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Symphony No. 8 (1906)

  • Part I
    • Veni, creator spiritus
  • Part II
    • Poco adagio

Even within Mahler's extraordinary output, the Eighth Symphony stands alone. It marks a kind of extreme, not only for Mahler, but for the romantic symphony in general. Of course, it requires famously large forces: the label Symphony of a Thousand, invented by a concert agent for the first performance, may seem exaggerated today, but that first performance reputedly included 858 singers and 171 instrumental players. But it is more than a question of size alone. Other Mahler symphonies take longer to perform (the Third, for example), and the combined forces of large orchestra, chorus and solo voices had already been deployed in his Second Symphony. There is, nevertheless, something uniquely monumental about the Eighth; alone among Mahler's symphonies, it speaks in an utterly affirmative tone, without any trace of irony or self-doubt.

The première, conducted by the composer in Munich on 12 September 1910, was the greatest public success of Mahler's life (just seven months before his untimely death). Thomas Mann was moved to suggest afterwards that Mahler expressed 'the art of our time in its profoundest and most sacred form,' and Mahler himself referred to the Eighth Symphony as his 'most important work' and 'greatest achievement.' But it had not always been so. In the four years between its composition in 1906 and première in 1910, Mahler had effectively been forced to resign as Music Director of the Imperial Court Opera in Vienna and become something of an exile, taking up a post at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1907. As both conductor and composer, the acclaim he received had always been mixed with ferocious personal criticism, much of it anti-Semitic in nature. So the triumphant success of the Eighth, Mahler's monumental 'gift to the nation', must have felt like a vindication of his own artistic vision, and a homecoming that had eluded him for 50 years.

The Eighth Symphony was largely composed in a mere eight weeks of incandescent creativity, in the summer of 1906, at Mahler's lakeside retreat on the Wörthersee in the Austrian province of Carinthia (Brahms used to spend his summer holidays further down the lake). He later described the process in terms that anticipate Stravinsky's account of composing Le sacre du printemps: 'The whole immediately stood before my eyes,' Mahler recalled, 'I had only to write it down, as if it had been dictated to me.' He would have been painfully aware of the contrast with the previous year, when the precious weeks of his composing summer, an oasis in his hectic schedule as a conductor, slipped away without inspiration, before he belatedly found the opening bars of his Seventh Symphony. Perhaps that memory haunted him as he arrived at the Wörthersee in June 1906 and seized immediately upon the text of an ancient Latin hymn with its energetic summons, 'Veni, veni creator spiritus' ('Come, creator spirit').

Though Mahler's sketches show that he considered a more conventional four-movement plan, in the end he decided to follow 'Veni creator spiritus' with just one further movement, a setting of nothing less than the final scene of Goethe's Faust, arguably the most hallowed work of German dramatic literature. Like Faust itself, Mahler's Eighth thus consists of two huge chunks - referred to simply as Part I and Part II. It is remarkable that, somehow, these balance each other out, given that the second takes twice as long to perform as the first, and that the first sets a medieval hymn in a polyphonic style recalling the Baroque cantata, while the second presents a theatrical scene, with the soloists and chorus taking on the roles of Goethe's cast of anchorites, saints and angels. The two texts derive from completely different worlds separated by a millennium: one a product of 9th-century Catholicism, the other of the secular romanticism of the early 19th century. And yet Mahler finds a way of bridging this divide, finding in both a common yearning for transformation through the spirit of divine love. This is, after all, his central theme and one that runs through all his works - a quest to bridge the aching chasm between the individual's existential solitude on the one hand and a deep-seated homesickness for the all-encompassing unity of nature on the other. This is Romanticism on the grandest scale and one of its last great musical statements. 'Just imagine the universe beginning to ring and resound', Mahler wrote of the Eighth, 'these are no longer human voices, but planets and suns circling above.'

The very first sounds heard in this symphony are the organ and then, a moment later, the unaccompanied chorus, with the passionately urgent call, 'Come, creator spirit'. No other Mahler symphony begins in such an obviously ecclesiastical space nor is so led by the sound of the human voice. The effect of the opening is one of huge, irrepressible energy, binding everything together in its powerful, headlong rush. This, after all, is a Pentecost hymn, a prayer to be lit up by the fire of the Spirit. But the musical force unleashed is carefully controlled; the collective energy of the opening chorus gives way to a quieter, slower and more lyrical section for the soloists ('Imple superna gratia' - 'Fill with supernatural grace'), a lightly accompanied ensemble over which the first soprano line soars ecstatically. Throughout the symphony, Mahler resists over-using the power of his amassed forces, most obviously by contrasting the choral voices (two mixed choirs and one boys' choir) with solo voices (seven soloists are used in Part I and eight in Part II). This principle of contrast often makes for clear A-B-A forms, as here in the opening section, where the episode for the soloists is followed by a return of the chorus and its initial statement of 'Veni creator spiritus.'

Mahler draws out two opposing ideas from his text: after the opening affirmation of strength, infused with the divine spirit of creative energy, comes a statement of human frailty ('Infirma nostri corporis' - 'The weakness of our bodies'). The vitality of the opening 'Veni' here subsides to a quite different music. Human weakness is evoked by broken exchanges between the two choirs, a halting lament that forms the background to an anxious commentary by the solo violin. This is an 'all-too-human' world, mortal and frail, a picture of the world in the absence of the spirit evoked in the first section. It is one that will later be recalled in Part II, but for now its plea for spiritual sustenance, intensified by the soloists following an orchestral interlude, is answered by a great rush of new energy ('Accende lumen sensibus' - 'bring light to our senses').

Mahler literally launches the music into a new key at this point, but also a new tone, highlighted by the addition of a boys' choir. This section fulfils the role of the development in a more conventional symphonic movement, and takes on a markedly battle-like character. The dramatic opposition of different sections of the choir and orchestra is Mahler's response to a line in the text about repelling the enemy. It initiates a vast double fugue that leads the music, without let up, to a grand reprise of the 'Accende' music. A recapitulation of the opening 'Veni' by the entire chorus restores the tone of the opening and thus rounds out the whole movement as one huge three-part form. There is, however, no return to the music of human frailty; instead, the music is steered towards its conclusion by a final 'Gloria', given three times - first by the boys' choir, then by two soprano soloists and finally by the whole chorus - but then swept up in the surging torrent of sound with which the movement ends.

The opening of Part II could not be more different. After the electrifying sonority at the close of Part I, we find ourselves in the utter emptiness of a desert landscape. The only sense of motion comes from the slow, circling tread of the cellos and the basses, and the distant calls of solitary woodwind instruments, as if heard across a vast space. But this lifelessness becomes the foil for an intense longing, a yearning for spiritual sustenance. Heard in the cellos and horn, this impassioned protest sparks off a quite different kind of musical voice, urgent and angular, raging against the emptiness of this limbo state of the soul.

Mahler first sets this scene in the orchestra alone, and then revisits it with the addition of voices. The chorus assumes the role of a group of anchorites, living among the rocks in a wild landscape of forests and cliffs. The contrasting passionate voice is taken up by two soloists, the Pater Ecstaticus (baritone) and the Pater Profundus (bass), who sense in the landscape the immanence of divine presence (Mahler chose not to set Goethe's third anchorite, the Pater Seraphicus). The intensity of their lyrical yearning is expressed by a stretching of the vocal line across wide intervals - an acoustic symbol of the breaking of mortality as a prelude to spiritual transformation.

The tortured, Wagnerian chromaticism of the two solo voices is wonderfully dispelled by the chorus of angels that follows, celebrating the salvation of Faust's soul ('Gerettet ist' -). Mahler evokes the heavenly realm through a simplified and deliberately naïve music - the simplicity of folk music that he had explored earlier in his career in his setting of texts from Des Knaben Wunderhorn. A childlike aspect is underlined by the return of the boys' choir (as a 'Chorus of Blessed Boys') and the entry of 'The Younger Angels.' But these celestial voices are temporarily interrupted by a return of the music, from Part I, denoting human weakness (complete with its distinctive solo violin commentary). It serves here as a reminder of the twofold nature of man - both earthly and divine - which, as a chorus of 'More Perfect Angels' tells us, only eternal love can separate.

The soul of the deceased Faust, now transformed into the character of Doctor Marianus (sung by the tenor soloist), appears in the highest of the anchorites' rocky cells. A mere onlooker at first, watching the scene unfold before him, he then comes to the fore to herald the vision of the Mater Gloriosa, in flight across the sky. This moment is marked by an astonishing change of musical tone, from the lyrical rapture of Doctor Marianus to an otherworldly simplicity to represent the vision of the Mater Gloriosa.

A shift from E flat to E major (Mahler's 'heavenly' key) is combined with a sudden thinning of the orchestral texture to leave only a hymn-like melody in the violins, accompanied by a harmonium and harp. The forward push of desire, and its yearning to overcome absence, gives way to the stillness of fulfilled presence. In the gradual ascent traced out by both text and music, this luminous new sound evokes the achieved space of some high, boundless plateau.

Three penitent women recall their own earlier transgressions and forgiveness (Goethe's characters are based on specific individuals from the Bible), and then Gretchen, Faust's earthly lover, now transformed into 'Una Poenitentium', asks that the soul of Faust might be allowed into heaven: 'See how every earthly bond of his old flame is divested by him.' Faust's soul, raised by the vision of the Mater Gloriosa, is transformed and received into heaven. The music seems to come to a point of complete rest, before a 'Chorus Mysticus' delivers the closing lines of Goethe's text. Their hushed chorale, beginning as a mere whisper, expands into the colossal sonority with which the work ends. As Mahler tried to express, in a letter to his wife, of June 1909, whereas Goethe's play has thus far represented the world in its transitory and partial forms, in the closing scene, what has so far been expressed merely allegorically is now made real: 'We have arrived, we are at rest, we are in possession of that which on earth we could only desire or strive for.'

As a musician, Mahler realises that sense of arrival, first and foremost, through sound. Taken as a whole, the musical journey of Part II traces an ascent that matches Goethe's final scene, from the earthly realms of a rugged mountainous landscape to the ethereal space of heaven. In a quite literal way, it achieves this by moving from the rougher sonority of the bass and baritone soloists to the purer tones of the upper register - the voices of boys and women, and delicate orchestral sonorities that at times anticipate the refined orientalism of Mahler's next work, Das Lied von der Erde. Well before the Chorus Mysticus delivers Goethe's iconic final line, 'womanhood everlasting draws us on high', we have already been borne aloft musically by successive waves of sound characterised as distinctly feminine.

But Mahler creates this transformation by more than simply privileging female voices, upper registers or delicate orchestration. The palpable effect of his evocation of everlasting womanhood also has to do with the way in which he draws us into a universe of sound. From the moment that the Mater Gloriosa appears, as a wordless vision, the listener is wrapped in a series of sonorous layers. The music no longer moves forward, but expands in successive waves. Whereas Part I enacts its action-packed drama through an often masculine and sometimes militaristic tone, Part II concludes in a far more contemplative, spatial and feminine tone. In its soaring immensity and acoustic resonance, Part I might be heard to evoke the vaulted architecture of a Gothic cathedral; Part II seeks the release experienced in the space of high mountains, where the edge of the sky blurs with the deep blue of space.

© Julian Johnson