On November 29th, the auction house Sotheby’s will be offering the complete manuscript of Gustav Mahler’s Second Symphony (the “Resurrection”) at auction from their London saleroom. Sotheby’s predict it will sell in excess of £3.5 million, the highest ever estimation for a musical manuscript offered at auction.

Late in August, I met Simon Maguire, Sotheby’s Senior Specialist in Books and Manuscripts, at the New Bond Street auction house in London’s fancy Mayfair district. The building is suited to its fancy clientele, but even those (such as myself) who are obviously not prospective buyers feel welcome to look around the art on display. Though we met at 10 a.m., there was no sign of early morning sluggishness about Maguire.

Maguire told me that the manuscript is so valuable because “no complete symphony by Mahler written in the composer’s complete own hand has ever been offered at auction—and probably none will be offered again.” Mahler’s Second Symphony is massive: it takes around an hour and a half to perform and is written for a huge orchestra, choir, and vocal soloists. The complete score comes to a colossal 232 pages.

Scenes from a Sotheby’s contemporary art auction in New York—more money at stake, but presumably a similar atmosphere.

As we examined the manuscript together, it quickly became clear that this manuscript is exceptional not only because of its monumental size but also for its distinctive characteristics. Maguire explained that although it is similar to the final version that Mahler would have prepared for print, markings in blue crayon in the first to third movements, and in violet ink in the fourth and fifth movements reveal his last edits, which he probably made after conducting the work. Most of the alterations in the first movement are to the orchestration, such as his decision to add a second timpani player. Several of his markings are also notes to the conductor, like his instruction that the bottom D in the double basses must be played at pitch, not an octave higher; if the basses do not have a low C string, then two must tune their bass string lower.

Maguire conceded that most of the markings are changes in orchestration—the score does not show much sign of recomposition. The third movement (In ruhig fließender Bewegung) is an exception, however, where the strong upbeat in the timpani in the final version is missing in this earlier manuscript. Instead, we find something rather extraordinary, for Mahler made a light sketch here in pencil, revealing the first inklings of what was to become his recomposed, final version of the movement’s opening. The sketch is similar but not identical to its published form, offering a fascinating insight into how the music initially took shape in Mahler’s mind. It is only faint, which makes Maguire speculate that it may not be visible in the facsimile.

A page from the manuscript of the fifth movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2. Photo · © Sotheby’s
A page from the manuscript of the fifth movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2. Photo · © Sotheby’s

The rest of the third movement has significantly more markings than the others, illustrating how Mahler was still making substantial revisions to it as he put together the manuscript in 1894. Mahler made considerable changes to the trombone part and we can see his decision to add a glockenspiel and another timpani part. There are structural changes too. Maguire showed me the extra pages Mahler attached to the score, allowing him to insert a new section of music between a trumpet tune and its repeat in the winds.

Throughout our conversation, Maguire emphasized that Sotheby’s has never sold a manuscript of this sort and size before. It is frequently (but not always) libraries that purchase such manuscripts, and once acquired they are unlikely to sell them again. Yet a few similar items have been auctioned in the last 50 years. Sotheby’s sold a manuscript of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in 2003, but it was written by a copyist and not in Beethoven’s hand. The manuscript still sold for £2.1 million. Within living memory, the only comparable autographed manuscripts to have been sold at auction are nine of Mozart’s symphonies, which sold for £2.5 million in 1987; Robert Schumann’s Second Symphony, which sold for £1.5 million in 1994; and Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony in 2014 for £1.2 million. But Schumann’s manuscript, Maguire says, was not completely in his hand, and there were parts missing from Rachmaninov’s.

Maguire’s position at Sotheby’s has given him an enviable opportunity to examine and compare manuscripts by several composers in detail. The quality of paper, for example, can vary. In Mozart and Schubert’s time, manuscripts were more disposable, so they used cheaper paper. The wealthy Rachmaninov was able to afford higher-quality paper, Maguire told me. For this score, Mahler used good, strong paper, indicating that he though it was going to be an important manuscript. Only the first page, which has been exposed to light, has browned. The manuscript is still in excellent condition, and Maguire had no qualms over handling it with his bare fingers. The manuscript also demonstrates Mahler’s distinctive and powerful handwriting, which he made with a thick pen and very black ink. For Maguire, Mahler’s handwriting is “one of the most visually appealing,” while Rachmaninov’s and Haydn’s are less compelling. They used thinner pens and were more interested in the precision of their scores.

Whether it’s an institution or a private person who takes ownership of Mahler’s manuscript, it’s unlikely that it will have the same deep personal importance as it did to its previous owner, Gilbert Kaplan. In 1965, the American entrepreneur went to a performance of Mahler’s Second Symphony at Carnegie Hall. “Zeus threw the bolt of lightning. I walked out of that hall a different person,” he said of the experience. From then on, Kaplan became obsessed with learning everything he could about the work. He decided he wanted to conduct it, and paid for lessons from George Solti to teach him. Kaplan performed this piece—and only this piece—over 100 times around the world, and recorded it with both the Vienna Philharmonic and the London Symphony Orchestra.

Gilbert Kaplan Photo · Chel Dong
Gilbert Kaplan Photo · Chel Dong

Professional musicians may have turned their noses up at the idea of an untrained businessman attempting to conduct this challenging work. But Maguire is more sympathetic: “He was very dedicated to the piece and very serious about what he was doing, so it wasn’t really self-aggrandizement.” Kaplan’s purchase of the manuscript in 1982 was an important part of his research; he wrote articles about the work as well as sponsoring other researchers. Soon after acquiring the manuscript, he made a facsimile of it and made it publicly availably by putting it on deposit at the Morgan Library in New York.

Entrepreneur Gilbert Kaplan’s first time conducting Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, with the American Symphony Orchestra in September 1982.

Whether the manuscript will continue being open to the public remains to be seen. In the U.S., there are tax advantages to depositing valuable items into a library. However, if the manuscript is sold to a private buyer from elsewhere it could mean that it will be hidden away for the foreseeable future. Maguire is hopeful that this will not be the case. The reason Sotheby’s announced the auction well in advance of its November date was to give libraries time to organize the necessary fundraising.

It is unlikely that this auction in November will only be of interest to the institutions and individuals interested in its purchase. For the item on offer is not only the complete manuscript of a massive work in Mahler’s own hand, it is also fascinating for what it reveals about the composer—his preferred paper, his handwriting, and even his compositional process. Mahler fanatics will certainly be envious of whoever the lucky future owner is. For those of us who don’t have millions to spare, we can only hope that it remains open to the public. It would be a great shame if it were to be kept hidden away. ¶