“It was indescribable,” wrote Justine after the first complete performance of her brother’s “Resurrection” Symphony. Gustav Mahler, staked his future as a composer on his second symphony, first performed in its entirety in Berlin on this day, December 13, 1895. The eighty-minute choral work, in five movements, demanded large forces and centered on the theme of death and resurrection. Its musical chords clashed or were more unresolved (dissonant) than in works audiences were accustomed to hearing. Tempos changed rapidly. In places it was more oratorio than symphony.
Critics had not liked the parts of the symphony that they had heard earlier. In fact, after Mahler played the part that became the first movement, Conductor Hans von Bulow declared, “If that is still music, then I do not understand a single thing about music.” But today, those who love art music consider it one of the most thrilling masterpieces in the symphonic repertoire.
Heresy does not always come by way of theology books. Resurrection is at the heart of the Gospel. Mahler, who was no Christian, could not have written such a symphony had there not been centuries of Christianity underlying the culture into which he was born. But Mahler did not draw his text from the Gospel.
In the first movement of Symphony #2, a heartbroken hero grapples with death. The second movement reflects on happier times. By the third, the hero no longer believes in anything, but in the fourth finds peace. The fifth sweeps him into judgment with blaring trumpets. But the singers reassure the audience with the words, “Rise again, my dust, after a brief rest–You were not born in vain.”
You were not born in vain!
You have not lived in vain, nor fought!
What has come into being must perish,
What has perished must rise again!
Cease from trembling!
Prepare to live!
In his program notes, Mahler made it clear he did not really believe in judgment. “The earth quakes, the graves burst open, the dead arise and stream on in endless procession…. The trumpets of the apocalypse ring out.. And behold, it is no judgment… There is no punishment and no reward. An overwhelming love illuminates our being.”
This false hope was well received by the audience. “The triumph grew greater with every moment,” wrote Justine. “Such enthusiasm is seen only once in a lifetime! Afterwards, I saw grown men weeping and youths falling on each other’s necks. And when the Bird of Death, hovering above the graves, utters his last, long drawn-out call — Mahler said he himself was afraid for a moment that the long unbroken silence, requiring, as it were, the whole audience to hold its breath, could not possibly come off — there was such a deathly silence in the hall that no one seemed able to bat so much as an eyelid. And when the chorus entered, everyone gave a shuddering sigh of relief. It was indescribable!”
- Camner, James. Great Composers in Historic Photographs; 1860-1960s. New York: Dover, 1981.
- Fink, Michael. “Program Notes, Woodlands Symphony Orchestra, April 27, 1997.” http://www.woodlands-symphony.org/ program99_0427.html
- Grove, George. Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians; edited by J. A. Fuller Maitland. New York : Macmillan, 1911.
- Mermsmann, Hans. Moderne Musik Seit der Romantik. Wildpark-Potsdam: Akademische verlasgesellschaft Athenaion. Source of the 1897 photograph.
- “Music of Gustav Mahler on Record.” http://turing.cs.camosun.bc.ca:8080/Mahler/ Symphony2
- “Pittsburgh Symphony Program Notes.” http://www.pittsburghsymphony.org/pghsymph.nsf/0/ 7A6964699305F37485256BDC006DE3AD
- Various internet and encyclopedia sources.