"Symphony of A Thousand"

PROGRAM NOTES by Paul Schiavo


Gustav Mahler’s Eighth Symphony is commonly referred to as the “Symphony of A Thousand.” While it does not require quite this many performers to render its score, this is still one of the largest musical edifices ever constructed. Composed in 1906, the work consists of two movements, each using voices and orchestra to set a text with deep spiritual implications. The first movement is devoted to the tenth-century hymn Veni, creator spiritus; the second gives us the final scene from Goethe’s verse drama Faust.

Symphony No. 8

Born: July 7, 1860, in Kalište, Bohemia
Died: May 18, 1911, in Vienna
Work composed: 1906
World premiere: September 12, 1910, in Munich, in a performance conducted by the composer

“I have just finished my Eighth — it is the grandest thing I have done yet, and so peculiar in content and form that it is really impossible to write anything about it. Try to imagine the whole universe beginning to ring and resound. These are no longer human voices but planets and suns revolving.”

So wrote Gustav Mahler in August of 1906 to the conductor Willem Mengelberg. His description of his Eighth Symphony, which he had composed that summer, is not so hyperbolic as it may initially sound. In form and content, this work was, and remains, unique in the entire symphonic literature, and in its expression of spiritual aspirations it can fairly lay claim to a kind of universal significance. Mahler surely thought that in creating a symphony composed of musical settings of the ancient hymn Veni, creator spiritus and the final scene of Goethe’s Faust that he was giving voice to the longings of his age, and many have agreed that he did so. Deryck Cooke, the English Mahler authority, stated the case succinctly when he ventured that the Eighth “is the Choral Symphony of the 20th century, as Beethoven’s Ninth was the Choral Symphony of the 19th.”

But if Mahler’s Eighth is a work of art intended to provoke a kind of great communal epiphany, it nevertheless sprang from one individual’s mind and psyche, and we can hardly begin to approach this composition apart from its author’s personality and artistic life. Although Mahler devoted his creative efforts chiefly to his symphonies — these and his several song cycles comprise practically all of his output — he was in no way a composer of abstract instrumental music, as Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, or even Brahms were as symphonists. Rather, Mahler conceived the symphony as a vehicle for addressing weighty existential or religious themes. Every one of his symphonies does this, either implicitly or explicitly. The First, or “Titan,” Symphony conveys a vague program of life suffering and redemption. The Second Symphony, titled “Resurrection,” tells of death and rebirth, closing with a choral setting of Klopstock’s “Resurrection Ode.” Vocal movements also figure in the Third and Fourth Symphonies, where they serve to clarify the spiritual yearning these works embody. (The texts Mahler set in these works concern themes of salvation and heaven.) Returning to purely instrumental music, as he did in his Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Symphonies, Mahler still used orchestral composition to explore varying views of human existence. The Fifth Symphony traces a Beethovenian progression from funeral march to the reclaiming of life in a joyous finale; the Sixth, by contrast, offers grim intimations of mortality. Though somewhat more abstract, the Seventh Symphony nevertheless suggests a program of embracing life while confronting nihilism, thus synthesizing the “plots” of his previous two works.

The conflict we hear in Mahler’s music between life, love, joy and redemption on one hand, and death, despair, emptiness and terror on the other, haunted the composer throughout his life and drove him on a restless spiritual search. From his letters, and from his wife’s memoirs, we know that Mahler was deeply engaged with religious questions. A Jew by birth, he found no comfort in his ancestral faith. “Jewish ritual had never meant anything to him,” Alma Mahler wrote of her husband. For some time Mahler was attracted to Catholic mysticism, so much so that he converted and received baptism. “He could never pass a church without going in,” Alma Mahler’s memoirs tell us. “He loved the smell of incense and Gregorian chants.” The vision of resurrection in the Second Symphony and of heavenly life sung in the Third and Fourth Symphonies sprang directly from the composer’s very personal sort of Catholicism. But Mahler was never doctrinaire in his religious views, and he enriched his faith with ideas from humanistic sources ranging from Plato to Goethe. The latter was especially important to him. He read and reread Goethe and frequently discussed and the poet’s works with his wife and friends. “Goethe and apples are two things he cannot live without,” was the wry assessment of one of the composer’s acquaintances.

We have no indication that Mahler was undergoing one of his periodic spiritual crises when he began his Eighth Symphony. But the work did emerge from the pangs of creative doubt that preceded the start of most of his major compositions. In her memoirs, Alma Mahler writes of the summer of 1906, which she and her husband spent near the lakeside town of Maiernigg, where they had a house:

After we arrived at Maiernigg, there was the usual fortnight during which, nearly every year, he was haunted by the specter of failing inspiration. Then one morning, just as he crossed the threshold of his studio in the wood, it came to him — “Veni, creator spiritus.” He composed and wrote down the whole opening chorus to the half-forgotten words. But music and words did not fit — the music overlapped the text. In a fever of excitement he telegraphed back to Vienna and had the whole of the ancient Latin hymn telegraphed back to him. The complete text fit the music exactly.

Mahler continued to work on the piece — “with superhuman energy,” Alma Mahler asserts — through the following weeks. Mahler’s own statements also indicate that he composed in a state of high inspiration, and the unusual speed at which the large work took shape confirm this. Mahler told the music critic Richard Specht that he sketched the symphony in just three weeks. “I think that I have [never before] worked under such a feeling of compulsion,” Specht reported Mahler telling him; “it was like a lightning vision — I saw the whole piece immediately before my eyes and only needed to write it down, as though it were being dictated to me.”
Mahler had by this time hit upon the idea of following his music for Veni, creator spiritus with a setting of the final scene from Part Two of Goethe’s Faust. The juxtaposition of a 10th-century Latin hymn with an excerpt from the literary touchstone of 19th-century Romanticism might seem incongruous, but Mahler regarded Faust as a spiritual document, not merely a verse drama. And in its concluding scene, where angels, penitents, and finally the Virgin Mary (identified as Mater Gloriosa) lead the wayward Faust to redemption, he found a reflection of his own mystic Catholicism. Moreover, he recognized a strong link between the call for divine grace and enlightenment of Veni, creator spiritus and the vision of divine love that Goethe set forth at the end of his work. In a letter to his wife, Mahler explained his understanding of the poet’s philosophy this way: “The essence of it is really Goethe’s idea that all love is generative, creative....You have it in the last scene of Faust, presented symbolically.” For Mahler, divine love and the “creator spirit” were synonymous, and this ultimate power in the universe could be contemplated in both ecclesiastical and humanistic texts. This is precisely what Mahler does in his Eighth Symphony.

Although Mahler completed all but certain details of the colossal score in 1906, he had to wait four years for its first performance. He directed the premiere in Munich on September 12, 1910. This concert proved the greatest public triumph of Mahler’s career — one which, moreover, took place before an audience that included many of the leading intellectual and cultural figures of Europe. Among them was Thomas Mann, who was moved to pronounce Mahler “the man who...expresses the art of our time in its most profound and sacred form.” Writing of the performance with her characteristic effusion, Alma Mahler relates in her memoirs how “Mahler...turned those tremendous volumes of sound into fountains of light. The experience was indescribable.”

With his work, Mahler expanded the resources of orchestral composition to their utmost limits — and, indeed, beyond. For the first time in any symphony, voices played a prominent part nearly throughout. Interestingly, Mahler saw this not as a departure from his symphonic ideal but a realization of it, a means of creating, as he told Richard Specht, “a ‘pure’ symphony in which the most beautiful instrument in the world is given its true place.” In addition to a large choir, vocal soloists, and sizeable contingent of regular orchestral instruments, the score calls for piano (in perhaps its first appearance within, rather than before, the orchestra), celeste, harmonium, mandolin and organ, which Mahler employs to mighty effect. This vast array of musical forces accounts for the name “Symphony of A Thousand” by which the Eighth is sometimes called, though this designation originated with a concert producer, not the composer.

With its vivid and varied sonorities, its rich harmonic language, its tremendous scale, and its intimations of mysticism and ecstasy, Mahler’s Eighth Symphony represents the pinnacle of Romantic musical expression, the ultimate fulfillment of ideals towards which composers had been striving throughout the preceding century. Nothing further along this line of composition was possible, and Mahler, in the few years that remained to him, returned to work on a somewhat smaller scale, and in somewhat more conventional forms. Unprecedented, Mahler’s Eighth remains unequaled in its ambition, power, and grandeur. It stands as the highest peak in music’s Himalayas, the range of the great Romantic symphonies.

Scored for 5 flutes, the fifth doubling on piccolo, and second piccolo; 4 oboes and English horn; 3 clarinets, 2 E-flat clarinets and bass clarinet; 4 bassoons and contrabassoon; 8 horns; 4 trumpets and 4 off-stage trumpets; 4 trombones, 3 off-stage trombones and tuba, timpani and percussion; 2 harps; celeste, harmonium, organ and piano; and strings.

© 2008 Paul Schiavo

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