Gustav Mahler: Eighth Symphony: Part One Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Gustav Mahler: Eighth Symphony: Part One

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Gustav Mahler
1st Symphony | 2nd Symphony | 3rd Symphony | 4th Symphony | 5th Symphony
The Adagietto from the 5th Symphony | 6th Symphony
The Order of the Middle Movements in the 6th Symphony | 7th Symphony
8th Symphony: Part One | 8th Symphony: Part Two | Das Lied von der Erde
9th Symphony | 10th Symphony
Gustav Mahler.
Imagine that the universe begins to ring and resound. No longer with human voices, but with revolving planets and suns.

Gustav Mahler's Eighth Symphony - or Symphony No 8 - in E flat major was composed for a very large orchestra, organ, eight vocal soloists, two adult mixed choirs and children's choir.


It was the Munich concert agent and impresario Emil Gutmann who coined the sub-title for this work - 'Symphony of a Thousand' - to promote its first performance. The practice still occurs regularly to this day, despite the fact that Mahler never approved of its use. Although at the time a piece of marketing hype, it was founded in truth, as at the symphony's première the total number of performers on the platform was 1,030: 170 orchestral musicians, an organist, eight vocal soloists, choirs totalling 850 singers, including 350 young children, and Mahler himself conducting. The musical world owes a considerable debt of gratitude to Gutmann. It was his persistence in pressing Mahler that allowed the première to take place when it did - on numerous occasions the composer threatened to veto the project for fear that the performers could not possibly be prepared adequately for a successful première. It proved to be the last new composition that Mahler presented himself to the musical world; he died in Vienna eight months later. Without Gutmann's enterprise and persistence, there would almost certainly have been three completed symphonies by Mahler to première posthumously instead of two1.

Even leaving aside the huge resources required, this symphony is unusual by any standards. It comprises two very different parts: the first, a setting of the Latin hymn Veni, Creator Spiritus; the second, a setting of the final scene of Goethe's Faust. Part I lasts about 25 minutes, Part II about 55 minutes, with no interval between the two parts. It requires a substantial concert hall with a powerful organ, such as London's Royal Albert Hall, to do full justice to this symphony.

It is dedicated to the composer's wife, Alma.


The stamina demands of the Eighth Symphony are enormous for conductor, musicians and the audience alike. Not only does it require a huge orchestra, but also an organist, three soprano, two alto, a tenor, baritone and bass soloists, plus a children's chorus and a double mixed adult chorus. The orchestra specified comprises four flutes, two piccolos, four oboes, cor anglais, four clarinets, bass clarinet, four bassoons, contra-bassoon, eight horns, four trumpets, four trombones, tuba, percussion instruments (timpani, triangle, cymbals, bass drum, tam-tam, bells and glockenspiel), celesta, piano, harmonium, two harps and a mandolin, plus the usual complement of first and second violins, violas, cellos and double basses. Additionally, an off-stage (or at least a separated) band of four trumpets and three trombones is called for.

Only two other musical compositions call for even larger orchestral forces: Havergal Brian's Symphony No 1 ('The Gothic') and Arnold Schönberg's oratorio Gurrelieder, the orchestration for the latter being completed the year following the first performance of Mahler's symphony.


I saw the whole piece immediately before my eyes and only needed to write it down, as though it were being dictated to me.

Mahler composed his massive Eighth Symphony in a single summer, between mid-June and mid-August 1906. Composition proceeded quickly, in part because he knew he would have to stop work in mid-August in order to go to the Salzburg Festival, which that year focused on the commemoration of Mozart's 150th birthday. As part of those celebrations, the entire Vienna Court Opera - of which Mahler was director - had been invited to perform Mozart's opera Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro).

Location: The International Exhibition

It was Crown Prince Ludwig of Bavaria (later King Ludwig III) who conceived the idea of building an Exhibition Park in Munich. The project took some years to come to fruition and the first buildings were not erected until 1907. The following year, six glass and steel exhibition halls were added in time for the celebrations for the 750th anniversary of the founding of the city of Munich. The year 1910 would be a big one for the city; not only would there be another performance of the 10-yearly Oberammergau Passion Play, but the year also marked the 100th anniversary of the great annual Oktoberfest fair2. It was decided that in contrast to the Oktoberfest, the main focus for the International Exhibition - to be held from May to September - would be a programme of musical events and a great exhibition of Islamic art.

Although it was Gutmann who made the offer to stage the world première in Munich, the idea had already occurred to Mahler, who probably broached the subject with the concert agent first, in the summer of 1909. He felt that it would be an ideal platform from which to launch what he then regarded as his greatest composition.

Preparations for the Première

Mahler's nervousness about the need for adequate preparation was not without reason. Unlike the premières of his previous symphonies, for which hand-copied orchestral parts had been produced (and often corrected during rehearsals), for this work it was imperative that, at least for the choral and vocal parts, a proof-corrected printed vocal score be available before the first rehearsals - the creation of hundreds of hand-copied parts without serious errors would be completely impractical. The first milestone was therefore to get his publisher, Universal Edition, working on this. Mahler insisted on proof-correcting the vocal score personally. If a September première was to be achieved, the choral parts and the vocal score had to be completed by January 1910.

A second major problem was a logistical one: the orchestral players, the three choirs and the soloists would all have to be rehearsed in different cities across Germany. Furthermore, although initial work would be undertaken by the choirmasters of the choirs involved, Mahler would not be available to conduct detailed rehearsals personally until he returned to Europe from his engagements in New York in the early spring, and then only after fulfilling conducting commitments in Paris and Rome. Mahler was happy to leave the selection of the eight soloists, and their initial rehearsal in Vienna, in the hands of his trusted protégé, Bruno Walter.

By November 1909 Mahler was telling Gutmann that his conditions for going ahead with the première (especially the printing of the vocal score) were not likely to be met, and that the project should be put back by a year to the autumn of 1911. Gutmann, however, stuck to his guns and soothed Mahler's troubled brow. Publishers Universal Edition helped considerably by producing printed proofs that contained very few errors and required only small amendments by Mahler. As soon as the proofs were completed they were sent in batches from Vienna to New York, and the task was finished by mid-February 1910.

Right up until he sailed from New York for Europe, Mahler repeatedly had grave doubts that a performance of his symphony was possible in the time available, and feared that if it did take place it would be a disaster. He felt he was being bullied into it by Gutmann, whom he unfairly likened to Messrs Barnum & Bailey3. Before he could start the difficult process of rehearsing in isolation the various groups involved in the symphony, Mahler had to conduct concerts in Paris and Rome. Only at the beginning of May did he arrive in Vienna to start a month's work with the vocal soloists and the city's Singverein (Choral Society), one of the two adult choruses that would take part in the première. The other chorus was the Riedel-Verein of Leipzig4, which was Mahler's next destination on 10 June. In the few days he spent in Leipzig, he was delighted with the excellent preparation work done there by the Society's chief conductor Georg Göhler.

After Leipzig Mahler travelled to Munich, where all the elements came together for preliminary joint rehearsals during the last two weeks of June 1910, the soloists arriving around 22 June. Here Mahler met the children's chorus for the first time and was enchanted by their enthusiasm, but not by their skill as a choir. This really should have been no surprise; the choir was, after all, simply a collection of children (mainly girls) from various Munich schools, taught by different class-teachers and assembled solely for the purpose of the symphonic première. Happily, when eventually it came to the all-important performances, Mahler was delighted with the children's efforts.

A Tragic Summer

At the end of June, when rehearsal work on the symphony stopped for the summer break, Mahler was exhausted and looking forward to his annual holidays, to be taken again that year at the south Tyrolean village of Toblach5. He was totally unprepared for the crushing events that were to unfold in the next three months.

At the beginning of June 1910, while Mahler was in the midst of rehearsals in Vienna, his wife Alma booked into a popular thermal health spa6 in the village of Tobelbad, to the south-west of the Austrian city of Graz, for what was ultimately a six-week stay. Her physician introduced her to a young modernist architect, Walter Gropius7, who was there receiving treatment for a persistent cold. Alma began a passionate affair with Gropius almost immediately. Mahler collected his wife from Tobelbad at the beginning of July, from where they travelled together to Toblach. A few days later, the composer celebrated his 50th birthday. Alma continued to correspond secretly with Gropius, using a poste restante address8, while Mahler worked on what was to be his final, but uncompleted Tenth Symphony.

On 29 July came the devastating event that has never been satisfactorily explained. Gropius wrote a letter to Alma begging her to leave her husband. The letter was not only sent to the Mahlers' rented farmhouse instead of the poste restante address, but addressed to Mahler himself. It seems an action hard to explain; whether malicious or not, it was an act which inevitably caused immediate and extreme anguish not only to Mahler, but also to Alma.

About a week later Alma spotted Gropius skulking about in the village. She informed her husband and he went down to Toblach, found Gropius and led him up to the farmhouse. There Mahler left them alone and waited in another room after he had told Alma she had to make her choice - either him or Gropius. Alma decided to stay with Mahler, although Gropius would remain her secret lover in the coming months9.

Realising that part of the reason for Alma's unfaithfulness was that being so wrapped up in his own musical world he had neglected Alma, he now swung the other way, and for the rest of the summer became obsessive about being by her side as much as possible. He rediscovered the songs she had written both before, and in the early months after her marriage, and arranged to have them published. At the end of August Mahler travelled to Leiden, where the psychoanalyst Siegmund Freud was on holiday, to consult him about his marital difficulties. It would seem that the single meeting, which took place in the late afternoon/early evening of 26 August, 1910, had some positive effect on Mahler. He returned to Alma at Toblach, and continued working on the Tenth Symphony for another week before setting out for Munich. The manuscript bears witness to the anguish that tortured Mahler at the end of that tragic summer.

The Première

Mahler arrived in Munich on Saturday, 3 September to start a very full week of rehearsals, beginning on Monday morning. There was the encouraging news from Gutmann, who met him at the station, that the first of the two performances was already sold out. Rehearsals were scheduled for the morning (9.30pm to noon) and afternoon (4pm to 6.30pm) of each day, with the exception of Thursday afternoon and Friday morning. Two full rehearsals - the first time absolutely all the performers had been present together - were held on Saturday, 10 September. Two public dress rehearsals, one for each part of the symphony with an hour interval between, took place on Sunday, 11 September.

Impresario Emil Gutmann made sure that absolutely everyone in Munich was aware of the première of a new Mahler symphony by positively wallpapering the city with bright red posters advertising the event. Every newspaper in Germany previewed the concert and music critics from across Europe began arriving in the city.

With all the preparation and rehearsals now complete, all that remained was the performance itself. Announced to start at 7.30pm10, by 7pm on Monday, 12 September, over 1,000 of the 3,000 or so seats were already occupied. Prominent in the audience were members of the European nobility, together with star singers from the Vienna Court Opera, literary luminaries such as Arthur Schnitzler, Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Thomas Mann, composers including Alexander Zemlinksy, Anton Webern, Richard Strauss, Max Reger, Siegfried Wagner (son of Richard Wagner), Paul Dukas and Camille Saint-Saëns, plus the conductors Oskar Fried, Bruno Walter, Franz Schalk, and a 28-year-old Leopold Stokowski.

In the hall the orchestra was arranged in ascending tiers, rising towards the organ gallery with the soloists behind them, the choirs filling all the available space to the left and right of the orchestra. At a quarter to eight Mahler made his way to the high podium constructed on the stage from where he was to conduct. He turned to the audience to acknowledge the standing ovation his appearance had invoked, but stood motionless. Turning round once more to face the performers, he signalled to the choruses to rise, raised his baton, paused for a moment, then brought the baton down, unleashing the powerful E flat chord from the organ, followed a bar later by the 500 voices of the double adult chorus at full stretch with the words of the hymn Veni, veni creator spiritus. The first performance of Mahler's Eighth Symphony had begun.

Reception to the composer's previous symphonies had been at best mixed, but with the Eighth Symphony, at last Mahler had a resounding success. In the hall, as the thunderous sound of the final E flat chord at the end of Part II faded away, there was silence for a few seconds before a tumult of applause erupted from the 3,000-strong audience which lasted a full 20 minutes.

The soloists and choruses at this first performance were:

Singer   Character in Part II
Gertrude Förstel (Vienna Opera) Soprano I Magna Peccatrix
Martha Winternitz-Dorda (Hamburg Opera) Soprano II Una Poenitentium (Gretchen)
Emma Bellwidt (Frankfurt) Soprano III Mater Gloriosa
Ottilie Metzger (Hamburg Opera) Alto I Mulier Samaritana
Anna Erler-Schnaudt (Munich Opera) Alto II Maria Aegyptiaca
Felix Sensius (Berlin) Tenor Doctor Marianus
Nicola Geiße-Winkel (Wiesbaden Opera) Baritone Pater Ecstaticus
Richard Mayer (Vienna Opera) Bass Pater Profundus
Singverein (Vienna) Choir I  
Riedel-Verein (Leipzig) Choir II  
Choirs of Munich schools Children's choir  

A description of the music and the texts used in Mahler's Eighth Symphony may be found in Part Two of this Entry.

1The Ninth Symphony and the song-symphony, Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth). The Tenth Symphony remained uncompleted.2The Oktoberfest began as a horse-race to commemorate the marriage in October 1810 of Crown Prince Ludwig (later King Ludwig I) to Princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen. Over the years it evolved as a fun-fair and entertainment festival. Regrettably, it is now known world-wide solely for its vast beer festival (of which only the final week takes place in October!) There has been no horse-race since 1960.3Proprietors of an American circus company, famous for its extravagant presentations, dubbed 'The Greatest Show on Earth'.4Founded in 1854 as a vocal quartet by piano teacher Carl Riedel, the chorus had grown to 250 members by 1888. Its conductor in Mahler's time was Georg Göhler.5Since 1918, Dobbiaco in Italy.6There is now a paraplegic rehabilitation and training centre, built in 1952, on the site of the former spa.7In 1919, Gropius founded the world-famous Bauhaus design school, in Weimar. It later moved first to Dessau then to Berlin, before being disbanded in 1933.8An address (frequently a Post Office) to which mail is delivered awaiting collection by the addressee. Although by no means provided for that purpose, it was a common method of conducting secret correspondence, often using an alias.9Alma Mahler mixed husbands and lovers throughout her life. She married Gropius in 1915 and was divorced from him in 1920.10Tickets were originally printed with a start time of 8pm, but later over-stamped with the revised start time.

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