Gustav Mahler’s Symphony Nr 8, ‘ Symphony of a Thousand’
Gustav Mahler’s symphonies are considered to be some of the most important pieces of music in the whole classical repertoire and the ‘ Symphony of a Thousand’ is certainly no exception. It is definitely a work which transgresses humanity and in Mahler’s own words seems to describe ‘ the planets and suns revolving’. Although it is truly on a massive scale lasting almost 90 minutes its message is short and succinct and definitely regulates one’s mind and places the person in the centre of the universe. It uses texts from Goethe’s Faust in the Second Part and the ancient Latin text, ‘ Veni Creator Spiritus’ in the first part which can be described as a tour de force.
In the symphony, Mahler attempts to parallel other works such as Richard Strauss’ ‘ Salome’ which were perhaps considered to be immoral. However ‘ Salome’ which had been censured by the artistic directors of the Vienna Court Opera paradoxically provided Mahler with the inspiration of writing a symphony based on the hymn, ‘ Veni Creator Spiritus’. Coincidentally the year 1906 was also the 150th anniversary of Mozart’s birth and Mahler had to conduct a Mozart work at the theatre. Whilst working on the production, he took a copy of Goethe’s ‘ Faust’ with him to his summer resort and worked feverishly on the new score which was to become the second part of the symphony. So the work seems to answer the question that Confucius poses in a very direct fashion since it is a cantata based on the story where Faust sells his soul to the devil in return for eternal youth.
The two part structure of the Eighth Symphony continues to amaze even today. Although Parts 1 and 2 are intrinsically different, the music and the text are actually quite closely integrated. There are several clever thematic and rhythmic mechanisms which serve as the foundation of the work as a whole so this justifies the fact that it is called a symphony. It is actually about love in every sense of the word, be it creative love, erotic love as well as charitable love – the apex of human morality and feeling towards others. In the first part of the work, Mahler emphasises the last aspect, that of Christian charity in the famous Chorus mysticus which concludes the work in such a grand and emotional fashion.
Mahler also talked about the spiritualisation of love in a letter which he wrote to Alma, his wife also touching on the Ewig-geliebte, the eternal feminine as compared to the eternal masculine. The final chorus of Alles vergangelisches, or everything is transitory is but a symbol of the power of earthly love being transformed into spiritual love. The symphony was also the product of Mahler’s arguments with his wife on a philosophical level which spilled over into the work.
In August 1910, Mahler met Siegmund Freud in Holland where they discussed the psychological implications of his music. It was an important prelude for the first performance of the Eighth Symphony which took place in Munich just a few months later. Freud’s analysis that Mahler had a mother fixation also ties in with the climax of this work where the erotic nature of love almost transcends everything.
The Symphony of a Thousand is a work which has never been equalled in terms of scale and magnitude. The original performance included an orchestra of 171 musicians as well as three choruses amounting to almost 1000 musicians in total. The name was actually coined by the impresario Eric Gutman although the symphony’s subsequent performances have rarely included 1000 performers and the actual number is close to 500. The first performance of the work was quite a special occasion with the trams running at a slower speed than usual and the performers elegantly attired in black and white. The power of the music is incredible especially in the concluding part of the first movement where the sounds are almost overwhelming.
The symphony is about love and definitely reaches impressive and great heights in all its parts. Thus it truly fulfils the Confucian ideal of promoting love and harmony within society, which are certainly beautiful values in every way.
Mahler’s symphonies use the theme of love several times especially the earlier ones. The Second Symphony, ‘ Resurrection’ is a tour de force of orchestral and choral power and here we may also examine the power of love especially from beyond the grave. The Third Symphony has its final movement titled, ‘ What Love Tells Me’ where the orchestral building and incredible tension culminates in an almost orgasmic like piece of music. Mahler is certainly a promoter of the relationship between men on different levels, be it love simply between man and a woman, love between siblings or friends and love for others with no physical or emotional connections in the form of charity. This symphony is a true personification of the Confucian ideal.
Link to Mahler’s 8th Symphony:
https://www. youtube. com/watch? v= ZmxdDTu1O68