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Gustav Mahler: Eighth Symphony: Part Two

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Gustav Mahler's Eighth Symphony in E flat major for a very large orchestra, with organ, eight vocal soloists, two adult choirs and a children's choir, is one of the largest musical works ever conceived.

Part One of this Entry described the history of the composition and the première performance of Mahler's Eighth Symphony - 'Symphony of a Thousand'. This second part examines the music and the texts used in that work. The symphony is in two parts: Part I is a setting of the Latin hymn Veni, Creator Spiritus, Part II, a setting of the final scene of Goethe's Faust.

Musical Form and Outline

All Mahler's post-student compositions can be categorised as either 'song' or 'symphony'. His Second, Third and Fourth symphonies all include at least one 'song' movement. With the Eighth Symphony Mahler achieves a symbiosis in a symphony that is sung completely.

The differences between the two parts of this symphony are, at least on the surface, evident: the first part takes an ancient Latin text, the second part a comparatively modern German one; the first part a sacred source, the second a secular one; the first part an oratorio-like form, the second a cantata-like or perhaps even an quasi-operatic form.

Both parts are firmly rooted in the key of E flat, but E major is used at significant moments, most notably at the outburst of Accende, accende lumen sensibus ('Kindle a light in our senses') in Part I, and at the appearance of the Mater Gloriosa in Part II. It can be no mere coincidence that this is the key that Mahler used at the end of the third movement of the Fourth Symphony, when the brass suddenly announce, triple-forte, the main theme of the final Das Himmlische Leben (Heavenly Life) movement, and with which that movement ends; it may be said to be Mahler's 'heavenly' key.

Part I: The Latin Hymn Veni, Creator Spiritus

Veni, creator Spiritus,
mentes tuorum visita.
Imple superna gratia,
quae tu creasti pectora.
Come, O Creator Spirit,
Visit the minds of your people.
Fill with celestial grace
Those hearts which Thou created.
Qui tu Paraclitus diceris,
altissimi donum Dei,
fons vivus, ignis, caritas,
et spiritalis unctio.
You who are called Protector,
Gift of God the highest,
Living fountain, fire, charity
And spiritual unction.
Infirma nostri corporis
virtute firmans perpeti,
accende lumen sensibus,
infunde amorem cordibus.
Strengthen our weak bodies
With everlasting strength,
Kindle a light in our senses,
Pour love into our hearts.
- first three stanzas

Da gaudiorum praemia.
Da gratiarum munera.
Dissolve litis vincula,
adstringe pacis foedera.
Grant us joy.
Favour us with grace.
Dispel our quarrels,
draw together the bonds of peace.
Gloria sit Patri Domino,
Natoque, qui a mortuis
surrexit, ac Paraclito
in saeculorum saecula.
Glory be to the Father,
And to the Son, who rose from the dead
And to the Holy Ghost
For ever and ever.
- final two stanzas

The hymn Veni, Creator Spiritus celebrates the coming of the Holy Spirit to the apostles on the day of Pentecost1 (Whit Sunday). It is usually attributed to (H)rabanus Maurus, a Frankish Benedictine monk born sometime between 776 and 784 (he died in 856), although the attribution is almost certainly wrong2. The fifth Abbot and the head teacher of the monastic school of Fulda and later Archbishop of Mainz, he was probably the most learned man of his age. It is sung in both the Catholic and Anglican churches at the feast of Pentecost, and at ceremonial occasions such the consecration of a new bishop. Not sticking strictly to the original text in seven stanzas, Mahler makes some omissions and some rearrangements of lines.

The consensus view of musicologists regarding this first movement is that it is in sonata form with exposition, development and recapitulation sections, plus a coda. Much use is made of Bach-like counterpoint, inspired perhaps by a fresh study of Bach's music undertaken in preparation for a Bach Suite - an arrangement of four movements taken from Bach's Second and Third Orchestral Suites - that Mahler had produced and performed with the Philharmonic Society Orchestra in New York.

Part I: Exposition

After a unison statement of the first theme in E flat, the two choruses make a dialogue of the first two lines of the hymn. As the initial energy subsides, the first soprano enters at the words Imple superna gratia with a second theme in D flat. She is soon joined, first by the tenor, then by the other soprano and the two altos, and finally by the baritone and bass soloists. The remainder of this exposition section is concerned with variants of these themes and a complex contrapuntal treatment of them. A return to the words of the hymn's title brings an extended climax which subsides and leads into the third stanza (Infirma nostri corporis), accompanied by a soaring and swooping tune for violin solo. A crescendo left suspended without its anticipated climax leads directly into the development section of the movement (rehearsal number 23 in the score).

Part I: Development

The development starts with an orchestral introduction featuring military-like horn calls, deep bells, chattering woodwinds and pizzicato strings. After this interlude the tonality moves to C sharp minor (the relative minor of E major) and the soloists return, led by the bass, to continue with the Infirma nostri corporis stanza. An abrupt change to E major (rehearsal number 37 in the score) brings an outburst from the full orchestra, leading to a sudden return to the tempo of the opening of the movement, with the orchestra, organ, soloists, both choirs and the children's choir giving forth ff with a unison statement of accende, accende lumen sensibus. Mahler puts an annotation in the score that there should be a momentary pause [Ger: Luftpause] after the first syllable of the first accende, ie ac-cende. The energy is maintained throughout the remainder of the development section, which is predominantly in the keys of E and E flat major.

A very short bridge passage at the end of the development prepares for the huge climax that signals the start of the recapitulation section (rehearsal number 64 in the score) and with it naturally, a return to the words Veni creator Spiritus. Mahler repeats just the first stanza and the first two lines of the second before the tempo broadens for the penultimate stanza beginning Da gaudiorum praemia. The recapitulation completes with a brassy climax in A flat leading to the coda.

Part I: Coda

The coda (rehearsal number 80 in the score) - a musical tour de force - starts brightly and freshly with brass and woodwind figures in E major then E flat, before the children's chorus starts the final stanza, Gloria Patri Domino, accompanied by the lower strings and woodwind, in the key of B flat minor. They are joined by the sopranos, then the altos and tenor, before the tempo of the opening returns for the last time, together with the home key of E flat major, both of which are retained to the end of the movement. All the forces are joined to sing an exultant hymn of praise with the soprano soloists soaring up to their high Cs, before the movement ends with all thousand or so performers united in a thunderous blaze of sound.

Part II: The Final Scene of Goethe's Faust

Part II of the symphony is a setting of the final scene (Act V, Scene VII) of Part II of Goethe's poem/play Faust, starting from line 11844: Waldung, sie schwankt heran ('Forests, they sway around'). This second part of the play is probably Goethe's last work, published in 1832, the year in which he died. Goethe describes this scene as taking place in 'mountain gorges and ravines'.

Faust – a Brief Outline

Two detailed Entries on Goethe and his play Faust may be found elsewhere on h2g2, so a short synopsis will suffice here. The play is in two parts totalling over 12,000 lines of verse. In Part I, Faust, an alchemist and a seeker of knowledge, has made a pact with Satan (Mephistopheles) to search for and to experience the pinnacle of human joy, in exchange for his soul. Faust, disillusioned by his previous endeavours in this direction, believes that he will never have to fulfil his part of the bargain. In the course of his adventures with Mephistopheles, he meets, falls in love with, makes pregnant then abandons a young girl called Gretchen3. Her fate is to be executed in prison for killing her new-born baby.

Part II of Faust comprises a series of allegorical scenes in which Faust encounters various figures from Greek and Roman mythology. Finally he embarks upon a project to reclaim land from the sea, to the ultimate and long-term benefit of mankind. Aged 100, Faust, having been blinded, makes a statement which Mephistopheles misinterprets as being the long-awaited moment of joy that Faust has been seeking. Faust immediately dies and Mephistopheles, thinking he has won the wager, attempts to claim his soul, but a band of angels intervene, distracting Mephistopheles while they themselves carry off Faust's soul. Despite the way he has treated her, the spirit of Gretchen appeals to the Virgin Mary (Mater Gloriosa) on Faust's behalf for his salvation, which is granted.

The Characters

  • Pater Profundus and Pater Ecstaticus: religious hermits - Holy Anchorites - who are contemplating their way toward divine understanding. Pater Profundus (bass voice) is at a low level (of understanding) while Pater Ecstaticus (with the higher-pitched baritone voice) is at a more elevated level, having mastered the ability to float up and down4.
  • Doctor Marianus: Faust's soul transformed.
  • Magna Peccatrix: the sinful woman who, in the gospel of St Luke, chapter 7, anointed Christ's feet at the Pharisee's house.
  • Mulier Samaritana: The Woman of Samaria - the woman who, in the gospel of St John, chapter 4, Jesus met at the well.
  • Maria Aegyptiaca: Mary of Egypt - the patron saint of penitent women, who lived the last 50 years of her life as a hermit in the desert by the river Jordan.
  • Una Poenitentium: a penitent woman, Gretchen, whom in life Faust so cruelly wronged.
  • Mater Gloriosa: The Virgin Mary. A brief role, only 25 bars, but nonetheless one which Mahler regarded as sufficiently important to assign to a separate soprano at the première, on account of the special pure quality of her voice.
  • Angels, Blessed Boys, Younger Angels and More Perfect Angels: that carry and pass on Faust's soul on its ascent, are represented by the various sections of the two adult choirs and the children's choir.

The Music

After the tumult which finishes Part I of Mahler's Eighth Symphony, a period of quiet repose is in order - in performances of this work, there is normally no interval between the first and second parts. Part II opens with a quiet interlude that is (to this writer) at times strangely reminiscent of the start of Act III of Puccini's opera, La Bohème, in which the scene is set at dawn outside the gates of Paris. The opening key is a relatively uncommon one - E flat minor - but is entirely in keeping with the principal key of the entire symphony, E flat major, in which it will reach its final apotheosis.

Following the quiet interlude, the tenors of Choir I tiptoe in with the opening words of this final scene, Waldung, sie schwankt heran. These are repeated by the basses of Choir II, as though in echo. If in performance Choirs I and II are widely separated on the platform, as they usually are, this has a wonderful sonic effect.

The first (baritone) solo comes from Pater Ecstaticus, whose E flat major vocal line soars up and down, matching Goethe's stage direction, as he sings Ewiger Wonnebrand... Ewiger Liebe Kern! ('Eternal flame of bliss…Eternal nucleus of Love'). He is followed by Pater Profundus, who in a very angular bass vocal line (in the minor mode of E flat) sings of the anguish of his spirit in the lower regions:

Wie Felsenabgrund mir zu Füssen,
auf tieferm Abgrund lastend ruht
As the rocky precipice at my feet,
rests heavily on a deeper chasm

In the few bars of music between the two male solos can be heard the trumpets playing the Accende theme from Part I of the symphony.

A short orchestral bridge follows Pater Profundus's solo, after which the key moves to a bright B major and the angels - the women's chorus - and the choir of blessed boys start to bear Faust's soul upwards:

Gerettet ist das edle Glied
Der Geisterweld vom Bösen
Saved is the noble member
of the spirit world from evil

From B major, by way of G major to E flat major, the ascent of Faust's soul progresses with the Younger5 and More Perfect angels until - now transformed into Doctor Marianus - it reaches the highest, purest hermit's cell, from where there is a clear view of the Mater Gloriosa. Faust (Doctor Marianus) makes his impassioned plea to the Virgin Mary: Höchste Herrscherin der Welt (Highest Ruler of the World) (rehearsal number 89 in the score).

As the passion recedes comes one of the most sublime moments in the symphony: the key changes to E flat (the solo having been in E major up until now); a horn introduces a tender theme that is taken over by a solo cello; Doctor Marianus intones a prayer - Jungfrau, rein im schönsten Sinn ('Virgin, pure in the finest sense') - accompanied by a solo violin playing the horn theme; he is joined first by the basses, then by the tenors and finally by the altos of the adult choirs; a climax, led by the horns and trumpets, evaporates leaving arpeggios for the harps and piano, which signals the appearance of Mater Gloriosa, 'floating into view'.

Harp arpeggios continue during the slow bridge passage, accompanying the male voices of the choir. The female voices, joined by Una Poenitentium (Gretchen), ask Mater Gloriosa to hear their pleas. The three women - Magna Peccatrix, Mulier Samaritana and Maria Aegyptiaca - in turn make separate appeals in memory of their respective acts of penitence, then appeal jointly as a trio. Gretchen asks to be allowed to lead Doctor Marianus's soul towards the light.

We now enter the final phase of this long movement. To a very simple accompaniment, Mater Gloriosa instructs Gretchen:

Komm! Hebe dich zu höhern Sphären
Wenn er dich ahnet, folgt er nach
Come! Rise to higher spheres
As he becomes aware of you, he will follow

Encouraged by gentle urges from the choir, Komm!, Doctor Marianus makes his plea to Mater Gloriosa for mercy: Blicket auf zum Retterblick ('Look up, to the Redeemer's gaze'). As he finishes, the choruses take over his words, leading soon after to a big climax which subsides quickly, leaving shimmering arpeggios for celesta and piano supported by the harmonium, the harps and the high woodwind.

Musically, the symphony could have ended at this point in quiet repose, but Mahler has not finished yet; there is still Goethe's final stanza - the 'Chorus mysticus':

Alles Vergängliche,
Ist nur ein Gleichnis;
Das Unzulängliche,
Hier wird's Ereignis;
Das Unbeschreibliche,
Hier ist's getan;
Das Ewigweibliche
Zieht uns hinan.
Everything transitory
Is only a parable;
The inadequate
Here, is an event;
The indescribable
Here, is done;
The eternal feminine
Draws us on.

From its hushed beginning (ppp - Wie ein Hauch: 'Like a breath') for the chorus with the lightest of string section accompaniment, the very slow 'Chorus mysticus' grows little by little to its inexorable conclusion. Its theme is that with which Part II of the symphony opened, albeit then in a fragmented form. The first soprano joins in, followed closely by the woodwinds. As the soprano soars, but still quietly, to her high Cs, she is joined by her fellow soprano, then by the horns, celesta and the harps; trombones and the other vocal soloists add their voices to the long, slow-growing crescendo. The tempo accelerates slightly as the orchestra, the organ, the soloists, both adult choirs and the children's choir join in a unison ff statement of the first two and last two lines of the stanza - Mahler does not yet allow the dynamic to reach fff. The vocal contributions now complete, the orchestra presses on slowly and alone towards the inevitable climax, both the on-stage trumpets and trombones and the corresponding off-stage band playing a derivative of the Veni creator spiritus theme. Long-held, powerful chords in all sections of the orchestra, with the brass section particularly prominent, are punctuated by the timpani and the tam-tam. Far now from its hushed breath-like beginning, in the final bar, the 'Chorus mysticus', the movement, and this whole glorious symphony end with a truly awesome, hair-raising, nerve-tingling, unforgettable (and finally triple-forte) E flat major chord.

Other Premières

  • A second performance of the Eighth Symphony was given the following evening, Tuesday, 13 September, 1910.
  • The Dutch première was given on 9 March, 1912, in Amsterdam, with the Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Willem Mengelberg.
  • The American première took place on 2 March, 1916, at the Academy of Music, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, conducted by Leopold Stokowski. The total number of performers on this occasion was 1,069.
  • The English première was given on 15 April, 1930, in London, with Henry Wood conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra.
  • The first performance in the Republic of Ireland took place in Dublin on 14 May, 1992, in celebration of the 400th anniversary of Trinity College, Dublin. The National Symphony Orchestra and the RTE Concert Orchestra were conducted by Owain Arwel Hughes. Another H2G2 Researcher (not the author) was a member of one of the choirs involved, which on that occasion totalled about 1,100 singers.

A century after the first performance, premières still continue; the Vietnamese première is scheduled for 23 October, 2010, in Hanoi, to celebrate the 1,000th anniversary of Hanoi City.

1The story of Pentecost is told in the Bible, in the Book of Acts of the Apostles chapter 2, verses 1-40.2Other attributions, also unlikely, have included St Ambrose of Milan (died 397) and Pope Gregory the Great (died 604).3Diminutive form of Margaret.4Goethe's original text has a third hermit (Pater Seraphicus) who is at an intermediate level, but Mahler omits this relatively minor role, probably because it would complicate the voice assignments. To match the levels (of understanding) the intermediate hermit, Pater Seraphicus, would need to be assigned to the baritone voice, moving Pater Ecstaticus up to the tenor voice, but this voice is already assigned to Doctor Marianus. Not only is an additional singer required - a further addition to the already considerable costs - but it clouds the assignment of the important tenor voice to Doctor Marianus.5Specified in the score as a 'selection of lighter voices from the women of Choir I'.

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