Symphony in two parts for large orchestra, eight soloists, two mixed choirs and boys’choir.
“Try to imagine the whole universe beginning to ring and resound. There are no longer human voices, but planets and suns revolving” (Gustav Mahler).
- Part I is based on the (sacred) Latin text of a 9th-century Christian hymn for Pentecost, Veni creator spiritus (“Come, Creator Spirit”).
- Part II is a setting of the words from the (secular) closing scene of Goethe’s Faust. The depiction of an ideal of redemption through eternal womanhood (das Ewige-Weibliche).
The two parts are unified by a common idea, that of redemption through the power of love, a unity conveyed through shared musical themes.
Symphony No. 8 in E-flat major by Gustav Mahler is one of the largest-scale choral works in the classical concert repertoire. Because it requires huge instrumental and vocal forces it is frequently called the “Symphony of a Thousand”, although the work is often performed with fewer than a thousand, and Mahler himself did not sanction the name. The work was composed in a single inspired burst, at Maiernigg in southern Austria in the summer of 1906. The last of Mahler’s works that was premiered in his lifetime, the symphony was a critical and popular success when he conducted its first performance 1910 Concert Munich 12-09-1910 – Symphony No. 8 (Premiere).
The fusion of song and symphony had been a characteristic of Mahler’s early works. In his “middle” compositional period after 1901, a change of direction led him to produce three purely instrumental symphonies. The Eighth, marking the end of the middle period, returns to a combination of orchestra and voice in a symphonic context.
The structure of the work is unconventional; instead of the normal framework of several movements, the piece is in two parts. Part I is based on the Latin text of a 9th-century Christian hymn for Pentecost, Veni creator spiritus (“Come, Creator Spirit”), and Part II is a setting of the words from the closing scene of Goethe’s Faust. The two parts are unified by a common idea, that of redemption through the power of love, a unity conveyed through shared musical themes.
Mahler had been convinced from the start of the work’s significance; in renouncing the pessimism that had marked much of his music, he offered the Eighth as an expression of confidence in the eternal human spirit. In the period following the composer’s death, performances were comparatively rare. However, from the mid-20th century onwards the symphony has been heard regularly in concert halls all over the world, and has been recorded many times.
By the summer of 1906, Mahler had been director of the Vienna Hofoper for nine years. Throughout this time his practice was to leave Vienna at the close of the Hofoper season for a summer retreat, where he could devote himself to composition. Since 1899 this haven had been at Maiernigg, near the resort town of Maria Wörth in Carinthia, southern Austria, where Mahler built a villa overlooking the Worthersee. In these restful surroundings Mahler completed his Fourth, Fifth, Sixth and Seventh symphonies, his Rückert songs and his song cycle Kindertotenlieder (“Songs on the Death of Children”).
Until 1901, Mahler’s compositions had been heavily influenced by the German folk-poem collection Des Knaben Wunderhorn (“The Youth’s Magic Horn”), which he had first encountered around 1887. The music of Mahler’s many Wunderhorn settings is reflected in his Second, Third and Fourth symphonies, which all employ vocal as well as instrumental forces.
From about 1901, however, Mahler’s music underwent a change in character as he moved into the middle period of his compositional life. Here, the more austere poems of Friedrich Rückert replace the Wunderhorn collection as the primary influence; the songs are less folk-related, and no longer infiltrate the symphonies as extensively as before. During this period the Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Symphonies were written, all as purely instrumental works, portrayed by Mahler scholar Deryck Cooke as “more stern and forthright …, more tautly symphonic, with a new granite-like hardness of orchestration”.
Mahler arrived at Maiernigg in June 1906 with the draft manuscript of his Seventh Symphony; he intended to spend time revising the orchestration until an idea for a new work should strike. The composer’s wife Alma Mahler, in her memoirs, says that for a fortnight Mahler was “haunted by the spectre of failing inspiration”; Mahler’s recollection, however, is that on the first day of the vacation he was seized by the creative spirit, and plunged immediately into composition of the work that would become his Eighth Symphony.
Two notes in Mahler’s handwriting dating from June 1906 show that early schemes for the work, which he may not at first have intended as a fully choral symphony, were based on a four-movement structure in which two “hymns” surround an instrumental core. These outlines show that Mahler had fixed on the idea of opening with the Latin hymn, but had not yet settled on the precise form of the rest. The first note is as follows:
- Hymn: Veni Creator
- Adagio: Caritas (“Christian love”)
- Hymn: Die Geburt des Eros (“The birth of Eros”)
The second note includes musical sketches for the Veni creator movement, and two bars in B minor which are thought to relate to the Caritas. The four-movement plan is retained in a slightly different form, still without specific indication of the extent of the choral element:
- Veni creator
- Weihnachtsspiele mit dem Kindlein (“Christmas games with the child”)
- Schöpfung durch Eros. Hymne (“Creation through Eros. Hymn”)
06-1906. Second note with concept.
From Mahler’s later comments on the symphony’s gestation, it is evident that the four-movement plan was relatively short-lived. He soon replaced the last three movements with a single section, essentially a dramatic cantata, based on the closing scene of Goethe’s Faust, Part II-the depiction of an ideal of redemption through eternal womanhood (das Ewige-Weibliche). Mahler had long nurtured an ambition to set the end of the Faust epic to music, “and to set it quite differently from other composers who have made it saccharine and feeble.”
In comments recorded by his biographer Richard Specht (1870-1932), Mahler makes no mention of the original four-movement plans. He told Specht that having chanced on the Veni creator hymn, he had a sudden vision of the complete work: “I saw the whole piece immediately before my eyes, and only needed to write it down as though it were being dictated to me.”
1650. Musurgia Universalis by Kircher.
The work was written at a frantic pace -“in record time”, according to musicologist Henry-Louis de La Grange. It was completed in all its essentials by mid-August, even though Mahler had to absent himself for a week to attend the Salzburg Festival. Mahler began composing the Veni creator hymn without waiting for the text to arrive from Vienna.
When it did, according to Alma Mahler, “the complete text fitted the music exactly. Intuitively he had composed the music for the full strophes [verses].” Although amendments and alterations were subsequently carried out to the score, there is very little manuscript evidence of the sweeping changes and rewriting that occurred with his earlier symphonies as they were prepared for performance.
With its use of vocal elements throughout, rather than in episodes at or near the end, the work was the first completely choral symphony to be written. Mahler had no doubts about the ground-breaking nature of the symphony, calling it the grandest thing he had ever done, and maintaining that all his previous symphonies were merely preludes to it. “Try to imagine the whole universe beginning to ring and resound. There are no longer human voices, but planets and suns revolving.” It was his “gift to the nation … a great joy-bringer.”
Structure and form
The Eighth Symphony’s two parts combine the sacred text of the 9th-century Latin hymn Veni creator spiritus with the secular text from the closing passages from Goethe’s 19th-century dramatic poem Faust. Despite the evident disparities within this juxtaposition, the work as a whole expresses a single idea, that of redemption through the power of love.
The choice of these two texts was not arbitrary; Goethe, a poet whom Mahler revered, believed that Veni creator embodied aspects of his own philosophy, and had translated it into German in 1820. Once inspired by the Veni creator idea, Mahler soon saw the Faust poem as an ideal counterpart to the Latin hymn.
The unity between the two parts of the symphony is established, musically, by the extent to which they share thematic material. In particular, the first notes of the Veni creator theme—E-flat?B-flat?A-flat—dominate the climaxes to each part; at the symphony’s culmination, Goethe’s glorification of “Eternal Womanhood” is set in the form of a religious chorale.
1912. Introduction Symphony No. 8, score full orchestral version.
In composing his score, Mahler temporarily abandoned the more progressive tonal elements which had appeared in his most recent works. The symphony’s key is, for Mahler, unusually stable; despite frequent diversions into other keys the music always returns to its central E-flat major. This is the first of his works in which familiar fingerprints—birdsong, military marches, Austrian dances—are almost entirely absent.
Although the vast choral and orchestral forces employed suggest a work of monumental sound, according to critic Michael Kennedy “the predominant expression is not of torrents of sound but of the contrasts of subtle tone-colours and the luminous quality of the scoring”.
For Part I, most modern commentators accept the sonata-form outline that was discerned by early analysts. The structure of Part II is more difficult to summarise, being an amalgam of many genres. Analysts, including Specht, Cooke and Paul Bekker, have identified Adagio, Scherzo and Finale “movements” within the overall scheme of Part II, though others, including La Grange and Donald Mitchell, find little to sustain this division. Musicologist Ortrun Landmann has suggested that the formal scheme for Part II, after the orchestral introduction, is a sonata plan without the recapitulation, consisting of exposition, development and conclusion.