Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 is a work of exceptions. Seen from the outside, this is true of the forces that are used: with its three choirs, eight soloists and an orchestra of far more than one hundred musicians, there are few similar works in the annals of music. This cast of performers determines the second exceptional element of the work, the mix of instrumental and vocal characteristics that makes it to the prototype of a ‘vocal symphony’, which – as Mahler put it – ‘is sung from beginning to end’. In turn, the texts that are sung influence the structure of the whole, replacing, as it were, the usual four movements of a symphony with two strongly divergent ‘parts’. And, finally, as if to emphasize this divergence, the texts used – the hymn Veni creator spiritus in the first part and the final scene of Goethe’s Faust in the second – are not only written in two languages but also separated in their origins by more than one thousand years.
Thus it is a work of extremes, and a work of contradiction. It seems, however, that it was exactly these distinctive features that lifted the symphony above the others and convinced Mahler that his Symphony No. 8 was ‘the greatest’ work ‘that I have composed’. It is an understandable coincidence that he thus raised Symphony No. 8 to the same rank within his oeuvre as Goethe, who claimed that the drama was his ‘Hauptgeschäft’ [main work], did with Faust. Even after composing his late works Mahler retained his belief that Symphony No. 8 was his ‘opus summum’.
The work was surrounded by this aura even as it was conceived. Mahler emphasized that in no other work had he been inspired so quickly and completely as with this symphony: ‘It was a vision, like lightning – the entire work was in front of my eyes within an instant and I just needed to write it down as if it had been dictated to me.’ The unbelievable rapidity with which he composed the first complete draft – between the middle of June and the end of August 1906 – seems to verify his depiction. Even more vivid was his statement of 1910, when he remembered that the ‘spiritus creator’ had abruptly taken possession of him and not let loose until ‘the greatest was finished’.
This exceptional creative state repeated itself when Mahler conducted the first performance of Symphony No. 8 in 1910. The first (and only) public performances under his baton, on 12 and 13 September in Munich, were great triumphs for both the composer and the conductor Mahler. Decades later, Otto Klemperer still spoke enthusiastically of the ‘perfection of interpretaXIII tion’ at the time: ‘he always strove to achieve more clarity, more tonal colour, more dynamic contrast. During a rehearsal […] he spoke to us that were in the hall: “If, after I die, something does not sound right, change it. It is not only your right; it is your obligation to do so.”’ The experience of the first performance induced no less a figure than Thomas Mann to write a eulogistic letter thanking Mahler that contained the memorable formulation that the composer embodied ‘the most serious and venerable artistic volition of our time’.
The emotions of superlative that have accompanied the composition that Mahler declared to be his main work from the beginning, and which can also be read in Mann’s homage, could lead one to misinterpret Symphony No. 8 as being a product of late Gründerzeit (late 19th century) megalomania. Naive intoxication caused by the outer dimensions of the work is the reason why the questionable surname ‘Symphony of a Thousand’ continues to be used; the mistrust that is nurtured by this name is still today cause for critique. Those that are prepared to involve themselves with the work, however, will recognize that the gigantic cast is simply the reflection of a much higher-reaching spiritual expression – a claim that can for good reason be described as being ‘all-encompassing’: ‘Imagine that the universe begins to sound and ring’, wrote Mahler to Willem Mengelberg in the summer of 1906. ‘There are no longer human voices, but planets and suns that circulate.’
In order to justify a philosophical claim that leads back to the idea, born in the Middle Ages, of a music of spheres, Symphony No. 8 offers an unprecedented variety of forms and musical characteristics. As if he had wanted to lead occidental music to a comprehensive synthesis, Mahler includes fugal techniques of the Baroque era as well as the solemn tone of chorale and hymn; he uses a compositional language influenced by the musical dramas of Wagner with the same aplomb as he sometimes returns to the simple style of a lied. He told Jean Sibelius in 1907, shortly after completing the fair copy of the score, that ‘the symphony has to be like the world. It must be all-encompassing.’
The resulting richness of the music, its formal and structural particularities allow a multitude of comparisons with other musical genres. The vocal component of the work establishes a connection with the traditions of cantata and oratorio. The choir, on the other hand, cannot be explained without referring to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 and the resulting works of Mendelssohn, Berlioz and Liszt. This abundance of formal and historical references appears to be an important attribute of Mahler’s idea of a universal symphony, which – beyond the fulfilment of traditional norms – uses all available music-historical means to express an individual artistic worldview. It is this idea that determined the choice and musical setting of the two seemingly diverse texts of Symphony No. 8. In the composition, Mahler uses a very limited number of ‘leitthemes’ and, using specific musical references, he creates links between the two musically divergent parts: a dense net of cross connections for which Thomas Mann’s wonderful term ‘Beziehungszauber’ [the enchantment of correlations] fits just as well as it does to the musical dramas of Wagner. Using these linking elements, Mahler creates a web of compositional and spiritual connections that integrates all elements, even those that seem most contradictory.
The central philosophical elements are the idea of love as an element of inspiration and salvation, as well as the conception of a creator who is allencompassing, who is responsible not only for the genesis of the world but also for the creativity of humans. Both principles are connected to central themes of the symphony: the adjuration, first of the spirit of the creator in the opening ‘Veni creator spiritus’, and then of love in the tremendous invocation ‘Accende lumen sensibus, / Infunde amorem cordibus’, one of the key passages of the entire work, from which – as Mahler himself put it – ‘a bridge’ is built ‘to the end of “Faust”’. And in fact, the music of the second part is based, almost monothematically, upon the metamorphosis of this theme of love. From the numerous connections between the parts and the interaction of the leitthemes the meaning of this work evolves: in short, it is the creative spirit’s hymn to the universal power of love.
For Mahler, led by this ideological message, Symphony No. 8 was thus a personal credo, and more: ‘After a rehearsal’, Alfred Roller remembered, ‘he joyously exclaimed to me: “See, this is my mass!”’ Just as prayer and annunciation are combined in the liturgy to achieve confessional unity, Mahler ordained this work to be confession and revelation for an individual belief that is also religious. Asked about his confession, he stated, fittingly: ‘I am musician. Everything else is a part of this.’
Christian Wildhagen Hamburg, February 2010 (English translation by Thomas Stark)
Go to work