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Sunday, April 9, 2006

A Vision of Resurrection: MAHLER Symphony No. 2 in C Minor

As a lifelong classical music enthusiast, I have always been fascinated by Mahler, his life and his works. Born to Jewish parents, he converted to Roman Catholicism later in life, but more as a matter of convenience rather than through any force of conviction (this may explain the fact that Wagner’s widow, Cosima remained bigoted towards him all throughout her life, much like Richard Wagner himself). Be that as it may, he managed to compose nine large-scale symphonies, much like Ludwig van Beethoven, a number of which deal with religious subjects.

Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 in C Minor is also popularly known as the Resurrection Symphony. This work mimics Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (“Ode to Joy”) with the use of a chorus and solo voices in the last movement. Beethoven’s inclusion of a chorus in what was considered purely an instrumental field, the Symphony, prompted Wagner to comment that this innovation was in effect “a declaration of the bankruptcy of instrumental music”.

But in fact, Beethoven, and later on Mahler, realized that integrating human voices to a purely instrumental work could only heighten, or intensify further, rather than distract, the expression of joy and the most elevated affirmation of life in their works. No man-made instrument could ever replicate that sort of experience like the human voice does. The triumphal and jubilant fireworks generated by the chorus in the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth is really akin to listening to a crowd of angels welcoming the recently departed to the gates of heaven, for an audience with God. The listening experience is that profound. The stunning contrasts from the disquieting struggle in the first two movements among the strings (life and death?), followed by the really serene, very tranquil resignation and acceptance in the third movement, all of which were treated instrumentally, are simply astounding, as the quartet of voices and the chorus enters majestically only in the final fourth singing the unforgettable melody of joy, as if one were coming home to victorious welcome after a long journey and a hard-fought battle.

Obviously, Mahler had Beethoven in mind as his model when he composed his Second. The lay-out is quite similar in structure but employs massive orchestral and choral forces never encountered in the past. (Mahler outdid himself still with his Symphony no. 8, a.k.a. the Symphony of a Thousand, as he took the form and size of the orchestra beyond limits, thus the nickname.)

The first movement marked allegro maestoso, oscillates between pianissimo and fortissimo (very soft and very loud), a dreamy mood tries to assert itself in the course of the movement but is slapped and consequently dominated by wild, hammering rhythms, concluding in an enormous climax. With the turmoil created, the entire movement paints a picture of an impending death.

The subsequent two movements, marked andante moderato and a scherzo, respectively are remarkably different from the first. The second movement breathes a dream-of-life mood, idyllic and carefree, like a stroll in the woods or a walk in the beach, interspersed with a somewhat naïve folk melody or waltz-like theme (dance of the fairies?). The third smells of earth: primitive, coarse, sometimes vulgar and even grotesque, providing a stark contrast to the previous one. My interpretation on these movements is rather simplistic: it’s a heaven-or-hell scenario, period. How else would you explain it?

The enormous final movement breathes grandeur and ecstatic joy. The mezzo-soprano intones a death wish with moving simplicity and delicacy:

Man lies in direst need
Man lies in deepest pain

I would rather be in heaven

I came upon a broad path:
An angel came and sought to turn me back
Ah no. I would not be sent away

I am from God, and to God I will return
He will give me light
That will lead me to eternal, blessed life

Suddenly, the orchestra shudders and a horn call sounds from a distance, along with a delicate melody that emerges from the stillness: this is the song of the dead, at the Day of Judgement. A march develops and moves forward. You can actually visualize the dead marching to the Last Judgement, as the orchestra breaks out with festive trumpet flourishes, clashing with restive, driving elemental rhythms after which it gradually fades into silence.

After the orchestra reprises the theme sang earlier by the mezzo soprano, the chorus enters softly with deep, dark sounds, as the soprano voice joins in and separates and floats above the chorus, intoning:

Rise again, yes, you shall rise again
My dust, after a brief rest

He who called you
Will grant you immortal life

You are sown to bloom again
The Lord of the harvest goes
And reaps us who died
Like sheaves

The orchestra joins in again, as the mezzo combines with the soprano as they sing the following text with rising anticipation:

O believe, my heart, believe
All is not lost with you

You were not born in vain
You have not lived and suffered in vain

The chorus enters, almost whispering and gradually rising:

What was created must perish
What has perished, rise again!

Cease trembling
Prepare yourself to live

The mezzo and soprano voices enter once again, this time changing keys, from one of mystery in a minor key to excitement in a major key

Oh all piercing pain
From you I have been wrested

Oh all conquering death
Now that you have been conquered
With wings
I shall soar above
To the light which no one has pierced

And the chorus picks this up with profound emotion, gradually rising, and getting louder and more insistent, as the orchestra joins in as all vocal and orchestral forces unite and build up to the powerful climax. The full sound bursts out in full fortissimo, bells ring, trumpets flare as the orchestra and chorus shine out in all its glory, proclaiming the beautiful message of the Resurrection:

With wings that I have gained
I shall soar above

I shall die, so as to live

Rise again, yes, you shall rise again
What you have lived and fought for
Shall all lead to God

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