Philosopher Alan Watts once said: “No one imagines that a symphony is supposed to improve as it goes along, or that the whole object of playing is to reach the finale. The point of music is discovered in every moment of playing and listening to it.” Though not referring to Mahler specifically, I find no better quote summarizes the journey we are about to take together on May 16th with Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony.
The music of Gustav Mahler represents the apex of the symphonic and choral- orchestral repertoire. It firmly resides in the land of masterworks, and certainly most of Mahler’s pieces deserve to be considered alongside the greatest works of other composers. Mahler’s Second Symphony is such a work, easily considered among greatest choral-orchestral works of all time. It shares the podium with Beethoven’s Ninth, the Requiems by Mozart, Verdi and Faure, Handel’s Messiah, and Orff’s Carmina Burana.
But the work is much more than that. Like Beethoven’s great capstone, the chorus is used sparingly, yet to great dramatic effect. In fact, the choir waits to sing until 80 minutes or so into the work, and then shockingly, sings a capella! In Mahler’s hands, the chorus is merely the next logical color choice to use at this point in the symphony. But this is not the only giant force used so sparingly. The organ plays only the closing few minutes of the work. The off-stage compliment of horns, trumpets, percussion similarly do not appear until the last movement. And we mustn’t forget the most alluring choice of all, the two solo voices: a mezzo soprano who sings the otherworldly 4th movement, “Urlicht,” and a soprano who joins in the 5th movement.
Yes, it is a BIG work, but it’s not only about large forces (over 300 will be involved in this performance). It is also about stamina. The orchestra needs to play for over 90 minutes, navigating a multitude of dynamics, articulations, stylistic conventions and ensemble combinations. There are solos for nearly every player and section. Mahler’s orchestra challenges the musicians to both perform and listen differently from most of the orchestral literature.
While the work itself is a challenge to play, it is also an inviting one of personal journey; and this is where the audience gets involved. I know of almost no other work that grips both audiences and musicians alike and with such power. Musicians leave rehearsals physically exhausted, emotionally engaged and spiritually charged. Audiences experience much of the same, never feeling that 90 minutes have passed. Our patrons are in for a great ride!
How can such a huge piece, be so demanding and yet also so uplifting? Perhaps Mahler left us some clues in the composition of the piece. Each section has meaning both on the surface and also hidden in layers.
His Symphony No. 2, also known as the Resurrection Symphony, was composed over a long period from 1888 to 1894. It was his first work of many that established his lifelong depictions of beauty and the afterlife. But Mahler was also creating a completely new soundscape, one never experienced before and only hinted at from the opera stage. There is a great interiority to his work. We are pulled into Mahler’s vision, much as a poet or great novelist might do. We are able to see through his lens and thus find out something about ourselves.
Mahler’s invitation to “look here,” comes from an unusual place initially: Death. The first movement is a massive expose on the eventuality of our lives, the power of fate, and the terror with which we often view death. But this is no mere caricature like Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, nor is it meant to drag us into the depths of despair like Faust. It is actually the most external of all the movements, and began its life as a stand-alone tone-poem titled “Totenfeier” (Funeral Rites). Soon after writing it, though, Mahler realized it was just the beginning, not the end: to look at life starting from the perspective of death was perhaps revolutionary in symphonic music.
The second movement takes us into that life with much nostalgia. Mahler gives us a favorite dance from his country, an Austrian Ländler, with the musical instructions to play “very leisurely, never rushed.” In an early program Mahler described this movement as a “remembrance of happy times in the life of the deceased.”
The third movement is a wonderfully sarcastic look at the meaningless activity of human life. Explained through metaphor, Mahler quotes his earlier music from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, a setting of “St. Anthony of the Fishes,” humorously depicting a drunk St. Anthony of Padua preaching to the fish, who lift their heads to listen, fail to understand, and simply go about their business of being fish. The writing in this movement is vivid and descriptive, and extremely challenging, as the orchestra is depicting giant school of fish!
This quizzical depiction is questioned in the 4th movement, Urlicht (Primal Light), where we finally hear our mezzo soprano ask the eternal question and ask to be released from a meaningless life. This beautiful song is also from his Knaben Wunderhorn songs, and is by far the shortest of the movements. I consider it to be a respite as well as a bridge to the Finale.
The 5th and final movement starts with a death shriek, one that we have already heard in the third movement, but perhaps lacked context when it first appeared. This opens one of the most innovative and expansive movements in history, where Mahler, literally, pulls out all the stops. Here we are transported to the afterlife though a musical journey. The Dies Irae of the first movement returns, but it is no longer frightening, rather assured, even majestically scored. We are certainly in another realm with this music. The dead arise from their graves and we are carried along in a march that is oddly joyous and certain. Offstage brass calls, perhaps angelic summons, finally herald the first entrance of the chorus, who softly intone, “Rise again, yes rise again.” Our soprano and mezzo soloists now join as well. Even the offstage “angels” return to stage for the grand finale where the choir triumphantly declares:
“Die shall I in order to live.
Rise again, yes, rise again,
Will you, my heart, in an instant!
That for which you suffered,
To God shall it carry you!”
When the orchestra finally cuts off, the mood is one of joy, akin to Beethoven’s Ninth. But unlike that work, there is perhaps more certainly in Mahler’s music. In Mahler’s mind, and likely in that of the musicians and audience, it is not mere possibility and hope we celebrate, but certainty; conviction that we can rest assured. And it is glorious.
This journey with the Salt Lake Symphony, our soloists, Kirstin Chavez and Melissa Heath, and the Utah Voices has been equally glorious. It is also quite an accomplishment for two community-based ensembles. It is now our joy to share this great music with you. Sit back and enter into this soundscape. Our wish is that you be as moved and uplifted as we are by this wondrous music.
Copyright, 2019. Robert Baldwin
(Note: This post will also appear as program notes for the concert on 5/16/19)
Salt Lake Symphony with the Utah Voices
Melissa Heath, soprano, Kirstin Chávez, mezzo-soprano
Thursday May 16, 2019 7:30 p.m.
Libby Gardner Concert Hall
University of Utah Campus, 1375 E. President’s Circle, SLC, UT 84112
Available at the door with cash, check or credit card.
Free Parking for Libby Gardner Hall: 100 South and Wolcott (1450 East)