Symphony №8

The monumental EIGHT SYMPHONY of  GUSTAV MAHLER, nick-named „The Symphony of the Thousand“, belongs to those grand final climactic utterances, alongside the latest works of Scriabin and Richard Strauss, which, on the verge between the nine-teenth and twentieth centuries, crowned the era of postmodernism by completely exhausting the idea of hypertrophy of the symphonic genre. And these symphonic tableaux, expanded to the utter- most limits of the possible in time and space, have naturally prompted a search for their completely antithetic forms in a quite opposite direction (the first Chamber Symphony appeared, as well as Schoenberg‘s mono-operas). One of the most profound philosophers in music, Mahler conceives in his works the eternal themes of man in his communion with the world, nature, God; in his innermost intimate reflections or in the grand generalizations of life and death. It is in these two genres – the symphony and the song – that Mahler‘s creative potential was to find its utmost expression and the composer continuously sought to bring out the connection between them. His song cycles are set for a voice to an orchestral accompaniment, whereas themes, imagery and concrete musical motivic material from the song cycles Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen („Songs of a Wayfarer“) and Des Knaben Wunderhorn („The Boy‘s Miraculous Horn“) found their way into his earlier symphonies, be it in parts for solo voices or in large-scale choral frescoes. The closing apogee of this line is represented by the Eighth Symphony and the Symphony-Cantata Das Lied von der Erde („Song of the Earth“).

The Eighth Symphony originated in the summer of 1906 in the composer’s summer retreat by Lake Wörthersee, in the vicinity of the Maria-Wörth resort in Carinthia, where Mahler usually spent his vacations during the summer break of the Vienna Opera House, as director whereof he had functioned since 1897. This was the very place where his four previous symphonies were completed, as well as the Rückert-Lieder and the Kindertotenlieder song cycles. After the three purely instrumental Fifth, Sixth and Seventh symphonies, Mahler once again turned to the idea of a vocal-sym- phonic opus, which sets to music in the unusual two-movement form the Latin text of the ninth century Catholic hymn Veni Creator Spiritus („Come, Creator Spirit“) and the German text of the closing scene from the tragedy Faust by Goethe. And unlike the tragically pessi- mistic tone that dominates his symphonies, here Mahler is looking for a more positive and life-affirming solution in bringing together the two dimensions – the divine and the humane – trough the redemptive power of love. In fact, the original outline was for a four movement Symphony, as the outer two vocal hymns enclose the two middle instrumental parts: 1. Hymn: Veni Creator; 2. Scherzo; 3. Adagio Caritas (“Christian Love“); 4. Hymn: Die Geburt des Eros („The Birth of Eros”). But it was not very long before the last three parts were to be superseded by a dramatic cantata based on the closing scene from the second part of Faust (the journey of the soul of Faust, rescued from the clutches of Mephistopheles and the ascension of the former into heaven), embodying the idea of redemption through the “eternal feminine” („das Ewige-Weibliche“). According to Richard Specht, one of Mahler‘s biographers, he didn‘t mention this four movement outline when he relayed how, as he found the Veni Creator Hymn, he had envisaged the entire work: „I saw the whole piece immediately before my eyes, and only needed to write it down as though it were being dictated to me.“ And he considered all his previous symphonies as mere preludes to the Eighth, which was his „gift to  the  nation,“  his  greatest  creation. „Try to imagine the whole universe beginning to ring and resound. There are no longer human voices, but planets and suns revolving.“

The symphony was completed very rapidly, just within a few summer weeks. The score is for an enormous Orchestra in quintuple ensemble, two mixed and children‘s choirs and eight soloists. In the second movement the soloists impersonate the roles from Goethe‘s drama the three sopranos represent Magna Peccatrix (the Great Sinner), Una poenitentium (The Penitent) и Mater Gloriosa (Glorious Mother or Virgin Mary), the two altos – Mulier Samaritana (Samaritan Woman) and Mary of Egypt, the tenor represents Doctor Marianus, the baritone – Pater Ecstaticus, the base Pater Profundus.

The first performance took place on 12 September 1910 in Munich. Preparations started in the beginning of the year with the choice of choirs from Munich, Leipzig and Vienna, while the conductor Bruno Walter selected the soloists. In the coming spring and summer months all performers rehearsed separately in their cities and gathered at the beginning of September in Munich only for the three General rehearsals under the direction of Mahler and his assistant – the young Otto Klemperer. The immense concert hall Neue Musik- Festhalle was chosen to house the premiere, and impresario Emil Gutman advertised the work as the „Symphony of the Thousand“, the title with which it became popular in history. The premier was attended by famous personalities – the composers Richard Strauss, Camille Saint-Saëns, Anton Webern, writers Thomas Mann, Stefan Zweig and Arthur Schnitzler, theatre director Max Reinhardt, the young conductor Leopold Stokowski (six years later he conducted the first performance of the Symphony in the United States with the Philadelphia Orchestra). The success was enormous, the applause con- tinued for more than twenty minutes, and Thomas Mann sent that very night a letter to Mahler, in which he called him „the man who expresses the art of our time in its deepest and most sacred form”. This was the last time Mahler personally attended a premiere of a symphony of his – only eight months after this triumph he died at fifty, and his last completed works – Das Lied von der Erde and the Ninth Symphony were performed only after his death under the direction of Bruno Walter. But in the three years following its premiere, the Eighth Symphony underwent about twenty performances across Europe, and later throughout the world, and was perceived as a „choral symphony of the twentieth century“, whose highly humane value was considered by its contemporaries to be comparable to Beethoven‘s Ninth Symphony.

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