As the tenth anniversary of 9/11 is marked, many people find themselves overwhelmed by all kinds of memories of that day, some of them very personal as well as painful.
We live just north of New York City. Lynne was driving to her office in the City that morning when she was stopped in upper Manhattan by a policeman who told her, “Somebody tried to blow up the World Trade Center again, so you’d better go home before all the bridges are closed.” At that early time nobody realized something more unthinkable had happened. Her first thought was of a client who worked at the Center. Fortunately, that person was at a meeting elsewhere in the City. But so many others were not as fortunate.
When we heard that the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, under Alan Gilbert, chose Mahler’s 2nd (“Resurrection”) Symphony to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the terrible destruction wrought on September 11th, 2001, we also decided to offer you the “Resurrection” Symphony as our small contribution to the healing of us all.
Mahler’s Symphony No.2 is in 5 movements, written for large orchestra, chorus, and soprano and alto soloists. This particular music is especially appropriate for such a solemn occasion, we think, because of the powerful revelations it offers. It expresses Mahler’s own titanic struggles with the meaning of life in the face of death’s reality.
As you listen to the performance we have chosen–perhaps one of the most transcendent performances of a transcendent work–here are some thoughts to guide your listening.
In his own comments on this symphony, Mahler pondered some of the profound questions he explores in the first movement: Why do we live, why do we suffer? Is it all nothing but a terrible joke?
We must answer these questions, he says, if we are going to be able to continue living.
The first movement presents a contrast between the overwhelming presence of Death–heard in the bleak sounds of a Funeral March–and occasional glimmers of hope in music that prefigures the Resurrection theme of the finale. This movement ends with a dark plunging, triplet line in the basses as Death reasserts its dominion.
Leonard Bernstein was one of the greatest interpreters and most ardent champions of Mahler. We encourage you to read some of the listeners’ comments…and perhaps add your own…as you watch this video of his superb performance.
In the second movement of the symphony, the music is meant to suggest nostalgic memories of earlier, happier times with the dead, Mahler tells us– a looking to the past.
In the third movement, the scherzo, St. Anthony of Padua preaches to the fishes, who continue their aimless swimming to and fro the moment he stops. Mahler tells us that here he tried to convey the disgusting ease with which we return to old ways after a crisis, falling back into the confusion and seeming senselessness of everyday life.
In the fourth movement (“Das Urlicht” or “Primal Light”) the tentative sounds of hope heard in the first movement return at last. Here Mahler begins to find the meaning he was seeking when he asked: Is life only a terrible joke? No, the contralto sings. Although mankind lies in deepest need and greatest woe, her comforting closing words are:
“The dear Lord will lend me a little light.
He will light my way to eternal, blissful life.”
In the glorious finale, introduced by the stirring words of the chorus—“Thou shalt rise again, yes again….” the singers speak for and to us:
“Believe, my heart…
O believe: thou wast not born in vain!
Thou hast not lived and suffered in vain! …
With wings I have won for myself,
I shall soar in fervent love aloft
To the Light no eye has yet beheld!
I shall die to live again!”
Could you feel your own spirit soar with the music?
In the end, is it Religion or Art that gives meaning to the tragedies of life? Can one be separated from the other here?
A few words about Gustav Mahler:
Mahler composed between the twilight years of the great Austro-German symphonic tradition and the beginning of the modern era. His was a soul riven by multiple conflicts. In his words: “I am thrice homeless—as a Bohemian born in Austria, as an Austrian among Germans, and as a Jew throughout the world.”
He was also one of the outstanding conductors of his day. He held major positions at the Vienna Court Opera, with the Vienna Philharmonic, the New York Philharmonic, and the Metropolitan Opera, among others. Yet, he felt that what he achieved in artistic excellence on the podium came at a heavy price because it took him away from composing.
Added to the mix is the tension between his work as the big orchestral writer (as in the first and fifth movements of the “Resurrection” Symphony) and the one who reduces his sound to the most intimate level of chamber music (as in the “Primal Light” movement).
Finally, there is the frequent pull he felt between writing in a simple folk song style and being the architect of vast symphonic structures which require large orchestral forces that approximate what Wagner called for in his Ring of the Nibelung.
We are also commemorating the centennial of Mahler’s death in 2011 (1860-1911).