Life Beyond Death: Holism and Transcendence in Mahler’s Symphony No. 2

By Tristan Frank

The Second Symphony of Gustav Mahler, subtitled “Resurrection”, certainly emerged from unusual circumstances. While in the process of composing a symphonic poem called Todtenfeier, Mahler experienced a distinct, vivid hallucination of himself “dead, laid out in state, beneath wreaths and flowers.”[1] It was this image that inspired him to compose an entire symphony relating to the theme of resurrection, with Todtenfeier as its first movement. The foundation on which the Symphony lies is twofold; the primary results of Symphony No. 2 are to convey a grand, large-scale conception of human existence, and to proclaim a message of hope: that death can never overcome life. Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 serves as an empowering statement by treating death not as an ending point to life, but rather as an intermediate step in a more holistic sense of existence. I will investigate the meaning at the heart of Symphony No. 2 by first examining what Mahler himself and important scholars said about the work, then will undertake a thematic and programmatic analysis of the finale to determine how the movement answers the questions posed in the prior movements, the way in which it relates to the titular “Resurrection” and how it brings closure to the symphony. The Resurrection Symphony considers philosophical questions of an immense nature. The work consists of five movements, the last of which is by far the longest—nearly all performances of the fifth movement extend beyond thirty minutes. Three known programs exist for the Symphony, two of which originate directly from Mahler.[2] The third, a report by Natalie Bauer-Lechner, is in its entirety a direct quote from Mahler discussing his conceptions of the symphony and is the earliest of the three programs. Dated 1896, the Bauer-Lechner report was written well after the time of composition and additionally after the premiere in December 1895. The report explains that in Mahler’s mind, the first three movements have a particular narrative concerning a character – according to him, “a mighty being”, possibly the “Titan” of his first symphony – and the being’s struggle with broad concepts: life, eventual death, love, and a sense of identity. At the onset of the fourth movement, though, the work turns to a decidedly philosophical tone. Mahler writes: “The ‘Urlicht’ [fourth movement] represents the soul’s striving and questioning attitude towards God and its own immortality”. Here he has laid down critical questions about the character’s fate, but questions whose essence is not fully clear until the recapitulation of the fifth movement. Accepting this character as a microcosm of human life, Mahler essentially poses transcendent questions of death and the afterlife. Although the Symphony undeniably constitutes program music, the nature of the work’s message is decidedly ambiguous and can be interpreted by the individual listener. Throughout the Bauer-Lechner essay, Mahler declines to provide details about the character’s quest; he offers guidelines rather than an actual narrative. Mahler had grown to develop a distaste for program notes at performances.[3] He believed that when such descriptions were provided, audiences lost their ability to perceive the music critically and instead would blindly believe what the program – surely written by the composer or a reputable scholar – stated. Above all, Mahler wished for each listener to create his or her own personal meaning when hearing his compositions. His opinion was that music transcends language, and that therefore it was seemingly trivial to attach a specific narrative to a piece of music. Interestingly, this school of thought parallels that of Felix Mendelssohn, who did not write program music at all.[4] Eventually, due to his disgust for the way programs affected audiences, Mahler made an emphatic statement by banning the use of programs for his music.[5] In addition to his dislike of program notes, Mahler shows his aversion to revealing a particular religion for his music: “In fact, as all revealed religions do, it [a piece that reflects the clear influence of one specific religion] leads directly to misunderstanding, to a flattening and coarsening, and in the long run to such distortion that the work, and still more, the creator, is utterly unrecognizable … “.[6] Evidently Mahler believed that revealing a religion would lead only to a simplistic and derivative view of the symphony and its themes. It seems logical, then, that Mahler made every effort to paint each religious reference in Symphony No. 2 with a shade of ambiguity. [7] There are multiple allusions to religion within the work. In the C section of the fifth movement, Mahler uses the Dies irae melody in one motive, which certainly seems to imply a Christian aesthetic. Both the fourth and fifth movements contain text that refers to “God” or “the Lord”. Additionally, the narrative of the finale relates strongly to the concept of a final judgment, such as the story of Revelations in the Christian Bible. However, despite the numerous implications, Mahler never directly references Christianity or any other religion. The text never introduces Christ, only “God”, which is a concept that can hold meaning for any theistic religion. Similarly, there is no evidence that the Christian God is the deity involved in the final judgment. The text could indicate a judgment in any religion or an abstract representation of judgment, such as karma or simply one’s own moral conscience. With the absence of explicit denominational references, one cannot fairly assume that any one belief system is more generously represented than another. By omitting a specific narrative and presenting religious implications in an opaque manner, Mahler clearly transmits the creed that no person or religion has all the answers to life’s meaning or to what happens after death, and therefore fosters a holistic view of existence. However, the symphony is not just a message of all-inclusiveness; the finale takes the previous questions a step further and conjures a resounding declaration of the “afterlife”. In the process of determining how the fifth movement, Im Tempo des Scherzos, resolves the symphony both musically and thematically, the form and text take on vital importance. Im Tempo des Scherzos is set in a highly modified variant of sonata form.[8] The movement contains the typical structure of Exposition – Development – Recapitulation found in the Classical sonata form, but is much more tonally advanced than the I-V-I or i-III-i/I harmonic progression generally found in such compositions. The recapitulation, for example, does not begin in the same key as the exposition but instead is raised a half step, from F minor to G-flat minor. In the context of the essential questions that were posed earlier in the work, this Sonata-like structure is best viewed as a narrative that takes the listener through the most critical aspects of the symphony’s program. In effect, the movement contains a restatement of the first four movements’ philosophical questions, followed by transitional material that opens up into the grand finale of the work. The finale at last reveals the text, the centerpiece of the work. Im Tempo des Scherzos opens with a dissonant harmony first heard in the third movement; this represents a shriek or cry of despair from the character’s soul, as the protagonist appears to have died. Immediately the movement progresses into its exposition, which consists of four major sections, referred to here as A through D. Mahler now introduces one of the most important motives of the movement: the predominant theme of the A section, which will be referred to as the A theme (Fig. 1). The A theme is comprised of what Constantin Floros labels the Eternity and Ascension motives. [9] Unsurprisingly, the recapitulation will feature multiple restatements of the A theme.   Fig 1: “A” theme, mm. 31-34, from Reilly, “Todtenfeier and the Second Symphony,” 148. Screen Shot 2014-05-11 at 6.14.13 PM   A hunting-like fanfare presented by offstage horns begins the B section (Fig. 2). Implying a call from the supreme being to the protagonist, it hints that the final judgment has already begun. Continuing along the parallel of judgment and moving into the C section, the Dies irae chorale motive (Fig. 3) recurs in the woodwinds after initially being heard the first movement.  What follows is a new theme, commonly known as the Resurrection theme (Fig. 4), which along with the A theme will be vital in the climax of the movement.   Fig. 2: Offstage horn call at onset of B section, from Reilly, “Todtenfeier and the Second Symphony,” Screen Shot 2014-05-11 at 6.14.23 PM   Fig 3: Dies irae motive in the woodwinds in the C section Dies irae   Fig 4: The “Resurrection” theme in the C section, from Reilly, “Todtenfeier and the Second Symphony,” Screen Shot 2014-05-11 at 6.19.53 PM   Later, when the development begins, the movement reaches its E section. Comprising more than a hundred measures, the E section outlines a struggle that occurs between the Dies irae motive and the Resurrection theme. In its most basic essence, this musical dichotomy represents a battle between life (Resurrection) and death (Dies irae) for the character’s soul. The development constitutes the unfolding of the final judgment, or perhaps merely a vision of the final judgment as Floros suggests. [10] In any case, it is clear that Mahler’s narrative is progressing toward its conclusion. In m. 418, the A theme is restated and the recapitulation begins, transposed up a half step from the exposition. During the roughly thirty measures of length that constitute the A’ section, the A theme – specifically, the Eternity motive – is transformed by adding additional downward intervals to the initial perfect fifth descent, and by the more cohesive connection between the descending figure and its supplementary stepwise ascent. When the B section returns and the offstage horn call reappears, again a semitone higher, the “voice” of the caller has grown more urgent, and it becomes evident that a resolution to the character’s tale is near – whether it be death or resurrection. But any lingering uncertainty is quickly vanquished when the chorus finally enters, singing the first of eight stanzas. The first two stanzas are derived from a poem by Friedrich Klopstock, with the last six added by Mahler himself.[11] In the C section, the chorus sings the two stanzas by Klopstock:

Rise again, yea, thou shalt rise again,

My dust, after short rest!

Immortal life! immortal life!

He who called thee will grant thee.

To bloom again art thou sown!

The Lord of the Harvest goes

And gathers in, like sheaves,

Us who died.[12]

  Here, the text begins to conclude the protagonist’s journey. The two stanzas from Klopstock reveal, with the fitting accompaniment of the Resurrection theme, that the character has been granted a return to the plane of existence. Appropriately, the Dies irae motive is nowhere to be found, as now the final judgment is complete and death is no longer an option.[13] Mahler’s original text plays out over various sections that recall sections of the exposition. It becomes apparent in these final six stanzas that the critical questions posed in the first four movements are of a gigantic, intangible, existential nature. Why do we exist and what is our purpose? Why do we experience joy and suffering? Is there a master plan for us? Above all, what do we live for? Predictably enough, though, these questions are not answered in an obvious, revealing manner. How could they be? Staying true to his convictions, Mahler chooses to remain a bystander to the greater picture of human awareness. He would rather we search for answers to life’s most complicated questions ourselves. After hearing the end of Symphony No. 2, the only thing we can conclude is that life has a purpose. We do not live, suffer, and die for nothing. Whether or not physical resurrection is a metaphor is irrelevant in this case; what Mahler conveys above all else is that life does not simply end with death. By doing so, he cements a holistic conception of the word “life”. In the final stanza, set to music generated from the synthesis of the A section – in increasingly slower augmentations – and the Resurrection theme, Mahler leaves us with an empowering statement for all of humanity:

Rise again, yea thou wilt rise again,

My heart, in the twinkling of an eye!

What thou hast fought for

Shall lead thee to God![14]


  Floros, Constantin. Gustav Mahler: The Symphonies. Portland, OR: Amadeus Press, 1993. Mahler, Gustav. Symphony No. 2. Vienna: Universal Edition, 1971. Reilly, Edward R. “Todtenfeier and the Second Symphony.” In The Mahler Companion, edited by Donald Mitchell & Andrew Nicholson, 84-125. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Weiss, Pietro, and Richard Taruskin. Music in the Western World: A History in Documents. Belmont, CA: Thomson Schirmer, 2008.

[1] Constantin Floros, Gustav Mahler: The Symphonies (Portland, OR: Amadeus Press, 1993), 51.
[2] Throughout this paragraph I refer repeatedly to Edward R. Reilly, “Todtenfeier and the Second Symphony,” in The Mahler Companion, ed. Donald Mitchell & Andrew Nicholson, 84-125 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 123-125.
[3] In this section regarding Mahler and program notes, I refer multiple times to Reilly, “Todtenfeier and the Second Symphony,” 93-94.
[4] Pietro Weiss & Richard Taruskin, Music in the Western World: A History in Documents (Belmont, CA: Thomson Schirmer, 2008), 325-326.
[5] Reilly, “Todtenfeier and the Second Symphony,” 93.
[6] Ibid., 95.
[7] Throughout this paragraph I refer numerous times to Ibid., 120-121.
[8] Ibid., 113
[9] Floros, Gustav Mahler: The Symphonies, 70.
[10] Ibid., 73.
[11] Reilly, “Todtenfeier and the Second Symphony,” 120-121.
[12] Ibid., 122.
[13] Ibid., 118.
[14] Ibid., 122.