March 26, 2012, by Stephen Mumford
Life, death, its meaning, resurrection. On Saturday 24th March an audience at Nottingham’s Albert Hall were treated to an insight into all of the above when they attended a performance of Mahler’s epic second symphony. The event was staged by the Lakeside Arts Centre and included around 200 performers from the University of Nottingham orchestra and choir. Staff and Students from the Department of Music make up the heart of both though they are open to students of other schools, alumni and members of the public. To see a young undergraduate take lead violin in such a challenging performance was amazing and a source of great pride to me as Dean of Arts. Rebecca Hutter was assured and faultless. The musicianship throughout the orchestra was staggering and successfully transported the audience to the heights of metaphysical contemplation. After sitting for an hour, the choir then rose dramatically and treated us to the vocal climax of the symphony in the fifth movement. Having coaxed the finest, most energetic performances from his orchestra, conductor Jonathan Tilbrook decided on a slow and peaceful choral delivery: prolonging the transcendence, leaving the audience enraptured to the last.
Philosopher of science Karl Popper said in A World of Propensities: “Next to music and art, science is the greatest, most beautiful and most enlightening achievement of the human spirit.” He had it right. Science is great; but music especially gives us access to the sublime. The message of that enlightenment is up for interpretation. It is hard to say exactly what a work of art is about: of course we cannot be too scientific about it. Fortunately, Mahler left us some written clues as to what themes were in his mind.
Mahler was always the outsider. Jewish-born and from the German-speaking minority of Bohemia, his second symphony reflects a feeling of alienation, rejection and the finitude of human existence. It starts as a meditation on life at the point of death, questioning the meaning of it all. The work then proceeds through a cry of despair in the third movement but rediscovers optimism by the end. There is a resurrection, but not necessarily a religious one. Life continues and “Du wardst nicht umsonst geboren! Hast nicht umsonst gelebt, gelitten” (You were not born in vain! Have not lived in vain, suffered in vain!).
Mahler took nearly seven years to complete his second symphony. One might think he was inefficient to spend so long over a piece of less than 90 minutes. Life is short and we are often in a rush. Yet after the Nazi-period, in which his work was banned in much of central Europe, Mahler’s importance came to be fully appreciated. The second symphony is a particular triumph. It will capture the imagination of new listeners for as long as our planet contains thinkers. For Popper was right. Everything else is next to music.