Gustav Mahler, Symphony No. 8

By Christopher H. Gibbs

Written for the concert Fiftieth Birthday Celebration, performed on Oct 26, 2012 at Carnegie Hall.

“On the first day of the holidays, I went up to the hut in Maiernigg with the firm resolution of idling the holiday away (I needed to so much that year) and recruiting my strength. On the threshold of my old workshop the Spiritus creator took hold of me and shook me and drove me on for the next eight weeks until my greatest work was done.” So Mahler wrote to his wife Alma in June 1910, remembering the events four summers earlier, when in an unusually short time he sketched his monumental Eighth Symphony. The 8th-century Pentecost hymn Veni creator spiritus (Come Creative Spirit) served as the inspiration for the first movement while the ending of Goethe’s Faust II provided the basis for the second.

According to conventional definitions, the Eighth is more a cantata or oratorio than a symphony. Multiple choruses and vocal soloists are used throughout, unlike Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony or Mahler’s own Second that withhold vocalists until the end. Mahler recognized this as a revolutionary feature, telling his biographer Richard Specht, “Its form is something altogether new. Can you imagine a symphony that is sung throughout, from beginning to end? So far I have employed words and the human voice merely to suggest, to sum up, to establish a mood…. Here the voice is also an instrument…. It is really strange that nobody has ever thought of this before; it is simplicity itself, The True Symphony, in which the most beautiful instrument of all is led to its calling. Yet it is used not only as sound, because the voice is the bearer of poetic thoughts.”

Mahler cast the Eighth Symphony in two movements, with texts in Latin and German, and used an immense orchestra, two large mixed choirs and separate children’s chorus, organ, off-stage brass, and eight soloists. These extraordinary forces prompted its unofficial title, “Symphony of a Thousand.” The name came from the shrewd impresario Emil Gutmann, who arranged the legendary premiere on September 12, 1910, at Munich’s New Music Festival Hall. The performance allegedly employed 858 singers and 171 instrumentalists, for a total of 1,029 performers (plus Mahler conducting). The premiere was an enormous success, undoubtedly the greatest of Mahler’s career.

After an introductory measure in which the organ firmly establishes the key of E-flat, the symphony opens with an enormous burst of energy as the massed choral forces exclaim the Veni creator spiritus text. The opening motto reappears throughout the symphony and ultimately caps the final measures. The soprano initiates the soloists and their interactions with the double chorus and children’s chorus. One of the climaxes of the movement is the section “Accende lumen sensibus, Infunde amorem cordibus!” (“Illuminate our senses, Pour love into our hearts!”), which serves as a conceptual bridge to the more humanistic themes of the second movement. That part begins mysteriously, with an extended slow introduction in the minor. The Faust movement is often described as encompassing the expected next three sections of a typical symphony—a slow movement, scherzo, and finale—but that does not do full justice to its layout, moments of which return to music from the opening movement. The soloists, who were anonymous in the first movement, are now used to convey specific biblical and quasi-spiritual figures, among them Mater Gloriosa as the Virgin Mary, “the personification of the Eternal Feminine,” as well characters from Faust, including “a penitent woman,” Faust’s beloved Gretchen.

Dr. Gibbs is the James H. Ottaway, Jr. Professor of Music at Bard College and the Co-Artistic Director of the Bard Music Festival.