Symphonic Snapshot: Mahler’s Second

Gustav Mahler in New York City, 1910
Gustav Mahler in New York City, 1910

In 2011, Music Director Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic marked the tenth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks with a free “Concert for New York” at Avery Fisher Hall. The program featured Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection,” a piece which opens with an anguished funeral march and culminates in a moment of ultimate transfiguration. In the final bars of the fifth movement, the traditional orchestra is suddenly augmented by the all-encompassing power of a pipe organ and a final proclamation rises up from the chorus:

Die shall I in order to live.
Rise again, yes, rise again,
Will you, my heart, in an instant!
That for which you suffered,
To God will it lead you! 

Mahler’s deeply psychological music was ahead of its time. Largely misunderstood by audiences during the composer’s lifetime, it wasn’t until the mid to late twentieth century that the music began to resonate fully with audiences. Now we collectively turn to this music in times of grief and confusion. “If a composer could say what he had to say in words, he would not bother trying to say it in music,” said Mahler. Transcending literal meaning, Mahler’s music communicates ultimate and eternal truth.

Coincidentally, the New York Philharmonic’s performance came within months of the hundredth anniversary of Mahler’s death in 1911. In many ways, Mahler’s music is infused in the orchestra’s DNA. In the final years of his life, Mahler served as the New York Philharmonic’s music director (between 1909 and 1911). His exhausting battles with the Philharmonic’s (at that time) small-minded and provincial leadership have been well-documented. Later, as music director of the New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein passionately championed Mahler’s works.

We’ll return to Mahler’s Second Symphony in greater detail in a future post. For now, here are a few musical snapshots from the Philharmonic’s 2011 concert. The first movement, Allegro maestoso, opens with a ferocious snarl which immediately demands our attention. The strings make an opening statement and then the woodwinds enter with the next layer of this long musical narrative. We hear the searing, mocking sounds of muted trumpets and horns. The Dies Irae (the Latin chant representing the “Day of Wrath”) surfaces briefly. The movement climaxes with a shockingly dissonant fortissimo (14:46), which anticipates the sounds of the twentieth century. There are also moments of otherworldly beauty and repose. But we keep getting pulled back to the funeral procession with a musical voice which says, “Don’t forget me! I’m still here!” There’s something slightly unsettling about the sudden and unpredictable way the music alternates in mood in this big, unfolding cosmic battle.

At one point in this performance the audience, which seems sincerely engaged in the music, begins applauding, apparently mistaking a powerful climax for the movement’s end. Seasoned concertgoers might frown on applause between movements, especially during the long, dramatic arc of a Mahler symphony. But this applause also seems to suggest that there were audience members in the hall who were hearing this piece for the first time, making the New York Philharmonic’s gift to their community even more special.

The Second Symphony’s fourth movement, Urlicht (“Primal Light”) originated in Mahler’s song cycle Des Knaben Wunderhorn (“The Youth’s Magic Horn”). It moves into the remote key of D-flat major, far from the Symphony’s principal keys of C minor and E-flat major:

This excerpt from the final movement begins with a solemn statement of the Dies Irae in the trombones and unfolds into a triumphant moment of exultation. Mahler’s score occasionally asks wind players to raise their instrument’s bell above the music stand to increase the volume and direct intensity of the sound. In this clip you’ll see the horns raise their bells:

  • Find the complete “Concert for New York” on iTunes, Amazon
  • Hear Claudio Abbado’s 2003 performance with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra

Exploring the Lullaby

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The lullaby is universal and timeless. It’s one of the clearest expressions of the deep bond between mother and young child. Its gentle, repetitive, rocking rhythm lulls infants to sleep. The simple expression of its melody evokes warmth and security. At the same time, many lullabies contain an inexplicable hint of sadness.

From Franz Schubert to George Gershwin to U2, music history is full of lullabies. Here are five of my favorites:

Schubert’s Wiegenlied, Op. 98, No. 2

We’ll begin with the simple perfection of Franz Schubert’s Wiegenlied, Op. 98, No. 2, written in November, 1816. You can read the text here. Listen to the way this performance by mezzo-soprano Janet Baker and pianist Gerald Moore fades into sleepy oblivion:

Brahms’ Wiegenlied, Op. 49, No. 4

Johannes Brahms may have written the world’s most famous lullaby. Wiegenlied, Op. 49, No.4  was dedicated to Brahms’ former lover, Bertha Faber, after the birth of her son. The melody found its way into the first movement of Brahms’ Second Symphony in a slightly altered form. You can hear it at this moment about four minutes into the movement.

Violinist Rachel Barton Pine included a transcription of the Brahms Lullaby on her 2013 Violin Lullabies album (pictured above).

The text is from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, a collection of German folk poems which inspired composers from Schumann and Mahler to Webern. Here is a performance by Anne Sofie von Otter and pianist Bengt Forsberg. Notice the gentle rocking rhythm and hypnotic repetition of the tonic in the piano line.

Julie’s Lullaby from Dvořák’s “The Jacobin”

Antonín Dvořák’s rarely performed 1889 opera, The Jacobin, is set in Bohemia around the time of the French Revolution. The aging Count Harasova is preparing to hand over power to his nephew, Adolf. Harasova has disowned his son, Bohuš who has just returned home from Paris with a French wife, Julie. The scheming Adolf has convinced Harasova that Bohuš is a dangerous revolutionary, allied with the Jacobins. By the end of the opera, Count Harasova realizes that he has been deceived and proclaims Bohuš to be his true successor.

In Act III, Scene V, Count Harasova hears Julie sing Synáčku, můj květe (“Son of mine, mine flower”)It’s a lullaby that the late Countess sang to Bohuš as a child, many years earlier. In the opening of the aria, the sound of the horn seems to take on mystical significance, as if preparing us for the dreamscape of nostalgia and memory which follows.

Julie’s Lullaby enters the same magical Bohemian folk world we hear in Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarercompleted around the same time, in 1885. As in the Mahler, Dvořák’s aria conjures up a complex and confusing mix of indescribable, but powerful emotions. Notice the way the music slips between major and minor.

Here is Eva Randova and the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra:

Busoni’s Berceuse élégiaque

Ferruccio Busoni’s haunting Berceuse élégiaque turns the lullaby on its head with the subtitle, “The man’s lullaby at his mother’s coffin.” Written in 1909, the first performance was given by the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall on February 21, 1911 with Gustav Mahler conducting. Mahler must have felt strongly about this music because he insisted on conducting, despite a fever of 104. It was his final concert. He returned to Vienna and died three months later.

The rocking rhythm at the opening of this piece is similar to what we heard in Brahms’ Lullaby, but this is an entirely different world. In the opening, dark, murky string colors suggest the feeling of being under water.

Here is a 2010 performance by Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Ed Spanjaard:

Ravel’s Berceuse sur le nom de Gabriel Fauré

Maurice Ravel wrote this short lullaby in 1922 as a tribute to the 77-year-old Gabriel Fauré. The piece’s motive grew out of Fauré’s name (GABDBEE FAGDE). Behind the music’s innocence and simplicity lies a hint of something dark and ominous. But, like so much of Ravel’s music, we only catch a glimpse of the storm clouds. The piece concludes with a sense of joyful, child-like detachment. It’s like watching a young child who is completely absorbed in the imaginary world of play. The final bars evaporate into a dreamy haze.

This performance comes from a recording by violinist Chantal Juillet and pianist Pascal Rogé:

Hush, little one, and fold your hands;
The sun hath set, the moon is high;
The sea is singing to the sands,
And wakeful posies are beguiled
By many a fairy lullaby:
Hush, little child, my little child!

Dream, little one, and in your dreams
Float upward from this lowly place,–
Float out on mellow, misty streams
To lands where bideth Mary mild,
And let her kiss thy little face,
You little child, my little child!

Sleep, little one, and take thy rest,
With angels bending over thee,–
Sleep sweetly on that Father’s breast
Whom our dear Christ hath reconciled;
But stay not there,–come back to me,
O little child, my little child!

-Emily Dickinson (Sicilian Lullaby)