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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 7, No. 9

Mahler''s Eighth Symphony: Music of the Spheres

by Jacques Desjardins / June 1, 2002

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Mahler--a legendary name that in French (malheur) sounds like "misfortune." In the summer of 1907, after Mahler had finished the monumental Eighth Symphony, his doctors told him categorically that he had to slow down. If he didn't, his heart would give way. This was devastating news for a man who loved mountain hikes and had a very busy rehearsal schedule. He resigned himself to reducing his leisure activities, but never his workload. When, following the performance of the Eighth on September 12, 1910, the audience gave him the most triumphant ovation of his career, the contrast between the shimmering vitality of his music and the frail man who appeared before the delirious listeners was striking. Mahler had only a few months to live.

The Eighth was to be Mahler's major work both in terms of tonality and the inclusion of both voice and instruments. Mahler had not written in a major key since the Fourth Symphony. The Eighth marked a return to vocal music after the purely instrumental Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh. It was also a return to the great choral frescoes of the Second and Third. This time Mahler had decided to include everything: large orchestra, organ, mixed choir, children's choir, soloists, and mandolin. His universal goals were unequivocal. On August 18, 1906, he announced to his friend Willem Mangelberg, in resolutely enthusiastic terms, that his symphony was finished. "Imagine that the universe is singing and humming. These are no longer human voices, but planets and suns that spin."

The crowning work

In the course of a conversation with Richard Specht, Mahler revealed that with the Eighth he had reached the end of his creative path. "This symphony is a gift to the nation. All my earlier symphonies were merely preludes to it. My other works are tragic and subjective, this one is an immense 'dispenser of joy.'"

The early summer of 1906 did not augur well for Mahler. He had finished his last term as artistic director of the Vienna Opera and looked forward apprehensively to a summer of writing. This was the man who, the year before, had experienced so much difficulty getting back to composing. His fears were unfounded, however. From the first day he entered his workroom, his mind was flooded with music inspired by the words Veni Creator Spiritus, the Pentecostal Catholic hymn that Mahler transcribed from memory. Within a few days he had sketched out the whole first movement and daringly included an instrumental interlude--something he considered too long until Fritz Löhr sent him, by express, the entire text. Mahler was completely dumbfounded when he saw the missing lines fitted in perfectly with the instrumental passages that he'd added.

Henry-Louis de La Grange describes the moment vividly: "This strange incident deepened his certainty that by creating music he was accomplishing a mystical act and at such moments became the instrument of superior forces. He felt so honoured, so moved by this that he spoke to his wife, to Bruno Walter, and later to Ernst Decsey of the 'ecstatic joy' he felt in the presence of the 'miracle,' the 'mystery' that had enabled 'the words of the text to correspond exactly with the bars of music already written, as well as to both the spirit and content of the composition.' This fortuitous meeting of imagination and reality affected Mahler profoundly. Already inclined toward mysticism," ... he believed this phenomenon to be the manifestation of a force that dominated not only art, but all life."

A revelation

For Mahler, it was a revelation. He felt himself dedicated to a mission to save humanity through his music, a goal somewhat like the quasi-religious ambitions evoked by Wagner thirty years earlier in Parsifal or the mystical powers that Scriabine ascribed to his music a few years later. But unlike these composers, Mahler had no wish to convert souls and was even less interested in raising his music to the status of a religion. His idea was rather to be the bearer of a message of salvation.

What better answer could he give to the prayer of Veni Creator than the text from the final scene of Faust? Everything is there: the prayers and meditation of the saints, the Virgin calling Marguerite to her side, and the angels singing a mysterious chorus. Bruno Walter expressed in his own words the genesis of the second movement and the strong impression that the Eighth Symphony made on him:

"With unique and elemental fervour, Mahler launched into the composition of [music for] this text. What more moving subject could there be than the invocation, the prayer and entreaty of humanity, and how happy it made him to have a response to it such as Goëthe's promise. He had difficulty expressing to me the joy he'd felt in giving himself totally to Goëthe's words and feeling that he was capable of understanding and deeply internalizing them. Yet we now have his most 'objective' work. It isn't Mahler but all humanity singing this hymn and toward whom the consolations of the second movement flow." [Translated by Jane Brierley]


  • De La Grange, Henry-Louis. Gustav Mahler. Fayard: Paris, 1983, in three volumes.
  • Vignal, Marc. Mahler. Seuil: Paris, 1995, 189 p.
  • Newlin, Dika. Bruckner, Mahler, Schönberg. King's Crown Press: New York, 293 p.
  • Floros, Constantin. Gustav Mahler, The Symphonies. Amadeus Press: Portland, Oregon, 363 p.


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