Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel
b. Hamburg, Germany / November 14, 1805
d. Berlin, Germany / May 14, 1847
First performance by the RPO.
Many who knew Felix Mendelssohn’s much-beloved older sister believed her to be as musically gifted as he. However, the social restrictions of the day–women were not encouraged to follow professional careers–meant that her talent only occasionally received opportunities to present itself outside her family circle. Few of her 400 compositions were published during her lifetime. Like Felix she died young, during the same year as he. Ironically, she suffered a stroke while leading a choral rehearsal of his oratorio, The First Walpurgis Night.
Songs and piano pieces dominate her catalogue. She also composed several larger, more ambitious works such as the cantata Hiob (Job). It was premiered at a private, in-house family concert in Berlin on December 10, 1831, on the occasion of her father Abraham’s 55th birthday. It first came into print in 1992. The text comes from the Old Testament book of Job, whose main subjects are patience and the suffering of the righteous. The first two of the cantata’s three brief sections convey piety and emotional restraint, while the third brings a joyous sense of uplift.
Symphony No. 2 in C Minor, “Resurrection”
b. Kalischt, Bohemia / July 7, 1860
d. Vienna, Austria / May 18, 1911
First performed by the RPO on December 8, 1960; Theodore Bloomfield, conductor. Last performed on May 18, 1985; David Zinman, conductor.
No composition of Mahler’s achieves his goal of enhancing life with a greater, more unequivocal sense of triumph than his Second Symphony. The fact that he composed it between the ages of 28 and 34 makes its stunning impact even more remarkable.
During the closing months of 1887 and the beginning of 1888, he worked feverishly on two compositions simultaneously: his First Symphony and Totenfeier (Funeral Rites), an orchestral funeral march. He finished them both before the latter year was out. He also made sketches for an orchestral andante, but then put both it and Totenfeier aside.
Three years later, he played Totenfeier on the piano for eminent conductor and pianist, Hans von Bülow. Shattered by Bülow’s utter rejection, Mahler fell into a creative funk that lasted two years. By the end of that period, he had decided to use Totenfeier as the opening movement of a new symphony, and to follow its furious drama and grieving with a series of lighter, contrasting intermezzi. Working with materials not originally intended for this symphony (including his 1888 andante sketches and Urlicht (Primal Light), a song for voice and piano), he completed the second, third, and fourth movements during the summer of 1893. Aside from a few sketches, the symphony’s finale continued to elude him.
The dilemma was resolved in dramatic fashion, and in a manner appropriately tied in with the symphony’s early history. Bülow died in February 1894. At his funeral service in March, Mahler heard a choir sing poet Friedrich Klopstock’s Resurrection Ode. He knew instantly he had found the material he had been seeking. He eventually added words of his own to bring the text more into line with his own views on the subject.
Mahler conducted the symphony’s first complete performance, in Berlin on December 13, 1895. His sister Justine recalled, “The triumph grew greater with every movement. Such enthusiasm is seen only once in a lifetime! Afterwards, I saw grown men weeping and youths falling on each other’s necks...It was indescribable.”
Throughout his life, Mahler held ambivalent feelings toward programmatic elements in his music; the Second Symphony was no exception. He first put forward an explicit program for it in a letter to critic Max Marschalk in 1896. Several even more elaborate descriptions followed, only to have Mahler eventually disavow them all, as he had clearly created them after the music had been written. Yet because of his use of specific texts in Symphony No. 2, it cannot be taken purely as “absolute” music. In finally abandoning more detailed description, however, Mahler left the words he had chosen, and the music he had written, to speak for themselves.
The finale of the “Resurrection” Symphony isn’t the only portion that pays homage to the spirit of Beethoven. The opening movement, a minor revision of Totenfeier, does so as well. The model here is the second movement funeral march from Symphony No. 3, the Eroica. But Mahler’s concept, brought to life through the resources of the enormous orchestra he has chosen, is far angrier than Beethoven’s. Still, he repeatedly leavens it with moments of peaceful consolation, of hopeful prediction. The overriding sense of tragic momentum, however, carries right through to the conclusion. Mahler specified that a pause be taken after this movement, and it is here that this concert’s intermission will take place.
The first of the three intermezzi is a gentle country dance. “The melody of this andante gushes forth like a broad stream (in the manner of Schubert),” Mahler he wrote to a friend. “It constantly creates new branches with inexhaustible richness and regeneration.” This section lies farthest in spirit from the other portions of the symphony. Yet even this nostalgic reverie does not know total peace, interrupted as it is by an anxious middle section.
The three remaining movements are played without pauses between them. The scherzo is dotted with menacing intrusions and macabre touches of orchestration. Its flowing, sinuous main theme is also the basis of Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt (Saint Anthony of Padua Preaching to the Fishes), one of Mahler’s numerous song settings of texts from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth’s Magic Horn), a collection of German folk tales from which he regularly drew inspiration. He composed the song and the symphonic scherzo simultaneously.
The fourth movement is another Wunderhorn inspiration, this time retaining the words. Voiced by the mezzo-soprano soloist, the simple, touching sentiments of Urlicht prepare the way for the symphony’s apocalyptic, virtually theatrical finale. The first part of the concluding movement is emotionally uncertain, haunted by the evocative echoes of off-stage horns and whispered, fragmentary allusions to the Dies irae (Day of Wrath), the chilling theme of the Last Judgement drawn from the medieval plainchant Mass for the Dead. A jubilant outburst sets the stage for a thunderous roll of drums and a lengthy, almost frantic processional. In its aftermath, a demonic offstage band engages in dialogue with the orchestra. A peaceful hush at last descends, its stillness broken only by distant brass, a muffled drum roll, and wistful, onstage bird calls.
Only then does the chorus make its entrance, softly, magically, with the hymn of resurrection–the heartening reply to all the uncertainties which have plagued the symphony from the very beginning. From there on, with soprano and mezzo-soprano soloists added, Mahler builds an ever more confident wave of hopeful fervor, climaxing with the exultant mass sounds of singers and orchestra, underpinned by the organ and the joyful clamor of bells.
After the first complete performance, Mahler wrote, “The whole thing sounds as though it came to us from some other world. And I think there is no one who can resist it. One is battered to the ground and then raised on angels’ wings to the highest heights.”
© 2011 Don Anderson. All rights reserved.