Again, apologies for the long break between posts. I decided to try training to run for our most famous fun-run in Sydney, the City2Surf, and it took a lot more spare time than I thought. So it has been difficult to find writing time the last few months, thus leaving this awkward gap between movements of this Mahler symphony.
But the great thing is, Part 2 of the Mahler 8 always sounds awesome, no matter how long it’s been since you listened to the first part, so let’s dive back in.
Where We’ve Been: In Part 1, Mahler took the old Latin hymn, Veni Creator Spiritus and transformed it into a massively large and massively loud piece of choral music for choir and orchestra.
Now, using the same forces, he jumps several centuries ahead, to the famous tragic play, Faust, by probably Germany’s most famous writer of all time, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Faust tells the story of Dr Faust, who makes a bargain with the devil. Goethe wrote the play in two parts and the text here comes from the very end of Faust, Part Two. In this scene (which I’ll warn you, is rather dense and complex in terms of the metaphysical ideas it’s trying to deal with), Faust – obviously having gotten out of his deal with the devil – is transformed and drawn up to Heaven.
Where it ties in with the first one is that Mahler is interested in the idea of the transformation of the soul. So many of the same melodies that were used to sing about the Holy Spirit’s transformation will appear again in this part.
The structure on this part is long but pretty straight-forward. Matching the words (and I would recommend following along with the words while you listen, which you can find over at lieder.net), the music is a step-by-step ascension, moving from the anchorites (a bit like monks or druids) up to the Virgin Mary herself as Faust is drawn towards the divine. So musically this transforms into a grand sweep from a quiet, mysterious orchestral opening all the way up to one of the biggest noises in classical music history.
I’ll be honest, there are a few moments in the middle where I sometimes wish he’d hurry up, but if the destination is worth the journey, then I hope you can be patient. (And it’s hard to skip anything because the music is all continuous.)
(Track 1) A mysterious, Haunting Theme. After the huge noise and clamour of Part 1, this is a great break. This Part is essentially a long sweep upwards from the earth to heaven, and so this quiet music at the beginning is the most earth-bound of the music we hear, and serves as an introduction to the holy hermits who are to come. It’s all pizzicato (plucked strings), tremolos (the atmospheric trembling sound the violins make) and woodwind solos, with a distinctive three-note motif (i.e. musical idea) at the beginning, followed by a climb, that repeats all the way through.
(5:12) Reaches a great little climax, before turning back into the tip-toeing quiet version again.
(Track 2) Passionate string moment. But this turns into a more intense version of the slow prelude.
(2:31) Just for a break, out of nowhere, the flutes play a gentle little chorale. This will come back sung by the young angels further along in the piece, so it’s a little bit of Mahler foreshadowing.
(Track 3) Back to the Haunting Theme.
(0:24) Entrance of the hushed choir. These are the anchorites, the holy hermits, singing about how nature (the rocks, forests, even tame lions!) are honouring “the sacred place, Refuge of Grace and Love”. It’s a great moment where you know Mahler has huge musical forces, but chooses to only use them sparingly. (Perhaps like a tame lion padding silently around us?) Amazing highlight moment for the woodwinds, which play two long drawn-out notes. The choir’s melody is simply a choral version of everything we’ve heard so far.
(Track 4) Next is the Pater Ecstaticus, sung by the baritone. According to the notes, the Ecstatic Father is having an out-of-body experience of love (unlike the anchorites), so his music soars up and down. He sings of
“The splendor of the most enduring
Essence of Eternal Love.”
(Track 5) An angular-sounding aria (solo) from the bass as the Pater Profundis. In this particular case (and it may just be the translation that makes it more awkward), love is a difficult spiky thing that roars around like a torrent and causes the Pater Profundis to have “bewildered thoughts”. It’s all over the shop tonally, but occasionally gets back to a snatch of melody that is familiar to us, as if he is grasping an occasional bit of peace in the midst of chaos.
(4:21) Another orchestral interlude. In case I haven’t mentioned it yet, this is the big Love theme that the symphony is going to finish with.
(Track 6) Then into some cute angelic children’s choir music. (These are the angels and the “blessed boys”, hovering ever higher with Faust’s soul). You’ll notice hints of Part 1 in this bit as well (assuming you can still remember it).
(Track 7) More angels – the “Younger Angels” this time. They also sing of how they have rescued Faust’s soul from Satan and the evil ones, who retreated in the face of Love. Delicate with an enthusiastic flute accompaniment burbling underneath.
(Track 8) Things take a darker turn in this track, with a weird violin solo filling in the gaps as the More Perfect Angels sing of “an Earth’s residue that are difficult to bear”. Perhaps these are parts of Faust’s earthly nature that are difficult to shake off? (I might need some help from a German-speaker on this one!) But what does become clear is that once the alto comes in (1:21), things became beautiful and the tension disappears from the music.
(Track 9) Now we have a bit of a trio with The Younger Angels, more Blessed Boys and a character called Doctor Marianus. All of them are shaking off the last parts of earthliness from Faust’s soul and getting excited. This reminds me a lot, in tone, of the Mahler 4 – that childlike view of heaven that Mahler liked, where everything sounds almost like a game in the school playground. (A very innocent heavenly playground, of course, in case that gives the wrong connotations.)
Hang in there if all these angels are starting to get tedious – some people love this stretch, others struggle a bit. But things will pick up.
(Track 10) The enthusiastic Doctor Marianus and his choir, who usher in the Virgin Mary. (The Marianus means that he is a doctor, or teacher, of Mary.) But we have to wait a bit longer before we get to hear from Mary (the Mater Gloriosa) herself.
(Track 11) This is the moment when the Mater Gloriosa (the Virgin Mary) soars into view, which is why we are treated to a beautiful orchestral interlude on harp and strings, before the choir (and later a female soloist) enter quietly and beautifully, asking Mary to listen to their pleading.
(Track 12) The next three women are penitent women (women who have committed great sins and have repented and been forgiven). They give hope to Faust that he will be forgiven as he ascends higher. You might recognise a lot of the themes. First up is the Magna Peccatrix (or Mary Magdalene) making reference to the washing of Jesus’ feet with perfume.
(Track 13) Then we have the Samaritan woman who met Jesus at the well. Her solo is much more solemn but ends with an outpouring of orchestral joy.
(Track 14) Last up of the three is Maria Aegyptica, or Mary of Egypt, the patron saint of penitents.
(1:22) Then all three of them join in a trio offering hope that if they can be saved, so can Faust. The orchestration is very light (this is the chamber music part of the symphony).
(Track 15) In this track, Gretchen herself (or the Penitent One) calls for Mary to approach. Oddly enough, it starts a bit playful (mandolins?).
(Track 16) The Blessed Boys again, encouraging Faust to leave behind this life and become heavenly. (You may have noticed, BTW, that Faust himself never sings in this section. He is the centre of the transformation that is happening, but it is the other characters that sing about it.) And we are almost at the point of transformation. Gretchen sings (2:05):
See, how he is set free
From the old enfolding of earthly bonds.
Out of ethereal garments
The early force of youth appears!
But all her music in this section is taken from the tunes that we know from Part 1, where we heard about the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. It is perhaps a loose connection between the two pieces – but it was enough for Mahler and he cements the connection with his music.
(3:12) And then the music slows down and becomes beautiful at the moment when Mary floats into view.
To sing two lines. (Yes, all that for two lines!)
Come! Elevate yourself to higher spheres!
If he perceives you, he shall follow you.
The one time I saw this live, they put the soprano up in the organ loft to set her apart from everyone else and in every recording, there is always something other-wordly about this moment.
(1:27) Now this is where things get really good. Doctor Marianus comes back again with his awesome tenor solo that leads into the finale. He calls “all you, frail penitents” to “look up to the redeeming sight that gratefully recreates you to a blessed fate!”For my money, the best bit in the whole symphony is the massive vocal leap that he makes on “bleibe gnädig (keep being merciful)”. (2:59) His voice soars into the sky, and calls down the whole choir who reiterate his words to “look up”.
(6:05) Long orchestral interlude, which will make you think of vast night skies filled with stars and then …
(Track 18) … whisper quiet, the choir comes in one last time with this verse.
All things transitory
Are only symbols;
What is insufficient,
Here becomes an event;
Here is accomplished;
The eternal feminine
Pulls us upwards.
That last part about the “eternal feminine” is an interesting philosophical concept in its own right which was popular in Goethe’s day (you can read about it on Wikipedia) but also got a bit of coin in our own day thanks to The Da Vinci Code, which made it part of its conspiracy theory.
But you’ll more likely be captured by the music, which is a huge, majestic climb to the finish. It’s vast, it’s over-the-top, it’s like floating in space. It’s the Mahler 8. It always brings the house down in the end.