The Symphony No. 2 by Gustav Mahler, known as the Resurrection Symphony, was written between 1888 and 1894, and first performed in 1895. Apart from the Eighth Symphony, this symphony was Mahler's most popular and successful work during his lifetime. It was his first major work that established his lifelong view of the beauty of afterlife and resurrection. In this large work, the composer further developed the creativity of "sound of the distance" and creating a "world of its own", aspects already seen in his First Symphony. The work lasts around eighty to ninety minutes and is conventionally labelled as being in the key of C minor; the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians labels the work's tonality as 'c--E♭
Mahler completed what would become the first movement of the symphony in 1888 as a single-movement symphonic poem called Totenfeier (Funeral Rites). Some sketches for the second movement also date from that year. Mahler wavered five years on whether to make Totenfeier the opening movement of a symphony, although his manuscript does label it as a symphony. In 1893, he composed the second and third movements. The finale was the problem. While thoroughly aware he was inviting comparison with Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 -- both symphonies use a chorus as the centerpiece of a final movement which begins with references to and is much longer than those preceding it -- Mahler knew he wanted a vocal final movement. Finding the right text for this movement proved long and perplexing.
When Mahler took up his appointment at the Hamburg Opera in 1891, he found the other important conductor there to be Hans von Bülow, who was in charge of the city's symphony concerts. Bülow, not known for his kindness, was impressed by Mahler. His support was not diminished by his failure to like or understand Totenfeier when Mahler played it for him on the piano. Bülow told Mahler that Totenfeier made Tristan und Isolde sound to him like a Haydn symphony. As Bülow's health worsened, Mahler substituted for him. Bülow's death in 1894 greatly affected Mahler. At the funeral, Mahler heard a setting of Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock's Die Auferstehung (The Resurrection), where the dictum calls out "Rise again, yes, you shall rise again / My dust".
"It struck me like lightning, this thing," he wrote to conductor Anton Seidl, "and everything was revealed to me clear and plain." Mahler used the first two verses of Klopstock's hymn, then added verses of his own that dealt more explicitly with redemption and resurrection. He finished the finale and revised the orchestration of the first movement in 1894, then inserted the song Urlicht (Primal Light) as the penultimate movement. This song was probably written in 1892 or 1893.
Mahler initially devised a narrative programme (actually several variant versions) for the work, which he shared with a number of friends (including Natalie Bauer-Lechner and Max Marschalk). He even had one of these versions printed in the program book at the premiere in Dresden on 20 December 1901. In this programme, the first movement represents a funeral and asks questions such as "Is there life after death?"; the second movement is a remembrance of happy times in the life of the deceased; the third movement represents a view of life as meaningless activity; the fourth movement is a wish for release from life without meaning ; and the fifth movement – after a return of the doubts of the third movement and the questions of the first – ends with a fervent hope for everlasting, transcendent renewal, a theme that Mahler would ultimately transfigure into the music of his Das Lied von der Erde. As generally happened, Mahler later withdrew all versions of the programme from circulation.
The work was first published in 1897 by Friedrich Hofmeister. The rights were transferred to Josef Weinberger shortly thereafter, and finally to Universal Edition, which released a second edition in 1910. A third edition was published in 1952, and a fourth, critical edition in 1970, both by Universal Edition. As part of the new complete critical edition of Mahler's symphonies being undertaken by the Gustav Mahler Society, a new critical edition of the Second Symphony was produced as a joint venture between Universal Edition and the Kaplan Foundation. Its world premiere performance was given on 18 October 2005 at the Royal Albert Hall in London with Gilbert Kaplan conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.
Reproductions of earlier editions have been released by Dover and by Boosey & Hawkes. The Kaplan Foundation published an extensive facsimile edition with additional materials in 1986.
1899 saw the publication of an arrangement by Bruno Walter for piano four-hands.
The symphony is written for an orchestra, a mixed choir, two soloists (soprano and contralto), organ, and an offstage ensemble of brass and percussion. The use of two tam-tams, one pitched high and one low, is particularly unusual; the end of the last movement features them struck in alternation repeatedly.
- 4 flutes (all four doubling piccolos)
- 4 oboes (3rd and 4th oboe doubling English horns)
- 3 clarinets in B-flat, A, C (3rd clarinet doubling bass clarinet)
- 2 E-flat clarinets (2nd E-flat clarinet doubling 4th clarinet in B-flat and A)
- 4 bassoons (3rd and 4th bassoon doubling contrabassoon)
- 10 horns in F, four (7-10) also used offstage (preferably more)
- 8-10 trumpets in F and C, four to six used offstage
- 4 trombones
(Requires total of seven players)
- timpani (2 players and 8 timpani, with a third player in the last movement using two of the second timpanist's drums)
- Several snare drums
- bass drum
- 3 deep, untuned steel rods or bells
- rute, or "switch", to be played on the shell of the bass drum
- 2 tam-tams (high and low)
- offstage percussion in Movement 5:
- bass drum with cymbals attached (played by the same percussionist), triangle, timpanum
- organ (used in fifth movement only)
- soprano solo (used in fifth movement only)
- alto solo (sometimes credited as and sung by a mezzo-soprano) (used in fourth & fifth movements only)
- mixed chorus (used in fifth movement only)
- harps I, II (several to each part in the last movement and possibly at one point in the Scherzo)
"The largest possible contingent of strings"
- 1st and 2nd violins
- double basses (some with low C extension).
Note: This text has been translated from the original German text from Des Knaben Wunderhorn to English on a very literal and line-for-line basis, without regard for the preservation of meter or rhyming patterns.
Note: The first eight lines were taken from the poem Die Auferstehung by Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock. Mahler omitted the final four lines of this poem and wrote the rest himself (beginning at "O glaube").
- World premiere (first three movements only): March 4, 1895, Berlin, with the composer conducting the Berlin Philharmonic.
- World premiere (complete): December 13, 1895, Berlin, conducted by the composer.
- Dutch premiere: October 26, 1904, Amsterdam, with the composer conducting the Concertgebouw Orchestra.
- American premiere: December 8, 1908, New York City, conducted by the composer with the New York Symphony Orchestra.
- Recording premiere: 1924, Oskar Fried conducting the Berlin State Opera Orchestra.
- British premiere: April 16, 1931, London, conducted by Bruno Walter.