Listening Log -[Pt. III – Proj.2] Gustav Mahler tone poem- Symphony No. 8 in E-flat major

Gustav Mahler tone poem- Symphony No. 8 in E-flat major (1906)

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)

Symphony No. 8 in E-flat major

The story goes that the Austrian/Bohemian composer Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) ‘received’ Symphony No. 8 all in one go in the summer of 1906. Although there seems to be some evidence to suggest that there were earlier drafts and sketches for parts of the Symphony there does also seem to be evidence that it was composed at a remarkable speed, particularly considering the size of the orchestra it was scored for (see figure below). Impresario Emil Gutmann nick named it the ‘Symphony of a Thousand’ before it’s hugely successful premier on 12th September 1910.

Fig. 1. Mahler’s Orchestration

Symphony no 8 is a tone poem/choral Symphony in two Parts.

The first Part centres around the Latin Hymn ‘Veni creator Spiritus’ and it sticks very close to the home key of Eb Major, using a lot of repeated motifs and Bach-like fugal writing. It sets out with colossal pomp from the start and uses vocal parts from the get-go. After the initial introduction the orchestra quiets down and only vocals take over. Beginning with first one, then two soloists it quickly develops into a massive choral section of soaring proportions. At a peek the orchestra comes back in, first percussion, then brass only to be followed by the rest. A more lyrical interplay between strings and voices takes place in a consequent section and so it progresses from there with a constant interplay between quiet small passages and massive orchestral/choral parts. It is a choral symphony of epic proportions and themes repeat and reoccur throughout, performed in varying ways and with different emotions.

The second Part centres around Goethe’s closing scene of Faust. Goethe himself had in fact translated the Latin hymn into German. It is beyond the scope of this exercise for me to research the degree to which the hymn might have influenced Goethe’s writing of Faust, but clearly Mahler perceived, or was aware of the connection between these two texts. The introduction is in Eb minor and then returns to the Eb Major key for the first movement. During the development section it migrates through many keys to eventually settle back on the home key of Eb Major. There is a particularly gripping aria for bass and some very interesting writing for male voices. Although the mood in part two starts out darker things are turned around and redeemed, presumably by the power of love leading up to an immense elated crescendo in the finale.

The emotions expressed were according to Mahler himself ones of optimism and confidence in the eternal human spirit). Some modern critics have found the piece kitschy and inferior to his other symphonies. My own reaction to the symphony falls somewhere between these two extremes. I have no reason to question Mahler’s sincerity or intention with this piece. I think he successfully expressed his optimism, albeit it might not be entirely to everyone’s taste. Optimism is one of those emotions which very easily translates as saccharine and shallow and is particularly difficult to convey musically. There are passages that I do in fact find stylistically ‘kitschy’ or a bit ‘Disney’, which is neither good nor bad in my opinion. I also think that aesthetic sensibilities often change over time.

There are particular sections that I find spectacularly beautiful. Around the 20 min mark, just before the last ‘Gloria’ passage there is some truly stunning choral writing, starting off with baritones and eventually joined by sopranos. I also find the opening to both movements beautiful and particularly the ‘instrumental’ opening of the second movement is very emotional and affecting. The strings are so dramatic, without being sentimental. The transition from ‘instrumental’ to choral, led by some very sensitive woodwinds underpinned by bass pizzicato is absolutely sublime. These are followed by some very ‘Disney-esque’ parts. Perhaps Walt Disney was a Mahler fan? I am aware of Walt Disney’s fondness for the Russian composers Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky. Perhaps his influences included Mahler or perhaps Disney’s ‘Fantasia’ conductor Stokowski introduced him to this piece. It was Stokowski after all who conducted the American Premier in 1916. Stokowski had himself attended Mahler’s own ‘Symphony of a Thousand’ Munich premier in 1910 and decided to try to bring it over to the U.S. and he is also responsible for one it’s best known recordings.

Whatever one thinks of the ‘chocolate box’ appeal of the symphony one can’t help but be impressed by the sheer scale of the work and the size of the orchestra and choirs required. Symphony no 8 most definitely shows Mahler’s passion for song and gift for setting music to text. He undertakes a musical journey of epic proportions culminating in exuberant, grandiose and finally triumphant sentiments.