Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony

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RESURRECTION IS MORE THAN A RITE OF SPRING: It is the profound desire of every honest heart. The cycle of physical death can only be broken by resurrection. Resurrection is not to be confused with rebirth (which is merely another opportunity to die). Resurrection means the end of death and the beginning of true life, eternal life (which cannot be obtained in this dimension of physicality). The music of Resurrection is immortalised in the 2nd Symphony of Gustav Mahler (called “The Resurrection Symphony”), which he began writing at age 28 in 1888. At around an hour and a half long, it is a massive work with a huge orchestra, two female soloists and a vast choir (which appears in the finale). To listen to this work is akin to watching an unforgettable epic film. It is easy to see why it was voted the fifth-greatest symphony of all time in a survey of conductors carried out by the BBC Music Magazine. To listen to it in its entirety is like taking a journey from a funeral into heaven and beyond. Angels defeat demons in this score with the greatest cosmic drama you can imagine, complete with huge climaxes, off-stage instrument ensembles and theatrical music canvases. Really, you have to hear it to believe it. No description of mine can adequately convey its power, might and majesty. Honestly, I can guarantee that it will blow your mind and fill you with inspiration and ecstatic joy (if you stick with it to the end). And surely Resurrection is especially appropriate in this season?

This was the first Mahler symphony I ever heard at the back end of the 1970s and I was hooked from then on. What a baptism it was! Its music regularly pops into my mind unexpectedly, like coming round the corner in a forest to find a dell of budding bluebells in a shaft of sunlight.

Here the symphony is played in a 27-year old performance by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra conducted by Simon Rattle in Birmingham Symphony Hall. (That’s Birmingham, UK, not Alabama! 🙂). Although this is an older performance (which was recorded for BBC Radio 3), I have deliberately chosen it as it is from the days when Mahler was played WITH FIRE! It is a fine recording and Simon Rattle conducts with such presence too. His pre-performance meditation is a necessity. (Plus, the commentator’s concluding comments are from the days when announcers could speak English properly and reverently 😉).

I cannot urge you enough to listen to this extraordinary music. After listening once more, I am sitting here like an explorer who has climbed the highest mountain and, exhausted, grasps the heavenly summit in gratitude, for that is where I wish to stay. If this gargantuan symphony speaks to you, you will be pinned to your seat mesmerised by its spiritual power and glory.

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