Program Notes

Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony

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Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 2 in C minor, Resurrection
Duration: ca. 80 minutes

“Why have you lived? Why have you suffered? Is it all some huge, awful joke?’’ Gustav Mahler once wrote. “We have to answer these questions if we are to go on living – even if we are only to go on dying!”

Such was the melancholy persona of the great Austrian composer and conductor, whose symphonies and song cycles together form a protracted struggle unequaled in the history of music. But there is nothing gloomy about the thrust of the Second Symphony, an ethereal view of the afterlife that Mahler described as “a world of its own.’’

Stretching more than 80 minutes, the symphony holds a special place among musicians and audiences, often used to celebrate the end of a season − as The Florida Orchestra and Master Chorale of Tampa Bay will do May 25 & 26. This marks the fifth time the orchestra has staged the work since 1987.

“It takes us from this dark beginning and through an astonishing journey of life all the way up to the celestial plane,’’ says TFO Music Director Michael Francis. “It’s probably the most impressive piece of music you can hear in concert, and the most glorious climax ever written.’’

Millions of people heard the Resurrection for the first time not in the concert hall, but in the movie Maestro, the 2023 biopic on Leonard Bernstein, as portrayed by Bradley Cooper. Bernstein helped spawn the Mahler revival in the 1960s, and it should be noted that in 1971 he chose to conduct the work for his 1,000th concert with the New York Philharmonic.

BBC Music Magazine calls the Resurrection the fifth greatest symphony of all time, behind Beethoven’s Third and Ninth, Mozart’s 41st and Mahler’s Ninth, respectively. A multitude of recordings are testament to the enduring power of Mahler today.

“But a recording doesn’t do this symphony justice,’’ Francis adds. “There are certain things you don’t want to miss in a live concert, and this is one of them. You have to be there.’’

Completed in 1894, the work is a journey from darkness to light, and follows a similar path of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in its resolution from C minor to C major. However, it also reflects Beethoven’s Ninth by concluding with a chorus and vocal soloists. Mahler admitted that no one can top the Ninth, and that his Resurrection might well be viewed as a “superficial imitation.’’

Regardless, Mahler thought big. He stuffed the stage with 270 musicians, including 10 trumpets and 10 horns in the original score. The players must reconcile two simultaneous themes: the cosmic and the earthly, and in doing so attempt to balance chaos with lyricism.

Mahler called the huge opening movement Funeral Rites, which can stand by itself as a tone poem in concert, and listeners will hear a brief reference to the Medieval Dies Irae (Day of Wrath) in the brass. The piece is so vast that Mahler requested a five-minute recess to give everyone – performers and audiences – a chance to catch their breath and allow the chorus to get settled on stage.

It took Mahler five years to complete the symphony, which structurally consists of two giant bookends supporting three intermezzos. The construct is as follows:

I. Totenfeier or Funeral Rites, is a 22-minute essay that pushes traditional sonata form to its practical limits. Here, we stand beside the coffin of a loved one, the hero, and question both the meaning of life and death.

II. We remember the past, a moment of bliss from the life of the departed, cast in the form of an Austrian waltz.

III. Life appears senseless, like a dreadful nightmare, and the music borrowed from Mahler’s song cycle Youth’s Magic Horn.

IV. We face a primal light, and a solitary voice sings the words “I am of God and will return to God.’’

V. The work ends as a colossal musical fresco of the Day of Judgment. The ground trembles and the dead rise in unending procession as an overwhelming love shines over the earth.

The symphony stands as a series of incomparable instrumental essays with a single purpose: to support a 33-minute vocal coda, operatic in dimension and so demanding as to test the limits of everyone, including the conductor. After the first performance, the composer felt the shock and awe of his own creation.

“The effect is so great that one cannot describe it,’’ Mahler wrote. “If I were to say what I think of this great work, it would sound too arrogant. … The whole thing sounds as though it came from some other world. I think there is no one who can resist it. One is battered to the ground and then raised on angel’s wings to the highest heights.’’

Program notes by Kurt Loft, a member of the Music Critics Association of North America and former music critic for The Tampa Tribune.