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Classical 101

Mahler Goes to Springfield

The Springfield Symphony performs Mahler's Symphony no., 2 this Saturday night at 8 in the Clark State Performing Arts Center.

Peter Stafford Wilson conducts, with the Springfield Symphony Chorale, Jennifer Araya, soprano and Elise Des Champs, mezzo soprano. My pre-concert talk will be from the stage at 7:15.

By the time he died at the age of 51 in 1911, Gustav Mahler was the most famous musician in the western world. Caruso, Toscanini, Stravinsky, Puccini, Paderewski and Rachmaninoff were all at or nearing the height of their powers. Everyone knew them. Mahler may not have been the household name the others, but as a musician, rather than as a musician and personality, there was no one second to Mahler.

He had entered public life thirty years earlier. Small town music directorships in the old Austro-Hungarian Empire led to work in the big leagues: Hamburg,  Vienna and New York. By 1900, Mahler was Intendant, meaning boss of all bosses for the Vienna Opera. Five years later no one would doubt him as Generalmusikdirektor of the world.

But it is not for his leadership or his conducting or his personality for which Mahler is remembered today. His marriage to the glamorous Alma Schindler was good newspaper fodder.

The death of his daughter and his own heart condition that eventually took his life give him added pathos. Likewise his origins as the son of a tavern keeper who beat his wife. Today we know Mahler for the music he wrote on his summer vacations. He began by finish and performing Carl Maria von Weber's opera Der drei Pintos. There followed volumes of songs, and nine numbered symphonies. tenth was abandoned just before his death.

Who had time to write a symphony when you're balancing life with Alma, orchestras, divas,  Vienna, Hamburg, Berlin, Toscanini and New York? But in July and August the concert halls ad the opera houses shut down. Mahler took himself to the Tolbach mountains. In a wooden shed far from the main house he sat down and wrote his symphonies, his song cycles and his final treasure Das Lied von der Erde The Song of the Earth.

I suspect the first performance of the symphony number 2 stunned the audience. Mahler himself conducted of course, on December 13, 1895 with the Berlin Philharmonic. Mahler's previous symphony was more tuneful and carefree. It incorporated a charming song from the German folk poetry collection Des Knaben Wunderhorn. The Youths 's Magic Horn, a Teutonic Mother Goose. Its gorgeous,  this first symphony. The second I would call profound, moving and disturbing. One adjective will never do.

First,  the sheer length. There are five movements, clocking in at around eighty minutes. Mahler directed a five minute pause between the first and second movement, seldom observed today. Who needs the overtime?  The symphony requires a huge orchestra, a large chorus and soprano and mezzo soprano soloists. Beethoven broke the symphonic mold with his Ninth and Schiller's Ode to Joy seventy years before Mahler. Still, it was not every day one walked into the concert hall for a symphony to see the stage set for a chorus as well. But Mahler was not an every day composer.

The first movement and the last are the longest. Between them are three movements which explore Austrian laendler-folk dances, and a text by Friedrich Klopstock. Man living in torment seeks heaven. But an angel turns him back. Your time has not yet come. 


Eventually the solo soprano rises seamlessly out of the chorus, promising Resurrection: Auferstgeh'n, ja Auferste'n wirst du mein Staub, nach Kurzer Ruh​: Rise again, yes you will rise again my dust, after a short rest. Immoral life, he who called you will grant you.


The final 100 measuresof the symphony are among the most magnificent in the repertoire,  as we are promised eternal life. But it is the horrible crash that begins thelongfinale that shook the world in 1895. More than one writer, with the gift of hindsight, wrote that this predicted World War I. Indeed, you will hear chaoticmoments in the orchestra ten minutes into the symphony. Jolly dances, chaos, frightening chords and and a final promise of eternal life. In one symphony.  

Christopher Purdy is Classical 101's early morning host, 7-10 a.m. weekdays. He is host and producer of Front Row Center – Classical 101’s weekly celebration of Opera and more – as well as Music in Mid-Ohio, Concerts at Ohio State, and the Columbus Symphony broadcast series. He is the regular pre-concert speaker for Columbus Symphony performances in the Ohio Theater.