Mahler, Symphony No. 2 in C minor (1894)

Presented to the
Western Institute for Lifelong Learning at WNMU
November 2015


Course Description
During the nineteenth century, composers such as Berlioz, Liszt, and Strauss used “program” music to tell a simple story or paint a picture. In the hands of Gustav Mahler, however, program music became a means of expressing deep philosophical thought and providing listeners with an experience that would link them to something eternal and spiritual. Mahler’s symphonies are well known for taking listeners on emotional journeys through the torment of life’s struggles to the exhilaration of peace and the healing power of love. As Mahler said, “A symphony must be like the world — it must contain everything.” This class provides an introduction to Mahler’s music through an in-depth examination of his Second Symphony, a symphony known to audiences as “The Resurrection."

Gustavo Dudamel conducting the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra
Click here to see the YouTube video.
  • First Movement – begins at 07:25
  • Second Movement – begins at 32:50
  • Third Movement – begins at 45:02
  • Fourth Movement – begins at 55:27
  • Fifth Movement – begins at 1:01:14
Click here to open a music map for the YouTube video.
Print Jim Smith's music map for Mahler's Second and follow what's happening in the music as you watch the video of Gustavo Dudamel conducting the symphony. (Jim's music map is password protected and available only to students attending his presentations.)


General Information about Mahler and His Second Symphony
  • Mahler wrote his Second Symphony between 1888 and 1894 during summer vacations from conducting. He composed the first movement in 1888 as a symphonic poem titled Todtenfeier (Funeral Rites). He then composed the second and third movements in the summer of 1893. He wrote the fifth movement finale in the summer of 1894. After he completed the fifth movement he decided to add his song “Urlicht” ("Primeval Light") as the fourth movement. (Mahler had composed "Urlicht" in 1893.)
  • The idea for the fifth movement came to Mahler during a memorial service for Hans von Bülow, his benefactor and friend. At Bülow's memorial service Mahler heard a chorale based on a poem by Friedrich Klopstock and knew immediately that he wanted to use Klopstock’s text for the final movement of his symphony. Mahler replaced the last part of Klopstock’s poem with his own words so that the text would directly answer questions raised in the first movement.
  • Bülow, who had great respect for Mahler as a conductor, did not like Mahler’s compositions. After Mahler showed Bülow the first movement of his Second Symphony, Bülow said, “If that is music then I do not understand a single thing about music.”
  • Mahler conducted the first performance of the symphony's first three movements with the Berlin Philharmonic on March 4, 1895. He then conducted the first performance of the entire symphony on December 13 leading the same orchestra. Contrary to a story told for several decades, Richard Strauss did not conduct the first performance of the symphony.
  • Unlike most of Mahler’s other compositions, the Second Symphony was received with much enthusiasm by audiences of the time. The Second Symphony was a hit for Mahler from the time of its first performance.
  • In addition to a full choir, a performance of the Second Symphony requires a large orchestra. In 1948, the musicologist Charles O’Donnell wrote, “Performances [of the Second Symphony] in America have been exceedingly few, primarily because of the extensive orchestral resources required by the score, and also because of the indifference to the music of Mahler which existed for many years, among both conductors and audiences here and abroad.” (Note that O'Donnell wrote those words in 1948. Mahler's Second Symphony is now performed widely throughout the United States and received with great enthusiasm by its audiences.)
  • Two days after JFK’s assassination in 1963, Leonard Bernstein conducted Mahler's Second Symphony on television as a tribute to Kennedy. Bernstein began the performance by saying, “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.” (Bernstein conducted the Adagietto from Mahler's Fifth Symphony during Robert Kennedy's funeral in 1968.)
  • Click here to view a copy of Leonard Bernstein's handwritten note explaining his choice of Mahler's Second Symphony as a tribute to JFK.
  • Click here for a video of Leonard Bernstein talking about Mahler in 1960 during one of his televised "Young People's Concerts."
Online Articles about Mahler's Second Symphony
How Music Saved Venezuela's Children
El Sistema is a system of music education that offers a free music education to every child in Venezuela. Founded in 1975 by José Antonio Abreu, El Sistema is currently (2015) educating over 700,000 musicians. Gustavo Dudamel, the music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, is a product of El Sistema.

“This is what the world needs! Thousands of children making music. Thousands of children enjoying playing an instrument or singing. If it's possible in Venezuela, why not the rest of the world?” – Gustavo Dudamel

Click here to see a BBC news report about El Sistema.


Recommended Books about Mahler and His Symphonies
(Click a book’s icon to see it on Amazon)



Recommended Box Set of Mahler's Symphonies

(Click the icon to see the collection on Amazon)