Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Gustav Mahler
Second Symphony - "Resurrection"

For those not familiar with this mammoth work, here are some notes which give an insight to the work and the composer's thoughts behind it. I hope they are of interest to you

The first four symphonies of Gustav Mahler are extremely personal documents in which he speaks about his relations with the human and natural world around him, his God and his ultimate spiritual happiness. As a result they seem to grow from one another psychologically and spiritually, rather than stylistically or technically.

In the creative process words were very important to Mahler. "When I conceive a great musical organism I invariably arrrive at a point where I feel compelled to call on the help of words as a carrier of my musical idea." he once said. In the First Symphony he found inspiration in his own verses for his song cycle "The Songs of a Wayfarer". Four years later he discovered the collection of traditional verses called "Das Knaben Wunderhorn" (Youth's magic Horn) which were remarkably similar in atmosphere and language to his own poetry. This became the basis for his "Wunderhorn" songs and his 2nd, 3rd and 4th symphonies, all of which employ the human voice and have as focal points, texts from "Wunderhorn".

The Second Symphony written between 1887 and 1894 uses in addition Friederich Klopstock's hymn "Auferstehung" (Resurrection). There are five movements, the first three purely instrumental. The fourth features a contralto soloist who reappears in the final movement along with a soprano soloist and a four part mixed choir. Mahler himself conducted the first performance of the complete work, in Berlin, on December 13th 1895.

Much is known about the work from Mahler's own letters and 'programme' notes. His 'programme' notes and titles for each movement of all his first three symphonies were later removed by himself to allow everyone to approach the works without preconceived ideas of the content of each work. The 'programmes' were only abstract notions of the ideas from which the music sprang. However audiences who had seen them insisted on regarding them as detailed programmes similar to those being worked on at the time by Richard Strauss. What was worse was that musical critics saw them as indicative of Mahler being unable to compose music which could stand on its own.

The work as a whole grows from the First Symphony as Mahler points out in his letters : "I have called the first movement 'Funeral Rites' . . . , it is the hero of my Symphony in D major that I am lowering into his grave." Other comments on individual movements are quoted as follows :-


"We are standing beside the coffin of one dearly loved. For the last time his battles, his sufferings and his purpose pass through the mind. . . . . Released from the insignificant distractions of ordinary life our hearts are seized by an awesomely solemn voice. What next? it says. What is life and what is death? Do we have any continuous existence? Is it all a hollow dream, or does our life , now and after death, have meaning? If we are to continue living we must answer this question." ("I give this answer in the last movement.") The sense of conflict is reflected musically in the violent contrast of the main theme - an extended funeral march - and a lyrical second subject and in their tonalities (C minor/E major). In the development of the march a reference to the plainsong "Dies irae" emerges, looking forward to the march within the finale.


"Remembering the past. A moment of bliss from the dead hero's life. A mournful memory of youthfulness and lost innocence". The movement seems to look back musically to the minuet of the classical symphony. The gracious Landler waltz theme has a decidedly Schubertian flavour.


"The spirit of disbelief and denial has taken possession of the hero. Looking at the turmoil of life's superficiality he loses the clear vision of childhood and the firm footing which only Love gives. He despairs of himself and God." "Life appears senseless. . .and like a dreadful nightmare." " Disgust strikes him and drives him into an outburst of despair." For this scherzo Mahler uses the theme of his song from "Das Knaben Wunderhorn" which describes St. Anthony of Padua's sermon to the fishes. The irony of that situation in which the saint vainly tries to convert the fish - to stop pike stealing and carp gorging - has obvious application to the human condition.


"The stirring voice of the simple faith sounds in our ears - 'I am of God and will return to God'. " The contralto's words are from the same 'Urlicht' (Primal Light) poem also from "Das Knaben Wunderhorn".


"We are faced again with terrible questions. A voice is heard crying aloud. The end of all life has come . . . the Day of Judgement has come . . the earth trembles, the graves open, the dead rise and march, the great and the humble. . .the trumpet sounds. . . in the silence a nightingale sings like the last echo of life on earth. . .a choir of saints sings "Thou shalt arise". And behold there is no judgement - there are no sinners, no righteous, no great, no humble. An overwhelming Love shines. We know and are." For the song of the saints Mahler extends Auferstehung with words of his own. In the final march he uses the "Dies irae" which was hinted in the first movement. It is complete.

Compiled from :-

1) Programme notes of a 1965 performance by The Concertgebouw Orchestra, Amsterdam with The Netherland's Radio Choir conducted by Bernard Haitinck

2) "Gustav Mahler" Vol." - Donald Mitchell

Translations of the poems quoted :-


O little red rose!

Man is in the deepest misery!

Man is in the deepest suffering!

Ah, how I wish I were in heaven"

I was climbing a wide path

When an angel came and tried to turn me away,

No, I will not be turned away:

I came from God and will return to God!

God is good and will give me his light;

He will light my way to eternal life!.


You shall come back to life, yes, you shall come back to life,

My body after a short rest!

Eternal life

Will be given to you by Him who called you back.

To be reborn you were sown.

The Reaper approaches

And gathers the sheaves

Of us who are dead

Believe my heart believe :

You have lost nothing.

You will receive everything you have hoped for,

Everything you have loved and striven for.

Believe this:

You were not born in vain!

You have not lived and suffered in vain!

Everything that lives must die!

And everything that dies will be reborn!

Fear no longer!

Prepare yourself to live!

O suffering, all powerful suffering!

Now I have escaped you!

O death forever victorious!

Now you are conquered!

With the wings I won,

In the ardour of Love

Shall I fly

To the light no eye has seen!

I die to live!

You shall come back to life, yes,

My heart, you shall come back to life!

The pain you have endured

Will bear you to God

(Translations by Robert Cushman)

Saturday, 13 February 2010

An interesting correction from Laura

Valentine Singers are performing Shearer's Songs and Sonnets on 6th March, but did you know....

Great composer though Shearer might be, his knowledge of Shakespeare leaves something to be desired!

The first song in ‘songs and sonnets’ isn’t by the Bard at all; it’s a hybrid of two poems. The first part (up to bar 60) is most of ‘The passionate shepherd to his love’ by Christopher Marlowe. Marlowe was a poet and playwright who was a contemporary of Shakespeare and might have rivalled him had he not got himself killed in a tavern brawl following a disagreement over who was to pay for the drinks.

Walter Raleigh (the chap who put his coat over a puddle for Queen Elizabeth) wrote a reply to Marlowe’s idealised picture of rural life. In Raleigh’s poem the maid basically tells the shepherd to push off; she doesn’t think much of his presents as most of them will fade and decay and she’s not sure you can trust shepherds anyway! The first verse of this poem gave Shearer the end of our song. So in order to be true to the spirit of the original the choir (or the ladies at least) should sing from bar 61 with eyebrows raised and a kind of ‘am I bovvered’ expression to show what the maid really thought of the shepherd’s offer….

I also looked up a couple of the odd words in the songs which really are by Shakespeare:

Pugging tooth – doesn’t seem to mean anything at all, at least all the sources I checked said it was unclear but probably rude!
Tosspot, on the other hand, wasn’t obscene in Shakespeare’s day – it just meant ‘drunkard’, i.e. man who tosses back his tankard to get some more in
Aunts could be a general term for women of a certain age – so the chap need not have been rolling in the hay with his Mum’s sister but making free with a selection of the village women