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Beethovenfest 2021 final concert
At the final performance of Mahler's second symphony at the Beethovenfest Bonn 2021Image: Barbara Frommann

Mahler at the Beethovenfest 2021

Gaby Reucher
March 2, 2022

Powerful passages, tender tones, dancelike melodies and dissonant apocalyptic chaos. This episode features Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 2, which has it all.


DW Festival Concert: Gustav Mahler at the Beethovenfest

In this episode of DW Festival Concert, we'll be listening to an exquisite performance of this monumental work from the closing concert of the 2021 Beethovenfest in Bonn.

The Mahler Chamber Orchestra and the Prague Philharmonic Choir bring out the boundary-pushing tonal panorama and inspiring creativity of Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 2, a work that awes and uplifts.

It's known as the "Resurrection" symphony and the Beethovenfest in Bonn used lyrics from the chorus in the symphony's last movement for the 2021 festival motto.
The young, dynamic French conductor Maxime Pascal led the Mahler Chamber Orchestra in Bonn last year.

Finding a balance

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) began writing the symphony's first movement in 1888. It was a time of rapid industrialization and many people tried to find balance by turning to nature, religion and spirituality.

Mahler did too. His compositions, which repeatedly tested the limits of tonality, put him right in the middle of old and new modes of music, on the threshold of the avant-garde. Among his friends were avant-garde composers like Arnold Schoenberg, Alexander Zemlinsky and Alban Berg.

He presented the first movement of the piece to publishers in 1891, intending it to be a standalone symphonic poem entitled "Funeral Rite." When he performed a piano version for the eminent conductor Hans von Bülow, the latter supposedly covered his ears with his hands and remarked, "If that's music, then I don't understand music at all!" Not exactly praise.

Fortunately, the public reacted in quite the opposite way when the work premiered some years later.

Gustav Mahler
Gustav Mahler

Symbol of unity

Mahler's legacy inspired the famous conductor and Mahler interpreter Claudio Abbado to found the "Mahler Youth Orchestra" in Vienna in 1986. The group was conceived as a symbol of unity between East and West Europe, as Mahler himself was born in the Bohemian town of Kaliste, then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire and today part of the Czech Republic.

In 1997, several members of the youth orchestra decided to create a permanent ensemble. They called it "The Mahler Chamber Orchestra" – and we're hearing it in this program. The ensemble is made up of forty-five musicians. British trumpet player Matthew Sadler is one of them. He's been a member for 10 years, so he's no stranger to Mahler's second symphony.

According to Sadler, Mahler was someone who represented both the East and the West of Europe and combined the two. "What was special about the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra compared to other similar institutions was that it tried to bring people from behind the Iron Curtain, back then Czechoslovakia, Romania, Bulgaria,sometimes Russia as well, with people from western Europe together."

Musical world tour: The Campus project

Preaching to the fish

Mahler began working on the second and third movements of his symphony in  1893, some five years after he had completed the first movement. At the time, he was also working on various songs from his song cycle "Des Knaben Wunderhorn" or "The Boy's Magic Horn," and he incorporated some of the songs' melodies into the symphony. One example is the "fish sermon" melody in the third movement.

The Magic Horn song comes from a satirical take on St. Anthony of Padua, who preached to the fish after people stopped going to church. In the song, the fish listen to his sermon excitedly, then turn away – exactly as the humans did.

 Lieder, or concert songs, held an important place in Mahler's creative work. In his second symphony, , he incorporated various songs from his song cycle "The Boy's Magic Horn." In this episode, we will hear the "fish sermon" song in a purely instrumental form in movement three, and we'll hear "Urlicht," or "Primordial Light," in movement four. In this case, however, it is sung by an alto soloist who describes man's search for the light of God.

Ukrainian conductor Oksana Lyniv

The final movement

It was in winter 1894, at the funeral of conductor Hans von Bülow – who had once dismissed the first movement of Mahler's second symphony – that Mahler found his inspiration for the symphony's final movement. There, he heard a choir sing the Klopstock chorale, "Aufersteh'n, ja Aufersteh'n," or "Rise again, yes, rise again." It
electrified him.

Mahler wrote: "Then the choir in the organ loft began to sing the Klopstock chorale 'Rise again.' It hit me like a lightning strike, and everything was plain and clear to my soul. This is the lightning strike the artist waits for, this is 'the sacred conception!'"

We'll be hearing the Prague Philharmonic Choir in this performance from September 10, 2021, at the closing concert of the Beethovenfest in Bonn.

The choir was founded as a radio choir in 1935, and today, under the leadership of conductor Lukas Vasilek, it performs with various orchestras around the world. At the Beethovenfest, it joined forces with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra to perform Mahler's second symphony.

Even though the instrumentalists get much more performing time, it's the choir that's the crowning glory, says Vasilek. "When the choir starts to sing, it's a kind of surprise for the audience. And  it's a mystical or mysterious moment for everybody, something like a miracle."

During his lifetime, Gustav Mahler was better known as a conductor and opera reformer than as a composer. In 1908, three years before he died, he moved to the United States and signed a contract with The Metropolitan Opera. One year later, he became chief conductor of the New York Philharmonic.

Today, he's one of the most highly esteemed classical composers in the world. In 2016, Sotheby's auctioned off the original score of his second symphony. It sold for 5.6 million dollars, making it the most expensive musical manuscript ever. 

That's all in this episode of DW Festival Concert. If you have any feedback, drop us a line at music@dw.com.

Cristina Burack
DW Festival Concert host Cristina BurackImage: Privat

Performances featured in this concert:

1. Gustav Mahler, Symphony No. 2 in C minor, "Resurrection",  Movement I: Allegro

maestoso. Mit durchaus ernstem und feierlichem Ausdruck (with a thoroughly

serious and solemn expression)

Performed by: WDR Symphony Orchestra

Conductor: Maxime Pascal

Recorded by Deutsche Welle (DW) in the WCCB, Bonn on September 10, 2021

2. Gustav Mahler, Symphony No. 2 in C minor, "Resurrection", Movement II: Andante

moderato. Sehr gemächlich. Nie eilen (very leisurely. Never rushing)

Movement III: In ruhig fließender Bewegung (in calm flowing movement)

Performed by: WDR Symphony Orchestra

Conductor: Maxime Pascal

Recorded by Deutsche Welle (DW) in the WCCB, Bonn on September 10, 2021

3. Gustav Mahler, Symphony No. 2 in C minor, "Resurrection", Movement IV:

"Urlicht" – Sehr feierlich aber schlicht. Nicht schleppen ("Primordial light" – very

solemnly but simply. Not dragging)

Movement V: "Aufersteh'n" – Im Tempo des Scherzos. Wild herausfahrend – Wieder

zurückhaltend – Langsam. Misterioso ("Rise again" – in the tempo of a scherzo.

Initially wild – pulling back again – slowly. Mysteriously)

Performed by: WDR Symphony Orchestra

Prague Philharmonic Choir

Camilla Tilling, soprano

Alisa Kolosova, mezzo-soprano

Maxime Pascal, conductor

Recorded by Deutsche Welle (DW) in the WCCB, Bonn on September 10, 2021

4. Gustav Mahler, Songs from the song collections "Lieder und Gesänge" ("Songs

and Airs") and "Des Knaben Wunderhorn" (The Boy's Magic Horn")

"Ablösung im Sommer" ("The changing of the guard in summer")

"Starke Einbildungskraft" ("Strong imagination")

"Selbstgefühl" ("Sense of self")

"Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht?" ("Who thought up this little song?")

Performed by: WDR Symphony Orchestra

Christina Landshamer, soprano

Wiebke Lehmkuhl, contralto

Conducted by: Cristian Macelaru

Recorded by West German Broadcasting (WDR) in the Cologne Philharmonic on January 19, 2021

Produced at Deutsche Welle with sound engineer Thomas Schmidt, producer and Russian show host Anastassia Boutsko, and host Cristina Burack. Text and production by Gaby Reucher.

Edited by: Manasi Gopalakrishnan

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