The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Mahler 8: Part 2

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Goethe’s Faust, which provided the text for Part 2 of the Mahler 8.

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.)

CD 2

(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.

Track 17

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;
The indescribable
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.

 

 

The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Symphony No 8: Part 1

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There’s nothing quite like seeing 1,000+ musicians about to make an epic noise. This is a photo from a performance of the Mahler 8 in Slovenia in 2001 with 1,083 performers. (Photo sourced from Wikimedia Commons.)

The best way to listen to this whole symphony is to simply follow along with the words. Mahler thought they were important enough to have nearly the entire symphony sung, and so looking at the words will immediately put you on the wavelength of what the symphony is about. So for this blog post, I’ve mainly just listed the words, but I’ll throw in a few comments from time to time. (My translation is courtesy of Wikipedia, BTW.)

It essentially plays with two types of music – a vast, epic choral sound that you hear right at the beginning with the full choir, and some more gentle music that you will usually hear from just the soloists (of which there are eight!). So it simultaneously hits listeners with the full power of God, while bestowing grace and beauty on them as well.

Also, if you’ve been following along with the blog, you might recognise that the whole thing, as well as being spiritual, is also a type of sonata form, where he sets out his main themes, plays around with them in various ways in the middle and then brings everything full circle at the end with a recapitulation.

You will have to forgive the fact that it’s broken up into lots of separate tracks as well. It makes it easier to skip to your favourite bits second time around, but it does take up a lot of room on this post!

(Track 1) The organ chord that everyone loves, and then straight into the big Veni creator theme which opens and closes the whole symphony. I find with a choir this size (and technically the choir here is actually split into two choirs – singing back and forth at each other), most of the words seem to disappear, but you can hear the big soul-transforming sound easily enough. The music perfectly matches the idea of the Holy Ghost with his “bright heav’nly throne”.

Veni, creator spiritus,
mentes tuorum visita;

Come, Holy Ghost, Creator, come
from thy bright heav’nly throne;

(Track 2) Soloists – then choir – then soloists again; beautiful peaceful second theme. The first go round is with the soloists, then with the choir joining in quietly. Bit by bit, the singers work their way higher and higher up, so that the solo part climaxes on the words “spiritual anointment”.

imple superna gratia,
quae tu creasti pectora.

Qui Paraclitus diceris,
donum Dei altissimi,

fons vivus, ignis, caritas,
et spiritalis unctio.

come, take possession of our souls,
and make them all thine own.

You are named the Comforter,
A gift from the highest God,

Living fountain, fire and love,
Spiritual anointment.

(3:28) Returns to the Veni creator theme of the opening.

(4:03) Awesome orchestral interlude begins …

(Track 3) The interlude continues, now with bells and strings. The choir re-enters at (0:38) with the Infirma nostri section. Because this is about feeble bodies being strengthened, Mahler has the choir almost whispering at this point, with a solo violin flitting around, somewhat like an annoying mosquito. (That may be just my opinion, however. The word Mahler uses is “fleeting”.)

The soloists re-enter on the bit about “with divine power” and offer a bit of comfort.

Infirma nostri corporis
virtute firmans perpeti;

Therefore, strengthen our feeble bodies
With divine power!

(Track 4) Another orchestral interlude begins. This one has hints of the first three notes, tolling bells, and off-stage brass.

(Track 5) I like to think that this brilliant little bit of flute music inspired the soundtrack for every creepy moment in children’s films from then on. It leads into more Infirma nostri from the soloists.

(1:15) The enlightenment arrives, and it’s as delicate and beautiful as can be.

lumen accende sensibus,
infunde amorem cordibus.

Enlighten our senses,
Infuse your love into our hearts!

(Track 6) Accende lumen sensibus (the words slightly switched around) – the LOUD version. Soloists and choir take off.

(1:16) Next is the hostem repellas moment, which is great fun because the choir actually shouts its lines, just to really emphasise that they’re driving away an enemy here. And I should just repeat that when I say “choir”, there are actually two large choirs plus a children’s choir singing here, so there are approximately nine choral vocal parts plus eight soloists all going at once. It’s huge.

Hostem repellas longius,
pacemque dones protinus;

Drive away the enemy
And give us everlasting peace!

(1:51) Then with almost no warning, Mahler heads into the next section.

ductore sic te praevio
vitemus omne pessimum.

Tu septiformis munere,
dexterae paternae digitus;
Per te sciamus da Patrem,
noscamus Filium, spiritum
credamus omni tempore.

Da gaudiorum praemia,
da gratiarum munera;
dissolve litis vincula,
adstringe pacis foedera.

Guide us on our pathway,
So that we may shun all perils!

You, sevenfold tribute of the Father.
The finger in his hand,
Reveal to us the Father and the Son!
Let us have faith in you forever,
The Spirit that from both of you emanates!

Grant us the joys of heaven,
Bestow on us your offering of Grace!
Settle matters where conflict prevails,
And bring peace there!

This is a massive exercise in counterpoint (meaning all the voices have their own separate melody lines, but they all layer on top of each other perfectly), so the music sounds infinitely complex, but not at all like a cacophony. It goes on in this vein for several minutes, becoming more and more joyfully ecstatic.

(3:30) Accende Lumen comes back in full glory. Any other piece of music and you’d think this was the ending, but this is a fake ending. Instead, it starts working back up towards the real recapitulation.

(4:14) But not without stopping for the choral equivalent of a Mahler collapse along the way. The music sounds as if it’s falling apart, but slowly you can hear it stirring and you can feel things building …

(Track 7) This is essentially the start of the Recapitulation section. Back to Veni creator. Tennstedt slows it down for dramatic effect. Most of this is music from the beginning of the movement, but as always with Mahler, re-orchestrated and subtly adjusted. I must confess, there are many moments in this next stretch where you think the whole thing is about to finish and then it just keeps going … it will either start to wear out its welcome, or – especially if you crank it loud on a good set of speakers – the hugeness of it all will be amazingly overwhelming.

(Track 8) And just when you thought it was all over, there’s more! It’s a coda! A little orchestral interlude leads up to a children’s choir and the soloists singing:

Gloria Patri Domino,
Deo sit gloria et Filio
natoque, qui a mortuis
surrexit, ac Paraclito
in saeculorum saecula.

Let God the Father be praised
And his resurrected Son
And the comforting Spirit
In all eternity!

At first the melody is the Infirma theme, then it’s the Veni creator theme. Soon the organ kicks in, the choirs join in, the whole kitchen sink, climaxing with a massive series of upwards runs (2:19) at the end. Played loud or heard live, it’s absolutely awe-inspiring.

The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Up Next: Symphony No. 8 (“Symphony of a Thousand”)

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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!