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Mahler: Symphony No. 8 "Symphony of a Thousand"
Gustav Mahler was born in Kalischt, Bohemia on July 7, 1860 and died in Vienna, Austria on May 18, 1911. He composed Symphony No. 8 in 1906 and 1907, and conducted the première himself, in Munich, Germany, on September 12, 1910. It runs approximately one hour and twenty minutes in performance and is scored for 3 solo sopranos, 2 solo altos, solo tenor, solo baritone, solo bass, children’s choir, 3 adult choirs, 2 piccolos, 5 flutes, 4 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets, 1 E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, 4 bassoons, contrabassoon, 8 horns, 4 trumpets, 4 trumpets offstage, 4 trombones, 3 trombones offstage, tuba, timpani, percussion, 2 harps, piano, organ, celeste, harmonium, and orchestral strings.
Mahler’s immense skills as a conductor earned him widespread renown. His music was another matter. The sheer length of his symphonies, and their often jarring juxtapositions of contents, led conservatives to savage them. By the time of the Eighth Symphony, he had made some progress, but his creative reputation was far from secure. He was philosophical about it. He stated, with typical self-assurance, “My time will come.”
His first four symphonies retain some facets of Romanticism, including an overall brightness of outlook and the influence of mid-European folk music. With Symphony No. 5 (1901-02), his output entered a new, less emotionally certain phase. Symphony No. 6 (1903-04) took this sense of unease much further, ending on a note of despair unique in Mahler’s output. The Seventh Symphony (1904-05) is something of a diversion, offering a brilliantly scored gallery of character pieces rather than a clear demonstration of creative progression.
What next? Mahler spent the summer of 1906 at his lakeside retreat in the Alps. This time, he wished simply to rest from his strenuous duties as Music Director of the Vienna Court Opera, and to come to terms with fears of failing creative powers.
It was not to be. “On the threshold of my old workshop the ‘Spiritus Creator’ [the medieval hymn Veni, Creator Spiritus] took hold of me and shook me and drove me on for the next eight weeks until my greatest work was done,” he wrote. He chose the final scene from Part Two of Goethe’s Faust to complete his plan, based on the two texts’ mutual concern with the power of divine love.
By the time he finished the symphony’s orchestration during the summer of 1907, fate had dealt him three terrible blows. In January, a doctor diagnosed the heart disease that would kill him four years later. In March, Mahler resigned from the opera, tired of battling bottom-line managers, egotistical singers, and a hostile press. In June, his four-year-old daughter, Maria, died of diphtheria and scarlet fever. Perhaps the completion of the Eighth Symphony offered some desperately needed solace during those dark days.
The three years between its completion and première were packed with activity. Mahler worked extensively with the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic; conducted the first performance of Symphony No. 7; and composed the symphonic song-cycle Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth), and substantial portions of Symphony No. 9.
Word of the Eighth Symphony’s special character had spread, due largely to Emil Guttman, the flamboyant Munich impresario who had taken charge of presenting the first performance. It was he who coined the nickname ‘Symphony of a Thousand.’ Mahler disliked it, but it is perfectly accurate in regards to the première, whose forces totaled 1,030 (171 instrumentalists, 858 singers, and Mahler).
Mahler’s disciple Bruno Walter described the occasion: “What a moment it was, when at the zenith of his career, and, little as we knew it, soon to be called from us by the hand of fate, he took his place amid the applause of the thousands filling the vast auditorium, in front of the one thousand performers—above all at the point where the ‘Creator Spiritus,’ whose fire inspired him, is called on and a thousand voices utter the cry expressing his whole life’s longing: Accende lumen sensibus, infunde amorem cordibus! (Illuminate our senses, pour love into our hearts!)” When the performance ended, the entire audience surged toward the stage and remained standing to applaud Mahler for 30 minutes. This proved to be the last time he conducted one of his own compositions.
Does the combination of what are in effect a pair of cantatas—one concentrated and sung in Latin, the other with a German text and rhapsodic in nature—make up a symphony? By Mahler’s time, the term ‘symphony’ had become so elastic that it could plausibly be applied to any large-scale work involving an orchestra.
Mahler’s scoring, for huge orchestra, eight vocal soloists, two mixed choruses, children’s choir, and organ is grandiose, but no more than his subject. Balancing those passages which use much or all of his forces are many that he scored with virtually chamber-music delicacy.
He plunges us immediately into the first movement’s exultant celebration. Although the overwhelming impression is one of grandeur and vitality, it also includes interludes of rapturous repose. Learnedness joins hands with ecstasy in an exhilarating double fugue, before the resounding confirmation of the closing section.
A poetic orchestral introduction and a quiet opening chorus set the mood for Part Two. Among the characters portrayed are holy monks or anchorites. In the course of their meditations, Pater Profundus (bass solo) appeals for divine enlightenment. Angels appear bearing the soul of Faust. First Dr. Marianus (tenor solo), then the chorus, offer praise to the Virgin Mary. Led by a penitent (soprano solo), who is revealed to be Gretchen, the young woman whom Faust wronged and who has preceded him to heaven, the angels plead with the Virgin to grant Faust redemption. Once she has done so, Mahler launches his final hymn, introduced at a whisper but building to an awe-inspiring conclusion.
Programme Note by Don Anderson
© Copyright 2013 Toronto Symphony Orchestra