Many of my recent blog posts have been about writing arrangements so it should be no surprise that my latest project is an arrangement! I have performed Mahler’s 2nd Symphony several times but this weekend’s performance with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra was particularly moving. In fact, it was so moving that I HAD to invite two of my former students (pictured here) who are current music education majors and brass players because I knew that it would change their lives. One would expect me to have been moved by singing the glorious (and ridiculously high) ending of the final movement. There are few moments in all of musical history that can compare to the ending of Mahler’s “Resurrection,” but the magic of this performance actually occurred while we were seated during the earlier movements.
There was a surreal moment in the second movement when Maestro Manfred Honeck stopped conducting, leading the orchestra through dancelike body movements and an occasional cue. Then there was the Jewish-inspired third movement with bold interruptions of brass fanfares. But the magic… The magic occurred during the fourth movement when alto soloist Gerhild Romberger began to sing. This movement has never meant much to me other than as a cue to start inaudibly warming up my voice; however, this time I was overwhelmed by the beauty and simplicity of Mahler’s music. Romberger’s solo voice, the offstage brass ensemble playing the chorale, and the perfectly tuned strings of the orchestra were enough to bring tears to my eyes. The entire ethereal experience captured me in a moment that I never wanted to forget. After the Saturday evening performance, I decided that I needed to solidify that memory by immersing myself in the music and writing an SSA arrangement of this fourth movement.
It may seem odd to create a choral setting of a symphonic movement, but it actually makes more sense than you might think. This piece, “Urlicht,” was originally a song written by Mahler as a part of his Des Knaben Wunderhorn. This song collection was written for solo voice and piano, but “Urlicht” later served a new purpose when Mahler decided to incorporate it into the Second Symphony. Because of this, my choral arrangement may actually be closer to Mahler’s original intention for the piece than its use in the symphony.
The key to writing this arrangement was to pay homage to the original. I am never going to improve on Mahler’s work of art so instead, I have stayed as close to the source material as possible. My approach to the piece centered around keeping the melody intact and creating a harmonization that matches what Mahler has already laid out in the accompaniment. The purpose of the arrangement is to spread this beloved music to a broader audience and I believe that I can best do this by honoring Mahler’s work instead of creating my own interpretation of it. I was shocked when I found that a choral arrangement of this piece is not available, but I hope that this will help to bring Mahler’s stunning work to traditional choral concerts.