Home     Content     Articles      La Scena Musicale     Search   

La Scena Musicale - Vol. 7, No. 9

A Fresh Look at the Eighth Symphony–Gustav Mahler''s Operatic Masterpiece

by Pierre M. Bellemare / June 1, 2002

Version française...

Opera buffs sometimes bemoan the fact that Mahler, arguably the greatest opera conductor of his day, never composed any work for the stage. His symphonic music is markedly dramatic, and his vocal output, albeit small, is of the highest quality. What then prevented him from emulating his contemporary and friend, Richard Strauss, and making a name for himself as a major opera composer in the post-Romantic age?

The conventional view is that, like many of his contemporaries, Mahler felt intimidated by Wagner, whose musical legacy he knew and understood so well. Rather than imitate the master's style, he preferred to go his own way.

While there is some truth in this view, the reality is more complex. For one thing, it is simply inaccurate to say Mahler never composed any operatic music. As aficionados of the rare and obscure will know, he completed Die drei Pintos, an unfinished comic opera by Weber. As a rule, however, such comparatively humble tasks rarely bring fame, and Mahler's completion of Die drei Pintos is no exception.

An opera in all but name

Much more significant is the fact that Mahler did compose an opera, one that is an acknowledged masterpiece. Few people realize the work is indeed an opera, because the composer misleadingly chose to dub it a symphony. This is his famed Eighth Symphony, or more precisely the second and major part of that gigantic work, which is a very faithful musical rendering of the final scene of Goethe's celebrated philosophical drama Faust, Part II. If Gounod's Faust and Boito's Mefistofele--both consecrated operatic war horses and both adapted from that classic of the German theatre--can be considered operas, why wouldn't Mahler's Eighth, as the musical setting of the crowning scene from Goethe's work in its original text, qualify for the same label?

The difficulty is that the dramatic scene in question is unstageable, thanks to Goethe, who planned it on a scale that transcended the limitations of any physical stage. In the scene, Faust has reached the end of his tormented earthly pilgrimage. As he lies dying, deeply dissatisfied with life despite having exceeded all conceivable standards of worldly success, he yearns for salvation and fulfilment that only the Creator can offer. After Faust's death his prayer is heard. The demons who rush to take possession of his soul are repelled, and the repentant man's spirit begins a progressive and purifying ascent to heaven, protected by angels. On its way there, Faust's soul is greeted and helped by a variety of benevolent spirits and representatives of redeemed humanity ready to intercede for him. The last ones make up a group of "penitent women," including Gretchen (the Marguerite of the first part), who joyfully leads him to the mysterious Mater Gloriosa--a figure of the Virgin Mary and the embodiment of the Eternal Feminine, die ewige Weibliche, who stands waiting for him at the threshold of ever-lasting and inexhaustible Love.

Theatre of the imagination

Faust remains a play even in this scene, but a play meant for the theatre of the imagination, and this is how Mahler has chosen to deal with it. He partly emulates Schumann's Four Scenes from Goethe's Faust (using one of these very scenes). His treatment might seem to have departed completely from opera, with the music carrying the drama without any need for theatrical externals. In reality, his Eighth Symphony constitutes an original but still essentially theatrical solution to a fundamental aesthetic problem of both German symphonic music and German opera: the vexing question of the relationship between dramatic music and music drama.

Two features set German musical tradition apart from all others in Europe. One is a certain unease and dissatisfaction felt by the greatest German opera composers vis-à-vis the confines of the opera house and the limitations thus imposed on the music's dramatic possibilities. This is particularly evident in Wagner: indeed, to cite just one example, the final scene of the Ring is about as unstageable as that of Faust, Part II. But a similar impatience was already evident in some key scenes from German masterworks of the late 18th century, notably by Gluck and Mozart. Among German opera composers from Gluck to Strauss, there was always a marked desire to stretch the capabilities of the stage to their limits and beyond.

At the same time, certain German composers who were highly gifted in the art of injecting drama into music seem limited in their ability to use this gift to the best advantage when working with an opera libretto. The classic case is Beethoven. Fidelio, while an acknowledged masterpiece, is a disappointment compared to the composer's greatest symphonies, which somehow work more effectively as dramas, but dramas without word and action. Coming after Beethoven, Brahms wisely decided to shun the theatre completely in cultivating his dramatic talents. The result is the Tragic Overture, that paradox: a perfect operatic prelude without any opera to introduce.

The Wagnerian influence

Confronted by this double heritage, Mahler chose to follow Brahms and his own master, Bruckner. At the same time, his approach to the symphony is anything but Brahmsian: it is in fact Wagnerian. Wagner greatly admired Beethoven's symphonies, especially the Ninth, to which he devoted an essay. With Mahler, the vocal and choral symphony, until then an exception, tends to become the rule as well as the pretext for exploring and eventually transcending the limits of the genre. His Eighth Symphony is his most spectacular achievement in that respect. It owes much less to the symphony than to an altogether different genre, which, interestingly enough, derives from yet another German opera composer dissatisfied with the limits of the stage: the Handelian oratorio.

Handel's English oratorios are narrative dramatic works, like operas. However, the music and the text make such a powerful impact that there is no need for sets and props to create and sustain drama. The key to the success of such dramas is the composer's skilful use of excitingly dramatic choruses conceived on a grand scale.

Masterpieces by Handel for the theatre of the imagination, like Samson and Judas Maccabaeus, have often been imitated but rarely emulated. Along with Haydn's Creation, the second movement of Mahler's Eighth is one of the few later musical masterpieces built on this pattern, and is successful in giving it fresh expression. Conceivably, it is also the best specimen of the genre. Not only does its sheer symphonic grandeur almost exceed anything in the whole of the Western musical tradition, but the conceptual breadth of its purely orchestral introduction--a true tone poem designed to set the imaginary stage for the drama to follow--is without parallel outside the preludes to Wagnerian music dramas. However, Mahler's great stroke of genius remains his pairing of the "Scene from Goethe's Faust" with the "Veni Creator Spiritus" (the first movement of the "symphony"), a religious, quasi-liturgical piece conceived on a scale as monumental as the "Scene" and intimately connected with it, both musically and philosophically. Taken together, the two "movements" are meant to convey the message that our destiny, as beings fashioned in the image of the Creator, is to find fulfilment and redemption by sharing in the divine act of creation.

June 28 at Festival de Lanaudière. The OSM will be under the direction of Eliahu Inbal. Info : 1 800 561-4343


Version française...

(c) La Scena Musicale