Mahler’s Bipolar Resurrection

An Exhilarating Symphonic Soundscape

By Pat Suarez

Climb into the mind of the bipolar individual and you enter a roller-coaster world of unpredictable emotion, rocketing into the stratosphere and then plummeting to immobilizing depths. For nearly a quarter of a century, the bipolar collided spectacularly with musical creativity in the 5’4”, bespectacled Gustav Mahler. Perhaps nowhere did Mahler’s inner conflicts reflect in his music as much as in his sprawling Symphony 2 in c-minor. On Friday, May 11th and Saturday, May 12th, Music Director Neal Gittleman and his Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus, along with soprano Ilana Davidson and mezzo soprano Susan Platts, will present Mahler’s take on the meaning of life and the uncertainty and hope of death.

The soundscape of the so-called Resurrection symphony is unique among Mahler’s symphonic output. Mahler’s symphonies are expansive and have a particularly broad sound. But the sonic atmosphere of his c-minor symphony has breadth and depth unlike anything else in his canon. It “sounds” grander than even his 8th Symphony, a work that employs orchestral and vocal forces twice the size of the Second Symphony.

While many people in their late 20s look to their future with optimistic hope, Mahler was obsessed with mortality, both his own and everybody else’s. He pursued eschatology, a theological science focused on death and final judgment, heaven and hell. He pondered in writing, “Why have you lived? Why have you suffered? Is this all just a terrible joke?”

His answer began to take shape in early 1888, at age 27, in the form of a single movement he titled Todtenfeier (“Funeral Rites”). Mahler poured restless angst into this work, imagining himself laid out in a casket. Todtenfeier’s opening bars featured jagged, fearsome music for low strings, finally allowing a calm, cool breeze of relief nearly three minutes into the piece. Hans von Bulow heard the 23-minute Todtenfeier and declared that “Tristan und Isolde was a Haydn symphony next to this!” True to its bipolar foundation, Mahler’s work shuttled between unsettled turmoil and hypnotic relaxation.

Mahler had no intention of doing anything more with Todtenfeier until 1891, when he decided to add movements and complete a Second Symphony. Mahler titled the second movement Andante moderato and, true to Mahler’s love of dance, this movement was in the form of a leisurely Landler, a dance that Mahler adored. Its gentle nature marked as a wide a contrast in mood, compared with the first movement, as can be found in all the symphonic literature. This relief would be short-lived.

“Scherzo” translates roughly to “joke,” and Resurrection’s third movement was a whirling scherzo whose opening tympani thunderclaps would jar awake anyone foolish enough to have dozed off. Perpetual motion is how Mahler described this music. Its restlessness was a parable to the often nonsensical hustle and bustle of life. Mahler referred to this music as “looking at the world in a concave mirror,” harkening back to the question of life being a joke on all of us. Near the end of the movement, Mahler stalled the motion to pull back the curtain at a glimpse of the last movement, a keystone moment that amplified the anticipation of the terror of judgment.

For the first time in Mahler’s symphonic output, the human voice (an alto or mezzo) appeared in the fourth movement, singing the uncommonly beautiful song, Urlicht (“Primeval Light”), the last song from Mahler’s song cycle, “The Youth’s Magic Horn.” This was an understated song, mournful and yet ravishing, resolving ache into hope, beginning in b-flat minor, visiting A-major and then concluding back in b-flat minor.

Functioning as a bridge between the Scherzo and Finale, Urlicht sets up the Last Judgment, declaring that “Mankind lies in great pain.”

The finale was a major undertaking. Mahler not only needed to unfold the events that happen at the moment of the Last Trumpet, he also had to ensure that the finale’s form and purpose made musical sense with the symphony’s first four movements.

Mahler’s most significant challenge was the text for the end of the work. He searched high and low for content that reflected his message of the joy of everlasting life. Ironically, he discovered his text at the funeral of von Bulow, the conductor who had commented about Todtenfeier. As the church chorus sang Friedrich Klopstock’s Resurrection Ode, the attentive Mahler had the words he needed.

The finale literally explodes from the stage. Mahler’s annotation reads “With a wild outburst,” and what erupts from the stage is every bit of that. Less than two minutes later, the initial last trumpet is sounded by trumpets, French horns and tympani offstage. Following the last trumpet call, the entreaty for salvation and Dies Irae occur, followed by graves opening (a rapid build-up in the brass and percussion, followed by a brisk march). Death arrives with another massive outburst, the last trumpets make a final call and the movement fades into near silence. The chorus at last makes its entrance (“Arise, yes, you will arise”), the soprano and alto solos joining the ensemble. Mahler skillfully and steadily increases the volume and intensity to a staggering outpouring of unadulterated joy at the arrival of eternal life.

While the pharmaceutical industry has made great strides in controlling bipolar disorders, music lovers for more than a century have been thankful that Mahler never lived to take them.

Reach DCP classical music critic Patrick Suarez at PatSuarez@daytoncitypaper.com


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One Response to “Mahler’s Bipolar Resurrection” Subscribe

  1. Trevor H. December 8, 2015 at 2:03 am #

    I agree with all of the article’s assertions. After enjoying his 4th, this symphony was my introduction to a deeper Mahler. I encountered the 2nd as a DG cassette of the Kubelik version with the Bavarian SO, a random choice from a music rack in a railway station a couple of decades back. I played it every Friday night, on a weekly two-hour car trip I made to London, till I had completetly imbibed every note.
    Its effect on me, listening as I drove through the dark, was immediate and overwhelming, but it was also addictive and life-enhancing. Few works can so arrest a listener and so deeply impress a sense of utter profundity. It may be a sense of identification with his depressive psyche that keeps me in awe of Mahler’s musical achievment in this symphony. He peaked early; none of his later works exceed his psychological insight as revealed in the 2nd. I’m sure, every day, uninitiated listeners are smitten as they encounter this work. One does not have to be religious in any way to enjoy it – the reference to resurrection is symbolic and universal, not narrowly evangelical in any sense, and while it is profound, its complete accessibility means it’s music we can all share.

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