor Symphony.”

It is interesting that Mahler describes the symphony as “so much all of a piece” because the movements were conceived over a seven-year period, and the first was initially conceived as a stand-alone work. Mahler composed what became the first movement after his successful premiere of the opera Die drei Pintos (The Three Pintos), in January 1888. Mahler received many congratulatory bouquets of flowers after the premiere, which he took home and arranged around his bedroom. Lying in bed surrounded by their heady scents, Mahler imagined himself, in his own words, “dead, laid out in state, beneath wreaths and flowers.” This macabre fantasy inspired him to compose Todtenfeier (Funeral Rites), which he originally conceived as a single movement orchestral work.

Because of his various conducting posts, which demanded all his time and energy during the concert season, Mahler spent his summer vacations composing. He finished Todtenfeier in September 1888, but Mahler’s busy conducting schedule and work on other compositions, including his first symphony, kept him from performing it for five years. In 1893, Mahler decided Todtenfeier worked bet ter as the first movement of a new symphony, rather than as an independent composition. The Allegro maestoso is the one of the longest of the symphony’s five movements, second only to the Finale, and as its original title suggests, the music explores Mahler’s lifelong fascination with the ontological questions of life and death. The music alternates funeral marches with contrasting episodes of tender, intimate music. In one of the “programs” Mahler was asked to write, he described the existential questions posed by the first movement: “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.”

The gentle serenity of the Andantemoderato provides a respite from the relentless philosophical demands of the first movement. It suggests a relaxed day in the country with its placid melodies and cello solo. The drama of the first movement returns briefly about halfway through, but the lyrical opening soon returns.

As with each of Mahler’s first five symphonies, the Second features a song with text from the poetry collection Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Boy’s Magic Horn). In July 1893, while Mahler was working on the Second Symphony, he composed the song “Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt” (St. Anthony of Padua’s Sermon to the Fishes) for voice and piano. This song contains hints of music Mahler used in his first symphony, and he quickly orchestrated it, exploiting its clear vocal lines, as the third movement of the Second Symphony.

The text of Urlicht (Primeval Light) also comes from Des Knaben Wunderhorn. Mahler set it for mezzo-soprano, whose voice represents humanity. She pleads to God on behalf of all humankind for the peace of eternal life. The text and music combine in a peaceful benediction, which Mahler ruthlessly destroys in the opening bars of the final movement. This monumental section, over 30 minutes in length, sums up the preceding movements and then, using distant offstage horns (Mahler described this as “The crier in the wilderness),” Mahler sets the scene. A flute sounds a solitary birdcall, followed by a rich silence. Then, hushed, the chorus sings, “Rise again, yes, you will rise again, my dust, after brief rest! Immortal life will He who called you grant you!” On the word “rief” (call), the soprano drifts in, floating like a sunbeam above the choir. The text is a combination of the beginning verses of Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock’s poem Auferstehung (Resurrection) and Mahler’s own free verse. In 1894, Mahler’s colleague, conductor Hans von Bülow, died. At the memorial service, which Mahler attended, a choir sang a setting of Klopstock’s poem. “It struck me like lightning, this thing,” wrote Mahler to a friend, “and everything was revealed to my soul clear and plain.” To Klopstock’s words Mahler added his own, which speak more specifically about faith and belief in resurrection, not of Jesus, but of the individual soul. The two soloists trade lines about transcending pain and death, and the chorus triumphantly declares, “I shall die so as to live!” Cascading chimes and ebullient brasses bring the symphony to a transcendent close.

Critics savaged Mahler’s First Symphony, and some reviews of the Second were likewise brutal. In the rabidly anti-Semitic Vienna of the 1890s, one often could not separate a critic’s reaction to the music from his inbred anti-Semitism. One such review dismissed the Symphony, claiming the audience was required to “surrender unconditionally to the composer” and that listeners were “overwhelmed rather than convinced.” Another critic wrote, “[The Second Symphony is] the work of a skeptic, [a] vast poem of life [that] exalts fatality [and] a joy which is lacking abandonment or confidence … The work seems to be analyzing itself.” Others regarded the Second Symphony more favorably, but with reservations: “[An] uneven work … very beautiful in parts, weak in others. One is too aware of effort, of its desire to be original.” But several of Mahler’s colleagues praised the Second Symphony when it premiered in 1895, and their favorable reactions helped establish Mahler as a legitimate composer of great potential.

In 1907, a 33-year-old Arnold Schoenberg heard Mahler conduct the Second Symphony in Vienna. Of this performance, Schoenberg wrote, “I can remember clearly that when I heard Mahler’s Second Symphony for the first time I was, especially at certain points, seized by an excitement that took physical expression in the rapid beating of my heart … the work had made an extraordinary impression on me, it had caught hold of me and overpowered me against my will: a work of art can have no loftier impact than when the emotion that raged in its creator is transferred to the listener, to rage and surge in him as well. For I had been moved; moved to the utmost.”

© 2017 Elizabeth Schwartz

Program Notes by Elizabeth Schwartz

Elizabeth Schwartz is a writer and musician based in the Portland area. She provides notes for several organizations, including the Oregon Symphony, Portland Piano International and the Oregon Bach Festival, among others, and has also contributed to NPR’s “Performance Today,” (now heard on American Public Media). Ms. Schwartz also co-hosts the Portland Jewish Hour, heard Sundays at 10 am on KBOO 90.7 fm. classicalmusicprogramnotes.com.

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Maureen Forrester, mezzo-soprano
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Bruno Walter–New York Philharmonic, Westminster Choir
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Bernard Haitink–Chicago Symphony Orchestra & Chorus
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