An Almost Resurrection

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Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 2 in C Minor ("Resurrection") was played at Philadelphia's Kimmel Center last night to rapturous applause.  I am sorry that Derek Thomas couldn't have been here for the performance, which was welcomed with four curtain calls and loud shouts of "Bravo" ringing from every part of the concert hall.

There were many thrilling aspects to the concert, which was under the energetic leadership of Christoph Eschenbach.  This was the first time that I have heard Mahler in live performance.  From the first low notes of the strings to the monumental close of the fifth movement (more brass instruments than I have ever seen on stage, with full choir and organ), it was a memorable experience.

Then there is the theme to consider, which is nothing less than the resurrection of the body: "Aufersteh'n, ja aufersteh'n wirst du, mein Staub, nach kurzer Ruh!" ("Rise again, yes you will rise again, my dust, after a short rest!").  These lines follow a dramatic representation of the final judgment, which is introduced by brass and timpani off-stage -- a technique that suitably reminds us that the judgment will come from somewhere beyond the earth.  And yet.  And yet . . . . . . Mahler's text abandons the true resurrection in its final lines, which read as follows: "Aufersteh'n, ja aufersteh'n wirst du, mein Herz, in einem Nu! Was du geschlagen, zu Gott wird es dich tragen!" ("Rise again, yes you will rise again, my heart, in an instant! What you have fought for, will carry you to God!"). 

These lines come after a furious striving of the orchestra to produce the biggest possible sound.  The music thus reinforces the meaning of the text: the hope of resurrection does not come by grace, but through the personal exertion of the soul.  For me, then, the symphony does not end in triumph, but in despair.  For by what striving can anyone ever survive the final judgment?  The monumental climax to Mahler's symphony represents the furious effort of fallen humanity to have heaven on its own terms, rather than on God's terms. 

It is said that grown men wept at the first full performance of Mahler's Second Symphony.  This is easy to believe.  To have heard this music at its world premier must have been the experience of a lifetime. 

I too was in tears at the close of the symphony, but not for the reason I expected.  It was because there is no real resurrection without a Redeemer; only Jesus can make our dust rise again after its short rest.  But this, sadly, is missing from Mahler's symphony, as it is missing from many people's lives. 
Posted May 4, 2007 @ 8:19 AM by Phil Ryken

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