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Symphony No. 2 (Mahler)

The Symphony No. 2 in C minor by Gustav Mahler, known as the Resurrection, was written between 1888 and 1894. It is one of Mahler's most popular works.

The symphony is written for an orchestra consisting of four flutes, four piccolos, four oboes, cor anglais, four clarinets, bass clarinet, four bassoons, double bassoon, ten French horns, ten trumpets, four trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, tam tam, triangle, snare drum, glockenspiel, bells, two harps, organ and strings. The fourth movement requires an alto soloist, and the last movement adds a soprano soloist and a choir.

The symphony began life as Totenfeier (Funeral Rites), a one movement symphonic poem based on an epic poem by Adam Mickiewicz, which Mahler completed in 1888. Later, he returned to the movement, and added three others so that by late 1893, the first four movements of the symphony as we now know it were complete. He then set the work aside for a while, aware that it needed something else to complete it, but lacking inspiration as to what that something else might be.

In 1894, the conductor Hans von Bülow died, and Mahler went to his funeral. There he heard Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock's Aufersteh'n (Resurrection Ode), and this inspired him to complete his symphony with a long choral movement with text based on Klopstock's ode.

The work in its finished form has five movements:

  1. Allegro maestoso
  2. Andante moderato
  3. In ruhig fliessender Bewegung (With quietly flowing movement)
  4. Urlicht (Primeval Light)
  5. In Tempo des Scherzos (In the tempo of a scherzo)

Mahler devised a narrative programme for the work which he told to a number of friends. He did not approve of audiences being made aware of it, but it is often recounted nowadays. In this programme, the first movement represents a funeral and asks questions such as "Is there life after death?"; the second movement is a remembrance of happy times in the life of the deceased; the third movement represents a complete loss of faith, and belief in life as meaningless; the fourth movement, a song, is a rebirth of faith ("I am from God, and will return to God"); and the fifth movement, after a return of the doubts of the third movement and the questions of the first, ends with a realisation of God's love, and recognition of everlasting life.

Musically, the first movement, though passing through a number of different moods, often resembles a funeral march, and is violent and angry. It is in a very extended sonata form. Following this movement, Mahler calls in the score for a gap of five minutes before the second movement, which is a delicate Lšndler with two contrasting sections of slightly darker music.

The third movement is a scherzo based on Mahler's Des Knaben Wunderhorn song about St Anthony preaching to the fishes, "Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt". The fourth movement, Urlicht, is another Wunderhorn song, actually sung this time, by an alto who Mahler requests should sound like a small child in heaven.

The last movement is the longest, typically lasting over half an hour. It is very episodic, containing a wide variety of moods, tempi and keys, with much of the material based on what has been heard in the previous movements. The use of a chorus in this last movement has led to comparisons with Ludwig van Beethoven's Symphony No. 9.

A typical performance of the whole symphony will last in the region of 85 minutes.

The work was first published in 1897. In 1899 an arrangement by Bruno Walter for piano four hands (two players at one piano) was published.

The third movement of Luciano Berio's Sinfonia (1968-69), is based on the third movement of this symphony.