Mahler Symphony No. 8

'Symphony of a Thousand'

The Symphony No. 8 in E-flat major by Gustav Mahler is one of the largest choral works in the classical repertoire. It is often called the 'Symphony of a Thousand', as it requires huge instrumental and vocal forces. Mahler himself did not approve of the name, and the work is often performed with fewer than a thousand participants, but the premiere in 1910 did involve a choir of 850 singers (including 350 children), eight soloists and a vast orchestra that included eight horns, four trumpets, four trombones, an additional ensemble of four trumpets and three trombones, a glockenspiel, an organ, a harmonium, a piano, at least four harps, a celesta, and several mandolins.

The work was composed in the summer of 1906. Alma Mahler noted in her memoirs that Mahler was 'haunted by the spectre of failing inspiration', but in Mahler's recollection, however, he was seized by the creative spirit on the first day of the vacation, and plunged immediately into composition of the work. Having chanced on a 9th-century Christian hymn, Veni, creator Spiritus ('Come Holy Spirit, creator'), he had a sudden vision of the complete work: 'I saw the whole piece immediately before my eyes, and only needed to write it down as though it were being dictated to me.'

The preparations for the world premiere in Munich, in 1910, were marred by a profound crisis. Alma's affair with Walter Gropius had come to light, and Mahler, distressed, was recommended to go and see Sigmund Freud - who was holidaying on the Dutch coast. On the 25th of August Mahler travelled to the Netherlands; the next day he met with the analyst in a restaurant in Leiden. For four hours the two men walked through the town, talking. The consultation was a resounding success. Mahler sent a telegram to Alma the day after the meeting, "I'm filled with joy. Interesting conversation. . . ." Alma was outraged when, shortly after Mahler's death in May 1911, Freud sent her the bill for the consultation in Leiden.

The structure of the Eight Symphony is unconventional. Instead of several different movements, the piece is in two parts, unified by a common idea, that of redemption through the power of love.

Part I is based on the Latin hymn, 'Veni, creator spiritus'; Part II is essentially a dramatic cantata, based on the closing scene of Goethe's Faust, Part II — the depiction of an ideal of redemption through eternal womanhood (das Ewig Weibliche). This was the first completely choral symphony to be written. Mahler called it the grandest thing he had ever done: 'Try to imagine the whole universe beginning to ring and resound. There are no longer human voices, but planets and suns revolving.'

The first performance in Munich on 12 September 1910 was an unqualified triumph; the applause lasted for twenty minutes. Back at his hotel Mahler received a letter from Thomas Mann, which referred to the composer as "the man who, as I believe, expresses the art of our time in its profoundest and most sacred form." The performance was the last time that Mahler conducted a premiere of one of his own works. He died at eight months later, at the age of 50. His remaining works, Das Lied von der Erde, his Ninth Symphony and the unfinished Tenth, were all premiered after his death.

The Dutch premiere took place at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam under Willem Mengelberg on 12 March 1912. The first Prague performance was given on 20 March 1912 under Mahler's former colleague at the Vienna Court Opera, Alexander von Zemlinsky.

Koen Kleijn
Translation: Peter Lockwood