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Gustav Mahler – Second Symphony. An appreciation by Gilbert Kaplan

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Video transcript

- Few musical masterpieces have ever premiered under such difficult circumstances as Gustav Mahler's Second Symphony. Ticket sales were new, he had to use his own funds to finance the concert, and to fill the hall, free tickets were given to students and musicians. There were also unusual rehearsal problems. Mahler was the conductor in Hamburg but the concert was in Berlin. The director wouldn't let Mahler out of any performances so he had to conduct the opera, drive his car at midnight to Berlin, rehearse the next morning for three hours, and then come back and conduct an opera, and do the whole thing again the next day. Then there was the problem of being stricken with a massive migraine headache just at the time the performance was about to begin, but he dragged himself to the podium and forced himself to conduct, and what happened next is a transcendent moment in music. When not just music, to the people in the hall, but true creation took place. The critics, as usual, attacked Mahler, but today, audiences are swept up by the joy, the tragedy, the sheer life of Mahler's tale. It's a mammoth work, five movements. It's long, one and a half hours, a huge orchestra, more than one hundred musicians, and a large chorus with two soloists. The story about creating the Resurrection Symphony, as it's now called, is one of the most fascinating in the history of music. It took six years and it was in piecemeal fashion. The first movement, called Totenfeier, writes of the dead. Mahler says it takes place at a funeral where the mourners there confront with searching questions. Why did you live? Why did you struggle? Is life nothing but a huge, frightful joke? Mahler said that anyone into whose life these questions come must one day answer them, he gives his answer in the last movement. But it would take five years before Mahler returned to the symphony. Why? First, a program problem. Remember the first movement's about a funeral, how do you follow that story? Normally, a funeral is the end of the story. Then, there's a possibility of Mahler's response to a cruel rejection by the famous conductor, Hans Von Bulow. He sought Bulow out because he wanted to convince him that Totenfeier was great but Bulow listened and then said, it's terrible. Basically. He said that if that's music, I have never heard any music. Mahler was devastated. But after five years, he tried again, and he came to the second movement, but being unable to compose something new, he recycled something old, a theme he had written five years earlier, a charming Mozart-like dance movement emerged from this. The dance music, though, continues the story, but how can it when the first music is a funeral? It's a tough act to follow. So Mahler used the flashback. The second movement is a nostalgic moment, he said, recalling shared happiness with the deceased. Then he tried to compose the third, but, once again, he blocked, so he turned to songs, the only music he ever composed, other than symphonies. One song, called "Saint Anthony's Sermon to the Fish" is a cynical tale about a priest, Saint Anthony, who goes to the church and finds it empty, and goes down to the sea and gives a sermon to the fish. Well, the fish listen and they go back swimming afterwards, apparently to sin. Now the ink was hardly dry when Mahler found the solution for the third movement, the silly fish song. Immediately, he converted the song into the third movement. This time, though, Mahler said, the music depicted a distorted world which you returned to after you awaken from that dreamy second movement, and then life seems meaningless. You cry out in a scream of anguish. This is a movement which comes very close to expressing, musically, depression. He tried the third movement, no ideas, so he turned to more songs. Urlicht, Primal Light, was another song he wrote about innocent faith. It never occurred to him when he wrote the song that it would ever be in a symphony, it was just meant to be a song. Suddenly, he made the song the fourth movement. A true invention, Mahler was the first composer to take an entire song and make it into a symphonic movement. The song concludes with unwavering faith, "Dear God will light my way to eternal life". Mahler starts on the finale but he again blocks, so he stops composing for six months, until the death and funeral of Hans Von Bulow, the conductor who told him Totenfeier was worthless. Now, if Bulow's remarks undermine Mahler's confidence, his death unleashed the creative process. During the funeral service, the boys choir sings the Resurrection Chorale and Mahler senses the solution. He said it flashed on me like lightning, the flash that all creative artists wait for. Resurrection would be the answer to the questions of life and death Mahler raised in the first movement. He raced home to start composition. Now, Mahler's program for this last movement is an eery one. It is a picture of the end of the world, Mahler says the last judgment is at hand. But Mahler's version of the day of judgment is that there is no judgment, no punishment, only overwhelming love. A chorus of saints invites all to heaven, singing, (quotes in German) Arise, yes, arise. So it was there that Mahler, migraine and all, at last unveiled his creation. Hearing the music for the first time, Mahler reported, the whole thing, he says, sounds as though it came to us from some other world and I think no one can escape its power. It's a conclusion with which I'm sure you will agree, as we now listen to the thunder of the cello and bases, as the first movement of this remarkable symphony begins to unfold.