We have four Mahler symphonies left to go, and hopefully in this homeward stretch, blogging about them out of order will all pay off. Like the long-awaited dessert at the end of a meal, these last four symphonies are all musical gold. They’re huge – both in length, size of the orchestra, massiveness of sound and the philosophical and theological concepts that they touch on. (Don’t worry, if that sounds too scary, you can just dip in and like it as pure music – many people do.)
But when it comes to size of an ensemble, the Mahler 8 – the next symphonic stop in our guided tour of Mahler – is a thing of legend. Mahler had experimented with putting choirs in symphonies (you’ll hear that in the Mahler 2 and the Mahler 3). But for the Mahler 8, he decided that he wanted to try something completely different – a symphony for orchestra, solo singers and choir, and the singers and choir would sing throughout almost the entire work. (This almost makes the piece a cantata, which was the name for – mostly sacred – works for choir and orchestra that were popular in back in the 1700s.)
It was first premiered in Munich. For that performance Mahler assembled a massive orchestra, eight soloists, a large choir and a children’s choir as well. The over-enthusiastic guy who was spruiking the concert (channelling the spirit of classical music marketers all the way into the future) came up with the tagline to end all taglines: “Symphony Of A Thousand”. Mahler never authorised this subtitle and the reality is that you can quite adequately perform the piece with half those numbers, but it was too late – the nickname has stuck ever since and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a recording or a concert advertisement of the Mahler 8 that doesn’t slip it in somewhere. (That said, because it does require such massive forces to perform, it is the rarest Mahler to hear performed live. If you do ever see it advertised by your local orchestra, don’t muck around getting a ticket – hordes of Mahlerites will be scrambling over themselves to snap up the seats.)
So what’s it about and why does it need a choir? Essentially it’s because Mahler came across two ideas that he really liked – one an old Latin hymn tune and the other the end of Goethe’s famous epic poem Faust and he wanted to set these particular pieces to music. Structurally, it is different from any other symphony he composed. Essentially, there are no movements – just two parts.
Part One is in Latin and is an ancient 9th century hymn known as Veni, creator spiritus or “Come, Creator Spirit”. Part Two is the final scene of Faust.
I might just pause here to do a quick potted version of Faust, because while it’s a name that crops up a fair bit in 19th century music, I don’t know of too much popular culture that references it. Faust was the name of a doctor in an old German legend who sold his soul to the devil, in exchange for all the wisdom and experiences that this life could offer. This legend has been the inspiration for plays, operas, songs, etc. but the most famous version of all is the one by the German poet, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who wrote a play in verse of the Faust legend (known as Faust, Part One) and then later in life came along and wrote a much more metaphysical extension of the Faust story (known as Faust, Part Two).
At the end of Part Two, various angels, holy women and finally the Virgin Mary come down from heaven and transform Faust’s soul in order to draw him to Heaven. I find that every translation of the German I’ve read of this final scene is tortuous to read, so I’m half-suspecting it could be difficult in the original German as well.
The main point you need to know is that that final scene of Faust spoke to Mahler and he was clearly interested in the concept of spiritual transcendence and the transformation of the soul. So when you look at the lyrics to the Latin hymn in the first half, Veni Creator Spiritus, you can see that it’s a prayer asking the Holy Spirit to “take possession of our souls” and contains lines such as: “O guide our minds with thy blest light, with love our hearts inflame.”
So if you think of this as a massive exploration of the theme of human souls being transformed by a Divine power, you’ll be on the wavelength of what this symphony is about. And when you hear the music that Mahler used for this symphony, you’ll understand what an awe-inspiring concept he found that to be.
From a musical perspective, Mahler managed to tie these two parts together (both written centuries apart and in different languages) by having some common musical themes that are shared across both. So whether or not you think he successfully tied the two texts together, you’ll probably agree the musical tunes are united together very well.
As far as recordings go, it was tricky to know which one to choose. All the recordings seem to bring out lots of different details, and some people lean towards the dramatic, some people like to go more calm and spiritual. (I will tell you now, there is nothing quite so convoluted as reading reviews of classical music online. One reviewer will be telling you it’s the definitive recording, sounding absolutely amazing, but the next reviewer will say, no, it’s pretty lackluster, actually. Proving yet again that, even among people who all love the same music, everybody can hear different things.)
The recording conducted by Georg Solti is one that crops up on favourite lists all the time (and I’d recommend tracking it down), but because we used him for the Mahler 6, I’ll run with another conductor who shows up quite regularly on Mahler 8 favourite lists: Klaus Tennstedt, with his live recording with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. I haven’t listened to all of it myself, so it can be something new for both of us.
See you soon for Part One!