Mahler’s Epic Resurrection Symphony

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WHEN HE WAS 28 YEARS OLD, Gustav Mahler began writing his second symphony, known as the “Resurrection Symphony”. It had its first performance in 1895 in Berlin, when Mahler was 35 years old, with Mahler himself conducting the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. Scored for a huge orchestra and male/female choir (it also has an offstage mini-orchestra), it lasts around 90 minutes. Apparently, it was voted the fifth-greatest symphony of all time in a survey of conductors carried out in 2016 by the BBC Music Magazine. (Mahler’s 9th was voted the 4th greatest, just behind Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony!). Just for your interest, the entire top ten symphonies of all time in this conductors’ vote were as follows:

1. Beethoven Symphony No 3 (1803)
2. Beethoven Symphony No 9 (1824)
3. Mozart Symphony No 41 (1788)
4. Mahler Symphony No 9 (1909)
5. Mahler Symphony No 2 (1894 rev 1903)
6. Brahms Symphony No 4 (1885)
7. Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique (1830)
8. Brahms Symphony No 1 (1876)
9. Tchaikovsky Symphony No 6 (1893)
10. Mahler Symphony No 3 (1896)

So Mahler had three entries in the top ten! This Resurrection Symphony is certainly epic, and if you think you don’t like classical music, this is the kind of music which inspired the likes of John Williams to write his exciting theme music for films such as Indiana Jones and Star Wars. Williams himself credits Mahler with being one of his greatest inspirations as a composer of movie music. (So much epic film music has got Mahler stamped all over it). The final 10 minutes of this work is probably the most uplifting and powerful ending to any music of all time; and I say that without any hesitation.

The performance I’ve chosen here is by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Simon Rattle at the inauguration of Symphony Hall there in 1991. The video quality is not so great as it is from nearly 30 years ago; but the performance is hugely powerful and EPIC, with great editing and camera work (e.g. overhead shots of the orchestra and the busy percussion section at the back).

It is called the Resurrection Symphony not only because the music moves from death to life, from darkness to light, but it finishes with a massive choral piece adapted from the poem Die Auferstehung (The Resurrection) by German poet Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock and completed by Mahler himself, in which he begs his heart to believe: “O glaube, mein Herz, o glaube”. Set yourself aside some time to take in this uplifting work, which will grab you by the scruff of the neck right from the opening notes, taking you through many climaxes, beauties and emotions, leaving you at the conclusion washed up on a distant shore, rejuvenated and filled with joy.

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