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BSD Con Variazioni: Symphony No. 2 'Resurrection'

It's going to be a long offseason. Spring practice doesn't even really start for another month. Basketball is okay, but for most people, not on the level of football. This is a good time to start chatting about other points of interest. Since BSD is the only internet site in which I actively participate, this is the place I'm going to start.

For the first five semesters at Penn State, I was a music performance major (Euphonium); but soon ran into a rather significant problem: money. More specifically, a lack of money while coming from a family that also lacked money. Being a music major, especially with the performance concentration, is expensive. Not only did I purchase my horn (while still in HS) for the same value as a used Honda Civic, but the peripheral costs were what really killed me. Hardware and horn maintenance, several hundred dollars to upgrade my mouthpieces, music (oh, how you'd be surprised at the cost of buying sheet music), travel and performance costs.

All of this while at the same time having to practice for, at a minimum, six hours per day. If I had a really tough piece to work on, it was bumped to eight hours in any given day. Working part-time was a joke, as I barely made enough to cover food.

If this takes off, you'll likely hear more about the musical exploits of my youth--like how I hated singing, but was apparently better than 90 percent of the singers in the entire state of New Jersey. But for now, let me jump right in with my all-time favorite classical work.

220px-photo_of_gustav_mahler_by_moritz_n_c3_a4hr_01_medium

Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 2 (1888-94)

The first time I heard this piece, it was only an excerpt from the final movement, arranged for Trombone-Tuba-Euphonium ensemble. My interest was instantly piqued, as the pure force of what I heard was inescapable.

Update: See below this article for the exact arrangement I'm talking about. It was written by Jeff Parker, who was my Euphonium teacher for one year at Penn State (visiting prof) and a PSU alum.

The Composer

Gustav Mahler was born on July 7, 1860 in Kalischt, Bohemia (modern Czech Republic). At the age of 18, he graduated from the Vienna Conservatory. He went on to jobs in opera houses across Europe, culminating in his appointment in 1897 as director of the Vienna Court Opera (Hofoper). Before his death in 1911, Mahler also briefly served as director of New York's Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic.

Throughout his life, and even though he converted to Catholicism to secure the Vienna job, Mahler was the regular target for antisemitism in the increasingly-nationalistic German-Austrian regions of Europe. His music, despite its eventual worldwide acclaim, would suffer greatly due to contemporary misunderstanding of his style, as well as a complete ban on performances within Nazi Germany during the 1930s and 1940s.

In all, Mahler composed nine full symphonies, with a tenth incomplete upon his death. His most popular, at least among the musicians I've known, are Nos. 2, 5, and 8. But that could be a result of spending a good deal of my time around mostly low brass musicians.

The Work: Symphony No. 2

I've chopped down these notes from (where else?) Wikipedia:

  1. Allegro maestoso Musically, the first movement – written in C minor – though passing through a number of different moods, often resembles a funeral march, and is violent and angry.The form of this movement is somewhat similar to a Classical Sonata form. Following this movement, Mahler calls in the score for a gap of five minutes before the second movement. This pause is rarely observed today.
  2. Andante moderato The second movement is a delicate Ländler in A-flat major with two contrasting sections of slightly darker music. This slow movement itself is contrasting to the two adjacent movements. Structurally, it is one of the simplest movements in Mahler's whole output. It is the remembrance of the joyful times in the life of the deceased.
  3. In ruhig fließender Bewegung (With quietly flowing movement) The third movement is a scherzo in C minor. It opens with two strong, short timpani strokes. It is followed by two softer strokes, and then followed by even softer strokes that provide the tempo to this movement, which includes references to Jewish folk music. Mahler called the climax of the movement, which occurs near the end, sometimes a "cry of despair", and sometimes a "death-shriek".
  4. Urlicht (Primeval Light). Sehr feierlich, aber schlicht The fourth movement, Urlicht, is a Wunderhorn song, sung by an alto, which serves as an introduction to the Finale in a manner similar to the bass recitative in Beethoven's Ninth. The song, set in the remote key of D-flat major, illustrates the longing for relief from worldly woes, leading without a break to the response in the Finale.
  5. Im Tempo des Scherzos (In the tempo of the scherzo) The finale is the longest, typically lasting over half an hour. It is divided into two large parts, the second of which begins with the entry of the chorus and whose form is governed by the text of this movement. The first part is instrumental, and very episodic, containing a wide variety of moods, tempi and keys, with much of the material based on what has been heard in the previous movements, although it also loosely follows sonata principles.
    The chorus comes in quietly a little past the halfway point of the movement. The choral section is organized primarily by the text, using musical material from earlier in the movement.
    E-flat suddenly re-enters with the text "Sterben werd' ich um zu leben," and a proper cadence finally occurs on the downbeat of the final verse, with the entrance of the heretofore silent organ (marked "volles Werk") and with the choir instructed to sing "mit höchster Kraft" (with highest power). The instrumental coda is in this ultimate key as well, and is accompanied by the tolling of deep bells. Mahler went so far as to purchase actual church bells for performances, finding all other means of achieving this sound unsatisfactory. Mahler wrote of this movement: "The increasing tension, working up to the final climax, is so tremendous that I don’t know myself, now that it is over, how I ever came to write it."

The Conductor: Leonard Bernstein

I've chosen this video/recording because of the conductor. There is another very good version out there with Gustavo Dudamel leading. But no conductor comes close to Bernstein when performing Mahler. You probably know Bernstein for his work composing the music for West Side Story, and the opera Candide. But his prowess as a conductor is unparalleled in American history. He's recorded some of the most memorable tracks in modern classical music, from the works of George Gershwin, Aaron Copland and Charles Ives, and classical era composers like Beethoven and Hayden. And if you're a fan of Rhapsody in Blue, you probably heard it performed with Bernstein at the helm.

Listen/Watch

This is a recording of Bernstein conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra. It's an embedded playlist from YouTube, so there is no need to click on anything except "play." It will automatically move from one video to the next. Enjoy.

The Trombone Choir & Tuba-Euphonium Ensemble arrangement, performed at PSU's Esber Hall:

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