Gustav Mahler was born in Kaliště, Bohemia in 1860. His musical talent was apparent early, and he graduated from the Vienna Conservatory in 1878. A part time composer, his primary livelihood was derived from conducting opera and concerts. He wrote many art songs and nine symphonies, leaving a tenth incomplete. His music stretched tonality, but remained tonal. Mahler died in Vienna in 1911.
The second symphony, written between 1888 and 1895, is subtitled “Resurrection” and deals with death and the afterlife. The first movement is angry and depicts a funeral. The question why, which permeates the entire work, is introduced and repeated. The second movement is in the style of a Ländler, an Austrian folk dance, and invokes joyful memories in the life of the departed. However, these memories soon dissipate as real life intrudes. In the third movement, the pain and trauma of death is contemplated, finally ending on a scream of anguish. The fourth movement brings some peace as faith returns. A soloist sings, “The loving God will grant me a little light, which will light me into that eternal life!”
The fifth movement depicts the end of time. The introduction starts with a trumpet blast as the dead are raised to life. A horn call sounds and is echoed offstage. The Dies Irae is quoted. Wonder, fear, awe, and surprise are all expressed by the orchestra in turn.
A long drumroll leads to a section which Mahler referred to as the “march of the dead.” The Dies Irae melody in varied form is prominent. Earlier thematic material as well as material from earlier movements is reused. The picture is that of the people of earth, past and present, marching to the throne of almighty God. There is fear as all realize that no one is righteous before God and all must be damned. An offstage band interrupts. Finally, the offstage horn call returns, this time built up into a “Great Summons”, as all people gather in front of God’s throne. Only a bird is left singing in a flute, which soon stops.
The anticipation and fear is suddenly stilled as the chorus sings “Rise again, yes, rise again, Will you My dust, After a brief rest! Immortal life! Immortal life Will He who called you, give you.” The realization of forgiveness slowly sinks in through the orchestra. The chorus continues to sing about the joy of heaven and mercy of God. The orchestra expresses a perfect peace. The text is perfectly complemented by the music sung by the choir and two soloists. The text, “What perished, rise again!” is an explosion of volume while the next line, “Cease from trembling!” is quiet and peaceful. The music builds to a climax on the text “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 will it lead you!” The questions raised and struggled with in the earlier movements are finally answered as a glimpse is caught of life beyond death.
Franklin, Peter. “Mahler, Gustav.” n.d. Grove Music Online, Oxford Music Online. 18 November 2010 <http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/40696>.
Freed, Richard. Symphony No. 2 in C minor (“Resurrection”). 3 April 2008. 18 November 2010 <http://www.kennedy-center.org/calendar/?fuseaction=composition&composition_id=2484>.
Grout, Donald Jay, J. Peter Burkholder, and Claude V. Palisca. A History of Western Music, 8th Edition. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2010.
Wikipedia contributors. “Gustav Mahler.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 4 November 2010. 18 November 2010 <>.
—. “Symphony No. 2 (Mahler)”. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 9 November 2010. 18 November 2010 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Symphony_No._2_%28Mahler%29>.