PSO closes season with Mahler's monumental Symphony No. 2
Composer Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 2, which took him six years to complete, is considered a masterpiece of late German Romanticism.
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Given the monumental size of Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 2, it is somewhat ironic that he wrote it in a small shack.
He called it his "composing hut," and the small building the Austrian composer built on a lake near Salzburg was the perfect refuge from his burgeoning and hectic operatic conducting career.
It was in that small hut that Mahler began to come to grips with the disastrous reception accorded his First Symphony. It was also there that he felt he had achieved the artistic maturity to grapple with Beethoven, move the entire symphonic genre further and articulate his belief in the afterlife. It was a quite ambitious agenda for a young composer (28 at the time he began the Second Symphony), but such was the confidence, ego and drive of Mahler.
"Mahler's Two is a miracle in a way," says Manfred Honeck, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra music director, who will close the orchestra's season with the work. "After the revolution of the First Symphony, it was a very strange work that was not in the way Beethoven was thinking. It was bigger -- big choir, two soloists, the biggest orchestra and offstage orchestra. It was not comparable with anything before or after. The people did not understand it."
Staring at the score that calls for 10 horns, Hans von Bulow, the grand old man of Viennese music, told Mahler it made Wagner's titanic "Tristan" opera look like a Haydn symphony. And that wasn't meant as a compliment.
But the music won out, as the Second Symphony, subtitled "Resurrection," is one of Mahler's most popular opuses and is seen as a masterpiece of late German Romanticism.
That transformation took some time, and it also took Mahler six years to complete the work. His struggles with it mirror the message he tried to impart in it so well, and they surely must account for the symphony's success.
Mahler first started working on a tone poem he called "Todtenfeier (Funeral Rites)," likely with the subtext being the "funeral" of the same failed relationship with a woman that prompted the hidden plot of Symphony No. 1. Later, in a letter he wrote, "It is the hero of my D major Symphony that I am burying here."
- Program: Mahler's Symphony No. 2, "Resurrection."
- Featuring: Manfred Honeck, conductor; Simona Saturova, soprano; Elizabeth DeShong, mezzo-soprano; Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh.
- Where: Heinz Hall, Downtown.
- When: 8 p.m. Friday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday.
- Tickets: Start at $17.50. 412-492-4900.
"Todtenfeier" is a funeral march with the depth of Beethoven's "Eroica" Symphony and as harrowing as Berlioz's "Symphonie fantastique." With more than 20 minutes of music, it references the C minor mode of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and mimics the misty opening of his Ninth. Its hollow, bone-rattling main theme finds only brief respite in warmer keys and an ascending theme that represents a "hope of eternal life," until the movement collapses into dreadful minor.
But soon after he completed "Todtenfeier," Mahler felt he must answer it, both musically and philosophically, so he re-purposed the work into the first movement of what would be his Second Symphony.
The "Todtenfeier" movement posed some weighty questions to Mahler: "Why have you lived? Why have you suffered? Is all this merely a great, horrible jest? Once this call has resounded in anyone's life, he must give an answer; and that answer I give in the last movement." For the nonpracticing Jewish man who would later convert to Catholicism, that answer was that humans will be redeemed after death.
And so, after the doom of the first movement, Mahler lifts the hero and the listener up step by step. First comes an Austrian landler -- a peasant version of the waltz. It is as if the spirit of the dead hero lingers one last time among society, with the 19th-century romanticized innocence of villagers putting his soul on the path to redemption. Honeck, who played the zither in his youth, will impart a robust, swaying rhythm of the Austrian folk dance here, a rustic flavor he feels Mahler wanted to capture.
The third movement is an orchestration of a song, "St. Anthony preaches to the Fish," that Mahler wrote on a text he found in the folk collection "Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Boys Magic Horn)." This collection of folk poems -- raw and often surprisingly profound -- preoccupied Mahler for years. In fact, he returned to them in several subsequent symphonies.
This poem is satirical -- a sneering posing of Mahler's question, "Is all this merely a great, horrible jest?" The text mocks the priest who preaches to fish after finding his church empty. "The Second Symphony's scherzo is the dreadful recognition that the meaning of existence cannot be understood and that life itself seems senseless," writes Mahler scholar Constantin Floros.
That depth of despair, couched in bitter laughter, is immediately dispelled in the following movement, "Urlicht (Primal Light)." Here a solo voice (mezzo-soprano or alto) enters for the first time, with yet another text from a "Wunderhorn" song about a soul in purgatory who wrestles with an angel to gain entrance to heaven: "I would not be turned away/ I am from God and would return to God!"
That relative calm is shattered by tremolos, kettledrums and trumpets at the beginning of the massive fifth movement. The 30-minute finale actually quickly shifts to some optimistic music -- developing the eternity music of the first movement -- but it then cycles through a mini-plot of its own.
Now Mahler has the soul of the dead hero -- or is it all humanity? -- call from the wilderness to God. The calls are first made by an offstage horn but then grow closer, louder and more confident until they are abruptly answered by rough strains and Judgment Day motives, including the Dies irae chant of the Dead and offstage "trumpets of the apocalypse."
Things look bleak indeed until the "eternity" theme returns and the choir finally enters singing Mahler's setting of the poem, "Resurrection," by 18th-century German Friedrich Klopstock, with both female soloists joining in. The climax of the choral writing -- again referencing Beethoven's Ninth -- ushers in the "eternity" music for good, ending the work triumphantly in glorious E-flat major with bells ringing and organ blaring.
Mahler's skills as a composer and orchestrator truly shine in Symphony No. 2, for the unity he imposed upon the piece after the fact is not just musically motivated, but philosophically generated. Mahler wished to provide an answer of resurrection to the eschatological questions he posed in "Todtenfeier." To balance the negativity of that long opening movement, he had to write quite a bit of compelling positive music, including an even longer finale. But Mahler met that challenge with elan, all the while making the entire symphony sound as though its disparate movements were composed as a whole. It was in this way that he felt his own beliefs would be most effectively shared with audiences.
"He made a very big statement about life and how he had no fear he would not enter heaven with joy," says Honeck.
First Published June 11, 2009 12:00 am