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Program Notes: Mahler's Resurrection

Updated: Apr 29, 2020

Friday, September 27, 2019 at 8:00PM

Saturday, September 28, 2019 at 8:00PM

Stéphane Denève, conductor

Joélle Harvey, soprano

Tamara Mumford, mezzo-soprano

St. Louis Symphony Chorus

Amy Kaiser, Director

MAHLER Symphony No. 2, "Resurrection"



Born July 7, 1860, Kalischt, Czechia

Died May 18, 1911, Vienna, Austria

Symphony No. 2, “Resurrection”

Denève on Mahler’s Second Symphony

I feel that Mahler’s music is universal. Every Mahler symphony speaks about death and life, the struggle for one or the other. He was obsessed with this theme in every piece, but this struggle is especially clear in the Second Symphony.

Maybe the Resurrection is the most global of Mahler’s symphonies. It is beyond religion. He had lost his mother, his father, his sister. At the end of the Second Symphony, the god that offers the possibility to arise, to be immortal, is a god that does not judge.

It is about love. The way we will save ourselves is love.

Like all of us, Mahler struggled. Struggled with writer’s block. Struggled to find his personal voice. Struggled with faith and doubt. Struggled with life and death. Mahler’s Second Symphony puts these intimate, private struggles on the largest possible canvas.


The 28-year-old Mahler’s career was in overdrive. On his way to becoming Europe’s most famous conductor, he had recently completed an ambitious First Symphony and barely drew breath before beginning work on another.

The Second Symphony’s first movement was complete in weeks, a jagged torso, epic in scope, tragic in tone. Mahler began the second movement with a few lilting sounds, but the sketches end abruptly. He fell into a symphonic silence that would last five years.

Many have wondered about this silence. Did family matters intervene? Did his conducting career overwhelm all else? Did poor health interfere? Or was Mahler simply waiting for the right inspiration, the right catalyst, to put this journey on the right track?

Personal voice

From the outside, the folk-texts published as Des Knaben Wunderhorn (“The Youth’s Magic Horn”) might seem unremarkable. Two men, Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano, driven by nationalist urges, collected (and often rewrote) the songs and stories of rural Germanic towns.

These texts heralded a sea-change in Mahler’s music. Wunderhorn poems tell of war, nature, love, or persecution in language that is sentimental, rough, even surprising. Mahler breathed their scent deeply, writing many songs on Wunderhorn texts.

Pre-Wunderhorn, Mahler’s music was earnest, proper. Post-Wunderhorn, his language flowered, embracing sounds from the city and forest, celebrating the collision of the plain-speaking and the complex. This new musical voice must have shocked contemporary listeners.


Des Knaben Wunderhorn also gave Mahler an escape from silence.

In 1893 he set the Wunderhorn poem “St. Anthony of Padua’s Sermon to the Fish” to music. In the song, St. Anthony finds his church empty and instead delivers his sermon to a school of fish. The images spoke to Mahler: he had fought the foolishness of people like St. Anthony; he had performed for audiences who, like the fish, didn’t understand him.

Mahler’s song provided a spark for the Second Symphony. Its music, wheels spinning pointlessly with “empty” repetitions, provided the germ for the symphony’s third movement. Within a year, the symphony would be complete.

An almost-opera

When he wrote the Second Symphony, Mahler was completing a long operatic apprenticeship. He had spent eight years learning his craft as conductor, orchestrator, arranger, and producer.

This symphony reflects a life lived in the opera house. The shuddering opening, like a curtain being wrenched aloft. The demand for a five-minute silence, rarely enforced, after the long first movement. The terrifying gun-shot timpani strokes that open the third movement, breaking the second movement’s calm. The heartrending intimacy of the fourth movement.

Capping it all, a theatrical, tour de force finale complete with vocal soloists, choir, and offstage players, contemplating nothing less than the end of the world.

A hymn

Mahler struggled to find the right conclusion to this mammoth symphony. Sitting in the memorial service for the conductor Hans von Bülow, a mentor and friend, a revelation came.

“The mood in which I sat and thought about the departed,” wrote Mahler, “was in the spirit of [the Second Symphony].” The choir, invisible in the organ-loft, were singing a hymn. His ears pricked up. “It struck me like lightning and everything became plain and clear in my mind!”

The hymn sung by the church choir was the “Resurrection” chorale by German poet Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock. To complete his symphony, Mahler borrowed the first eight lines of Klopstock’s text, creating his own surging, soaring hymn melody.

“The increasing tension, working up to the final climax,” wrote Mahler after he finished the symphony, “is so tremendous that I don’t know how I ever came to write it.”

Faith and doubt

Born into a Jewish family, the young Mahler held radical, anti-religious views. Later, bowing to the anti-Semitism of Vienna, he was baptized as a Catholic. Mahler’s beliefs have remained, to some extent, unknowable.

Faith and doubt take center stage in his Second Symphony. In the first movement, a hoarse musical voice cries out, “What is life’s purpose?” In the third, life is a churning mass of noise. In the fifth, the dead rise, wailing with pain.

Mahler is quoted as saying that the fourth movement, Urlicht (“primal light” or “ancient light”), is about the struggle for faith. That it evokes “the wrestling of Jacob and the Angel…and Jacob’s cry to the angel, I will not let thee go, except that thou bless me.”

Does the Second Symphony chart a path from doubt to faith? Is the “resurrection” of the finale a literal or metaphorical one? Is the journey of the Second Symphony ambiguous, a winding road that allows each listener to find their own meaning?

The final word

“Beg to report safe delivery of a strong, healthy last movement to my Second,” wrote Mahler to a friend. “Father and child doing as well as can be expected.”

First Performance: December 13, 1895, Berlin, Germany, Gustav Mahler conducting the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra

First SLSO Performance: February 18, 1955, Vladimir Golschmann conducting

Most Recent SLSO Performance: April 10, 2011, David Robertson conducting

Scoring: solo soprano, solo alto, chorus, 4 flutes (all doubling piccolo), 4 oboes (2 doubling English horn), 5 clarinets (1 doubling bass clarinet and 2 doubling E-flat clarinet), 4 bassoons (1 doubling contrabassoon), 10 horns, 8 trumpets, 4 trombones, tuba, 3 timpani, percussion (2 bass drums, 3 bells, 2 cymbals, glockenspiel, rute, snare drum, 2 tam tams, 2 triangles), 2 harps, organ, and strings

Performance Time: approximately 1 hour and 20 minutes


Gustav Mahler



Text in quotation marks is compiled from Mahler’s own words of explanation for the symphony.

First Movement. Allegro maestoso: Mit durchaus ernstem und feierlichem Ausdruck (“With gravity and solemnness”)

“We stand beside the coffin of a beloved person. His life, his battles, his sufferings and his purpose appear as memories. Our hearts are gripped by a voice of awe-inspiring solemnity, which we seldom or never hear above the deafening traffic of mundane affairs. What next? it says. What is life—and what is death? Have we any continuing existence?”

Second Movement. Andante moderato: Sehr gemächlich. Nie eilen (“Leisurely. Never rush”)

“The Andante [is] a memory! [It] tells of love. A ray of sunlight, pure and cloudless. You must surely have had the experience of burying someone dear to you, and then…some long-forgotten hour of shared happiness suddenly came into your mind, sending a sunbeam into your soul.”

Third Movement. In ruhig fließender Bewegung (“With calm, flowing movement”)

“This surge of life, ceaselessly in motion, never resting, never comprehensible, suddenly seems eerie, like the billowing of dancing figures in a brightly lit ballroom that you gaze into from outside in the dark. Life becomes meaningless, an eerie phantom state out of which you may cry out with disgust. The Scherzo ends with the appalling shriek of this tortured soul.”

Fourth Movement. Urlicht. Sehr feierlich, aber schlicht (“Primeval Light.” “Solemn, but simple”)

Urlicht (“Primal Light”) represents the soul’s striving and questioning attitude towards God and its own immortality. The moving voice of innocent belief sounds in our ears.”

Fifth Movement.

“A death-shriek. And now the resolution of the terrible problem of life—redemption. The Day of Judgement. The earth trembles. The Last Trumpet sounds; the graves spring open, and all creation comes writhing out of the bowels of the earth.

“After everyone has shouted and screamed, [a solo flute gives the] long drawn-out call of the Bird of Death above the last grave. Finally that, too, fades away.

“[But there is] no last judgement, no souls saved and none damned; no just man, no sinner, no judge! Softly and simply there begins: ‘Auferstehn’n…’.”


Program notes by Tim Munro, the SLSO's Creative Partner


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