Early in 1888, Gustav Mahler dreamed that he was lying on a funeral bier surrounded by flowers. That spring he started a symphony that begins with a funeral march. At the top of his manuscript he wrote: “Symphony in C minor, first movement.” Mahler intended this as a breakaway work—his first departure from the world of the symphonic poem popularized by Liszt and Tchaikovsky (and about to be rejuvenated by the young Richard Strauss). Mahler himself had just completed a big symphonic poem in two parts.
Throughout that summer, Mahler worked steadily on a vast movement in sonata form and in the same key as the funeral march from Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony. But once he had finished it, he didn’t know how to continue and wrote nothing for the planned symphony for another five years. In time, as Mahler started to think of the movement as an independent piece, he wrote the word Todtenfeier (Funeral rite) at the top of the manuscript. In 1891, he played through the piece at the piano for Hans von Bulow. The influential conductor held his hands to his ears and told him that this wasn’t music as he knew it.
By 1893, Mahler was determined to produce a symphony. First, he revised his earlier two-part symphonic poem and called it his First Symphony. That summer, he returned to Todtenfeier and wrote two new movements to go with it—an andante and a scherzo—the beginnings of a second symphony. Ironically, it was at Bulow’s funeral in February 1894 that Mahler heard Klopstock’s “Resurrection Ode” and envisioned a choral finale as a counterweight to the movement Bulow had disliked. The rest of the symphony came together quickly. That spring he revised the first movement and sketched the last. In July, after deciding to add one of his Des Knaben Wunderhorn songs as an extra movement to set the stage for the finale, Mahler wrote to Strauss that he had at last finished his Second Symphony, assuring him that the new symphony marked a giant step beyond his first—“as a man to an infant,” is how he put it.
The first movement is one of Mahler’s most ambitious creations, encompassing music of tragedy and triumph, vehemence and lyricism. Mahler once said that it asks “the great question: Why did you live? Why did you suffer? Is it all nothing but a huge, cruel jest?” Mahler referred to the next three movements, shorter and more lightly scored, as an “interludium.” The Landlerlike Andante is music of youth and lost innocence. The third movement, a bitter, slithering scherzo, is a symphonic expansion of Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn song about Saint Anthony of Padua’s sermon to the fishes. The fourth movement, opening unexpectedly with the sound of the human voice, alone at first, is a hymnlike setting of another Wunderhorn song, “Urlicht” (Primal light).
The balm of “Urlicht” is shattered by a wild outburst from the orchestra—not unlike the chaos with which Beethoven begins his choral finale in the Ninth Symphony. Mahler knits a large fabric of seemingly disparate materials—a fanfare, a chorale, a broad and raucous march. Midway through, time stands still as four trumpets, each sounding from a different direction behind the stage, clear the way for the hushed entry of the chorus singing Klopstock’s resurrection hymn— a breathtaking moment in a symphony filled with bold, theatrical strokes. From there, the music rises and soars. After leading the premiere on December 13, 1894, Mahler said, “One is battered to the ground, and then raised on angels’ wings to the highest heights.”
That premiere was Mahler’s first real public sensation as a composer. The young conductor Bruno Walter attended the concert and was stunned both by the brilliance of the score and by the audience’s hostility. Nevertheless, Walter predicted, Mahler’s rise to fame as a composer would one day be dated to that single performance.
Phillip Huscher is the program annotator for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
ReviewsWhile being ever loyal to the score, Haitink made each choice of tempo, rhythm, volume, massing and color seem almost shocking. ” Chicago Sun-Times