Mahler’s Second Symphony: Rising from the Ashes

The Minnesota Orchestra/Minnesota Chorale CD of Mahler’s Second Symphony, Resurrection, is just being released, and I wanted to share some personal thoughts and notes about this astonishing work.

Mahler is a curious composer—a bold visionary whose art is full of contradictions. His guiding philosophy was perhaps best summed up in a famous conversation he had with Finnish composer Jean Sibelius in 1907. As Sibelius recounted later,

“When our conversation touched on the essence of symphony, I said that I admired its severity and style and the profound logic that created an inner connection between all the motives. This was the experience I had come to in composing. Mahler’s opinion was just the reverse. “Nein, die Symphonie müss sein wie die Welt. Sie müss alles umfassen.” (No, the symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything.)

That quote perfectly captures essence of Mahler’s music. It is a collision of thoughts, emotions, ideas and sensations that are constantly intersecting and interacting with each other. At times, it’s as if you were reading a story where each paragraph was written by a different author in a different style—such as Shakespeare followed by the Brothers Grimm, Emily Dickinson, William Faulkner, Herodotus and O. Henry.

In the end, the cumulative effect is stunning, touching on all parts of the human experience… and vividly recreating the totality of human experience.  It is no wonder why so many love his music.

Mahler’s music isn’t at all hard to listen to, but it is a wonderfully challenging to fully comprehend it. It rewards—if not requires—repeated listening and conversations to grasp its many layers.

The Second Symphony, Resurrection, is a magnificent example of Mahler’s achievement, and one of the easiest to get your arms around. It is a work about loss and a plunge into darkness… before finding inner strength and a renewed hope that allows you to rise to a new level of existence greater you had known before. It is about rebirth and new glory.

Let me explain a bit about why you don’t want to miss Osmo Vänskä, the Minnesota Orchestra, and the Minnesota Chorale’s performance of it… plus provide a few words about the circumstances surrounding the creation of this CD, which have been, and continue to be incredibly meaningful for me.

* * *

The dramatic first movement begins with death, as well as the visceral, human response to this death.

It is a ferocious cry of grief in all its many forms. The music takes on the character of a march, but one that is broken and unsteady. Tempos and rhythms are disjointed, and grate across each other in fury. There is violence that sometimes appears to be focused back on oneself—or on the lost loved one. But there are also quieter moments of reflection and regret that seem to lament lost chances or roads not taken. Altogether these form a rich tapestry that forms not just a wail of raging grief, but represents a search to find some meaning out of the tragedy. Some hope for a resolution, even if we can’t envision a resolution at the moment.

As Mahler himself wrote of this movement:

“Now in this moment of gravity and of emotion which convulses our deepest being, our heart is gripped by a dreadfully serious voice which always passes us by in the deafening bustle of daily life: What now? What is this life — and this death? Do we have an existence beyond it? Is all this only a confused dream, or do life and this death have a meaning? — And we must answer this question if we are to live on.”

At the end of the movement, Mahler called for an extensive pause, which allows the performers and audience to reset, and work through this question through the following movements.

The second movement is subdued, a pull-back from the fierce emotions of its predecessor. In a moment of calm, the central character reflects on the lost loved one with a sense of affection, pride, and remembered joy. It is almost—almost—as if the departed loved one is still alive, untouched by tragedy, and is almost banal in his or her ordinariness. Mahler remarked that for him, this movement was “an image of a long-dead hour of Happiness.”

The third movement is a twisted, sardonic parody of the previous movement. It strikes me as being that moment in your grief where, after hours or days of tense, oppressive grief… you snap. Suddenly you burst out in a bout of totally inappropriate laughter or do something utterly ridiculous. In the movie Amadeus, there is a moment where Mozart, who has been obsessively working on his Requiem, looks up at a portrait of his stern, recently-departed father and hits his breaking point. He sticks out his tongue, sneers, and begins a mocking dance around the room to exorcise his demons of grief.  And that is the feeling Mahler conjures up.

But it is also a revolt against the meaningless of life. It’s reminiscent of asking yourself, How can people be going about their business at a time like this? Don’t they know what happened? Don’t they know it’s all futile anyway? Mahler wrote:

“When you awaken from the nostalgic daydream [of the preceding movement] and you return to the confusion of real life, it can happen that the ceaseless motion, the senseless bustle of daily activity may strike you with horror. Then life can seem meaningless, a gruesome, ghostly spectacle, from which you may recoil with a cry of disgust!”

These thoughts are quickly and decisively swept away by the fourth movement, which starts the long journey to healing and light. It also introduces the human voice in the tender song “Urlicht,” which provides a luminous call of hope. It is a moment out of time that gives me shivers every time I hear it. It is a glimpse, all too fleeting, of the infinite. You will scarcely be able to breathe.

O Röschen rot!                
Der Mensch liegt in größter Not!   
Der Mensch liegt in größter Pein!    
Je lieber möcht’ ich im Himmel sein. 
a kam ich auf einen breiten Weg: 
Da kam ein Engelein
und wollt’ mich abweisen.
Ach nein! Ich ließ mich 
nicht abweisen!  
Ich bin von Gott und will wieder zu Gott! 
Der liebe Gott wird mir ein 
Lichtchen geben,
Wird leuchten mir bis  
das ewig selig Leben!   

O little red rose!
Man lies in greatest need!
Man lies in greatest pain!
How I would rather be in heaven.
There came I upon a broad path
when came a little angel
and wanted to turn me away.
Ah no! I would not let myself
be turned away!
I am from God and shall return to God!
The loving God will grant me
a little light,
in which will light me into
that eternal blissful life!

—From Des Knaben Wunderhorn

This leads to the mighty fifth, and final movement. I’ve long thought that the emotional and musical range of this movement is so vast that it could stand alone as an entire self-contained symphony. Musically speaking, it begins with a recapitulation, but this term barely scratches the surface of what Mahler is about.  The finale summarizes everything that went before, musically and emotionally, and transforms the material as part of a literal, musical rebirth that matches the spiritual rebirth Mahler envisions.

As the finale begins, the momentary vision of hope in the prior movement is swept away; the grief and horror of the first movement come crashing back in. If the first movement was a cry of grief, this is a cry of despair that believes healing is impossible. It is a thunderous cry to heaven not just in rage, but as a demand for answers.

And then… the answer is given.

The movement is cut through by a remarkable moment—the so-called “Great Call.” This is a multi-layered fanfare beyond all definitions of a fanfare, with brass and other instruments calling out from all parts of the hall. It demands attention. It suppresses all sound. And once all has been stilled, it fades into nothingness.

What follows is perhaps one of the most riveting moment in all music.

With a sound that is felt more than it is actually heard, the chorus enters—softer than you can believe possible.

Aufersteh’n, ja aufersteh’n wirst du,
mein Staub, nach kurzer Ruh:
Unsterblich Leben     
wird der dich rief dir geben.

Rise again, yes you will rise again,
my dust, after a short rest:
Immortal life
will be granted by He who called you.

From there, the chorus begins a celestial hymn of resurrection that calls on us to leave behind the past and to emerge far greater that we were before: uplifted, healed, and reborn to true greatness. Solo voices join the choir and soar in Mahler’s own words of affirmation: “O believe, you were not born in vain! Have not lived, suffered in vain!” With greater assurance and resolution, the chorus continues its song… building to a triumphant conclusion that will make the walls tremble. In the closing pages, Mahler brings us to his vision of the final triumph of the soul, with bells pealing and chorus calling out, “Sterben werd’ ich, um zu leben: I shall die, so as to live!”

It is a transcendent moment.  You will feel your soul soar.

* * *

Beyond the greatness of the music, this concert will be supremely meaningful to me for other, more personal reasons.  For one, only days before the concerts and recording sessions, we in the Minnesota Chorale experienced a tragedy—one of our singers was killed in a senseless traffic accident.

Krista Sandstrom, a long-time singer in the group was killed on Thursday June 1, 2017, at the age of 47. She was at the intersection in south Minneapolis, when a driver ran a red light (after running three red lights immediately prior) and plowed into her going approximately 70 miles per hour. She died at the scene. The driver and passengers from the other vehicle then attempted to flee the scene on foot. They were subsequently apprehended, and the driver who killed Krista was charged with Criminal Vehicular Homicide.

A press account for the accident is here, and Krista’s obituary can be found here.

In addition to being a singer, Krista served as Singer Representative to the Board for the  two years. She was a vital woman with many gifts, and it was an honor to both sing with her and serve on the Board with her. Krista was to perform Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony with us and the Minnesota Orchestra, and we left her chair empty, with a bouquet of flowers, for the live performances. As you can imagine, this project with its themes of life, loss and renewal had deep meaning for us all.

But although we in the Chorale were devastated, we were determined to honor Krista’s spirit the best way we know how, in line with her character: to honor her with song. We overcame our collective grief by pushing through it. Mahler’s music of loss and affirmation wasn’t an abstraction for us—it is a very real journey we took ourselves as we sang. I’m sure the intensity of our collective emotion will carry through in our recorded performance.

But more importantly for me personally, this concert ended up serving as a farewell to my dad.  He and his partner Elaine came to the concert (on Father’s Day, no less), and gushed about how deeply it moved them.  And they gushed about how proud they were to see me on stage, in my element.  He was already starting to look out of sorts, and his visit to the doctor the following Monday was the start of his relatively swift decline. He passed away peacefully less than two months later.  Over those two months, Mahler’s message of loss and rebirth resonated powerfully with me… and I will forever be grateful to have had this one last, wonderful memory of him listening to this astonishing score, beaming with pride for me.  It was a memory I held onto fiercely as he slipped away.

To be clear, these performances weren’t “about” one single person or any one person’s loss; we have all had our journeys down this lonely road.  But that’s one of the remarkable things about great artists—we live these emotions, and bring them forward for you that we can experience them together.  Profoundly.  This is not a random group giving you eight bars of generic “sadness.” It is artists—your artists—living their art for you to experience.

You will be part of this journey, invited to come with us and recall those times you pushed through challenges or grief of your own. And together we will rise again.




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