Listening Guide – Symphony No. 8 Intro


Mahler’s Eighth Symphony is his most ambitious work. It reaches a level of complexity, a breadth of subject matter and size of forces, on equal not only in Mahler’s works but also in the history of the symphony to the date of its composition. Even the choral symphonies of Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and Liszt utilize a chorus only in their finales Berlioz, Romeo and Juliet, Opus 17, and Sibelius Kullervo Symphony over seven are rare examples of choral symphonies written before Mahler’s eighth, that employ vocal forces throughout.
The strong influence of the choral symphonies of Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Liszt on the eighth as a parent, particularly in the dramatic style of the choral writing the use of classical forms to provide cohesion in setting the text, and the nature and shape of thematic material. The eighth is constructed in two parts:
– The text of the first part is a medieval Latin hymn “Veni Creator Spiritus“.
– And the second part sets the final scene of Goethe’s Faust.

Franz Liszt also set the final chorus “mysticism” from Faust, it is a Faust symphony, but Liszt merely appends the chorus mystic as an alternate ending to the Mephisto movement. While Mahler sets the entire closing scene, the original orchestral ending to Liszt of Faust Symphony leaves the work without an apotheosis. It remains in the clutches of Mephisto, without a hint of redemption. The settings of Curtis’s text by Liszt and Mahler are very different in both size and content, although both and in a blaze of glory. What is also interesting is the similarity and rhythmic construction between the music and the text. Both composers use a repeated note pattern and five-bar phrasing even though the text would certainly accommodate four-bar phrasing. They also treat the Ewig-Weibliche segment soloisticlly, Liszt, using a tenor, Mahler two Sopranos with the chorus.

Although Mahler did not think very highly of Liszt as a symphonic composer, he may have been influenced by his predecessor in the use of the organ and harmonium in a Faust Symphony.

In the eighth, the fusion of formal symphonic principles with a thorough compose text and declamatory vocal style, results in a hybrid of auditorio opera and Symphony molars contrapuntal technique was never more complex or elaborate. He reasserts a firmness of tonality and an all-encompassing programmatic orientation that had been absent from his middle period symphonies.
Those the Eighth Symphony is not only the combination of Mahler’s contrapuntal art developed during his middle period but the consummation of his symphonic style up to the time it was written. It may also be viewed as the fulfillment of the promise of Beethoven’s Ninth, a perfect fusion of choral and orchestral forces. In a symphonic setting. Mahler synthesizes musical styles, integrating elements of German romanticism, Viennese classicism, and Italian Baroque. His application of motivic symbolism reaches a level of intricacy and subtlety yet to be equaled by any other sinfulness. His technique of dramatic development also attains a level of complexity and inventiveness that is unprecedented in both his own works and all others before him.

The successful juxtaposition of such diverse texts as a monastic latin hymn, and the closing scene from Goethe’s Faust is itself a prodigious achievement. Yet commentators often fail to understand the conceptual connections between these seemingly unrelated, poetical works written in different languages and remote errors. Efforts have been made by a few notable Mahler experts, such as Donald Mitchell, to elucidate the conceptual relationships that bind together these extensively disparate texts. What may be most remarkable about the Eighth is the speed with which it was written. Composing such massive and complex work is an arduous, if not monumental task.

According to Alma, “it was accomplished in eight weeks”, she put it, “creative frenzy and furor, the eighth seems to have burst forth in a flood of creative energy.” Mahler recognized its significance in the context of his entire work, when he said, “the eighth is 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.”

It is as if the Latin hymns prayer for the renewal of creative power, mirrored Mahler’s own, after having so much difficulty composing the seventh, when he can join this prayer with the idealization of love as a source of creativity represented in the Faust scene, Mahler’s creative energies were rekindled with incredible power. One of the most fascinating aspects of the work is it a union of pagan and Christian mysticism, as Gabriel Engels so aptly described it in conjoining, a religious with a secular text, Mahler integrates his Quasar religious quest for life’s meaning and purpose with his thoroughgoing humanism, to produce a proclamation of faith to quote Philip Barford: “Yet Mahler’s offhand comment that the eighth is my mass cannot be taken to literally, he may even have had what some might consider a sack religious intention by setting a sacred and secular text side by side. After Mahler’s conversion to Catholicism, he never practiced his newly acquired religion, being fascinated more with its mystical qualities than faithful to its dogma or rituals. He once admitted that he could never compose a liturgical mass being reluctant to write a credo.”

Ironically, Mahler came to the Latin hymn via a translation by Goethe perhaps this led him to use it as the gateway to the last scene of Faust.
Veni Creator Spiritus” the text of part one is the official hymn for the second Vespers of Pentecost, a humble prayer for enlightenment. It was attributed in Mahler’s time to Rabanus Maurus, Archbishop of mines, whose dates are 776 to 856.
Mahler transforms this obscure liturgical did very personal offering into thunders military march as pay on to the creative spirit by linking it to the Faust scene in part two, Mahler unites creativity with love, and in doing so provides another response to the existential questions about lights meaning and value that haunted him unceasingly. Despite his use of the Christian hymn model, his answer to these fundamental questions is more secular than religious. Thus, Goethe’s text responds to the Latin hymn: “the glory of life is in the aspiration to creativity through love, and not in its fulfillment”.
Mahler expressed his ideas regarding the subject of the eighth in a number of places. In a letter to Alma written in June of 1909. He referred to a polarity between the ever manly, which he described as eternal longing, striving, moving ahead, and the ever womanly Goethe’s ewig Weibliche. The resting place the goal, personified by the martyred gloriosa, at the end of Faust.

During the time of the rehearsals, that preceded the symphonies premier in Munich, Mahler analogised, the conceptual dualism and the work to that between the pagan and the Christian worldviews. He says, “in the discourses of Socrates, Plato gives his own philosophy, which as the misunderstood platonic love has influenced thought right down the centuries to the present day. The essence of it is really Goethe’s idea that all love is generative, creative, and that there is a physical and spiritual generation, which is the emanation of this arrows. You have it in the last scene of Faust, presented symbolically that love may be progressively sublimated until it manifests in the highest consciousness of the philosopher’s contemplation of beauty”.

Mahler had a long standing affinity for Goethe’s work, but he was reluctant to set the German master his magnum opus to music for fear of detracting in the slightest degree from his poetical expression.
When Mahler first read the Veni Creator hymn, and made the connection between it and the closing scene of Faust, he apparently put his doubts aside and let his unique musical and aesthetic gifts guide him. Both Goethe and Mahler recognize the same essential truth that the quest for meaning and human existence will eventually succeed by culminating in the metaphysical experience of absolute wisdom, power, and love. In the Faust scene, Mahler resolves the human doubts and fears that are expressed in the Latin hymn. Conversely, the hymn provides a redemptive response to the earthly inadequacies that threatened creativity in the Faust scene as in both the second and third symphonies. Love, again provides the answer, through the expression of the Divine and worldly power of love.

Human beings can achieve fulfillment in creativity. Although by implication this self-generated fulfillment is achieved without the intervention of God’s grace, Mahler would probably acknowledge that the creative spark is divinely inspired.
Philip Barford the Latin hymn riddled with fears of human fallibility that are resolved in part two in a manner typical of Mahler, he says, “it often seems that the closer Mahler came to doubt and the more he suffered a generalized feeling of insecurity and anxiety, the more he exalted the notion of salvation for himself and mankind in transcendental visions.” It might well be added that the idea of redemption through suffering is quintessential to both the Judeo Christian ethic and ironically to its antithesis, Nietzschean philosophy. Not only did Mahler deftly combine seemingly divergent philosophies into a single conception of life’s fundamental meaning, but he skillfully related thematic and motivic material in a complex web of symbolism to convey this meaning, akin to Wagner his use of light motifs, words, or phrases in the text are sung to musical motives with which they are identified, and that undergo a process of development and transformation.

Unlike in Wagner’s music dramas, in the eighth, Mahler integrates his motific ideas into the symphonic landscape, not to direct any dramatic scenario, what we identify its elements, but to elicit a conceptual nexus between the texts, and orient the listener toward an emotive response to significant aspects of their meaning. The choral music of Bach particularly has cantatas and motets and of Handel influenced Mahler’s methodology. During his middle period, Mahler made a thorough study of box contrapuntal technique, handles influences especially apparent in Mahler’s handling of passages for full chorus, such as in the opening veiny chorus of part one. Although other characteristics of baroque oratorio are evident, the absence of a strict narrative form and the processes involved in utilizing thematic and motivic material are principally symphonic. Mahler’s use of spatial effects in the eighth recalls both Das klagende Lied, and the Second Symphony. He places the martyr gloriosa high above the orchestra and choruses uses an off-stage wind band, and positions the double chorus and typically techniques that date as far back as the Venetian Renaissance and the works of Palestrina, Lassus and the Gabriellese these perspectival uses of space are precursors of spatial effects developed in the second half of the 20th century. In the Eighth Symphony, Mahler introduces a new principle of variation form, which I call progressive thematic generation. By this technique, Mahler constructs a theme from material pieced together during the course of the movement. Part Two nearly an hour-long is essentially a set of variations in search of a theme that achieves fulfillment only toward the end. Mahler does not simply present a principal theme and then have it undergo variations. He gradually develops his principal theme over the course of a substantial number of variations, before presenting it in definitive form in the closing moments of the symphony.

By means of this unusual evolutionary process, the theme that is the generation of the variations is heard complete only at the end of the variation sequence. Similarly, Mahler’s progressive tonality takes a completely different turn in the eighth, unlike his middle-period symphonies, in which except for the sixth, the overall tonal progressions from minor to major, that are the eighth is circular, beginning and ending in E flat major, after many diversions, thus functioning as the major key counterpart of the Sixth Symphony, which begins and ends in a minor key. This process has been likened conceptually to Nietzsche’s notion of eternal return, for which the conclusion of Goethe’s Faust might be considered a symbolic representation.

Some of the questions whether the eighth should be called symphony while there are structural similarities between the finale of the Second Symphony and the eighth, such as between the initial appearance of the chorus and the second, and the chorus mystic as of part two, these are hardly sufficient to justify the label Symphony. One might look to Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony with its grand brass chorale in the finale, as a foreigner, despite the absence of choral music, but the eighth is truly a symphony because of its intricate interrelationship of thematic and motivic material, and the application of symphonic formal principles in both parts.

Although Mater organized part one, largely in classical first movement form, he diverged from its structures and expanded its tripartite format to encompasses many musical ideas. For example, he includes a double fugue at the climax of the development section, the telescope’s into the recapitulation, both, Hans Redlich and Alfred Mathis contend that Mahler had originally planned the eighth along essentially classical lines. According to these noted scholars, an early draft contains the following structural outline for a four-movement symphony. The first movement was called Hymnus Veni Creator, which is essential as the same title as part one of the final work. The second would have been called Scherzo Christmas Games, the third Adagio: Caritas, and the fourth hymn The Birth of Eros.

The middle movements, which were to have been purely orchestral, were deleted. Some commentators have tried to subdivide part two, forcing it into the traditional symphonic design adagio scherzo finale, in order to justify the work as a symphony, and better integrate its two-part design. Donald Michel makes the most complete and cogent argument against this artificial division part two. He points out, for example, that the opening anchorite chorus serves more as a prelude in an independent movement. And that scherzando elements appear in places other than those referred to as the so-called scherzo movement.

The structure of Part Two can be more appropriately understood as a vast series of variations that integrate them to develop thematic and motivic elements from both parts. The joy that Mahler must have experienced in the sudden burst of creative energy that resulted in the eighth Symphony was soon to be nullified by the first of a series of intervening catastrophes. At about the time Mahler was finishing the orchestration of the symphony, his first daughter Marie succumbed to Diptheria, a blow from which neither Gustav nor Alma would ever fully recover. Soon after this terrible tragedy, Alma collapsed, and Mahler was diagnosed with a valvular heart ailment. As a result of this heart defect, he had to completely alter his daily routine for the rest of his life, and curtail the strenuous physical exercise he was used to. To add to his troubles, his tenure at the Vienna State Opera was soon to come to an unhappy end, the combination of increasingly effective opposition to his overbearing manner, his relentless demands upon members of the company, and his unwillingness or inability to smooth over the problems that resulted, ended in his termination.

Mahler’s relationship with Alma also deteriorated during this time, she felt increasingly alienated from her famous but self-involved husband, and according to her harbored resentment towards him for prohibiting her from composing. Marie’s death seems to have been the breaking point in the tension that was mounting between the Mahler’s not totally oblivious to his marital problems, Mahler sought help from Sigmund Freud, they met a short time before the scheduled premiere of the eighth, four years after the summer in which it was composed, realizing the importance of Alma in his life after talking with Freud, Mahler quickly took steps to patch up their strained relationship. He now encouraged her composing, examined her work, and made suggestions for improvement. His communications with her became more personal and loving, as a gesture of his renewed devotion to her, Mahler dedicated the eighth Symphony is paying on to love and creativity to Alma who he now recognized as his greatest creative resource. It was in this context that Mahler organizes the premiere of his gigantic Choral Symphony. Just to put together the vocal choral and orchestral forces that the work demands was an incredibly difficult task. He combed the opera houses and concert halls of Europe for singers and musicians to put together an international ensemble that represented many of the major cities on the continent. Such an enormous number of performances were assembled, that the producer of this extravaganza, Emile Goodman billed the work as a symphony of 1000, the subtitle has stuck to this day.

Mahler in a characteristically cynical witticism referred to the production as a Barnum and Bailey show. Having engaged this huge ensemble, Mahler took great pains to prepare the symphony, he sought the advice of his scenic designer at the Vienna Opera, Alfred Roller on the placement of the singers and related matters of staging.
Mahler departed from the customary practice of having the hole fully lit during the performance and kept his audience in complete darkness. Even streetcars were cautioned to pass by the Festival Hall as quietly as possible so that they would not interfere with the performance. All of Mahler’s painstaking work resulted in an overwhelming triumph. According to Dika Newlin, the premiere of the eighth was, as she put it, “the greatest day in Mahler’s life.” The massive audience included major figures of the European musical political and intellectual worlds, from whom reports of the concert are bound. After assisting Mahler in preparing the individual parts for the performance, a young admirer, and later be a lifelong advocate of his music Otto Klemper attended the performance, he confessed that after hearing the word complete for the first time, he realized more fully than before the greatness of its composer. The only question that remained was where the genre of Symphony could go from here, for the eighth seem to mark the end of an era. Many felt that this monumental masterpiece was the summit of the long history of the symphony up to its time, as Beethoven’s Ninth was when it was written nearly a century before.

Mahler’s declining health forced him to reserve his strength, and this affected his conducting style. He took great pains to control his usual fiery temperament. Some of his colleagues would tend to the premier commented with amazement on how staid Mahler appeared on the podium. The wild gesticulations of the past had completely disappeared. He gave a thrilling performance that was the hallmark of his career as a symphonic conductor. Six years later, after the American premiere of the symphony in Philadelphia, its conductor Leopold Stokowski compared the impression made upon him to the site of Niagara falls upon the first white man, for a composer whose music was so easily misunderstood during his lifetime.

It is ironic that Mahler’s most complex work would prove to be so readily accepted, he had predicted as much, most of the critical commentary about the eighth has been positive, if not glowing in its praise. Paul Becker calls it the summit from which an overview of Mahler’s works can be gained.

The most severe criticism came from Hans Redlich, who considers it the weakest of Mahler symphonies, readily finds the two parts to disparate in style and content to form an integrated whole and the dominance of the flat to persistent throughout. He argues that the return of descriptive and hyper-emotional style after the polyphonic rigors of part one does not make for conceptual unity that had been accomplished better in the second and third symphonies. However, Redlich’s commentary does not do adequate justice to the vast network of thematic and motivic interrelationships between the parts. They’ve brilliantly conceived a progression of variations that culminated in a full statement of the main theme and the closing coda and the remarkable integration of musical and textual symbolism, all of which combined to produce a work more completely unified than perhaps any of Mahler’s previous symphonies.

By Lew Smoley

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