On Saturday 18th January 2020 I performed as part of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No.2 at King’s College Chapel in Cambridge for the Cambridge University Music Society . Andrew Gourlay conducted members of the Cambridge University Sinfonia and Wind Orchestra and the massed collegiate choirs of Clare, Gonville and Caius, Jesus and Selwyn Colleges. Elin Pritchard sang the soprano solo and I sang the alto solo.

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The first rehearsal was the night before the concert and it was a privilege just to spend time with everyone – listening to Mahler’s incredible music in the stunning chapel and hearing the young players and singers, who worked so hard, under Andrew’s inspiring guidance!

Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, also known as the Resurrection Symphony, was written between 1888-94 (first performed in 1895). The Symphony was one of Mahler’s most popular and successful works during his lifetime and established his enduring reflection on life, death and the beauty of resurrection.

Mahler wrote of the first movement (Allegro maestoso), “We stand by the coffin of a well loved person. His life, struggles, passions and aspirations once more, for the last time, pass before our mind’s eye. And now in this moment of gravity and emotion which convulses our deepest being… our heart is gripped by a dreadfully serious voice… what now? What is this life – and this death? Do we have an existence beyond it? Is all this only a confused dream, or do life and death have a meaning?” One of the most powerful aspects of this work is that the fundamental human questions asked in the first movement of the symphony will receive their answers by the last. (With tidal-waves of emotions in between – just like life!) The second movement (Andante moderato) is a nostalgic reflection of happier times, along with bittersweet episodes and the third movement contemplates the possibility of the meaningless nature of life.

At the time he was composing the symphony Mahler was also setting music to some poems from the anthology of 300 years of folk literature, and the fourth movement of the symphony includes one of my most favourite songs; “Urlicht” (primeval light). This song was not originally intended to be a part of the Symphony and is taken from Mahler’s ‘Des Knaben Wunderhorn’ songs with piano accompaniment which were composed in 1892 and are based on a collection of poems by L. A. von Arnim and Clemens Brentano. ‘Urlicht’ is written in the key of D flat major which creates an otherworldly moment, taking us to a realm away from the Symphony’s overall tonality of C minor. ‘Urlicht’ is an expression of the ‘need’ and ‘pain’ of Man and it ultimately ensures the empty, meaningless dimension that Mahler portrays in the third movement is not the end. Through courage and belief in choosing to follow God’s guiding light – we are led to the divine final movement and the conclusion of the Symphony.

UNSPECIFIED – CIRCA 1885: Austrian composer Gustav Mahler. Photograph around 1885 (Photo by Imagno/Getty Images)

I’ve loved listening to and singing Mahler since I first heard his music while I was at studying at Music College. As the years go on and life moves along, it becomes more meaningful and this piece is a guiding light in itself.

Mahler is quoted as saying, “A symphony must be like the world. It must contain everything.” Mahler gave us the world and more in this one!

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The concert in Cambridge was performed in memory of Jamie Gardiner who died in January 2017 at the age of 22. It was incredibly special that Jamie’s father, Robert Gardiner, spoke to us all during a break in the rehearsal on the day of the concert. His support for the concert and tribute to Jamie was so moving – he expressed to us all beautifully how this piece in particular can help us to remember those we’ve loved and lost, and bring so much comfort and hope throughout our lives.

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In 2016 Mahler’s original score for Symphony No.2 was sold at Sotheby’s of London for £4.5 million, the highest ever price for a musical manuscript sold at auction! For so many of us Mahler’s score and the moments we are gifted to spend with it are priceless.