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29 November 2016

Gustav Mahler’s 'Urlicht' manuscript at the British Library

On the day that the autograph full score of Mahler’s second symphony was sold at auction in London, it seems appropriate to take draw attention to a related manuscript held by the British Library (Zweig MS 49) that reveals part of the work’s early genesis. The fourth movement of the symphony famously introduces a setting for alto of the poem Urlicht (‘primeval light’) from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, a collection of poems by L. A. von Arnim and Clemens Brentano.  Written in the key of D flat major, rather remote from the symphony’s overall tonality of C minor, Urlicht offers a brief and otherworldly moment of repose between the turbulent scherzo that precedes it and the transcendental finale. 

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Urlicht was not, however, originally intended to form part of the symphony. Mahler first composed it as a song with piano accompaniment in about 1892, before scoring it for orchestra in the version now held by the British Library.  It then formed part of a collection of songs drawn from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, which Mahler published in 1899.  The manuscript of this early version is dated at the end ‘Steinbach 19 Juli 1893’, coinciding with the period in which Mahler was working on the first three movements of the symphony. 

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It nevertheless differs in various significant ways from the Urlicht movement we recognise in the symphony.  The scoring, for example, is slightly thinner, with fewer horns and one harp rather than two.  The musical text also reflects Mahler’s early thoughts and includes numerous corrections, amendments, erasures, and other annotations in his hand, both in pencil and in ink. Some but not all of these revisions were later incorporated in the manuscript full score and first edition. 

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It was only later, at some point between the summer of 1893 and the end of 1894, that Mahler decided to adapt the song and include it as the fourth movement of the second symphony. The Urlicht manuscript held at the British Library forms part of the collection assembled by the writer Stefan Zweig and his heirs, which was very generously donated in 1986.  It may be viewed in full via the Library’s Digitised Manuscripts website.

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