Mahler: Songs and Symphonies

Symphony No. 8, “Symphony of a Thousand”

Program from 1950 Performance at Carnegie Hall of Mahler's Symphony No. 8

The Carnegie Hall premiere of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony took place on April 6, 1950, with the New York Philharmonic, Leopold Stokowski, conductor, with Frances Yeend, Uta Graf, and Camilla Williams, sopranos; Martha Lipton and Louise Bernhart, contraltos; Eugene Conley, tenor; Carlos Alexander, baritone; George London, bass-baritone; the Schola Cantorum of New York; Westminster Choir; and Public School No. 12 Boys Chorus.

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The Symphony at a Glance

Mahler wrote his “Symphony of a Thousand” in a white heat of inspiration during the summer of 1906, and its 1910 premiere in Munich proved the greatest success of his career. The symphony is in two parts: the first uses the Latin Pentecost hymn “Veni, creator spiritus”, and the second the conclusion of Goethe’s Faust, Part II. Mahler’s feat in combining different languages, genres of music, and sacred and secular themes is as astonishing as his marshalling of such enormous forces: an immense orchestra, two large mixed choirs and separate children’s chorus, organ, off-stage brass, and eight vocal soloists.

The Symphony In Depth

“On the first day of the holidays, I went up to the hut in Maiernigg with the firm resolution of idling the holiday away (I needed to so much that year) and recruiting my strength. On the threshold of my old workshop the Spiritus creator took hold of me and shook me and drove me on for the next eight weeks until my greatest work was done.” So Mahler wrote to his wife, Alma, in June 1910, remembering the events four summers earlier, when in unusually short order he sketched his monumental Eighth Symphony in a small town on Lake Wörth in the Carinthian mountains. The eighth-century Pentecost hymn “Veni, creator spiritus” (“Come, Creator Spirit” ) served as the initial inspiration for the symphony while the ending of Goethe’s Faust, Part II, provided the basis for the rest of the work.

Various factors have helped promote the idea that in some respects Mahler composed one gigantic symphony over the course of his career. There are the many connections between and among his symphonies; his famous comment to Sibelius that the symphony must be like the world, embracing everything; and then there is the intensely personal nature of all his works. No matter the various groupings—the early Wunderhorn symphonies, the middle instrumental ones, and the late works—each symphony nonetheless has its own particular genesis, musical profile, and reception. To say that the Eighth is a work apart is in many ways true, but that could be said of the others as well.

Mahler told his biographer Richard Specht that in comparison to the Eighth

all the rest of my works are no more than introductions. I have never written anything like it; it is quite different in both content and style from all my other works, and certainly the biggest thing that I have ever done. Nor do I think that I have ever worked under such a feeling of compulsion; it was like a lightning vision—I saw the whole piece before my eyes and only needed to write it down, as though it were being dictated to me.

According to conventional definitions the Eighth Symphony is more a cantata or oratorio than a symphony. The choruses and vocal solos pervade the work, unlike earlier choral symphonies such as Beethoven’s Ninth, Mendelssohn’s Second, and Mahler’s own Second and Third that use the chorus at or near the end. Mahler recognized this as a revolutionary feature, telling Specht,

Its form is something altogether new. Can you imagine a symphony that is sung throughout, from beginning to end? So far I have employed words and the human voice merely to suggest, to sum up, to establish a mood … Here the voice is also an instrument. The whole first movement is strictly symphonic in form yet completely sung. It is really strange that nobody has ever thought of this before; it is simplicity itself, The True Symphony, in which the most beautiful instrument of all is led to its calling. Yet it is used not only as sound, because the voice is the bearer of poetic thoughts.

Mahler thus combines the two genres of his compositional oeuvre—symphonic and vocal music—in a piece that is in many respects a synthesis of his creative past and that of music history more generally. As Mahler scholar Donald Mitchell has remarked of this work, “There is scarcely a genre that is not touched on, whether it is cantata or oratorio, solo song or operatic aria, childlike chorus or exalted chorale.”

Mahler cast the Eighth Symphony in two movements, with texts in Latin and German, and uses an immense orchestra, two large mixed choirs and separate children’s chorus, organ, off-stage brass, and eight soloists. These extraordinary forces prompted its unofficial title, “Symphony of a Thousand,” which was not of Mahler’s own devising. The name came rather from the shrewd impresario Emil Gutmann, who arranged the legendary premiere on September 12, 1910, at Munich’s New Music Festival Hall. The performance, which was repeated the next day, allegedly employed 858 singers and 171 instrumentalists, for a total of 1,029 performers (plus Mahler conducting).

If Mahler had been surprised in the summer of 1906 that the symphony came unbidden and was written so quickly, he could hardly have anticipated what the next few years would hold as he awaited its premiere. In May 1907 he resigned as director of the Vienna Court Opera; his beloved elder daughter Marie died in Maiernigg later that summer. He took a position with the Metropolitan Opera in New York and then with the New York Philharmonic. Returning to Europe for the summers, he composed his late works: Das Lied von der Erde, the Ninth Symphony, and sketches for his Tenth.

Preliminary rehearsals for the premiere of the Eighth Symphony began in late May 1910 in Vienna and Leipzig. That summer Mahler learned that Alma was having an affair with the young architect Walter Gropius; in despair he sought out Sigmund Freud. Shortly after their famous meeting in Leiden, which evidently proved helpful, Mahler went to Munich to lead the final rehearsals of the Eighth. He dedicated it to Alma; it is the only one of his symphonies to have a personal dedication. The premiere was by all accounts an enormous success, undoubtedly the greatest of Mahler’s career as a composer. It also turned out to be the final time he conducted a first performance of one of his own pieces: He never heard Das Lied von der Erde or the Ninth Symphony, both of which premiered after his death the following year at the age of 50.

The audience at the Munich premiere included many of the musical and cultural elite of Europe. Among the distinguished musicians attending was 28-year-old Leopold Stokowski, who would soon be appointed the third music director of The Philadelphia Orchestra. Six years later, in April and May 1916, he presented the Eighth’s American premiere in nine highly acclaimed performances at Philadelphia’s Academy of Music and New York’s Metropolitan Opera House. The forces employed outdid even the Munich premiere, featuring 1,068 performers (plus Stokowski), and the performances marked a turning point in the orchestra’s history.

Audio Audio Excerpt 1

Excerpt from Mahler Symphony No. 8 (I. Hymnus: Veni, creator spiritus)

Audio Audio Excerpt 2

Excerpt from Mahler Symphony No. 8 (I. Hymnus: Veni, creator spiritus)

After an introductory measure in which the organ firmly establishes the key of E flat, the symphony opens with an enormous burst of energy as the massed choral forces exclaim the “Veni, creator spiritus” text. (Audio 1) The opening motto reappears throughout the symphony and ultimately caps the work’s final measures. The soprano initiates the entrance of the soloists and their interactions with the double chorus and children’s chorus. One of the climaxes of the movement is the section "Accende lumen sensibus, Infunde amorem cordibus!” (“Illuminate our senses, Pour love into our hearts!”), (Audio 2) which serves as a conceptual bridge to the more humanistic themes of the second movement. Also prominent is the elaborate contrapuntal writing, including a massive double fugue, evidence of Mahler’s deep study of Bach at around this time.

Mahler had originally planned for the symphony to have four movements, with a slow one (Caritas) coming next, followed by a scherzo (“Christmas Games with the Child”), and a hymn finale (“Creation through Eros”), which apparently would have drawn its text from Goethe’s Faust. In looking to an author and play he revered, Mahler was following a long tradition of Faust settings in music, not only in many operatic versions, but also as orchestral works, including ones by Berlioz, Liszt, Schumann, and Wagner.

Audio Audio Excerpt 3

Excerpt from Mahler Symphony No. 8 (II. Schlußszene aus Faust)

The second part of the Eighth is more than twice as long as the first and indeed is the longest movement Mahler ever composed. It begins mysteriously, (Audio 3) with an extended slow introduction in the minor. The movement is often described as encompassing the expected next three sections of a typical symphony—a slow movement, scherzo, and finale—but that does not do full justice to its layout, parts of which return to music from the opening movement. The soloists, who had been anonymous in the Veni, creator movement, are now used to represent specific Biblical and quasi-spiritual figures (among them Mater gloriosa as the Virgin Mary, “the personification of the Eternal Feminine”), as well characters from Faust (including a penitent woman, Faust’s beloved Gretchen).

Audio Audio Excerpt 4

Excerpt from Mahler Symphony No. 8 (II. Schlußszene aus Faust)

Audio excerpted from Carnegie Hall presents Leonard Bernstein: The Mahler Symphonies / Sony Classical

One of the most remarkable features of the symphony is that despite the surface disparities between the two movements—the one sacred, the other secular, the first in Latin, the second in German, the opening a choral cantata and the conclusion much more operatic in character—despite all this, there is a fundamental unity that functions on multiple levels. The two movements share prominent musical themes, most notably the “Veni, creator spiritus” motive that opens and closes the work. (Audio 4)

—Christopher H. Gibbs
Used with kind permission from The Philadelphia Orchestra. © The Philadelphia Orchestra