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For a variety of reasons, Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 was perhaps the most crucial to his emergence as a composer. Following the completion of the first movement in 1888, the work remained in limbo until the summer of 1893, and even at that point Mahler was not yet able to conceive an appropriate finale. Had he not found the inspiration to do so the following year, it is questionable whether his career as a symphonist could have continued. And as Bruno Walter assesses the premiere of Mahler’s Second on 13 December 1895, ‘Here in Berlin he had, as a matter of fact, staked his future fate as a composer upon a single card […]. But the impression of the magnitude and originality of the work, of the power of Mahler’s nature, was so profound that the ascent of the composer can justly be dated from that day.’1
The gestation of the work, however, was a protracted process. Mahler launched the first movement in January 1888, several weeks before he concluded the first version of his First Symphony. During this period Mahler was having a passionate affair with Marion von Weber, wife of the famous composer’s grandson, which also inflamed his creativity; Mahler would later recall that her ‘musical, luminous being, dedicated to the loftiest ideals, gave my life new and deepest meaning, although it was later disasterous for both of us’.2 The artistic outcome was the first of Mahler’s Wunderhorn lieder (written for Marion’s children), the First Symphony, and the first movement of the Second, which at some point he provisionally entitled ‘Todtenfeier’. He also made preliminary sketches of what would become the Andante of Symphony No. 2.
The title ‘Todtenfeier’ was almost certainly derived from the German translation of Adam Mickiewicz’s Dziady, which Mahler’s longtime friend and mentor, Siegfried Lipiner, had published as Todtenfeier in 1887. Mickiewicz’s dramatic epic is a fragmentary, incomplete work, one portion of which is an autobiographical rendering of the archetypal Werther triangle, and it is possible that mortal despair such as that experienced by Goethe’s protagonist is musically manifest in the gnashingly dissonant climax of Mahler’s ‘Todtenfeier’ movement (bars 324–329 of the later slightly revised first movement, shortly after the ‘Dies irae’ sequence from the Requiem Mass is quoted in bars 270 ff. et passim).3 In any case, in the symphony’s finale it is precisely the impending recurrence of this crisis point that the composer would completely dissolve (bars 301–323) well before the redemption proclaimed by the chorus.
Mahler’s now famous denunciations of program music lay far in the future; in the summer of 1893, when he finally resumed work on the Second Symphony following a five-year hiatus, the composer discussed its autobiographical origins with Natalie Bauer-Lechner as follows: ‘My two symphonies treat exhaustively my entire life; it is experience and suffering that I have written down with my lifeblood. Truth and poetry in music; and if someone understands how to read well, my life must in fact appear transparent to him in them. So strongly are creation and experience interwoven for me that, if henceforth my life should flow calmly like a stream through a meadow – I think I would no longer be able to create anything proper.’4
Mahler had christened the completed first movement ‘Todtenfeier’ no later than 1 October 1889, when the Pesti Napló announced a forthcoming December performance of it in Munich.5 But it is quite likely that he had adopted this provisional title much earlier, before he assumed the directorship of the Royal Hungarian Opera in Budapest in October 1888. The title page of the earliest completed manuscript (dated ‘Prag 10. September | 1888’) reads as follows: ‘“Todtenfeier” | Symphonie in C-moll | I. Satz. | von | Gustav Mahler’.6 The next day, 11 September, Mahler went to Dresden – his third trip to persuade Ernst von Schuch to perform his recently completed Symphony No. 1 there, and it seems likely that he showed his colleague ‘Todtenfeier’ as well. In any case, neither of these hoped-for performances took place.
In 1891, having moved from Budapest to Hamburg, he was equally unsuccessful in persuading the esteemed conductor Hans von Bülow to perform ‘Todtenfeier’: ‘If that is still music’, Bülow famously declared, ‘then I understand nothing about music anymore.’7 This is but one of several misfortunes Mahler suffered during this period. Both his parents and one of his sisters had died in 1889; the premiere of the Symphony No. 1 in November of that year had been a disaster; and shortly thereafter his situation in Budapest became untenable. Understandably, he composed very little. It is not entirely clear whether he had decided to let the ‘Todtenfeier’ movement stand alone permanently – thereby abandoning the continuation of his Second Symphony.
But it is noteworthy that all of the 1888 manuscript materials for the completed C-minor Allegro – sketches, unfinished orchestral draft, and even the ‘Todtenfeier’ fair copy – bear Mahler’s designation ‘I. Satz’ (first movement). By his own account, the Wunderhorn song ‘Das himmlische Leben’ (‘Heavenly Life’) ‘was the first thing following the Budapest stagnation to emanate from my long-blocked creative spring in Hamburg […]’;8 this was during the early weeks of 1892. More Wunderhorn lieder would soon follow. During the summer of 1892, Mahler was largely preoccupied with conducting opera at Covent Garden in London, both to advance his career and to earn money to support his younger siblings. But by about 20 June the following year, he and his household (including Natalie Bauer-Lechner) had retreated to the Austrian countryside (Steinbach am Attersee), whereby the ‘summer composer’ established the ‘modus operandi’ that would serve him for the remainder of his creative life. Apparently he turned first to the Andante of his unfinished symphony, completing the sketch (but not yet the orchestration) in about seven days.9 Mahler’s extraordinary creativity during the ensuing weeks is documented by the following dates in his surviving manuscripts:
8 July: ‘Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt’ (‘Saint Anthony’s Fish Sermon’, text from Des Knaben Wunderhorn), piano version
16 July: Scherzo of Symphony No. 2, orchestral draft score (at this point designated ‘2. Satz’), based on the ‘Fischpredigt’ song
19 July: ‘Urlicht’, orchestral draft / fair copy of the score (text: Des Knaben Wunderhorn). The date of the piano version (currently missing) remains unknown, but it was certainly before the orchestration. This song was, however, originally composed independently from the symphony, and was apparently incorporated into it only after the finale was well advanc ed.10
30 July: Andante of Symphony No. 2, orchestral draft score (designated ‘4. Satz’ on both the title page and the first sheet of music)
1 August: ‘Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt’, fair copy of the orchestral score (thus postdating the orchestration of the scherzo)
9 and 10 August: ‘Rheinlegendchen’ (‘Little Rhine Legend’, from Des KnabenWundernorn), piano and orchestral fair copies respectively
16 August: the ‘Blumine’ Andante of Symphony No. 1 was revised (‘renovatum’).
As is well known, however, the finale was the problem. Only on the morning of 29 March 1894, during the memorial service in Hamburg’s St. Michael’s Church for Hans von Bülow (billed in German as a ‘Todten-Feier’) was Mahler struck by the ‘lightning bolt of holy conception’, in the form of a children’s choir singing Klopstock’s hymn Auferstehung, which inspired the symphony’s conclusion. Although Mahler would subsequently claim that he had ‘truly searched through all of world literature, including the Bible, to find the redeeming word’,11 much of what is central to his universalist Resurrection fresco in the finale of the Second – ‘no blessed and no damned, no good, no evil, and no judge’12 – is rooted in the writings of his longtime friend from student days, Siegfried Lipiner, particularly Lipiner’s poem Der entfesselte Prometheus (Unbound Prometheus, 1876) as well as his pamphlet Über die Elemente einer Erneuerung religiöser Ideen in der Gegenwart (On the Elements of a Renewal of Religious Ideas in the Present, 1878). Also highly influential was the panentheistic philosophy of Gustav Theodor Fechner, one of Lipiner’s mentors, whose writings Mahler read frequently. According to his friend Josef Foerster, Mahler began setting the first three stanzas of Klopstock on the very afternoon of Bülow’s Todten-Feier. By late April he was still struggling with his own contribution to the lyrics, but on 13 June, once again ensconced in Steinbach, Mahler had the essence of his poetic text in hand, headed with the scriptural allusion ‘Lux lucet in tenebris’ (‘The light shineth in the darkness’ – cf. John 1:5). A mere 16 days later, on 29 June 1894, Mahler could announce to his friend Fritz Löhr ‘the fortunate arrival of a healthy, strong, final movement of the Second’.13
As would become his custom, Mahler deferred completing the fair copy of the score (dated Hamburg, 18 December 1894) until his return to ‘the hell of the theater’. The symphony was premiered in installments in Berlin: the first three movements on 4 March 1895, and the entire work on 13 December of that year. Although most of the critics were dismissive or hostile, the audience’s enthusiasm grew throughout the December full premiere, which was greeted at the conclusion with a long ovation.
With the financial support of two wealthy Hamburg industrialists, Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 was published by the firm of Hofmeister in Leipzig, first in an arrangement for two pianos, four hands by his friend Hermann Behn (1896) and subsequently in full score (1897). It soon became Mahler’s custom to retouch his scores while preparing for each performance, and he conducted the Second Symphony a total of 13 times (including three performances comprising selected movements only). The result was a barrage of changes that were not completely reconciled during Mahler’s lifetime, despite his legendary precision in notating and rehearsing his scores; an overview of the most important surviving sources is presented in the table below. Mahler provided numerous revisions that were adopted in two reissues of the symphony published by Universal Edition: the study score of 1906 (U.E. 948), and the conducting score that appeared on 17 November 1910 (U.E. 2933). The latter remained the most authoritative version in print prior to volume II of the Kritische Gesamtausgabe (Complete Critical Edition), published in 1970 under the editorship of Erwin Ratz (UE 13 821, also issued as Philharmonia pocket score no. 395). But among the sources not available to Ratz were Mahler’s two personal copies of the conducting score, one of which he inscribed ‘Corrigirt und | Einzig Richtig befunden | Dezember 1907 | September 1910 | Mahler’ (Corrected and | deemed solely valid | December 1907 | September 1910 | Mahler). The present study score is based on the text of the Neue Kritische Gesamtausgabe, edited by Renate Stark-Voit and Gilbert Kaplan (2 vols., UE 33 882), which draws upon these and other important materials to correct hundreds of previously overlooked errors and discrepancies, all of which are carefully documented, together with a full evaluation of all relevant sources, and discussions of editorial criteria as well as performance practice issues, etc., in the bilingual text volume (German and English) of the New Complete Critical Edition.
Stephen E. Hefling, December 2010
1) Bruno Walter, Gustav Mahler, trans. James Galston, New York 1941, p. 20.
2) Natalie Bauer-Lechner, Mahleriana, manuscript (Paris, Médiathèque Musicale Mahler), Nov. 1900; cf. also Gustav Mahler in den Erinnerungen von Natalie Bauer-Lechner, ed. Herbert Killian and Knud Martner, Hamburg 1984 [hereinafter: NBL2], p. 175.
3) Further on these issues as well as the early sketches and draft of the movement, see Stephen E. Hefling, Mahler’s ‘Todtenfeier’ and the Problem of Program Music, in: 19th Century Music 12/1, 1988, pp. 27–53, and idem, Gustav Mahler, Zweite Symphonie, in: Mahler-Interpretationen, ed. Peter Revers, Laaber 2011, pp. 210–238 et passim.
4) [Natalie Bauer-Lechner], Aus einem Tagebuch über Mahler, in: Der Merker 3/5, 1912, p. 184; cf. NBL2, p. 26. ‘Truth and poetry’ is an allusion to Goethe’s autobiography Dichtung und Wahrheit.
5) Zoltan Roman, Gustav Mahler and Hungary, Budapest 1991, pp. 75 and 208, n. 115.
6) Basel, Paul Sacher Stiftung, formerly Amsterdam, Willem Mengelberg Stichting; photofacsimiles appear, inter alia, in: Kurt Blaukopf, Mahler: A Documentary Study, New York 1976, plate 80.
7) Josef Bohuslav Foerster, Gustav Mahler in Hamburg, III. Theil, in: Prager Presse, 16 April 1922, p. 6.
8) NBL2, p. 172 (ca. November 1900). Mahler’s dated fair copies for voice and piano of the 1892 Wunderhorn songs suggest that ‘Der Schildwache Nachtlied’ was the first to be completed (28 January); however, it is possible that ‘Das himmlische Leben’ (dated 10 February) had been sketched somewhat earlier.
9) Ibid., p. 25.
10) See Gustav Mahler: Unbekannte Briefe, ed. Herta Blaukopf et al., Vienna 1983, pp. 24–25, and J. B. Foerster, Gustav Mahler in Hamburg, VII. Theil, in: Prager Presse, 14 May 1922, p. 4; cf. also idem, Der Pilger: Erinnerungen eines Musikers, trans. Pavel Eisner, Prague 1955, p. 406.
11) Letter to Arthur Seidl, 17 Feb. 1897, in: Gustav Mahler Briefe, ed. by Herta Blaukopf, Vienna 1996, no. 216, p. 223.
12) NBL2, p. 40.
13) Gustav Mahler Briefe, no. 129, p. 136.