Mahler hits a high note
The Austrian composer’s original manuscript sells for a record price, a six-shot recalls a scandal and two portaits have a tale to tell
Some articles take more research than others. This week’s has required precisely 1 hour 26 minutes and 28 seconds. I do not begrudge a moment of it, indeed I am delighted to have experienced mahler’s Second Symphony, the ‘Resurrection’, for the first time.
I felt that I could not write about the enormous price that the original score (Fig 1) had just made at Sotheby’s without ever having heard the work. The internet duly served up the 2003 performance by Claudio Abbado and his Lucerne Festival orchestra, which must stand as a formidable challenge to all successors.
There is a greater sense of connection between the writer and reader of a handwritten manuscript than produced by almost any other human artefact, although sculptures, especially maquettes, and hand-thrown ceramics may come close. The immediacy of resting your hand where the hand of the writer rested, while reading the words that were leaving that mind as they are now entering yours, creates a powerful physical sensation.
I have written before that touch can be as important as eye to a connoisseur. In the case of a musical score, a third sense, hearing, reinforces the effect—even if one cannot read the music, one could have it playing as one looks and holds. Perhaps, at viewings, auctioneers might supply headphones with relevant passages.
I remember the thrill I got when, at a previous view, I was allowed to hold a sheet of a score by Weber, to whom I have always felt a tie, as my parents got my name from him (the tenor Huon de Bordeaux in Oberon; Kipling may have been another ‘godfather’). How much more must a mahlerian feel on holding the ‘Resurrection’?
The most extraordinary mahlerian of all, Gilbert Kaplan (1941–2016), knew that feeling very well, as, in 1984, he bought the score from the estate of the conductor Willem mengelberg, who had been given it by mahler’s widow, Alma, in 1920. Kaplan, who made a fortune on Wall Street, became obsessed by the symphony on first hearing it in 1965. He learned to conduct and proceeded to play it (and it only) more than adequately with 50 of the world’s greatest orchestras. Although opinions differed as to his skill, he was no Florence Foster Jenkins.
After his first performance, in 1982, he said: ‘People in the audience were urging me to fulfill my dream because each of them had a secret ambition. They were up with me that night, playing baseball for the Yankees, writing the book they never wrote, getting the girl they never got.’ His performance with the London Symphony orchestra is said to be the best selling of all mahler recordings.
The new owner, who paid £4,546,250 for the heavily anno-
Fig 2: French poet Paul Verlaine’s six-shot revolver.
Fig 1: The original score for Mahler’s Second Symphony.