Our music this week is the opening movement of Gustav Mahler’s 8th Symphony, conducted by Mariss Jansons.
This music can only be described by one word: power. Mahler wrote this symphony for full 100-person orchestra, piano, harmonium, glockenspiel, bells, steel drums, organ, harp, 2 boys’ choirs, 2 full-sized mixed choirs, 3 soprano soloists, 2 alto soloists, 1 tenor soloist, 1 baritone soloist, and 1 bass soloist. At its first performance, Mahler included 858 singers in the choir, prompting a prominent critic to give the symphony its memorable nickname: “The Symphony of a Thousand.”
As evidenced by the opening bars, the power in such a massive ensemble is staggering. And Mahler knew it:
I have never written anything like it; it is . . . certainly the biggest thing that I have ever done. Nor do I think that I have ever worked under such a feeling of compulsion; it was like a lightning vision – I saw the whole piece immediately before my eyes and only needed to write it down, as though it were being dictated to me.
Mahler also recognized the novelty and ingenuity of having the entire symphony sung as well as played. Never before had a composer embarked on such an ambitious project.
[I]t is something quite novel – can you imagine a symphony that is, from beginning to end, sung? Here, . . . voices are also used as instruments: the first movement is strictly symphonic in form but all of it is sung. Strange, in fact, that this has never occurred to any other composer – it really is Columbus’ egg, a ‘pure’ symphony in which the most beautiful instrument in the world is given its true place – and not simply as one sonority among others, for in my symphony the human voice is after all the bearer of the whole poetic idea.
The 8th Symphony was constructed from two very different sources: a Latin hymn titled “Veni Creator Spiritus” and a theme from the final scene of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s tragic opera Faust. Mahler combined these two seemingly random elements into one of the most beautiful melodies of his career. It soars to unimaginable heights, combining the intimacy of the human voice with the drama of operatic emotion. This is perhaps reflective of Mahler’s goal for the symphony (as stated in his diary): to link the Christian belief in forgiveness through divine grace and Goethe’s depiction of redemption through an unexplainable love.