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Symphony No. 8 in E-flat Major, "Symphony of a Thousand"

About the Work

Gustav Mahler
Quick Look Composer: Gustav Mahler
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Leonard Slatkin, conductor/Mahler Jun. 8 - 10, 2006
© Richard Freed
This grand-scaled work, known as the "Symphony of a Thousand" because of the huge number of performers it requires, was composed in the incredibly brief space of six weeks in the summer of 1906, and was orchestrated the following year. Mahler took his text for the first of the work's two movements from the ninth-century Latin hymn "Veni Creator Spiritus," attributed to Hrabanus Maurus (ca. 776-856), Archbishop of Mainz, and that for the second movement from Part II of Goethe's Faust. The composer himself conducted the work's premiere in Munich on September 12, 1910. The National Symphony Orchestra first performed this work on July 22, 1976, at Wolf Trap, with Julius Rudel conducting, and presented it last on June 2, 3, 4 and 7, 1988, Mstislav Rostropovich conducting.

The vocal complement indicated in the score comprises eight soloists (3 sopranos, 2 altos, tenor, baritone, bass), a children's chorus, and mixed double chorus. The instrumental forces comprise a piccolo, 4 flutes, 4 oboes, English horn, 5 clarinets, bass clarinet, 4 bassoons, contrabassoon, 8 horns, 10 trumpets, 7 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, gong, triangle, bells, glockenspiel, celesta, 2 mandolins, piano, harmonium, 2 harps, strings and organ. The number of brass instruments is frequently somewhat reduced, as it is in the present performances.) Duration, 1 hour 20 minutes.

In November 1907 Mahler was conducting in Helsinki, where he had a frequently cited conversation with his Finnish colleague Jean Sibelius on the nature of the symphony, as defined in terms of its form. Sibelius, who composed a number of overtly descriptive works, rejected such content for the symphony, in which he insisted on "the severity of style and the profound logic that creates an inner connection between all of the motifs," while Mahler countered, "No, the symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything." Mahler had by then completed the orchestration of his Eighth Symphony, the work in which he set out to realize that conviction more grandly than in any other. Indeed, some fifteen months earlier, on August 18, 1906, by which time he had completed the composition of this work but had not yet begun to orchestrate it, he had written to the Dutch conductor Willem Mengelberg, his most enthusiastic and energetic supporter among the recognized master conductors at that time,
I have just now completed my Eighth . . . [which] will be something the world has never heard the likes of before. All Nature is endowed with a voice in it. . . . It is the biggest thing I have done so far. . . . Imagine the universe beginning to ring and resound. It is no longer human voices. It is planets and suns revolving in their orbits. . . . All my other symphonies have been but preludes to this one.
To be sure, the Eighth is the most unusual of all Mahler's highly individualistic symphonies, not only because it calls for such vast choral forces from start to finish, but because it is the most extrovert segment of a symphonic cycle whose overall "autobiographical" or "confessional" character otherwise varies only in terms of degree. This work represents an exultant concept; it was undertaken at a happy time in his personal life, and it brought him the greatest public success he was to experience as a composer. It was also the last of his works introduced in his own lifetime: he himself conducted the premiere in Munich, and, with all those performers assembled for that event, and the curiosity about the work thus generated, he was given the unusual satisfaction of presiding over a second performance the day after the actual premiere.)

Between the composition of this work and its premiere, Mahler's life changed dramatically, both personally and professionally. In 1907, the year in which he completed the orchestration of the Eighth Symphony and rounded out his tenth season as director of the Vienna Opera, he suffered the "triple blow of fate" foretold in his Sixth Symphony: the elder of his two young daughters, Maria Anna, died of diphtheria in July; his wife collapsed from "extreme exhaustion of the heart," and when her physician persuaded Mahler himself to submit to an examination his own fatal heart disease was made known; in the fall his stormy reign at the Opera came to an end.

The last of these three blows was of course the most easily dealt with. In the time that remained to him Mahler held positions in New York, where he conducted at the Metropolitan Opera and then served from 1909 until his death two years later as music director of the New York Philharmonic. As a composer, he spent his last four years under what he himself described as a "death sentence," devoting his creative energy to his tripartite farewell to life: the "song-symphony" Das Lied von der Erde, the Ninth Symphony, and the uncompleted Tenth.

In 1906, however, there was nothing in Mahler's personal life to cast a shadow over his happiness. He had been married for four years to the fascinating Alma Maria Schindler, 19 years his junior; they had two lovely little daughters; he was one of the most respected musicians in Europe, holding perhaps the most envied (if not the most consistently pleasant) of all musical directorships; and the summers which he devoted to his creative work in the serene bucolic setting of his summer place at Maiernigg were aptly described by Alma as their "splendid isolation." (They fled following Maria Anna's death, and relocated at Toblach for their remaining summers.)

But Mahler was by no means completed isolated with his family while he composed his Eighth. He commuted from Maiernigg to Salzburg for rehearsals and performances of The Marriage of Figaro during those weeks, and the composition of so huge a work in so short a time--a time in which he was meeting other obligations--must be regarded as no less remarkable than the creation of Mozart's three final symphonies during a similar summer period 118 years earlier. Alma noted in her memoirs,
Mahler made a superhuman effort that summer. He would often play me passages from the new work, and he felt incredibly happy and elated.
Happiness and elation, indeed, are the keynotes of this singular work, into which Mahler poured all his love for life, for humanity, and for the miracle of creativity itself. The speed with which he produced the score is reflected in the extraordinary spontaneity that illumines it from beginning to end. "The universe begins to vibrate and resound . . . " The score calls for the most massive choral and orchestral forces Mahler ever assembled. At some points in the work some of these forces are heard from the rear of the hall and its upper reaches rather than from the stage. Mahler undertook to justify these unprecedented numbers, and their placement, with this statement:
We moderns need a great apparatus to express our ideas, whether they be big or small. Firstly because, in order to protect ourselves against false interpretation, we are forced to spread the numerous colors of our rainbow over different palettes; secondly because our eye learns to see in the rainbow more and more colors, and increasingly fine and delicate modulations; thirdly because in the huge spaces of our concert halls and opera houses we have to make a big noise to be understood by many.
The "big noise" Mahler made in his Eighth Symphony was most assuredly "understood by many." The enthusiastic response of the audience at the Munich premiere and the repeat performance the following day made the occasion one of the relatively few genuine triumphs of his life as a composer--perhaps the grandest of all. (By the time the premiere took place he had completed both Das Lied von der Erde and the Ninth Symphony as well as the full sketch and partial orchestration of the Tenth, but he died eight months later, without hearing any of those valedictory works.) The sobriquet "Symphony of a Thousand," affixed to the Eighth because that number of performers actually did take part in the premiere, was vigorously rejected by Mahler as giving the impression of a work whose chief characteristic is its hugeness. The Symphony actually requires les than 25% of that number in the way of performing personnel, and there are few sections in which anything like the full complement is used at the same time, so that such moments as do call for all participants stand out in even higher relief.

If the Eighth had to have a "non-generic" or descriptive title, perhaps Liebeshymnus ("Hymn to Love") might have been in order. Mahler's original plan called for the opening "Veni Creator Spiritus" to be followed not by one vast movement, but by three shorter ones: a purely orchestral scherzo and adagio, and a finale that was to be a choral setting of a hymn on the birth of Eros. The opening hymn had provided Mahler with the original inspiration for the work, but the finale was something he had to search for, and instead of finding another such text he was struck by another inspiration when he turned to Goethe's Faust. Instead of celebrating the birth of the god of love to end his symphony, Mahler chose Goethe's fantastic final scene (which had already been set by Schumann, among others, and had supplied the brief epilogue to Liszt's Faust Symphony), surely one of the most extraordinary celebrations of love and its power in all literature.

While it may seem that the Latin hymn and Goethe's German text are worlds apart, Mahler's inspiration revealed the superb unity of these elements, which he proceeded to confirm gloriously in his musical treatment of them. He had concluded his Third Symphony with an expansive instrumental movement which he titled "What Love Tells Me"--with the explanation that he regarded the terms "Love" and "God" as being interchangeable in this context. The juxtaposition of the two texts he chose for the Eighth may be regarded as an expansion on that thought, an exultant and ecstatic paean to love as a divine gift, expressed in the first movement in terms of the elemental and generative, and in the second exalting, purifying, redemptive, transfiguring.

It might be said that Mahler did not entirely abandon his original four-movement concept, for the Faust setting may be analyzed as falling into three sections more or less corresponding to a slow movement, scherzo and finale. The entire sequence is so seamless, however, and its emotional sweep so compelling, that such considerations are of only minor relevance to the listener's appreciation of what Mahler put together. For all the huge forces he has placed at his disposal, the presentation is not in terms of monumentalism or self-conscious profundity, but is at all points marked by a feeling of great spontaneity and joyous conviction. It is marked by unlabored charm as well (as in the apparent citation of a children's song known to us from Humperdinck's use of it in his opera Hänsel und Gretel, which turns up in the middle of Mahler's Goethe setting), and by subtle reminders of the work's significance as a personal expression (as in the near-echoes of Mahler's own Second Symphony in the opening hymn). The texts themselves tell us perhaps all we need to know about the emotional and spiritual motivation behind this work; its unity, in those respects as well as musically, is confirmed by the reprise of the opening hymn's jubilant theme in the ecstatic coda of the Goethe setting.