“It will lead you to God”
Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony: Mysticism beyond the bounds of all religions
Maija Einfelde’s Lux aeterna
Whether she sets works by Aeschylus, the pantheistic poems of Fricis Bārda or texts from the Latin liturgy, in both her large and small vocal works Maija Einfelde, who was a student of the distinguished Latvian symphonist Jānis Ivanovs, always questions the position of human beings in the universe, their purpose beyond the narrower spheres of life. Although her music never denies its connection with traditional harmony, it also borders on regions of a dissonant, harsh tonal world at times. Her choral piece Lux aeterna, taken from the text of the Catholic requiem Mass, is heard in a version for chorus accompanied by vibraphone and glockenspiel at these concerts, but, like so many of Einfelde’s works, it also exists in other versions: for a cappella chorus and for chorus and orchestra. Common to all three versions is a solemn musical language which allows few harmonic and dynamic changes. The name of the Lord is invoked twice – Lux aeterna and the other sections of the Latin requiem assume the eternal presence of God as an incontrovertible fact of faith.
Gustav Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony
Gustav Mahler’s Second Symphony, on the other hand, which was completed in 1894, did not achieve its goal until after fierce struggles and upsets. It is one of the works from that time with the most possible interpretations and encouraged both Mahler’s supporters and enemies to offer bizarre explanations of its religious message. Referring to the purely musical form of the work, contemporaries mentioned influences of Berlioz, Bruckner and Wagner, although they overemphasized individual aspects, such as the massive orchestral forces à la Berlioz. Less frequently, they noted an emulation of Beethoven, namely the Ninth Symphony. Mahler was particularly afraid of this criticism, but the overall conception of his Second does strongly resemble the model developed by Beethoven: a huge, tragic-demonic first movement, followed by inner movements which lead to bright, seraphic realms and, finally, an expansive choral finale with idealistic prophecies. The texts chosen by Beethoven and Mahler also seem to show affinities, but only because Mahler considerably shortened Klopstock’s Resurrection Ode and added his own lines. For example, the two closing choruses are similar in that they both invoke a nameless God – Mahler deleted Klopstock’s reference to Jesus.
Since Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock was a decidedly Christian poet whose songs were found in every Protestant hymnal, the use of this Ode by a Jewish composer who had converted to Catholicism must have provoked endless discussion. Mahler himself never commented on his conversion, but he felt compelled to describe the intentions behind the “Resurrection” Symphony several times. In a letter from 1896 he wrote: “Why have you lived? Why have you suffered? Is all this merely a great, horrible jest? – We must resolve these questions somehow or other ... and that answer I give in the last movement.”
Which resurrection is meant?
The finale of the Second Symphony ends with a triumphant proclamation: “I shall die so as to live! / Rise again, yes, you will rise again, / My heart, in the twinkling of an eye! / What you have conquered, / Will bear you to God.” These are Mahler’s words, not Klopstock’s, and they are puzzling. Which resurrection is meant? The Jewish, Christian or Islamic? Is Mahler perhaps referring to Far Eastern teachings, which were familiar to him as a reader of Jean Paul and Schopenhauer? Since Mahler’s extensive library did not survive, it is difficult to provide literary evidence. Even with better information, however, the derivation of a musical work based on reading experiences would be vague and hypothetical.
If study of the literary and ideological background cannot help resolve the mysteries of the “Resurrection” Symphony, it is possible to a certain extent with the help of the music. After all, Mahler only supplied additional text to Klopstock’s Ode in order to set it to music. Furthermore, every notation has autonomous significance. And it is conspicuous here that he accentuates a particular word several times in the composition – the word “God”. The chorus and vocal soloists approach it in unison, hesitate, are speechless in the face of the unspeakable, and cannot articulate “God” until after a bewildered silence, but then utter it three times with steadily increasing joy. The closing exultation of the orchestra follows, intoned with every conceivable means. The title “Resurrection” Symphony did not originate with Mahler; the intellectual and compositional focus of the work is not the resurrection – it is only of importance because it leads to God.
Brief pauses – long silence
The first movement of the “Resurrection” Symphony is an orchestral funeral ode, beginning with a sombre, despairing funeral march that returns four times during the 20-minute Allegro maestoso, each time varied melodically. A choral motif recalling the early Christian Dies Irae is of comparable significance. The key of C minor dominates at first, then there are several startling plunges into E flat minor during the movement, which has a two-part development section, but also nostalgic, occasionally triumphant visions in B major and C major. The coda alternates between major and minor chords, leaving behind a feeling of utter helplessness in the face of death. The original version of this movement was a symphonic work entitled Todtenfeier [Funeral Rite], composed in 1888.
Mahler called for a five-minute pause after the first movement. In doing so, he fuelled the suspicion that the work lacked a cohesive form, that it was rather a “symphonic suite”. Such allegations are completely unfounded. Like the First Symphony, the Second is also bound together by a host of motivic, harmonic – and especially intellectual – elements of unity. There is one exception, however: the second movement, a leisurely Andante moderato, seems to be completely out of place. This contrast was deliberate on the part of the composer. In a letter from 1903 he explained why such an intermezzo was needed here as a discrepancy: “While the first, third, fourth and fifth movements hang together thematically and spiritually, the second movement stands alone and interrupts, in a sense, the stern and inexorable sequence of events.” In a sense – for here, as well, in one of the trio sections, there is unbridled protest against mortality.
Just as in the First Symphony, the scherzo of the Second is also an orchestral song without voices. From the cycle Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth’s Magic Horn) Mahler used the song Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt(St Anthony of Padua’s Sermon to the Fishes), also in C minor, an ironic, sarcastic street ballad steeped in a kind of gallows humour, according to which even the best intentions are not able to change the way of the world. The bitter truth is presented in the form of a Ländler, at first quite innocuous but soon evoking apocalyptic visions that anticipate the last movement. The finale is preceded by the wonderfully intimate Urlicht(Primeval Light), which is based on words from Des Knaben Wunderhorn and sung by the alto soloist. After jarring artistic devices, recurrences of the nihilistic mood of the first movement, a strange march played by an offstage orchestra, imploring calls from the woodwinds and Elysian birdsongs, there is finally a mystical proclamation of the resurrection, an invocation to the unfathomably distant God whom no religion understands, not Judaism and not Christianity, but whom Mahler came as close to in his greatest symphony as only Bruckner, Beethoven and Bach before him.