This week’s music, in the spirit of the upcoming celebration of Easter, is the fifth and final movement of Gustav Mahler’s second symphony, titled “Resurrection.” (The video only shows the last part of the movement, but you can find the whole thing on Spotify 🙂
Gustav Mahler, arguably the greatest symphonist of all time, took seven years to write his second symphony. The first four movements came quickly, but inspiration for the finale did not arrive until he attended the funeral of conductor Hans von Bulow and heard the words of Friedrich Klopstock’s poem “Resurrection” sung from the organ loft. Three months later, he had written the largest orchestral finale the world had ever seen.
The poetic inspiration for the finale concerns the gift of eternal life given through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Mahler wrote that the undercurrent of the movement was the “still small voice” that announces the day of judgment and described the movement as a longing for connection with God in the afterlife. His choice of thematic material is particularly interesting given that he converted to Catholicism three years after the second symphony was completed, which suggests he was wrestling with his beliefs during the time of its composition.
The movement begins with a terrifying trumpet fanfare that evokes the opening of the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Mahler then introduces the main theme, which gives way to the vocalists’ exploration of the “Dies Irae,” the traditional opening melody of a choral composition. The middle section of the movement is dissonant and complex, weaving the initial “Dies Irae” theme through a march motif and a quotation of the poem’s “Crux fidelis” section in the vocalists. After an alto solo leads the chorale from the text “Believe, my heart” into the pivotal text of “I am from God, I want to return to God,” the full orchestra—led by the horns—tumbles through a set of falling fifths into a resounding finish.