A detailed explanation of how Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 is a heart-shattering work of genius

7 July 2016, 11:25 | Updated: 5 March 2017, 09:01

Mahler’s Resurrection symphony is basically great, and we’re about to tell you precisely why.

When Gustav Mahler, the speccy oddball with the huge ambitions and the knack for bluster and religious confusion, wrote his second symphony, it was clear that its popularity was going to last well beyond his lifetime.

There are multitudinous reasons for this, but chief among them is that it is BIG. Very big indeed.

Let’s start at the beginning

It’s pretty moody. Very moody, in fact. Grumpy lower strings dominate, but what’s so weirdly captivating about it is how Mahler changes character every couple of pages.

Here’s the grumpy bit:

There are also lots of complicated performance directions like this:

And this quite unexpected one:


And so it goes on in its inimitably idiosyncratic fashion, each corner of its five movements rushing about like a furtive spy with an excellent pedigree in orchestra writing and a top-notch record collection. And some existential ennui, of course. Don’t forget that.

What’s it actually about?

If you want to get thematic, then look at the subtitle. ‘Resurrection’ is pretty straightforward, right? Wrong, sucker! Far from being an exclusively religious work (though that’s one interpretation), Mahler was keen to emphasise life and death in all its terrifying, mortally buttock-clenching splendour. So he did things like this:

It's called the Death Shriek

This delicate little technique is how Mahler decided to depict the final moment of a human life. You know, that quiet little journey from one side to the other, when life comes to a poetic, melancholic yet beautiful end. *buzzer noise* NOT REALLY. It’s the most frightening sound of all time and suggests that you’ve died in some quite horrible circumstances with an Edvard Munch painting for a facial expression.

It happens twice in the whole symphony, and both times it’s like that time in Raiders of the Lost Ark when the guy’s face melted off, i.e. quite nasty. 

(We were going to gif that, but it's simply too stressful. You're welcome.)

And it sounds like this:

Remember guys: it’s OK. Everything’s going to be OK.

If most of your internal organs are still functioning at this point, it’s time for…

The finale to end all finales

There's some singing which, in itself, isn't the most adventurous thing to include in a symphony, but then you look at the words. There's also singing in the fourth movement, but that kicks off with this little day-brightener: “O little red rose! Man lies in greatest need! Man lies in greatest pain!” So, for the fifth movement, Mahler comes up with some answers. How about this for a closing verse: "Die shall I in order to live. Rise again, yes, rise again, will you, my heart, in an instant! That for which you suffered, to God will it lead you!"

Those closing words are accompanied by orchestral forces the likes of which induce heart palpitations in stage managers across the world. The logic is, if you’re going to end big, make sure it looks good. Just look what the final section makes Riccardo Chailly do with his face: 


Don’t tell us you’re not intrigued by what that might sound like. Here you are:

Here's how the others do it

Sir Simon Rattle, open-mouthed and essentially horizontal with effort:

And here's Leonard Bernstein, equal parts horror and joy:


Our sincere recommendation is that you cancel any plans, meetings, social engagements, medical procedures etc that you might have booked in for the next 90 minutes and listen to the whole thing immediately.