Resurrection Symphony

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I've been slow to respond to Phil's blog about being at Eschenbach's performance of Mahler's Second Symphony, "The Resurrection." Mainly, I have to confess, just sheer envy! I daren't begin my tragic tale of life in Mississippi!  But he raises some interesting points about listening to music generally and Mahler in particular... Mahler took great pains to ensure that the title "Resurrection," taken in large part from the poem by Friedrich Klopstock and utilized in the fifth movement (impressively cited in German by Phil!), was not interpreted in any way so as to suggest a concept in harmony with orthodox Christian doctrine. The symphony was, to be sure, written just after his 'convenient' conversion from Judaism to Roman Catholicism -- commentators and biographers are largely agreed that this was a career move to obviate the antisemitism of late-nineteenth century Europe.

He would say of the symphony's end: 'And lo: there is no judgement; there are no sinners; no just men; no great and no small; there is no punishment and no reward! A feeling of overwhelming love imbues us with the bliss of knowing and being.'

Mahler believed in a transcendent powerful love. 'Knowing and being' is what 'resurrection' meant for him, a rising from the fear of death or deadness, rising above mortal fears, as in Ibsen's When We Dead Awaken, or in Klopstock's Resurrection Ode, 'Cease from trembling! Prepare yourself to live!' This is pure Nietzsche, of course, and shades of Wagner are everywhere.

I have to confess, my view of the symphony is wholly prejudiced by my dear mother, who first introduced me to it (40 years ago). She told me as the symphony began to close my eyes and think of ships setting sail from Portsmouth harbour for some great Napoleonic battle somewhere in the English Channel! I have not been able to rid myself of the thought ever since. I have over 25 recordings of this symphony, and whatever Mahler himself may have intended (and the work is not programmatic in that sense), it never fails to lift the spirit. I don't even pretend to think it 'Christian' because it isn't. But i do think, despite hismelf and his underlying worldview, he had a way of penetrating the gloom to behold the glory (even if in the end, for him, it was his own glory). Christians can plunder the Philistines and enjoy it for what it is, music!

I must pretend now to be in the Kimmel Center (never been, of course) as I reach for Abbado, or Rattle, or Boulez or Chailly...
Posted May 4, 2007 @ 8:52 PM by Derek Thomas

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