Top 50 Favorite/Best Classical – #22 Mahler Symphony No. 2

Gustav Mahler comes in at #22 on my Top 50 Favorite/Best Classical Music with his amazing Symphony No. 2 in C minor “Resurrection,” though Mahler was not the one who named it thus. Mahler’s symphonies are truly fascinating because each symphony is so unique. There are some similar traits between them, such as a large first movement, but each symphony has an identity of its own separate from the others. 

Mahler in 1894

For his second symphony, Mahler began the first movement as a funeral rite for “the hero of my First Symphony, whom I bear to the grave and whose life I can see reflected in a pure mirror…” As he wrote to another composer, Max Marschalk. (https://www.modestosymphony.org/mahler-symphony-no-2-program-notes). He composed this first movement in 1888. It took him another six years before he was able to conceive the remainder of the symphony. 

Borrowing from other choral works that he composed, Mahler eventually finished the next two movements, a lyrical andante and a faster scherzo. So far, so good in terms of typical symphonic form. At t his point, if he had a typical fourth movement, his symphony would be done, and he’d have a winner, but not one for the ages. For the fourth movement, he used another song from one of his earlier works, setting it for mezzo-soprano and orchestra.

But what to do about a conclusion? He felt that was not a way to conclude this symphony that dealt, for Mahler, with weighty topics of life and after-life. Ironically, his Symphony No. 4 does end with the kind of gentle song he has for the fourth movement in his Symphony No. 2. What finally gave Mahler the inspiration for the fifth movement to properly conclude the 2nd Symphony was the death of his friend and fellow conductor, Hans von Bülow in 1894. Mahler wrote:

“I had long contemplated bringing in the choir in the last movement, and only the fear that it would be taken as a formal imitation of Beethoven [Ninth Symphony] made me hesitate again and again. Then Bülow died, and I went to the memorial service.—The mood in which I sat and pondered on the departed was utterly in the spirit of what I was working on at the time.—Then the choir, up in the organ-loft, intoned Klopstock’s Resurrection chorale.—It flashed on me like lightning, and everything became plain and clear in my mind! It was the flash that all creative artists wait for—“conceiving by the Holy Ghost”! What I then experienced had now to be expressed in sound. And yet—if I had not already borne the work within me—how could I have had that experience?” (https://nmphil.org/music-in-new-mexico/mahler-2-program-notes/)

That experience gave Mahler the inspiration for the 30-35 minute long fifth movement which is broken down into two main parts, an instrumental first half and the choir. Themes from the first four movements appear throughout as he works to resolve the ideas presented earlier in the symphony. And oh, what an inspiring way to conclude a symphony. The challenge was to not be like Beethoven with his 9th Symphony. Both had a chorus in the last movement with inspirational poetry. Mahler holds his own quite well here. The symphony ends in one of the greatest endings of any work of all time. This post from Classic FM (https://www.classicfm.com/composers/mahler/guides/symphony-no-2-genius/) has fun with several conductors who let their emotions out as they conduct the finale of the 2nd Symphony. 

Now, as to why this symphony isn’t higher on my list, because it certainly has so much good going for it, so many truly magical moments and the best ending ever. The main issue I have with this symphony is that there are too many moments where the momentum slows to a grinding halt, making the symphony feel longer than it should be. I don’t know how better to explain it. Right now I’m listening to it and currently in the 2nd movement. About 6:30 into the movement, the action slows down completely to a halt. 

There are many such incidents, particularly in the fifth movement, which, until the last ten minutes of the movement, feel more like separate vignettes. They’re all really pretty, but in terms of connectivity, with all the breaks between each part, it breaks the flow and interest. He fixes this problem when he attempts another huge ending movement with his Sixth Symphony (more on that one later in the list), which perfectly feels like the 32 minutes spent were exactly right. 

Don’t mind too much my criticism of the symphony. It really is a masterpiece worth listening to all the way through. Others have different experiences and feelings than I. These are strictly my feelings about listening to the symphony. And I do listen to it often, and it is on my Top 50. 

As for which one to listen to, I like both the Rattle with the Berlin Philharmonic and the Bernstein with the New York Philharmonic. As for video, you really cannot go wrong with Bernstein who has such fun with this symphony. Enjoy!

#22 – Mahler Symphony No. 2 in C minor

#23 – Tchaikovsky String Quartet No. 1 in D major, Op. 11

#24 – Williams Empire Strikes Back

#25 – Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 5 in Eb major, Op. 73

#26 – Bernstein West Side Story

#27 – Enescu – Octet for Strings in C major, Op. 7

#28 – Shostakovich String Quartet No. 8 in C minor, Op. 110

#29 – Mussorgsky Night on Bald Mountain

#30 – Webber Phantom of the Opera

#31 – Prokofiev Alexander Nevsky

#32 – Chopin Nocturne in Bb minor, Op. 9, No. 1

#33 – Debussy Images, Book 1, L110

#34 – Debussy Pour Le Piano, L. 95

#35 – Chaminade Guitare, Op. 32

#36 – Chopin Berceuse in Db major, Op. 57

#37 – Boulanger Nocturne pour violon et piano

#38 – Schönberg Les Miserables

#39 – Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18

#40 – Miranda Hamilton

#41 – Strauss Salomé

#42 – Britten Peter Grimes

#43 – Loewe My Fair Lady

#44 – Liszt Mephisto Waltzes

#45 – Webber Evita

#46 – Poledouris Conan The Barbarian

#47 – Bernstein Trouble in Tahiti

#48 – Beethoven Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67

#49 – Chaminade La Lisonjera, Op. 50

#50 – Beethoven Coriolan Overture, Op. 62

Honorable Mention

Stravinsky Petroushka 

Wagner Tristan Und Isolde

Tchaikovsky Serenade for Strings

Williams Raiders of the Lost Ark

Verdi Aïda

Schoenberg Verklärte Nacht

Grisey Les espaces acoustiques

Gade – Octet for 4 violins, 2 violas, 2 violoncellos in F major, Op. 17

Schubert – Symphony No. 8 in B minor, D759

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