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In 1906, while attending the Mozart Festival in Salzburg, Mahler ran into the music historian Richard Specht. At the time Mahler was preoccupied with the composition of his Eighth Symphony, and he spoke at length about it to Specht. Several years after Mahler’s death Specht published an account of Mahler's comments about the Symphony:

“Think, in the last three weeks I have completed the sketches of an entirely new symphony, something in comparison with which all the rest of my works are no more than introductions. I have never written anything like it; it is something 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 immediately before my eyes and only needed to write it down, as though it were being dictated to me. This Eighth Symphony is remarkable for the fact that it unites two poems in two different languages, the first being a Latin hymn and the second nothing less than the final scene of the second part of Faust. Does that astonish you? I have for years longed to set this scene with the anchorites and the final scene with the Mater gloriosa, and to set it quite differently from other composers who have made it saccharine and feeble; but then [I] gave up the idea. Lately, however, an old book fell into my hands and I chanced on the hymn “Veni creator spiritus” – and at a single stroke I saw the whole thing – not only the opening theme, but the whole first movement, and as an answer to it I could imagine nothing more beautiful than Goethe’s text in the scene with the anchorites! Formally, too, it is something quite novel – can you imagine a symphony that is, from beginning to end, sung? Hitherto I have always used words and voices simply in an explanatory way, as a short cut to creating a certain atmosphere and to express something which, purely symphonically, could only be expressed at great length, with the terseness and precision only possible by using words. Here, on the other hand, voices are also used as instruments: the first movement is strictly symphonic in form but all of it is sung. Strange, in fact, that this has never occurred to any other composer – it really is Columbus’ egg, a ‘pure’ symphony in which the most beautiful instrument in the world is given its true place – and not simply as one sonority among others, for in my symphony the human voice is after all the bearer of the whole poetic idea.”

Those familiar with Mahler’s personality know that he habitually made such excitable and passionate remarks about his music, particularly when he was in the middle of composing it. But in the case of the Eighth Symphony, Mahler’s assessment was – and remains – accurate. In its highly unorthodox juxtaposition of texts and astoundingly large performing resources, Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 stands incontestably as the grandest and most peculiar work he ever wrote.

But the Symphony also represented an abrupt shift in Mahler’s style. His first four symphonies routinely combine a jumble of disparate elements – rustic scherzos and folk dances, a parody of village musicians at a funeral, highly dissonant and complex storm music set against lushly Romantic love themes. In addition, he regularly fit songs that he had written earlier into the middle of symphonic movements. These usually were meant to underline the philosophical agendas of the music. In the three symphonies prior to the Eighth, however, Mahler begins to write more abstractly. His forms become somewhat more regular, the textures become leaner, more contrapuntal, and intense motivic development replaces the more extroverted Romantic gestures of his early music. Moreover, he stopped using voice and chorus to underline philosophical meanings. The prominent use of vocal mediums in the Eighth Symphony, then, its unusual degree of harmonic consonance and lusher instrumental textures, all represent a dramatic (although temporary) return to his earliest style.

The first movement sets the medieval Latin hymn “Veni creator spiritus” in a sonata-allegro form. The first sound we hear in the work is a full-throated E-flat-major chord in the organ. Richly consonant, closely spaced in the center of musical space, and supported by sustaining low string and woodwind instruments, the chord greets the listener with a warm, open-armed embrace. Immediately thereafter, the two main choruses address the creative spirit in a loud but genial manner: “Come, Holy Ghost, Creator, come!”

Following this opening section, which in places features dense contrapuntal dialogues between the two choruses, the music suddenly grows quiet, most of the instruments drop out, and the tempo slows. At this point Mahler introduces the lyrical second theme of this sonata exposition, expressing the words imple superna gratia (fill with grace from on high). The soloists take the theme first, presenting an intricate polyphonic web in which the focus of attention shifts fluidly from voice to voice. (The emphasis on counterpoint here and throughout the Symphony, by the way, reveals that Mahler had been studying the music of J. S. Bach carefully during these years.) The melody itself is one of the most beautiful Mahler ever wrote, tracing an ascending arch through gentle, asymmetrical fragments. It communicates in more intimate terms the same kind of expansive, all-embracing spirit that we encountered in the initial choral throng. The chorus follows the soloists with a hushed, chorale-like version of their theme. In subsequent passages, Mahler develops the melody by distributing it flexibly between the soloists, choruses, and orchestral instruments.

Mahler prepares for the development section with a striking passage, in which material for soloists and both choirs braid together with a line for solo violin. The passage swells gradually to a thunderous climax, but the expected chord of resolution is replaced with – a silent pause! The development itself begins with a fragmentary passage for orchestra alone, using the kind of scampering dotted rhythms found in the first movement of his Symphony No. 2. Long-held pedals in the bass region lend a sense of impending conflict. After this, the solo singers develop material with the solo violin. In the midst of the development the music begins yet another gradual swell, finally reaching a moment when the chorus enters thunderously on the word ascende. This particular climax seems to give the much-delayed resolution to the progression that had been interrupted by silence just before the development. The children’s choir enters soon after, making its first appearance in the Symphony and reinforcing similarities between this work and Bach.

Mahler commentators have viewed Part Two of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony as a loose sequence of three movements. However, this vast setting of the closing scene of Goethe’s Faust is best regarded as a cantata consisting of a string of discrete sections with different styles and forms: recitative, arioso, strophic hymn, chorale, solo song, to name a few. For that matter, its structure better resembles the music dramas of Wagner – particularly Parsifal – than any symphonic model.

Part Two begins with an extended instrumental introduction. To capture the spirit of this thoroughly Romantic landscape – Goethe describes the scene as “Ravines, forests, rocks, wilderness” – Mahler starts slowly, solemnly, with short woodwind figures. Strings are mainly absent, except for the tense single-note tremolo high in the violins. This absence intensifies two passages in which the violins appear suddenly, whether with harsh chromatic chords or with an agitated, angular melody.

The “Chorus and Echo,” given by the choral basses and tenors, enter quietly and tentatively, with short motives taken from the introduction. Soon the Pater Ecstaticus enters with a song in praise of love. As set by Mahler, the song is warm and ardent, saturated with a 19th-century style lyricism. But the song actually proceeds in regularly measured phrases, following a fairly conventional statement-departure-return structure. Near the end, at the words “eternal love,” Mahler builds a beautifully florid, soaring decoration into the melody.

From a “rocky chasm,” Pater Profundus enters with a second song. The focus remains on the topic of love, but here more tumultuous elements receive stress. The harmonic language becomes much more chromatic, and the strings present craggy outbursts like those from the introduction. The following choral passage involves the “Chorus of Blessed Boys,” who circle the highest peaks, and Angels, who soar “in the higher atmosphere, carrying Faust’s immortal soul.” These two entities sing simultaneously, featuring a bright but resolute fugue. The remainder of the Symphony, as mentioned above, includes a connected sequence of passages for choruses of various combinations, solo ensembles, and solo arias. The music becomes increasingly ecstatic, culminating in the final climactic chorale. During the course of Part Two, many themes and motives from the entire Symphony return, transformed into a bewildering array of new shapes. This process helps create the sense of progression toward the eternal that both Mahler (and Goethe) tried to create in this work.

Mahler wrote the gigantic score in about ten weeks, composing, according to his wife Alma, “as if in a fever.” It is clear that Mahler dwelled carefully on the meaning of his texts as he composed. In the “Veni,” for example, he made many slight alterations to the hymn in order to stress one meaning as opposed to another. At the very beginning of the work, for example, the opening line of text – “Veni creator spiritus” (Come, Holy Ghost, Creator) – stresses the opening word by repeating it, thus emphasizing the invocational character of the line. A few moments later a new melody, based on the opening one, expresses the same text. But in this case Mahler re-shuffles the opening line of text to “Spiritus, O creator, veni creator.” The new word order – and the “O” just before “creator” – shifts the attention from the supplicatory “come” to the creative spirit. This free treatment of texts, by the way, was characteristic of the composer throughout his career.

It is just as clear that Mahler carefully planned the connections between the two texts. The joining of a 9th-century Latin hymn and Goethe’s Faust (completed in 1830-1831) may strike some as a monumental non sequitur, since they obviously come from separate worlds. For years scholars have wondered whether Mahler felt some sort of thematic connection between the two texts, or whether he wished simply to force them into a unity of his own devising by linking them musically. But the composer himself once told his wife that he meant the Symphony to emphasize the link between an early expression of Christian belief in the power of the holy spirit and Goethe’s symbolic vision of mankind’s redemption through love. Mahler makes many philosophical connections throughout the work, consistently stressing the principles of divine grace, earthly inadequacy, and spiritual reincarnation.

Mahler conducted the premiere of the Eighth Symphony in September 1910, four years after completing the work and just eight months before he died. The performance, Mahler’s last as a conductor in Europe, was to be the greatest triumph he ever experienced as a composer. But the preparation leading up to this event did not go smoothly. Beginning early in 1910, many months before the performance, Mahler exchanged several letters with Emil Gutmann, the impresario who had persuaded Mahler to conduct the premiere for a Mahler festival in Munich. Growing increasingly concerned, Mahler began to insist, sometimes frantically, that the performance be called off. He was particularly certain that the choirs could not learn their parts in time. In a letter to his trusted friend Bruno Walter, Mahler warned that he “shall ruthlessly [Mahler’s emphasis] cancel the whole thing if all artistic conditions are not met to my satisfaction.” A few weeks later, however, Mahler seemed to have resigned himself to a fiasco.

He wrote Walter, “Until today I have been fighting inwardly and outwardly against this catastrophic Barnum-and-Bailey performance of my Eighth in Munich. When [Gutmann] took me unawares in Vienna that time, I didn’t stop to think of all the to-do that goes with such ‘festivals’.” Mahler continues that, even though he is convinced the performance will be “utterly inadequate,” he sees no way to escape from his obligations.

It didn’t help matters when Mahler learned, much to his dissatisfaction, that Gutmann had nicknamed his work “The Symphony of a Thousand.” The tag, of course, is a rather shallow one to apply to a symphony by Mahler. It was not only correct, however, it was an understatement. As the program supervised by Mahler for the 1910 premiere of the Symphony states, the work required 858 singers and 171 instrumentalists. To counter the effect of so many singers, Mahler had to augment the standard orchestra. Thus, he increases it to 84 strings, 6 harps, 22 woodwinds, and 17 brass players. The score also requested that 4 trumpets and 4 trombones be placed apart. To assemble such a body of singers, it was necessary to supplement the Munich chorus (which included 350 children) with large groups from Vienna and Leipzig. The eight soloists came from Munich, Vienna, Frankfurt, Hamburg, Berlin, and Wiesbaden. The first performance, then, seemed to match in spirit Mahler’s attitude to the work, which he once called “a gift to the nation.”

— Steven Johnson