Thursday, September 10, 2009

Reading Mahler's 2nd

It begins with a sharply accented string tremolo. The low strings bark out a brusque theme, full of deep shadows. The atmosphere is tense, dark, spare. The woodwinds join in, adding another layer to the texture. The volume climbs. Around 2:30 there is a harsh, brassy climax, falling away to mournful winds, then sweetly consoling strings. The opening deeps reassert themselves around 4:30, leading to more confident music, almost exultant by comparison with what has gone before. A hush falls over all before the 6:00 mark. The music dies away about a minute later. A new theme floats serenely into the picture. Slower, gentler, sweeter, it is scored with a delicate hand for tone color. The momentum begins to gather. The threatening material from the first group re-emerges into the foreground, then rises beyond that to a point near panic. The volume drops, the sweet music from the movement's opening comes back, but at a much less relaxed pace.

After another scream of agony, the texture thins down again to a dragging accompaniment figure. Mahler hangs his themes on it, like familiar faces glimpsed in the crowd lining up to watch a funeral progress. This swells toward a noble statement, then breaks out in an almost disordered access of grief and anger. A colossal climax full of repeated, dissonant chords leads to a percussive explosion. Then all pause, and the opening theme (minus string tremolo) returns in as it were a recapitulation passage. We hear another brassy shout as at 2:30, another passage of mourning winds followed by consoling strings, their noble sentiments prolonged somewhat. A horn glows in the twilight as the music dies away again. What follows this pause is not a serene, delicate theme, but a ostinato passage beginning softly but portentously. Listen for the brusque, opening theme in the bass as other thoughts are layered on top of it. The texture builds. The trumpets flash out. The music spools down to a strange, bittersweet coda, like obsequies overheard from a distance, concluded by a loud plunging figure: the body being lowered into the grave?

And that's just Movement I of Gustav Mahler's Second Symphony. In C minor, the movement is titled Totenfeier: death celebration. Mahler's thoughts never stray far from death, one finds. But don't be put off. This is, after all, the "Resurrection Symphony."

Movement II begins as a slow, soft, buttery Ländler -- a sort of Austrian folk dance in 3/4 time. In a contrasting section we hear a throbbing horn, fleet feet running lightly, a melancholy woodwind melody. Just as it begins to grow tense-sounding, the segment ends and a variant of the first Ländler appears. Listen for a long, flowing countermelody in the cellos this time. Then the faster section returns, now sounding positively distraught. Twinges of agony flare up in it. Then a ray of light shines into this troubled atmosphere. Notice the pedal-point passage, building up to a stretch where the music seems to come unraveled. Whispery, pizzicato strings reintroduce the opening Ländler theme, decorated by flutey tweets. When the bows hit the string again, it comes across as a relaxation: we are once more free to speak openly, though calmly. Notice the horn note sustaining throughout this final passage of silky gentility. The harp invokes the slow, soft, closing chords.

Ba-bang! Movement III begins with a double stroke on the timpani, repeated a couple times at increasingly soft dynamic levels. Lest you think the Ländler was a replacement for a Scherzo, Mahler gives us an honest-to-goodness Scherzo in this movement. It gets going with a steady, gently flowing motion and a touch of macabre humor. If you enjoy Mahler's songs, as I do, you may recognize themes from "Saint Anthony of Padua's Sermon to the Fish." It's a song that has everything that matters to me: preaching, fish, ironic humor, and music. The symphonic version has no sung lyrics, but it shares much of the same character. You won't fail to notice the long, keening clarinet note that cuts across everything around 3:30.

Suddenly, everything starts moving extra-quick, with cymbal crashes and glittery triangle notes and brassy fanfares. Though the volume comes down, the music keeps its new momentum until the next, even more rapid explosion. Then an atmosphere of dreamy calm settles on the piece. As the music begins to die away, some of the macabre feelings of the movement's opening reassert themselves. St. Anthony's fishy sermon comes back. "Never did a sermon so please the dried cod," etc. Then the music goes crazy again, more so than ever, rising to a veritable shriek of anguish. It's as if one might say: "In the midst of everyday joy, death and sorrow come." The music following this cry sounds strange, morose. The bitter irony is there, but humor no longer. The closing chords are somber.

Movement IV is "Urlicht" (primordial light), a song transcribed from Mahler's song cycle Des Knaben Wunderhorn, from which the song about St. Anthony also comes. Sung by an alto soloist, it introduces the choral finale in a recitative-like manner, similar to the baritone solo in Beethoven's 9th. Here is what she sings, in music whose mood varies according to the text:
O little, red rose!
Man lies in greatest distress!
Man lies in greatest pain!
Would rather that I were in heaven!

I came on a broad path;
An angel came and would turn me back.
Oh no! I did not let myself be turned back!
I am from God and want to return to God!
The dear God will give me a little light,
Will illumine me unto eternal, blessed life!
Then comes Movement V, a finale that could easily run half an hour long by itself. It begins with tremendous power, similar to the third movement's anguished scream. It proceeds for a while with instruments only, developing several themes in a unique manner loosely based on sonata form. Listen for offstage horns... the Dies irae tune from the Gregorian-chant service for the dead... a passage like operatic recitative, only with instruments singing the voice part... a slow, chorale-like fanfare that builds from quiet depths to ponderous glory... All dies away, then a drumroll builds up to a development passage full of bold energy... Listen for exultant chimes... You'll hear more of the Dies irae theme, plus other themes that will grow in significance after the voices enter. By which time it is already such a magnificent piece that you couldn't imagine it being any better.

Yearning music (remember that recitative bit?)... surging hopefulness... the subconscious anxieties of the offstage brass intruding now and again... growing turmoil... a climax... a vision of blissful peace... then silence, penetrated by the summoning voice of a solo trombone, then a trumpet, then an offstage brass fanfare... quivering, answering voices of flute and oboe... another pause... then the voices enter softly, using words taken in part from Klopstock's resurrection ode, and partly written by Mahler himself. We hear soprano and alto soloists and chorus, singing the following text to themes previously introduced:
Rise again, yes thou shalt rise again, my dust, after brief rest! Immortal life wilt thou grant him who called thee. To bloom again wert thou sown! The Lord of the harvest goes and gathers in us who have died as sheaves! O believe, my heart, O believe: there is nothing lost to thee! Thine, yes, thine is what thou hast desired, thine, what thou hast believed, what thou hast struggled for! O believe: thou wert not born in vain! Thou hast not lived, suffered in vain! What has come into being, that must perish! What has perished, rise again! Stop shaking! Prepare thee to live!

O pain! Thou all-penetrating! I have been won from thee, O death! Thou all-conqueror! Now thou hast been conquered! With wings that I have won in love's hot striving will I soar to the light to which no eye has penetrated! I shall die in order to live! Rise again, yes, thou shalt rise again, my heart, in a moment! What thou hast suffered, that will lead thee to God!
It's a choral symphony of fabulous power. I have traveled hours out of my way to hear it performed - as yet I myself have not been part of the chorus in this piece. But it is one of Mahler's most popular works, and a staple of the symphony-chorus repertoire. And it is, frankly, inspiring to hear!

IMAGES: Mahler; Ländler dancers; Bernard Haitink conducting Mahler's Second; Klopstock. BELOW: Jeanette Ager singing the "Urlicht" number from this symphony with the Mozart Symphony Orchestra.

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