Mahler Symphony no. 8 in E-flat major

performed by the Chicago Symphony, with the Vienna State Opera Chorus, Singverein Chorus, and the Vienna Boys Choir, under Sir Georg Solti,
vocalists: Heather Harper, Lucia Popp, Arleen Auger, Yvonne Minton, Helen Watts, René Kollo, John Shirley-Quirk & Martti Talvela

(I’ll say I had a very tough time choosing a featured recording for this work until I heard the above, and I’ll talk [way] down below about the very strong candidates. Part I of said recording is below, or a full (and also outstandingly wonderful recording) by Tennstedt and the London Philharmonic here, and if you want to watch a performance, here’s one with Mariss Jansons and the Bavarian Radio Symphony)

Try to imagine the whole universe beginning to ring and resound. There are no longer human voices, but planets and suns revolving.

-Gustav Mahler, of his eighth symphony

This is an enormous work, so epic and so demanding of enjoyment that I’ll include what I feel to be a trailer of sorts to the work:

(I haven’t heard MTT’s recording with the San Francisco Symphony, but Erin Wall is a doll with some serious pipes and I really enjoy the way they introduced the work in a way that gets people excited about it.)

This is the last of the (shall I say) canonical symphonies of Mahler that I warmed up to. That is to say Das Lied and no. 10 aside, of the symphonies numbered 1-9, 8 was really the last one I cracked into and wrapped my head around.

The Story

It is 1906, and Mahler is struck, seemingly physically, by an idea, and writes an enormous work, the largest to have ever been written for a symphonic presentation up until that time, in a matter of weeks. Always known more in his lifetime as a conductor rather than a composer, and coming off a symphony like his seventh that surely perplexed, he’d never seen overwhelming success in one of his compositions, but this was to be it. He wasn’t panned or wholly rejected by critics, and had already written seven symphonies. He’d had a challenging career, but not anything like the kind of success and fame Beethoven had had as a composer from which he could release his own ninth symphony. Mahler was ready to present something entirely different.

As for the story of Mahler’s life and the seeming-unrelenting drama that was the existence of Alma Mahler née Schindler, let’s say that by this point in their marriage, they’d lost a child, and pretty much each other. Like those couples in high school everyone knew who broke up like 47 times in one semester because they loved each other too much or something, the downturn in their marriage was accented by a few notable apparent upturns, in inverse proportion, it seems, to Mahler’s health. Alma flung off her other male companion(s) and was apparently dedicated (again) to her husband. I’m sure Gustav Mahler wasn’t a walk in the park as a spouse, but Alma was a different category of basket case altogether, if you ask me. Anyway, the work was apparently dedicated to his wife, although (as I recall) she meets with lover Walter Gropius the night of a rehearsal for the premiere, just months after Mahler found out they had been involved. Such drama. But enough about that.

Let’s take a quick review through Mahler’s symphonic history. The first four symphonies, the Wunderhorn ones, were all inspired by his early songs, and of the first four, only no. 1 lacks a vocal part (the first movement takes its melody from a song he wrote earlier). With his second, middle-period symphonies, he goes purely symphonic. Wikipedia says of his style at the time:

Here, the more austere poems of Friedrich Rückert replace the Wunderhorn collection as the primary influence; the songs are less folk-related, and no longer infiltrate the symphonies as extensively as before.[6] During this period the Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Symphonies were written, all as purely instrumental works, portrayed by Mahler scholar Deryck Cooke as “more stern and forthright …, more tautly symphonic, with a new granite-like hardness of orchestration“.

And then we get to the monumental eighth. It seems the composer’s original intention in the summer of 1906 was to revise the seventh symphony, but as Wiki says:

Mahler’s recollection, however, is that on the first day of the vacation he was seized by the creative spirit, and plunged immediately into composition of the work that would become his Eighth Symphony.[7][9]

It is distinct from any of Mahler’s earlier symphonies, and indeed even Beethoven’s choral ninth, in that the vocal parts, either from chorus or soloists, occupy the entire work, not just the final movement(s), as with Beethoven’s ninth and Mahler’s second, third and fourth. This was truly a choral symphony of unheard of proportions, “in keeping with Mahler’s conception of the work as a “new symphonic universe”, a synthesis of symphony, cantata, oratorio, motet, and lied in a combination of styles.” (In)famously nicknamed (not by the composer) the ‘symphony of a thousand’ (even though it rarely ever has that many performers) it is scored for three or four of all woodwinds (just two piccolos and one cor anglais, six clarinets of various flavors (B flat, E flat, and bass). In brass, we have eight horns, four each of trumpets and trombones, a tuba, and a “separately placed” section of four trumpets and three trombones. There are tons of percussion, timpani and bells and glockenspiel and bass drum and more. Keyboard instruments play a large role, including an organ, a harmonium, a piano, celesta, as well as at least two harps, and apparently preferably several mandolins. Then there are the voices: “two SATB choirs, a children’s choir, and eight soloists: three soprano, two alto, tenor, baritone, and bass.” Got it?

The work was premiered on 12 September, 1910 in Munich and was “a critical and popular success,” conducted by the composer.

The Music

Part I

The piece is structured into two large sections, not really halves, since the second part is so much longer than the first. Part II makes up about two thirds of the piece, I’d say (obviously depending on the recording); it’s just massive. The first movement comes in (on most recordings) at twenty-something minutes, which is a meaty movement for any work, especially when you’ve got your soloists and choruses and the organ and an augmented orchestra, but after that is the long, slow climb to greatness of the second movement. If it had been broken up into four movements, or ten or something more… episodic, I think the effect would have been of a seemingly-smaller work, but what we have is two massive chunks of music that somehow manage to link to each other, cling to one another fiercely, like they’re hugging, and don’t crumble under their own weight. After all, while these two enormous sections do share thematic material, the overwhelming unifying connection is the theme of “redemption through the power of love, a unity conveyed through shared musical themes,” says Wikipedia. We’ll get to themes in a moment (or more), but the point is that what Mahler has constructed here is two enormous arcs that support an even greater overall structure, and without looking at the score and making notes and stars and highlights and whatever, it takes a few listens to get that overall layout and see how it all comes together.

We haven’t gotten around to the ninth symphony yet, but we will. I had originally intended to wait some time before approaching the ninth, in hopes that my first listen would be an intelligent one, but I ended up having the chance to hear it live, so I proceeded into it prematurely. Part of that process of coming to understand the ninth was obviously to digest the eighth, so I remember putting it on (Solti’s recording with Chicago, I think) a few years ago before I started doing some cooking, and my jaw literally dropped. The color and texture and bigness, the harmonies, the layers… It was mind-blowing to think that this had (at least as the story goes) just kind of plopped out of someone’s brain onto paper, in all this florid detail and complexity, the magnitude of it was instantly overwhelming.

That is the first thing that one may be moved by, as the piece opens: its bigness. Before you’ve experienced the long, powerful journey of the whole thing, our point of departure is already breathtaking. In the first few seconds, we’re met with a roaring organ, massive orchestra, and the chorus(es?) hailing the first Veni of our first movement. The first movement is a setting of a Latin hymn, one of Mahler’s representations or expressions of love. Shortly thereafter, our vocal soloists enter, and what we realize is that the piece never gained momentum. There were no gears that needed to build up speed and get going; rather it was a symphonic big bang of sorts, an explosion of glorious, colorful, powerful sound, but also very quickly scales down, almost disappears, into delicate chamber-like textures. If any symphony of Mahler’s truly is a universe, and truly does contain everything, I feel like this is it.

If you’re intimidated by the enormity of this work (as you understandably might be), give an ear to Part I alone. While it feels in some recordings like just the introduction of the real meat of the work (once you hear Part II), it lays out much important material and gives a good feel for what this entire(ly new kind of) symphony will be like. You might want to listen for what must have been John Williams’ inspiration for his theme from the Schindler’s List score. It starts about ten seconds after the point where that video should begin (if not, forward to about 7:30). It emerges quite logically from what’s been presented so far in the movement, out of what I’ll call the Gloria motif, which is probably wrong on many levels, but it sticks in my head as the figure to which that word is often sung. Williams’ use of this theme is far more melancholy and tear-jerking than Mahler’s powerful, epic, and even almost-shrill use of the theme, with horns then tuba playing other lines over it where it appears there, but in the first ten minutes or so, you should be able to identify the big players in the movement and follow its progression as a standalone work if the whole symphony is too much to take on at first. If you are blown away by it, listen to it a few more times, get familiar with it, and then step into Part II.

The text for the first movement, in Latin, I find not to be as necessary to the appreciation of the movement as with the second, which has a real narrative, a plot, as “Part II is a setting of the words from the closing scene of Goethe’s Faust,” says Wikipedia.

Anyway, what you’ll hopefully realize after the first part is finished is that Part I is not just a mass of sound or the crazy idea of some delusional composer. It falls quite nicely into a sonata-form layout, and this should be pretty easy to identify if by no other means than recognizing the return of the opening theme. What’s so incredible about this movement, beyond the fact that it is enormous and powerful and stunningly beautiful and epic and rich, is its structure. Have a look at a good picture of Mt. Everest. It’s an enormous, intense, powerful crag, a looming mass begging some to conquer it. But while it’s beautiful as a landscape, it isn’t crafted, there’s no artistry or premeditated structure to its colossal mass. In the thick of it, Mahler’s eighth might seem a bit like that, unwieldy, overwhelming, beautiful, but almost too craggy. What you realize once you zoom out, hear the whole first part, is that there is a beautiful structure carved out of this mass, or rather, that this mass built around an incredibly solid, very well-thought out framework. The beginning might have seemed like the most beautiful of all hell broke loose on a score somewhere and got released into the concert hall, but the level of detail is exquisite.

Part II

This is the big part, what really feels like the meat of the symphony. It dwarfs Part I in comparison, and this is evidenced by the long, slow, epic introduction, a full 14 minutes in Solti’s recording. I’m sure there’s a rehearsal mark or title for that whole passage rather than just introduction, but that’s what I’m calling it. Again, much of the relevant content is already introduced here, stuff that will be developed and repeated later.

The pizzicato carves out a heartbeat for the work, and it’s here that we feel like we’re building brick-by-brick, in a dramatic, epic climb to some grand palatial place where the real drama of the work will happen. This whole passage is almost entirely orchestral, and after a growly, rich, epic passage, the work cools a bit, revealing flutters of woodwind and the occasional brass chorale over deep growls of the organ. One does get the sense here that there’s something big coming into place, that we’re being surrounded, as if all the planets are lining up for something enormously great.

When the chorus enters (at about ten minutes into Solti’s Part II), they’re practically whispering over the pizzicato heartbeat of the work. These disparate elements start to come together, and the level of tension and release, of slow-but-steady development, of crafting an enormous mass of music that Mahler creates, is phenomenal. There are flashes to me, perhaps in emotional scope and nostalgia rather than musical similarity, to the opening movement of Mahler’s third, that journey.

We begin to hear our various choruses interlock, work as independent but synchronized units. Oh, also, we’re in German now, not Latin. Wikipedia says of the beginning of this part:

The second part of the symphony follows the narrative of the final stages in Goethe’s poem—the journey of Faust’s soul, rescued from the clutches of Mephistopheles, on to its final ascent into heaven. Landmann’s proposed sonata structure for the movement is based on a division, after an orchestral prelude, into five sections which he identifies musically as an exposition, three development episodes, and a finale.[56] The long orchestral prelude (166 bars) is in E-flat minor and, in the manner of an operatic overture, anticipates several of the themes which will be heard later in the movement. The exposition begins in near-silence; the scene depicted is that of a rocky, wooded mountainside, the dwelling place of anchorites whose utterances are heard in an atmospheric chorus complete with whispers and echoes.

There’s something unbelievably magical about this entire 14-minute passage, and it isn’t until that choral passage is done that our first vocalist appears. “A solemn baritone solo, the voice of Pater Ecstaticus, ends warmly as the key changes to the major when the trumpets sound the “Accende” theme from Part I.” Already we are hearing content that ties these enormous two parts together, and it’s with this baritone solo that I get the sense that Part II has really begun. One of the highlights of the entire work is this intense bass aria that follows:

Pater Profundus, who ends his tortured meditation by asking for God’s mercy on his thoughts and for enlightenment… The mood lightens with the entry of the angels and blessed boys (women’s and children’s choruses) bearing the soul of Faust; the music here is perhaps a relic of the “Christmas Games” scherzo envisioned in the abortive four-movement draft plan.

The vocalists and the recording quality and power and control and clarity of these soloists in Solti’s recording blow the listener away. They are stunning. Due to the nature of each of the individual vocal lines, our soloists get more focused attention in Part II, creating stunning, heart-gripping beauty, and likely very challenging parts for the performers. Things get even bigger when the children’s and women’s choruses enter (reminding me again, if only in passing of the third). The above quote mentions the scherzo-like nature of this passage, and it’s festive, wintry, with heavenly choral parts and a light buoyancy and cheer, quite different from the gut-punch power of some of the other parts.

Listen yet again for echoes of Part I. Remember when I said that the Schindler’s List-like theme would be important? Wikipedia again tells us:

The atmosphere is festive, with triumphant shouts of “Jauchzet auf!” (“Rejoice!”) before the exposition ends in a postlude which refers to the “Infirma nostri corporis” music from Part I.

Suddenly from this chorus arise string solos, a lone voice here and there, a violin or a flute among this rich vocal landscape. There’s a female aria in among this before a tenor, Doctor Marianus appears to sing what I feel is one of the most beautiful, tender moments of the entire symphony, beginning with:

Hier ist die Aussicht frei,
Der Geist erhoben.
(Here the view is free,
The Spirit lifted up.)

(As a reference, the original-language text with wonderful translations can be found here.) The end of his incredibly beautiful aria is marked with triumphant calls from the horn, leading to a tender, loving harp arpeggio, harmonium chord and rich lyrical line on violin. After a chorus, we get three gorgeous solos from Magna Peccatrix, Mulier Samaritana and Maria Aegyptiaca.

What I find is that while Part II might be amenable to being organized into Adagio, Scherzo and Finale sections (although that is debated), the work progresses with its succession of arias, each one stunningly beautiful on its own, either presenting and working off of what’s been presented already, or developing in a new direction.

For example, each of the women mentioned above (Magna Peccatrix, Mulier Samaritana and Maria Aegyptiaca; first soprano, first alto and second alto, respectively) each have their own arias before they join in a splendidly beautiful trio of sorts. It’s lyrical, bright, pastoral, and a perfect way to navigate the musical content, develop the music, and make things yet more beautiful.

Una Poenitentium (second soprano) begins this section with “Neige, neige, Du Ohnegleiche,” perhaps even more carefree and heavenly than everything that’s come. Each one of these passages is something to enjoy on its own, but when they’re put one after the other, developing an incredible plot of music, it’s really stunning. The Er kommt zurück must be one of the most stunning lines of the entire work.

We’re back in a scherzo-ish line, and the Er überwächst uns schon An mächtigen Gliedern from the children’s chorus always signals to me that we’re nearing the epic end of this symphony. Una Poenitentium wraps up this section, and there’s really not that much left. She finishes with Noch blendet ihn der neue Tag, things wind down, and we get more flashes of the first movement. But wait.

One of the most heavenly, or elevated, or important parts of the entire work is obviously when Mater Gloriosa appears, with her only two lines in all of Part II:

Komm! Hebe dich zu höhern Sphären!
Wenn er dich ahnet, folgt er nach.

Come, rise up to higher spheres!
If he is aware of you, he will follow

Wonderfully, the incredible Doctor Marianus answers Mater with a goose-bump-inducing passage backed by the chorus at parts, finishing with the pleading, heartfelt bleibe gnädig!

There’s a clear return of that Gloria figure, as things wind down, harps take over and lead to flute and piccolo, what Erin Wall says emotionally above “sounds like what love is.” It’s such a delicate, even vulnerable passage, to come toward the end of something so intensely large and epic, but it’s touching.

With Alles Vergängliche/ Ist nur ein Gleichnis; we are at the final Chorus Mysticus, and they enter ever so quietly, a warm, glowing ball of human sound, not transitioning into a new section, or breaking the heavenly atmosphere, but continuing it. We’re here in the finale, and one wonders how on earth something so epic and sprawling and all-encompassing can wrap up to a satisfying finish. The Chorus builds and they are ready to give us the answer. As we hear each of our soloists in among the building, swelling mass of sound, we know this beautiful narrative is reaching its end, and that is a bittersweetness that adds to the passionate, loving, all-embracing glory of the work.

Following this work with the score, the text, and experiencing it (as best I can outside the concert hall) is one of the most moving musical experiences that can be had, reaching the level of sublime artistry and epicness that I thought only the Auferstehung was capable of accomplishing.

The searing brass, roaring organ, pounding percussion, all of it sounds on paper so violent, but it is like the sun rising over a formerly cold, lifeless landscape, welcoming, triumphant, celebratory. It is everything there ever was and ever will be, and suddenly the bittersweetness of the end melts away, and we bask in the glory of a musical culmination like there has never been before, and even if you’re just listening with headphones and staring at your ceiling, it is as if we’ve been privileged to experience something so grand, so powerful, so intense, that one could expect the skin to glow with radiance and joy upon its completion.

Is that cliché? A bit much? It really isn’t. Get yourself a copy of the score and Solti’s recording with the Chicago Symphony mentioned above. If you need/want it, get yourself the English translation of the text, and get to enjoying.

My Recordings

I was really torn on recordings for a while. Sir Georg Solti’s Mahler cycle was the first one I had listened to just because (for some reason or other) it was the first name I recognized, both his and Chicago’s, but overall, the set as a set doesn’t have great reviews, with many people suggesting his earlier recordings with the London Symphony over Chicago’s. So blah blah blah, years down the road and I’m trying to decide on a Mahler 8 and I don’t really give Solti a moment of attention. How wrong I was.

I’ll say that I’ve listened to the famous Horenstein recording (and many of the other ‘definitive’ ‘historic’ readings), but sound quality always comes before interpretation to me. I’d rather have excellent sound quality of a safe performance than sub-par audio quality of an outstanding one. Anyway, my contenders, as nonstandard as they may be were Boulez’s (Staatskapelle Berlin, et al. from his Mahler box set), Yoel Levi with my hometown Atlanta Symphony, and more recently Klaus Tennstedt’s recording with the London Philharmonic.

As for Boulez, I really wanted to feature him here because I think his Mahler (save the seventh) is superb. Of course he benefits from more modern recordings and outstanding sound quality, but he is a stinking surgeon when it comes to matters of interpretation, clarity, and accuracy. I’d tend to favor almost any Boulez interpretation over a Bernstein one; Mahler is emotional and powerful enough without having to sacrifice clarity and balance to punch the intensity up to 11 or 12. Some would argue that that’s exactly what Mahler wants, but I think that’s what Bernstein wants. In any case, as cold and calculating an interpreter as many people suggest Boulez is, he does the music justice, I feel. Everything is clear, pristinely presented, making for an excellent recording for score reading. It’s all there, and there is enough emotion and substance in Mahler to stick to what he’s written and have an effective, moving, powerful reading, and I feel Boulez leads his army of performers in doing that.

With Levi, I’ll be honest: I’m just proud of the ASO. I can’t remember when the recording was made and doubt it was in their current performing location, but I feel it stands up there as a solid recording, a really great effort that places itself alongside some of the great names of conductors and orchestras. I was impressed.

The most recent acquisition was Tennstedt. After reading lots of praise for his cycle, especially this eighth, I finally got it, and the entire set is indeed wonderful, rising quickly toward the top of what I feel to be the finest readings of Mahler symphonies (Abbado gets no mention here, sadly, but I do have his recording with the Berlin Philharmonic; his Mahler is overall always very pleasing if not breathtaking). Tennstedt’s soloists seem to be placed farther back in the ensemble, with a more spacious sound. The sound quality isn’t bad by any means, and I wouldn’t so much call it an echo, but there’s much more space in the recording, as if you were the only person watching a performance in an otherwise empty hall. It’s an outstanding reading.

But let’s be honest. There is so much to this work that just about nobody gets everything right. And that’s beyond a subjective statement. At this point, we’re not talking about poor playing or the right notes or whatever. It’s the size of the choruses, clarity of recording, approach to the enormous structure of the work, charisma and vision of the conductor. What does that bell sound like? How well do the soloists hold up? Can the organ be heard in the end? Does it drown everyone else out? Is something way too fast or slow for your liking? With such an enormous work with so many details to be concerned about, it isn’t surprising that each recording has its own strengths and weaknesses.

However, after stepping back and rediscovering Solti’s recording, I’d say he’s undeniably my favorite. The recording is crystal clear, powerful, the orchestral playing is beyond superb, choruses excellent, soloists expressive and warm, and that organ! All in all, I feel it takes the cake by a long shot, even against what are also otherwise great recordings. There’s a lot to get right here, and I feel Solti nails it. No question. I’m glad to have five or six recordings of the work in my library, but I am thinking for now… Solti is hands down my go-to.


(for anyone who’s still here)

I hadn’t actually intended to write this article when I did. I was struggling a bit with how I would approach such an enormous work with so much detail, but accidents happen, and a few notes on Solti’s incredible reading turned into the above. So that handled itself, and there was no stopping it. But perhaps it’s what Mahler felt like when writing the work. I’m not likening in any manner my writing of a blog post to what Mahler accomplished with his eighth symphony (and certainly not the quality of the latter either).

In any case, we’ve made our way through the first eight epic enormous symphonies of Mahler (with varying degrees of journalistic and musical prowess on my part; I’ll be revisiting 5 and 2 for sure, and likely also 1 and 6), and managed to fill in the gaps with some of his smaller works, but we still have an early cantata, the earliest of his songs to get to before we get to the last three works of the career of Gustav Mahler, Das Lied von der Erde, and the ninth and tenth symphonies. But (spoiler alert) there’s no more Mahler on the ticket for the rest of this year, and we shan’t be rushing to get through those last few enormous works. Savor them, enjoy them.

Go back and give a few listens to Mahler’s Monstrous Eighth Symphony. I’m sure there’s something you (and I) missed. And stay tuned next week for the great antithesis of this epic work.


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