Mahler, Symphony No. 2 in C minor (1894)

Course Description
In the words of music critic Norman Lebrecht, “Mahler’s Second Symphony has been performed in the Vatican as a Christian affirmation, at Masada as a token of Jewish renewal, and in Communist China, where atheism is the state doctrine. It may be a mark of greatness that it can mean all things to all faiths.” This class analyzes each movement of Mahler’s Second Symphony in hopes of helping students come to their own conclusions about it’s story and meaning.

Gustavo Dudamel conducting the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra

  • First Movement – begins at 7:23
  • Second Movement – begins at 32:48
  • Third Movement – begins at 45:00
  • Fourth Movement – begins at 55:25
  • Fifth Movement – begins at 1:01:12
General Information
  • Mahler wrote his Second Symphony between 1888 and 1894 during summer vacations from conducting. He composed the first movement in 1888 as a symphonic poem titled Todtenfeier (Funeral Rites). He then composed the second and third movements in the summer of 1893. He wrote the fifth movement finale in the summer of 1894. After he completed the fifth movement he decided to add his song “Urlicht” ("Primeval Light") as the fourth movement. (Mahler had composed "Urlicht" in 1893.)
  • The idea for the fifth movement came to Mahler during a memorial service for Hans von Bülow, his benefactor and friend. At Bülow's memorial service Mahler heard a chorale based on a poem by Friedrich Klopstock and knew immediately that he wanted to use Klopstock’s text for the final movement of his symphony. Mahler replaced the last part of Klopstock’s poem with his own words so that the text would directly answer questions raised in the first movement.
  • Bülow, who had great respect for Mahler as a conductor, did not like Mahler’s compositions. After Mahler showed Bülow the first movement of his Second Symphony, Bülow said, “If that is music then I do not understand a single thing about music.”
  • Mahler conducted the first performance of the symphony's first three movements with the Berlin Philharmonic on March 4, 1895. He then conducted the first performance of the entire symphony on December 13 leading the same orchestra. Contrary to a story told for several decades, Richard Strauss did not conduct the first performance of the symphony.
  • Unlike most of Mahler’s other compositions, the Second Symphony was received with much enthusiasm by audiences of the time. The Second Symphony was a hit for Mahler from the time of its first performance.
  • In addition to a full choir, a performance of the Second Symphony requires a large orchestra. In 1948, the musicologist Charles O’Donnell wrote, “Performances [of the Second Symphony] in America have been exceedingly few, primarily because of the extensive orchestral resources required by the score, and also because of the indifference to the music of Mahler which existed for many years, among both conductors and audiences here and abroad.” (Note that O'Donnell wrote those words in 1948. Mahler's Second Symphony is now performed widely throughout the United States and received with great enthusiasm by its audiences.)
  • Two days after JFK’s assassination in 1963, Leonard Bernstein conducted Mahler's Second Symphony on television as a tribute to Kennedy. Bernstein began the performance by saying, “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.” (Bernstein conducted the Adagietto from Mahler's Fifth Symphony during Robert Kennedy's funeral in 1968.)
  • Click here for a video of Leonard Bernstein talking about Mahler in 1960 during one of his televised "Young People's Concerts."
Online Articles
Recommended Books
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Recommended Box Set of Mahler's Symphonies

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