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“Why have you lived? Why have you suffered? Is it all some huge, awful joke? We have to answer these questions somehow if we are to go on living – indeed, even if we are only to go on dying!” These are the questions Mahler said were posed in the first movement of his Symphony No. 2, questions that he promised would be answered in the finale.

These questions erupt from a roiling, powerful musical flood. Mahler began work on the C-minor Symphony in 1888 while he was still finishing up his First Symphony (“Titan”). The huge movement he completed in September that year he labeled Todtenfeier (Funeral Rite). It represented, he said, the funeral of the hero of his First Symphony, whose death presented those superheated existential questions.

For all of its urgent passion and expansive scale, the opening movement of the Second Symphony is also firmly – make that relentlessly – focused. It is in sonata form, in the late Romantic understanding of contrasting thematic and emotional dialectics. If Death is the thesis, then Resurrection is the antithesis, and Mahler leavens the ominous, obsessive thrust of the movement with a warmly lyrical subject and intimations of the vocal themes of the Symphony’s last two movements.

And for all its sound and fury, this is accomplished in music of clear texture and linear definition. Stereotypically, at least, Mahler means more: more instruments, more notes, more volume, and – paradoxically – more of less, in some of the softest, thinnest music going. But Mahler’s real strength is in the contrapuntal clarity he enforces. There is no fuzzy rhetoric or hazy sound-masses here.

Having presented his questions so forcefully, Mahler seems to have stumped himself for answers. He did not compose the second and third movements until the summer of 1893, and the finale waited another year.

This long break is reflected in the Symphony itself. In the score, Mahler marks the end of the first movement with firm instructions to pause for at least five minutes before launching the Andante. Few conductors allow quite that much time between the movements, but most do observe some kind of formal hiatus.

“…there must also be a long, complete rest after the first movement since the second movement is not in the nature of a contrasting section but sounds completely incongruous after the first,” Mahler wrote to conductor Julius Buths in 1903. “This is my fault and it isn’t lack of understanding on the part of the audience…. The Andante is composed as a sort of intermezzo (like an echo of long past days from the life of him whom we carried to the grave in the first movement – ‘while the sun still smiled at him’).

“While the first, third, fourth, and fifth movements are related in theme and mood content, the second is independent, and in a sense interrupts the stern, relentless course of events.”

Mahler cast that second movement as a gentle Ländler, a sort of rustic folk-minuet. Its mellow poise and sophisticated lyric flight is interrupted twice, however, by more agitated suggestions that death is still with us.

Although marked “quietly flowing,” the third movement is the second’s evil twin, a sardonic waltz cum scherzo. It is basically a symphonic adaptation of a song Mahler wrote, “St. Anthony of Padua’s Sermon to the Fishes,” on a text from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Boy’s Magic Horn), a collection of German folk poetry that was a steady inspiration to the composer. The music picks up the text’s cynicism, with the two contrasting episodes here suggesting superficial sentiment and fake happiness.

Then came the task of creating a finale that would reverse this hell-bound train and resolve those initial questions into affirmation. “With the finale of the Second Symphony, I ransacked world literature, including the Bible, to find the liberating word, and finally I was compelled myself to bestow words on my feelings and thoughts,” Mahler wrote to the critic Arthur Seidl in 1897.

“The way in which I received the inspiration for this is deeply characteristic of the essence of artistic creation. For a long time I had been thinking of introducing the chorus in the last movement and only my concern that it might be taken for a superficial imitation of Beethoven made me procrastinate again and again. About this time Bülow [storied conductor Hans von Bülow] died, and I was present at his funeral. The mood in which I sat there, thinking of the departed, was precisely in the spirit of the work I had been carrying around within myself at that time. Then the choir, up in the organ loft, intoned the Klopstock [German poet and playwright Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock] ‘Resurrection’ chorale. Like a flash of lighting it struck me, and everything became clear and articulate in my mind. The creative artist waits for just such a lightning flash, his ‘holy annunciation.’ What I then experienced had now to be expressed in sound. And yet, if I had not already borne the work within me, how could I have had that experience?”

The Klopstock chorale text – to which Mahler added four verses of his own, beginning with “O glaube, mein Herz” – provided a goal, a blissed-out heaven to which humanity – and Mahler’s Symphony – might ascend. To get there, Mahler added another Wunderhorn song, “Urlicht” (Primeval Light), as a bridge to the finale. With this song, Mahler kept the voice, humanizing this deeply felt prayer and overthrowing the cynicism of the previous movement with a sort of spiritual and musical judo.

But all the questions and the ferocious death march of the opening, haunted by the Dies irae (the “Day of Wrath” chant from the Gregorian mass for the dead), return at the beginning the finale. Mahler stills a whirlwind of musical images with his grosse Appell, a Great Call from off-stage brass while on-stage a flute and a piccolo flutter birdcalls over the desolation.

Then the chorus makes its entrance with the “Resurrection” chorale, not in a triumphant blast, but at the softest possible level on the very edge of audibility. This is not weakness, but massive assurance, as if it had always been there below the self-absorbed tumult. The solo voices take flight from the choral sound, ultimately in a ravishing, upwardly yearning duet. From there it is finally a matter of full-resource jubilation, all brilliant fanfares and pealing bells.

-- John Henken is the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Director of Publications.