God, Goethe and the eternal-feminine

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Frode Skag Storheim
June 03, 2024

‘Think, in the last three weeks I have completed the sketches of an entirely new symphony, something in comparison with which all the rest of my works are no more than introductions. I have never written anything like it; it is something quite different in both content and style from all my other works, and certainly the biggest thing that I have ever done. Nor do I think that I have ever worked under such a feeling of compulsion; it was like a lightning vision – 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 shared these thoughts with the music critic Rudolf Specht (1870–1932) in the summer of 1906, and Specht later quoted them in his Mahler biography. It was not particularly uncommon for Mahler to be euphoric while in the throes of realising a new work when his creative powers kicked in with full force. He had had a similar epiphany for the conclusion of his second – Resurrection – symphony: at Hans von Bülow’s funeral he heard an arrangement of Friedrich Klopstock’s poem Die Auferstehung (The Resurrection). On that occasion too he enthusiastically described how he was filled with creative euphoria.

In the case of the 8th Symphony and its creative sparks, they were primarily set off when Mahler stumbled upon a ninth century hymn for Pentecost, Veni Creator Spiritus: Come Holy Ghost, our souls inspire. Mahler originally intended it to be the first of four movements in the work.

It was by no means the first time Mahler used the human voice in a symphony, but in earlier works the choral and solo passages were used for musical emphasis. In the eighth symphony singing permeates the work as a far more integral part of the composition.

Mahler died comparatively young at the age of 50. Throughout his life he was drawn between his call as a composer and his work as a conductor. It was as the latter he made his living; composing was something he liked to do in his summer holidays, when he had time – and his eighth symphony is no exception. By the picturesque lake Wörthersee in the south of Austria lies the village of Maiernigg, where Mahler spent many a summer towards the end of his life, writing his fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh symphonies and part of the eighth. In 1906 his work on the eighth was interrupted by having to go to Salzburg to conduct performances of The Marriage of Figaro, but by August that year most of the symphony was completed, and only minor changes were made to the score afterwards.

Structurally the symphony realised its potential in its somewhat unconventional form when Mahler allowed Veni Creator Spiritus to constitute the first part. Part 2 of the symphony takes its textual basis from Faust. Goethe’s drama is also in two parts, published in 1808 and 1832 respectively, and Mahler uses excerpts from the second part. Throughout the nineteenth century texts from Faust were used as the basis for many musical works: the first was probably Beethoven, with his opus 75 songs from 1809. These were followed by Schubert’s Gretchen am Spinnrade, Schumann’s musical Scenes from Goethe’s Faust for orchestra, choir and soloists, Gounod’s opera, Liszt’s symphony and Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust. Furthermore, early in his career Wagner wrote an overture inspired by the drama.

It is Faust’s final scene that Mahler uses, with the action in the wilderness. Pater Ecstaticus, Profundis and Seraficus sing of and praise nature and eternal love. Several more voices join in, including a choir of angels and boys. Along with Doctor Marianus, who has deep knowledge of the Virgin Mary, they sing of Faust’s immortality, and of his soul ascending to heaven. For even though Faust entered into a pact with the devil – Mephistopheles – and is actually condemned to eternal perdition, his sins are forgiven. Faust’s aim was to extend his knowledge, and he strove to become an enlightened and noble person. Gretchen also asks for forgiveness for him:

Oh, bow down,
You peerless one,
You radiant one,
Your face, in mercy, towards my bane!
My true beloved,
No longer clouded,
Returns to me again.

The symphony ends with Chorus Mysticus, a breathtaking, enigmatic text, which states that everything transitory shall perish, and that the eternally feminine will carry us home.

The music

All Mahler symphonies start differently, and in the eighth we are thrown straight into ecstatic euphoria. Organ, orchestra and a huge chorus unite as if brought together by the spirit.

Considering the religious, philosophical and existential content of the text, it is hardly surprising that Mahler drew up a colossal canvas of instrumentation and musical form. Since this is consistently a choral symphony in which the human voice is a bearing element, neither is it surprising that Part Two is a synthesis of cantata and oratorio, arias, children’s choir song, lied and strict chorales.

In the first part Mahler’s appreciation of Bach is noticeably present, and the similarity to the motet Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied has often been pointed out.

The nickname The Symphony of a Thousand, given to the work after its world premiere in Munich in 1910, received no acclaim from the composer: ‘A title like that just makes the piece sound like a Barnum and Bailey production,’ alluding to the legendary ‘Greatest Show on Earth’.

However, it must be said, for many music lovers Mahler’s 8th is exactly that – the greatest show on earth. Its instrumentation makes demands well over and above those of ordinary late romantic works. Amongst other features, there are six flute parts, four bassoons and a contra-bassoon, eight horns, eight trumpets, organ, celeste, piano, harmonium, harps and mandolin. This was all within Mahler’s basic intent to create ‘a new symphonic universe’.

In his eighth symphony he aimed very high indeed – and hit the mark. The work combines the sacred and religious, the Holy Spirit and universal salvation but not least: it is the eternally feminine that saves us.

Perhaps it is not so strange then that he dedicated this grandiose work to his wife, Alma. On 4 September 1910, eight days before the premiere, he wrote to her from Munich: ‘It always lies latent in me, this yearning for you – Freud is quite right – you were always the light of my life.’

Symphony number eight was an unconditional success for Mahler; ovations lasted for twenty minutes. Many artists and important people attended the premiere, including the great German singer, Lilli Lehmann (1848–1929). Her poignant recollection may be found in her autobiography Mein Weg from 1913, in which she writes: ‘I saw Mahler again, for the last time, when he conducted his eighth symphony in 1910. […] Mahler had become very old; I was shocked. His work, performed by about a thousand musicians, sounded as if it came from a single instrument, from one throat. The second part of the symphony, based on the second part of Faust, gripped me painfully. Was it him, his music, his appearance, a premonition of death, Goethe’s words, reminiscences of Schumann, my youth? I do not know; I just know that throughout the whole of the second part I felt emotions beyond my control.’

Text: Frode Skag Storheim
English version: Roger Martin

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