The New Albany Symphony Chorus, under the direction of Dr. Michael G. Martin, makes its community debut, joining a sea of musicians on stage storming heaven’s gate in this powerful performance of Mahler’s Second Symphony. This performance features central Ohio favorites, soprano, Chelsea Hart Melcher, and mezzo-soprano, Carolyn Redman, as soloists.
Symphony No. 2
Gustav Mahler (1860–1911)
When the manuscript for Gustav Mahler’s expansive Symphony No. 2—which clocks in at 232 handwritten pages—went up for auction at Sotheby’s in London in late 2016, it fetched the highest sum a musical score had ever received at auction: £4.5 million (about 5.6 million in US dollars). The high value placed on this manuscript speaks to the importance of this work in today’s symphonic canon, but from Mahler’s vantage point in the late nineteenth century, the symphony’s success must have seemed far from assured. The final shape of the piece took nearly six years to emerge, and initial reactions didn’t point to a future masterpiece.
Mahler composed what is now the first movement of the symphony in 1888, calling it “Todtenfeier” (or “Last Rites”). The inspiration for the movement may have come in part from a German translation of Adam Mickiewicz’s poetic drama Dziady, which had just been translated into German as Todtenfeier by a friend of Mahler’s. The poem depicted a tragic protagonist also called Gustav, who some biographers believe Mahler may have identified with at the time; both Gustavs were tortured in love.
For a while after completing “Todtenfeier,” Mahler apparently left the work alone. He may have been thinking of it as a stand-alone symphonic poem. He presented a piano score of the piece to composer and conductor Hans von Bülow, who was by then a respected senior figure in the field. Bülow reportedly covered his ears and declared, “If this is music, then I don’t know anything about music!” Perhaps Mahler was dissuaded by Bülow’s negative reactions—and it didn’t help that the premiere of his First Symphony in 1889 was also not initially well received. He also faced a difficult time personally, as both of his parents and one of his sisters died in 1889. Whatever his reasons, it wasn’t until 1893 that he began to rethink the work and add new sections to it.
The new additions became the middle movements: the second movement is an Andante, which Mahler once suggested was a nostalgic reflection back on the life of the deceased protagonist of “Todtenfeier.” This is followed by a scherzo based on one of Mahler’s songs, entitled “Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt” (“Saint Anthony preaches to the fish”). Another orchestrated song, “Urlicht” (“Primeval Light”), became the fourth movement. Rather than create a purely instrumental version of “Urlicht,” however, Mahler set it for an alto soloist, allowing the voice to shine through the orchestral texture like a ray of light.
A pleasing idea for how to conclude the work still evaded him. He wrote to a friend that he pondered adding a closing chorus, but worried that critics would hear that as too derivative of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, which famously ends with the choral movement known as the “Ode to Joy.” Hans von Bülow may have contributed to Mahler’s initial difficulty in completing the symphony, but his death in 1894 seemed to provide the flash of inspiration that helped the younger composer to overcome his struggles with the work. Mahler later recalled (perhaps somewhat apocryphally) the following experience while attending Bülow’s memorial: “The mood in which I sat there, thinking of the departed, was wholly in the spirit of the work that I was carrying around within me. Then the choir in the organ loft intoned the Klopstock chorale “Auferstehn” [“Resurrection”]! It hit me like lightning and everything stood before my soul, perfectly clear and plain.” He took the first two stanzas of Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock’s poetry and added words of his own, creating a large-scale finale for orchestra, chorus, and two soloists that meditates on the concept of triumph over death.
Initial response to the completed symphony was still overwhelmingly negative. One critic accused Mahler of “punishing his listeners’ ears.” But with time, the support of musical luminaries including Richard Strauss, and the success of the composer’s subsequent Third Symphony, the work soon received a reappraisal. Throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, it has remained one of the most beloved symphonies in the repertoire.