Maestro Shares His Thoughts About Mahler's 'Resurrection' Symphony
Conductor Manfred Honeck leads the BSO at Symphony Hall this past February. He returns to the BSO for a debut at Tanglewood this weekend.
In Symphony No. 2 ("Resurrection"), composed 1888-1894, Mahler the sonic architect has constructed a cathedral of sound that tells the story of a life – our lives – as he spreads before us his five-part panoply of human existence. The final movement, lasting nearly 40 minutes, and with the entrance of the huge chorus, is a symphony within a symphony. Taken together, this 90-minute masterpiece moves us, transports us, and teaches us.
Austrian conductor Manfred Honeck will lead the Boston Symphony Orchestra this weekend at Tanglewood, including at 8:30 p.m. on Saturday with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, soprano Camilla Tilling and mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly.
In an in-depth phone interview, Honeck, music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, shared his thoughts about this landmark symphony.
HONECK: It will be a wonderful experience for me to conduct the amazing Second Symphony with the Boston Symphony on Saturday evening. For a conductor, this is one of the greatest pieces to bring to life. As I think about Mahler's process of composition, I am amazed that he was so successful in creating new and original elements into the symphonic form with such mastery. Even in his First Symphony he does this. And it is not an experiment, but is fully realized.
Mahler is the most radical symphonic composer I know. In the Second Symphony, he has expanded the form to five movements, and the succession of movements is unbelievable. It carries the listener away in a progression that is so powerful and inspired that we are taken on a fantastic journey of discovery. Mahler is truly the composer of surprises.
What does this Mahler symphony meant to you, personally?
HONECK: I feel that Mahler tried to compose his own life in this work.The first three movements describe the struggle and the distance one travels to get from darkness to light. I conduct the tender Schubert-like second movement with some feeling of rubato – in a relaxed tempo.
To me, the second movement represents an ideal of the beauty of nature. And Schubert is truly the first Viennese composer – the father of Viennese music, having been born in Vienna, unlike Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. But the center of the Symphony is the fourth movement, which is for an alto voice and the orchestra. The alto sings the poem "Urlicht," which means "Original Light." For me, this is the key to understanding the entire symphony, as it marks the point that turns from death and despair towards hope, faith and to the resurrection to come.
• Saturday, July 26, 8:30 p.m. at Tanglewood, in the Shed.
• Tickets can be purchased at tanglewood.org, via SymphonyCharge ( 888-266-1200 or 888-266-1200) and at the Tanglewood box office located at the main gate, on West Street in Lenox. Information: 413-637-1600.
How did the musical and cultural environment Mahler inhabited lead him to create the ‘Resurrection’ Symphony?
HONECK: Mahler was a product of his environment – the culture of late 19th-century Vienna. He was deeply involved in that culture, and in fact was a leader of it. In the "Resurrection" Symphony, there is a transformative moment right before the chorus enters, which Alma Mahler named "the great call." This moment in the Symphony is, for Mahler, and can also be for us, a life-changing experience. It asks the question: "What happens after death?"
(The choral ending is humanity's answer to that question, with words written by Mahler himself: "O believe, you were not born in vain, have not lived in vain, suffered in vain! What was created must perish. What has perished must rise again. Tremble no more! Prepare yourself to live! … Arise, yes, you will arise from the dead. My heart, in an instant! What you have conquered will bear you to God.")
Concluding our conversation, I asked maestro Honeck to say a few words about the anticipated effect the concert experience would have for listeners.
HONECK: if you go to this concert, you go to experience something you can never experience in any other way in your life – certainly not in a recording. This Second Symphony can only be heard live, with the offstage sounds of the brass coming from a great distance, for example. No recording can do that justice. You must be there to hear this music in the moment.