View Full Version : Gustav Mahler's 8th Symphony

Frederik Magle
Jun-13-2005, 16:06
I've always been very fascinated by Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 8 (also known as "Symphony of a Thousand" *). A work of which Mahler himself wrote (in a letter to the Dutch conductor Willem Mengelberg): "I have just completed my Eighth - it is the greatest thing I have done so far. And so different in content and form that it is impossible to write about it. Try to imagine the whole universe beginning to ring and resound. It is no longer human voices, but circling planets and suns"

The work is in my opinion "great" in every sense. It can not be argued that the work is great in scale - both the lenght (about 1 1/2 hours) and the size of the orchestra, choruses and soloists (though the size of the soloists may vary somewhat https://www.magle.dk/ubbthreads/images/graemlins/wink.gif). However, whether the music is great or not is up for discussion.

As I said, I personally think it's a great piece of music. Mahler is absolutely right when he says it is "different". Indeed it is. In fact so different that it may take a while to get used to, though I liked it from the very first time I heard it (on the radio) many years ago. I think I was about 11-12 years old at the time. I was fascinated from day one, and not just because it incoprorates one of the finest pipe organ parts in the romantic symphonic litterature, alongside Saint-Saëns' 3rd Symphony, Richard Strauss' "Eine Aplensinfonie", etc. https://www.magle.dk/ubbthreads/images/graemlins/smile.gif

No, I liked it mainly because of its great "vision". Many great romantic works can be said to more or less resolve around a vast vision - the vision of the infinite, or the finite often in shape of the visions of nature, is almost an idiosyncrasy of the romantic music (maybe it is not so strange that modern film scores are so highly inspired by romantic orchestral music in their "visual" approach) - But Mahler's 8th is one of the works that, to me, best makes it come alive. In a way the work is stil a puzzle - even a fragmented one - but somehow it draws me in. It conjures an inner vision to me without being programme music. I'm sorry I can't explain or describe it more accurately right here and now, but that would require a thoroughly article and even then there some enigmas would still remain. This short "article" is more about getting a discussion about the work started.

Let me quote Mahler himself once more: "I have never written anything like it (...) Nor, perhaps, have I ever worked under such a sense of inner compulsion; it was like a sudden vision - all at once the whole thing stood before my eyes and all I had to do was write it down, as though it had been dictated to me." What a joy it is for a composer (and hopefully the audience as well) to get a "vision" like that. It must have been an aweinspiring moment (or moments). Notice that any discussion about the 8th will easily end up in a philosophical, even theological or spiritual, discussion rather than a plain musical and technical debate. But why shouldn't it, perhaps that's the only way to "get it", or is it? Let me here your opinions on this work - whatever they are.

Finally I will say that also on a more basic "technical" level the work is interesting. One thing that stands out is how sparsely Mahler uses the enormeous resoures of the orchestra (to my knowledge the third largest orchestration ever concieved in a completed work, after Havergal Brian's Symphony No. 1 "Gothic Symphony" and Arnold Schönberg's "Gurrelieder").
A lot of times he uses only a few instruments in small "chamber groups". This ensures that the large climaxes retain their full power and effectiveness, and also helps the work not getting tedious. In fact, once absorbed, the 1 1/2 hours feels like a very short time. But as I said, other people may have a completely different opinion on this work so let's hear it https://www.magle.dk/ubbthreads/images/graemlins/smile.gif Please tell us about your favorite recordings/concerts etc. also if you like.

(* The Symphony No. 8 by Gustav Mahler is sometimes also known as the "Symphony of a Thousand" (or "Sinfonie der Tausend") but this is not his own title, instead it was a marketing ploy by the concert agent, Emil Gutmann, prompted by the over 1000 participants in the first performance of the work)

Rehearsal before the 1910 world premiere of the 8th Symphony, conducted by Mahler, in München:

Jul-19-2005, 18:23
I love this symphony! It is my absolute favorite work. I love how Mahler uses different combinations of voices (i.e. adult choirs, children's choir, eight soloists). The best part is the end of the first movement. To my knowledge, there is (and perhaps will never be) no music that has that much emotion and pure joy in it! If anyone out there hasn't heard it, you are missing out!

Frederik Magle
Jul-29-2005, 14:06
I'm glad you feel the same way as I do about Mahler's Symphony No. 8! I'm going to have to disagree with you on the part about no other music containing such emotion and joy, but I defininately understand how and why this magnificent work inspires such passionate reactions from the listener (I know that from myself).

Aug-12-2005, 21:48
It could be you're right about it, but I have a very bad experience with Mahler's 8.
I was called in to play assistant solohorn with only one rehearsal - and I was so busy reeding the music, and trying to play the right music (the hornparts are really difficult) - so I totally missed the glory of the piece.


Aug-12-2005, 22:21
My knowledge of Mahler has never been that expansive - limited to his symphonies 1, 5 and 7 - all of which I know almost by heart... but Mahler's music is not an easy thing to digest - not that it is difficult to understand, it's just taxing in the way it demands a lot of attention because it's seldomly static, there's always something happening. Because of that I've had little inclination putting eg. his 8th symphony on - because as you wrote, it's about 1½ hour in length, which might not seem of much when you're emerged in the music, but if I don't take the time to sit down and listen to it (more or less intensively) I'll never get through it or I "won't know what hit me" if I decide to let it run in the background.

I'm currently listening to a recording of it with Frankfurt Radio Orchestra, conducted by Eliahu Inbal - the only recording I have of it. Any other recording recommendations?

A friend of mine has a rather extensive collection of Mahler recordings along with some manuscript facsimili... so there's definately a basis for starting a discussion on Mahler in general and perhaps specifically his 8th.

So far it's sounding very much like the Mahler I know (this is the first time I've listened to it - while knowing it's that particular symphony - I've probably heard it several times before without knowing it - it doesn't sound that unfamiliar, though the orchestration sounds fairly large with different soloists and different types of choirs along with a very large orchestra and a "nice-mahler-like-brassy" brass section. https://www.magle.dk/ubbthreads/images/graemlins/grin.gif

Frederik: where did you get those Mahler quotations? and do you have any interesting online-links about this symphony to share? https://www.magle.dk/ubbthreads/images/graemlins/smile.gif

Frederik Magle
Aug-13-2005, 14:16
I found the Mahler quotations in the CD booklet of a recording with Leonard Bernstein and the London Symphony Orchestra & Chorus (SONY classical SM3K 47581). I like that recording for several reasons; Of course Bernstein's conducting, but also the soloists (Erna Spoorenberg, Gwyneth Jones, Gwenyth Annear, Anna Reynolds, Norma Procter, John Michinson, Vladimir Ruzdjak, and Donald McIntyre) who are more subdued in their approach than in many other recordings. That's a good thing in my opinion - if the solists all try to be in front they can completely ruin parts of the symphony.

I haven't heard the "definitive" version of Mahler's 8th symphony though, and I doubt such version exists, or even can exist. The work is so broad in scale and character and open to various interpretations.