“You must have had the experience of burying someone dear to you,” wrote Gustav Mahler in a letter explaining his Second Symphony to the music critic Max Marschalk, suggesting that the critic's own experiences with death might help him better understand the symphony. Inversely, if listeners bring personal losses to bear on the piece, Mahler's Second Symphony offers one possible model for coping with death. If we take the distinction that Sigmund Freud draws between two responses to loss—melancholia and mourning—as a discursive frame, Mahler's Second Symphony may be heard as an attempt to come to terms with the death of a loved one by moving gradually from melancholia to mourning. According to Freud, a melancholic subject cannot truly cope with the traumatic experience and instead reenacts it, but someone who mourns truly remembers the loss and thus commemorates the dead, allowing them to live on, if only in memory.
Framed in such a way, the early movements of Mahler's Second Symphony—characterized by the alternation between halting sections that dissolve almost as soon as they begin and long-breathed melodies that seem to unfold effortlessly—suggest the melancholic subject's struggle between despair in the face of abject meaninglessness and a manic euphoria, neither of which addresses the loss. By contrast, the text in the symphony's final movement, adapted by Mahler from Friedrich Klopstock's chorale on the resurrection of the dead, encourages true remembrance of the deceased as a figure beyond death. Heard as a musical enactment of mourning, the final movement suggests that the dead who are mourned are resurrected through remembrance. Forcing us to acknowledge Mahler's death on some level, the final movement completes the work of mourning by engendering the composer's own resurrection in our memories as we witness each performance of his Second Symphony.
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