Explained using the 5-4-3-2-1 Method

Duration: 80–90 Minutes
Genre: Symphony
Time of Creation: 1888–1894
World Premiere: December 13, 1895 (Berlin)

Table of Contents

Mahler's Symphony No. 2 in 5 Sentences

Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 is conceived according to the motto “Per aspera ad astra”. The first movement, which Mahler himself called a “celebration of the dead,” is contrasted with the final movement, in which Mahler sets the idea of resurrection to music. Because of this programmatic content, the symphony is often referred to as the “Resurrection Symphony,” although this name is not Mahler’s own. At the time of its premiere (1895), Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 pretty much broke all boundaries, for example in terms of instrumentation (usually more than 100 orchestral musicians, plus choir, vocal soloists and organ), form (five movements instead of the classical four) and duration (at 80–90 minutes, one of the longest symphonies in existence). The work was composed over a period of six years because Mahler’s heavy workload as a conductor meant that he rarely had time to compose.

Note: This work belongs to the Classical Music Top 100.

4 Highlights from Mahler's Symphony No. 2

Highlight 1: Beginning

A sharp accent, then a decay, then a restless theme in the low strings – that’s the beginning of Mahler’s 2nd symphony:

Highlight 2: Peaceful Minuet (end of 2nd movement)

The second movement is a dance movement (more precisely, a minuet). After the celebration of the dead in the first movement, this movement comes across as peaceful, almost idyllic. Plucked strings and harp provide an unusual timbre:

Highlight 3: Resurrection Theme

Do you still have the somber beginning of the work in your ear (Highlight 1)? Then listen now to the resurrection theme from the last movement. Bright and upbeat – the exact opposite of the death celebration in the first movement:

Highlight 4: Breakthrough and Conclusion

Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 ends with a so-called “breakthrough” – a Mahlerian specialty. The effect, performance after performance, is always tremendous. After nearly an hour and a half of struggle, of ups and downs, the resurrection theme asserts itself just before the conclusion, leading to a radiant ending:

3 Questions and Answers about Mahler's Symphony No. 2

Question 1: What texts did Gustav Mahler set to music in his Symphony No. 2?

Symphony No. 2, like Symphonies No. 3 and 4, is counted among the “Wunderhorn Symphonies” because Mahler set two songs from the collection “Des Knaben Wunderhorn” to music: in the third movement, “Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt,” and in the fourth movement, “Urlicht.” In the fifth movement, Mahler set to music the poem “Die Auferstehung” (The Resurrection) by Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock, which he slightly modified and supplemented with his own additions.

Question 2: Was the premiere of Mahler's Symphony No. 2 successful?

No. The audience was downright overwhelmed by the enormous dimensions of this work. Reviews ranged from “noise, scandal, mischief, subversion” to “brutal insipidity.” While individual composer colleagues (e.g. Anton Webern) appreciated the work, many important musical personalities of the time (e.g. Hans von Bülow) could do nothing with it.

Question 3: Is Mahler's 2nd Symphony frequently performed?

Despite its unsuccessful premiere, Mahler’s 2nd Symphony is one of his most popular works today. It is performed relatively often by the world’s leading orchestras, despite its unusually large dimensions to this day.

2 Recommended Recordings of Mahler's Symphony No. 2

Recording 1: Concertgebouworkest, Mariss Jansons, Ricarda Merbeth, Bernarda Fink, Netherlands Radio Choir (Live)

It is wonderful to see Mariss Jansons, the longtime chief conductor of the Concertgebouw Orchestra, perform Mahler’s monumental work with deep trust in “his” musicians:

Recording 2: NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra, Alan Gilbert, Christina Nielsson, Sarah Connolly, Berliner Rundfunkchor, NDR Vokalensemble (live, 2022)

A more recent recording is by the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra under the baton of U.S. conductor Alan Gilbert:

1 Quote about Mahler's Symphony No. 2

When I played him my Totenfeier, he went into nervous horror and declared that Tristan against my piece was a Haydn symphony, and behaved like a madman.

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