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

Another form of programme music was the symphonic poem (or tone poem or Tondichtung), Mahler’s symphonies are long, epic adventures with programmatic components and emotional depth. He uses imaginative orchestration techniques to give a sense of both the intimate and the colossal, and occasionally includes quotations from his own works in the music. His melody lines demonstrate his passion for song and his symphonies often include vocal parts, linking instrumental music with text in accordance with the Romantic ideal. Thematic materials are often linked between movements, to give the music a sense of development and journey, allowing familiar themes to be heard within different contexts and emotions.

Test this description for yourself by listening carefully to a piece of symphonic music by Mahler (e.g. Symphony No. 8). Make notes on how he uses some or all of the elements described above, and what effect they have on the overall emotional feel and sense of journey.



Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)

Symphony No. 8 in E-flat major

Symphony no 8 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 do indeed repeat and reoccur throughout, performed in varying ways and with different emotions. The first Movement centres around the Latin Hymn ‘Veni creator Spiritus’ and the second 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 emotions expressed were according to Mahler himself ones of optimism and confidence in the eternal human spirit {quote). Some modern critics (Carr) 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 invalidate Mahler’s own intention or judgement of the 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. 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. Impresario Emil Gutmann named it the ‘Symphony of a Thousand’ before it’s hugely successful premier on 12th September 1910.

The sheer size of the orchestra can be gleaned from the first page of the score in the image below;

Mahler Symphony no 8 first page of score


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.

To summarise, Symphony no 8 most definitely shows Mahler’s passion for song and tendency to set music to text. The themes are indeed linked both melodically and textually and he undertakes a musical journey of epic proportions and exuberant, grandiose and finally triumphant sentiments.