Munich, 12th September 1910, 7:30 PM. Constructed entirely of glass and steel, the new and immense International Exhibition concert hall was already packed. Three thousand four hundred spectators filled the hall. Eight hundred and fifty choristers dressed in black and white (500 adults and 350 children) took their places on the immense stage surrounding the orchestra. It was one of the largest gatherings since the famous Requiem by Berlioz, comprising 146 musician and 8 soloists, as well as 8 trumpet players and 3 trombone players at the other end of the hall.
It was the first performance of Mahler’s eagerly awaited Eighth Symphony. A number of famous faces could be seen in the audience. In addition to the entire Bavarian Royal Family, many famous contemporary artists were also present as well as famous composers (Richard Strauss, Max Reger, Camille Saint-Saens and Alfredo Casella), writers (Gerhard Hauptmann, Stefan Zweig, Emil Ludwig, Hermann Bahr and Arthur Schnitzler), conductors (Bruno Walter, Oskar Fried and Franz Schalk), the most illustrious director of the moment (Max Reinhardt), etc. etc. The musicians frantically leafed through their scores while many others were only there to satisfy their curiosity.
At exactly 7:45 PM, Mahler appeared on stage looking thin and pale. He quickly walked past the crowd of performers. He “marches straight up to the podium”, wrote William Ritter, a loyal and diligent follower of Mahler, “and instantly inspires us with confidence: Great calm, absolute simplicity, utterly self-assured and without charlatanism. “
With the smashing “Symphony of a Thousand” advertising campaign put together by the impresario Emil Guttmann – a campaign that Mahler himself considered worthy of “Barnum and Bailey” – the photographs of the hero on sale everywhere, the giant posters on which were displayed his name in disproportionate letters, and even yes, the weeks of rehearsals with the choirs of Leipzig and Vienna, the turmoil of the previous days became a distant memory, … it was replaced with the “musical birth” of this solemn “Mass” – his Eighth Symphony. Mahler did not respond to the applause that greeted him. “When working, he didn’t even bow. For a couple of seconds, we saw the light reflecting in his glasses and we thought we were glimpsing the head of a religious mathematician in flight. The lights in the hall dimmed immediately. Allowing the choirs and orchestra to shine in the spotlight.” At the very moment, when he was about to publicly perform “the most important work I have ever composed”, a piece “for which the content and form are so new that even I find it difficult to speak about”, a piece where one can hear “not human voices, but the songs of the planets and suns orbiting in space”, a symphony “full of joy”, the “tragic and subjective” pieces which he had written before now only seemed simple “preludes” and paled into insignificance.
As he unleashed the choral and orchestral forces he had thus far accumulated, did Mahler have any recollection of that day in July 1906 when he entered his Häuschen, lost in the heart of the Carinthian forest? Because it was there that he was “struck” by inspiration, there that the flamboyant words of the Pentecostal overcame him with their irresistible power. That day, as if by magic, the words “Veni Creator Spiritus” (“Come, Creator Spirit”) came to him and seemed to crush the anxiety which, every previous year, had overcome him at the very moment when he wanted to reconnect with his creativity after eleven months of theatrical overload at the Vienna Opera. And it was also on that day that the whole piece took shape in lightening quick time. He excitedly noted down:
The same day, he was also most likely still drafting, on three staves, the “Birth of Eros” theme, which has now become “Creation through Eros“.
As always, the initial project took time to become perfectly clear. The theme which had already been noted down for the Finale did not include words, but Mahler soon realised that those from “Veni Creator“, which he had wanted to use for the first movement, were perfectly suited. This same coincidence had already happened several times in his life and he always saw it as a mysterious sign coming from elsewhere, a kind of Holy Annunciation, the oddity of which is inherent in the final creative act itself. Another event of the same kind finally convinced him, once and for all, that, this time, he was the spokesman for the forces passing him by. It came from the Latin hymn by Hrabanus Maurus, the Archbishop of Mainz in the 9th century, which Mahler could only partially recall. Soon, the creative agitation that had been consuming him, that had “shook and drove him on for eight weeks”, became so voracious that he needed the written text to keep him going. The only written source Mahler had was an old Missal that he had probably found in Klagenfurt. He contacted Vienna to have the full text sent to him by telegraph. In the meantime, he continued composing and had almost completed the movement when the surprising telegram finally arrived. It brought him enormous pride and satisfaction: he noticed that the missing verses fitted perfectly to the musical metrical structure and text he had already composed. Once again, Mahler felt that he was merely an “instrument upon which the universe played”.
But how could he now find another text to expand upon this one and match the Veni Creator’s burning “invocation of the Holy Spirit”? How could he make the second movement laudable and a natural progression from the first movement which is made all the more spectacular by the awe-inspiring hymn? Would he need to spend the next few weeks reviewing the literature before being able to compose his own text, as had been the case with the Second Symphony? Fortunately, this time, Mahler did not hesitate for long. Hadn’t Goethe, the poet he worshipped and cherished the most. translated the very same Veni Creator into German verse shortly before his death?? It was also in his work that Mahler discovered the poetic influence for his immense Finale and, for the first time in his life, he made an exception to his own rule of never putting well-known and popular poems to music (feeling that it was unnecessary as they didn’t need it). This time Goethe put him on the right track by giving the final scene of the second Faust the form of a cantata without music, a sort of imaginary oratorio explicitly for solo singers and choirs, achieving a poetic vision so vast, general and universal that it demanded a musical setting. Schumann had already set the scene to music in its entirety, and Liszt the final “Chorus Mysticus”. Mahler now set about incorporating the whole scene into a vast symphonic entity, taking many of the motifs he had used for the opening Veni Creator and making Goethe’s scene a serene affirmation of his deepest beliefs.
Gustav Mahler’s Eighth Symphony is made up of two parts:
Zweiter Teil. [Second Part.]: Schluss Szene aus “Faust” [“Faust’s” Final Scene] Poco Adagio, etwas bewegter
The Eighth Symphony is a perfectly coherent ensemble composed of two halves which, like the texts themselves, are as dissimilar as possible, belonging to two languages, two cultures, and two epochs far removed from each other. In no way did Mahler seek to soften this contrast. On the contrary, he intensified it by treating the Veni Creator as a Latin hymn, mostly contrapuntal, in an almost ecclesiastical style, but in a traditional sonata format. This style owes little to Bach, despite Mahler studying and admiring his choral works, but more perhaps to the popular polyphonies (ricercare) of the Renaissance period. The second section, on the other hand, is a sort of free fantasy, influenced by German romanticism and can sometimes even be called impressionist in spirit. Furthermore, it is far more homophonic than polyphonic. However, who would think of negating the unity of the whole piece? Unity is derived not only from the similarities of the thematic materials, but from the fact that the piece as a whole expresses one single and abiding idea and moves powerfully towards a monumental conclusion. This final Chorus Mysticus, in which Mahler commented on each of the key words in a letter to his wife, is indeed one of the most powerful pages of his entire work and even of music of all time. At first, the Eighth Symphony can seem like a huge cantata, but it is in fact a symphony in every sense of the word. A symphony for and not with soloists, choruses, and orchestra, in which the voices, treated in a thoroughly instrumental fashion, expose and develop the core thematic material. It was also “objective” rather than “subjective”, while the following three pieces emanated a foreboding feeling of farewell inspired by the death of Mahler’s daughter (and not, as has been said too often, by the prospect of her imminent death). It is the first of his pieces where there is “no music about music”, “no quote” and no distant and stylised echoes of fanfares, military marches or Ländler (Austrian dance rhythms). Above all, the Eighth Symphony is a phenomenal act of faith and love, an attempt to answer the questions and uncertainties of the human condition. It glorifies earthly activity as much as any transcendence. Faust’s final redemption proves the validity of human anxiety since, at the end of the quest that had led him so far from asceticism and all that is traditionally considered the way to Paradise, he is welcomed by the mater gloriosa herself.
Even a superficial appreciation of this symphony reveals an evolutionary and undeniable enrichment of Mahler’s style. Not in the counterpoint section, although the polyphonic science of the Veni Creatorhas not really been experienced since Bach or maybe even since the Renaissance masters. Not even in the harmony section, which here demonstrates a certain backwards step compared to the previous symphony. Indeed, it seems that Mahler wanted to build his act of Faith on the granite, making the entire piece of work of an almost immutable tonal stability: “How many times does this movement not return to E flat major, with a fourth and sixth chord for example,” wrote Schönberg about the first piece. I would not tolerate this from a student! I would encourage him to look for another key. Here, however, and unbelievable as it may seem, everything fits perfectly, to the point that one cannot imagine it any other way. If the rules say something else, then the rules must be changed! … “
Here, Mahler’s real conquests are of a strictly compositional nature. Above all it is a question of the systematic use of the “deviation” [Abweichung] or the “Variant” which Adorno was so judiciously opposed to in the classical variation. From the Eighth Symphony, Mahler’s music would be characterized by a constant evolution of the thematic material which essentially became more flexible and mobile, yet at the same time always recognisable and different. The same Adorno points out that his transformations never made him lose his ability to express himself, as can often happen in the classical variation process.
We get the impression that Mahler wanted to compensate for the dissimilarity of the two texts with a thematic unity that had never, and would never, be seen again. The first theme of the second movement, on the bass strings, is inspired by the first two notes of the initial motif (Ve-ni), followed by an ascending motif borrowed from the “Ascende Lumen” theme. In addition, the “Theme of love”, which marks the entry of the Mater Gloriosa, is nothing other than an avatar of the melody played by the wind instruments from the fourth measure of the second movement. Every now and again, through the use of thematic reminders contained within the second piece, Mahler underlines the relationship between the words and ideas of Goethe’s Faust and those of the Veni Creator. For example: “Amorem cordibus” and “Hände verschlinget euch”, both entrusted to the children’s choir; “Infirma nostri corporis” and “Uns bleibt ein Erdenrest”; “Imple superna gratia” and “er ahnet kaum das frische Leben”; “Zieht uns hinan” and “Accende Lumen”. In fact, the entire piece is dominated by the Veni Creator, whose grit, eloquence, and epigrammatic conciseness do not let us catch a glimpse of the extreme rhythmic complexity (three changes of metre in four bars!) in the beginning. The first notes (E flat-B flat-A flat) therefore play the same unifying role as those contained later in the Song of the Earth (la-sol-mi). And it is these notes that later dominate the final apotheosis in both movements.
The Eighth Symphony’s orchestra is smaller than that of Schönberg’s Gurre-Lieder, whose instrumentation was completed in 1911. In addition to the strings, it includes 5 flutes (including several piccolos), 4 oboes and an English horn, 6 clarinets (including two in E flat), 4 bassoons and double bassoon, 8 horns, 4 trumpets, 4 trombones and tuba, a particularly abundant percussion piano, a celesta, a harmonium, an organ, a glockenspiel, 2 harps (at least) and a mandolin, not forgetting the brass instruments. As always, Mahler, above all, sought clarity and transparency even in the most compact tutti and muddled counterpoints. The acoustics were not to be too reverberating, the execution faithful and carefully tuned, and the workforce sufficient; every detail of the score needed to remain audible. In addition, as was always the case with Mahler, many passages were instrumented with exemplary canniness.
1- Erster Teil. [First Part.]: Hymnus: Veni, Creator Spiritus, Allegro Impetuoso, 4/4, E flat major.
The essence of the Form has already been outlined above. The proportions of the three parts of the sonata form more or less conform with norms. The exhibition (168 bars) which regularly includes a first theme (Veni Creator Spritus), a second (Imple superna Gratia, etwas gemässigter, in D flat), a concluding theme (Infirma nostri corporis, in E flat). The development (243 bars) has three sections preceded by an orchestral introduction (etwas hastig). The first exposes a new element (Infirma nostri corporis, noch einmal so langsam als vorher [again as slow as before], C sharp minor). The second begins with the illustrious Invocation to the Light, Accende Lumen (mit plötzlichem Aufschwung, E major), which is the climax of the whole piece. The last (Praevio te Ductore, E flat) is a large double fugue (101 bars) and leads to an abbreviated re-entry (80 bars), followed by a vast coda (Gloria Patri, Breiter) of 86 bars.
–2- Zweiter Teil. [Second Part.]: Schluss Szene aus “Faust” [Scène Finale de “Faust”] Poco Adagio, etwas bewegter, etc, 4/4, 6/4, 2/2, E flat minor, major, etc.
The second part is simply a series of strongly contrasting episodes which follow the text. Here, some observers have wanted to associate three corresponding pieces to the last three pieces of a classical symphony, but the hypothesis is not particularly convincing. If we summarise them in the same manner as an opera overture, the orchestral introduction presents four episodes; the initial chorus and the solos of the two Patres, as well as the episode of the angels (Ich spüre soeben).
The Munich creation of the Eighth Symphony should have been followed by one of the greatest triumphs in the history of music. The incomparable genius with which Mahler balanced the sound masses, the pronounced richness of his melodic inventiveness, starting from a very limited number of cells, the splendour of the two codas; none of these things could fail to captivate the audience. That day, Mahler, who had just turned fifty and whose entire career had been a never-ending series of failures and half-successes, was literally flabbergasted to see the entire room screaming, stamping and applauding in a collective delirium which lasted some twenty minutes. In particular the children in the choir, to whom he had never ceased to lavish advice and attention upon during the rehearsals; they couldn’t stop applauding or waving their handkerchiefs and scores. For him, they represented a future which he felt had been eluding him. At the end of the second concert, while rushing to the front of the gallery to give him flowers and shake his hand, they shouted loudly: “Long live Mahler! Our Mahler!” While receiving a crown of laurels, he couldn’t hold back his tears. Later, a crowd of enthusiastic admirers waited outside for him to continue cheering. He even had difficulty making his way to his car, where, yet again, he would have to thank the enthusiastic crowd; they didn’t want him to leave.
That evening, onlookers had noticed the extreme pallor of Mahler (so beautifully described by Thomas Mann as Aschenbach in Death in Venice). However, nothing, except perhaps this waxy complexion, could suggest that the end was in sight. However, an anonymous onlooker, who had never spoken to him, knew just how to read the future on this strange face. He was a “young artist” who, during the cheering, confided to the Viennese critic Richard Specht: “This man will die soon. Look at his eyes! It is not the look of a victor walking towards new victories. “Rather it is the look of a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders.”
Indeed, even before the age of fifty, Mahler successively saw the most solid bonds bounding him to life break before his very eyes. He lost his much beloved daughter at the age of just four. He had had to leave the Vienna Opera to which he had devoted his strength and genius. He learned that his once unwavering health was at risk. And, then most recently, his wife, whose wit and beauty had both fascinated and worried him at the same time, confessed to him that she no longer loved him and that she had found happiness in the arms of another man. Of course, she added soon after that she would never give up on him, but all the same it struck him to the core. It was certainly his heroic courage, which he had always shown in the face of adversity, that would enable him to continue with his activity in the same unabated manner to which we are accustomed. In fact, he almost completed the Tenth Symphony and conducted three-quarters of the New York season, the busiest in his career. But a relentless infectious disease would win the day eight months later.
it would seem that the great ascent towards the light of the “Chorus
Mysticus” did not predict anything earthly to Mahler himself. Instead it
was prophesying a whole other fulfillment, the ultimate fulfillment.
Reluctantly leaving Munich, Mahler had refused to conduct the Ninth Symphony
the following year, but promised to return for the première of the Lied von der
Erde. It was Bruno Walter, his favourite follower, who would lead it in his
place. It seems that Mahler had rightly feared the fatal number: the day when
Das Lied (his real Ninth Symphony) took off, he had already been revelling in
the bliss of the Eighth for several months.