Mahler''s Eighth Symphony: Music of the Spheresby Jacques Desjardins
/ June 1, 2002
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
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
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."
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
- 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.