The Symphony No. 2 seems to have been stirring in Gustav Mahler's thoughts for a good long while before he actually sat down to commit notes to paper; sketches for the score go back to the seasons 1886-88 when Mahler, in his mid-twenties, was assistant conductor to the great Artur Nikisch in Leipzig. Mahler's conducting career rose steadily and in 1891, at the age of 31, he became the conductor of opera at the Hamburg Stadttheater. The conductor of the symphony concerts in Hamburg at the time was the man who was probably the most famous and most respected of all living conductors, Hans von Bülow. Though a thirty-year age difference existed between Mahler and von Bülow, a warm relationship developed between them based on great mutual respect. Mahler's admiration for von Bülow had begun some years earlier, when the older man was in charge of the concerts of the Meiningen Orchestra at Cassel. Now it was von Bülow's turn to discover that in Mahler the Hamburg State Opera had a young and pioneering dynamo who was able to accomplish extraordinary performances.
In 1893, von Bülow was forced by failing health to give up his directorship in Hamburg; the position was offered to Mahler and he accepted. That summer, at Steinbach on the Attersee Lake in Austria, Mahler set out in earnest to work on his Second Symphony. In an enormous burst of creative energy, Mahler apparently completed all but the last movement of the score during that first summer in the Steinbach retreat.
The last movement gave Mahler some trouble, and it remained for an external stimulus to trigger its completion. Mahler himself described the circumstances:
The score was given a partial premiere at a Berlin Philharmonic concert in March, 1895, when Richard Strauss conducted the first three movements, the purely instrumental ones. After the scherzo, Mahler was called out no fewer than five times, despite the less than glowing reviews of the time. The first performance of the complete work was given at a Berlin Philharmonic concert conducted by Mahler in December, 1895. Thirteen years later, as conductor of the New York Philharmonic Society, Mahler introduced the symphony to the United States.
The Second Symphony is a veritable colossus. It takes more than an hour to perform, it requires a large mixed chorus and two vocal soloists, and it is scored for an enormous orchestra: 4 flutes, 4 piccolos, 4 oboes, 2 English horns, 5 clarinets, 2 E-flat clarinets and bass clarinet, 4 bassoons and contrabassoon, 6 horns (and 4 horns off-stage), 6 trumpets (and 4 off-stage), 4 trombones, tuba, 2 sets of timpani, bass drum, snare drum (one or more), cymbals, small and large tamtams, triangle, glockenspiel, 3 bells, Rute (bundle of sticks), 2 harps, organ, and strings (additional timpani, bass drum, cymbals, and triangle are indicated "in the distance").
The Symphony has been described as a "tonal allegory of the life of man." Mahler himself described the first movement as a "Celebration of the Dead" (Totenfeier). The second and third movements, following after the tumultuous upheaval of the first, are more reflective: the second is a gentle intermezzo and the third a grim scherzo, "a recollection of the world's vulgarities." The fourth movement is entitled Urlicht ("Primal Light" ) and is a haunting song for contralto and orchestra. The text is taken from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (" The Youth's Magic Horn" ), a collection of German folk poetry much loved by Mahler and used by him in his music repeatedly. In the last movement, which incorporates the setting of Klopstock's "Resurrection" Ode, Mahler uses all the forces he can summon to portray for us a musical spectacle of the Day of Judgment. Klopstock's verses are used, but Mahler also adds verses of his own.
After Mahler completed the symphony, he apparently felt that the tender Austrian dance-like second movement was out of character with the rest of the score. Rather than remove the movement or change it, Mahler took a different and rather extraordinary course: at the end of the first movement he directed that a pause of at least five minutes should be allowed before the Andante begins. He wrote:
Whether he thought so or not, however, Mahler created in the second movement the perfect contrast for the heaven-storming music of the first movement; the graceful contours of the Andante place the music among the most treasurable Mahler left us and its positioning in the architectural structure of the score has about it the element of inevitable rightness.
— Martin Bookspan
|Text of Fourth Movement — Urlicht (Primal Light)|
From Des Knaben Wunderhorn, "The Youth's Magic Horn," German folk poetry
|O Röschen roth!|
Der Mensch liegt in grösster Noth!
Der Mensch liegt in grösster Pein!
Je lieber möcht' ich im Himmel sein!
Da kam ich auf einem breiten Weg;
Da kam ein Engelein und wollt' mich abweisen;
|Oh, little red rose!|
Man lies in greatest need,
Man lies in greatest pain!
I would rather be in heaven.
I came upon a broad road;
A little angel came by and wanted me to turn back;
|Ach nein! Ich liess mich nicht abweisen!|
Ich bin von Gott und will wieder zu Gott!
Der liebe Gott wird mir ein Lichtchen geben,
Wird leuchten mir bis in das ewig selig Leben!
|Oh, no, I did not let myself be turned back!|
I come from God and will return to God!
Dear God will give me a little light,
Will light my way to the blessed life eternal!
|[The fifth movement follows without pause.]|
|Text of Fifth Movement — Finale with Orchestra, Chorus, Soloists|
From Klopstock's chorale Auferstehen!
|Chorus with Soprano Solo|
|Aufersteh'n, ja aufersteh'n wirst du,|
mein Staub, nach kurzer Ruh!
Unsterblich Leben! Unsterblich Leben
wird Der dich rief, dich rief dir geben.
Wieder aufzublüh'n wirst du gesät!
Der Herr der Ernte geht
Und sammelt Garben
Uns ein, die starben!
|You will rise again,|
my dust, after a short repose!
Immortal Life! He who summoned
will grant immortal life;
The seed you have sown will bloom again;
The Lord of harvests goes forth
To bind the sheaves
Of us who died.
|O glaube, mein Herz, O glaube:|
Es geht dir nichts verloren!
|Believe, my heart, o believe:|
nothing is lost to you.
|Chorus with Contralto Solo|
|Dein ist, ja dein, was du gesehnt!|
Dein, was du geliebt, was du gestritten!
|All is yours, yes, all that you|
have loved and striven for!
|O glaube: du wardst nicht umsonst geboren!|
Hast nicht umsonst gelebt, gelitten!
|Believe, you were not born in vain!|
You have not lived and suffered in vain!
|Chorus and Soloists|
|Was enstanden ist, das muss vergehen!|
Was vergangen auferstehen!
Hor auf zu beben!
Bereite dich zu leben!
|What was born must go.|
What has gone shall rise again.
Be not fearful,
Prepare to live!
|Contralto and Soprano|
|O Schmerz! Du Alldurchdringer!|
Dir bin ich entrungen.
O Tod! Du Allbezwinger!
Nun bist du bezwungen!
Mit Flügeln die ich mir errungen,
In Liebesstreben werd' ich entschweben
Zum Licht zu dern kein Aug' gedrungen!
|O Pain, penetrating all,|
I have escaped you!
O Death, conquering all,
Now you are conquered!
With wings I have won for myself,
In fervent love I shall soar
To the Light no eyes have seen!
|Sterben werd' ich um zu leben!|
Aufersteh'n, ja aufersteh'n wirst du,
Mein Herz, in einem Nu!
Was du geschlagen
Zu Gott wird es dich tragen!
|I shall die in order to live again.|
You will rise again, yes, rise again,
My heart, in a moment,
Borne aloft — to God!
Recorded April, 1967 in the Mormon Tabernacle, Salt Lake City, Utah
Producer: Seymour Solomon
Engineer: Ed Friedner
Originally release: Vanguard Cardinal Series VCS 10003-4 (2 LPs)