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«THE EIGHTH SYMPHONY [268 blank] [269] On September 12, 1910 in Munich, under Mahler’s direction, the premiere performance of the Eighth Symphony ...»

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[267]

THE EIGHTH SYMPHONY

[268 blank]

[269] On September 12, 1910 in Munich, under Mahler’s direction, the premiere

performance of the Eighth Symphony took place. The impact of the previous works had not

been uniform. Only the Second Symphony had found approval. The others had been received

somewhat coolly, and the three instrumental symphonies almost consistently with objection or

even head shaking. The premiere of the Eighth signified the first unquestionable, far-reaching success. It was enthusiastically embraced by the public, but although there was not unanimous acclaim from the critics, at least a portion of them recognized that one would no longer be able to contemptuously overlook a creative output that had led to such a pinnacle or dismiss it with the sympathetic wording of a great intention but an inadequate achievement.1 It was the success for which Mahler had longed and fought. The Eighth was supposed to open up the view for the complete works. It was supposed to open the hearts that had thus far been hardened. Perhaps the hardening of minds had been necessary to awaken in him as a reaction, after overcoming all struggles, from the force of ecstatic attraction that emanates from the warm breath of this work, such an extensive desire for love. As if under a higher command, Mahler opens all the sources of his being, plunging himself into a creative frenzy that has something feverish and consuming.

This self-immolation in the act of artistic production is tragic. Out of the ruthless destruction of his reserves speaks the premonition of the oncoming collapse. But Mahler’s will had triumphed.

The goal was achieved; the victory had also become external. In the meantime, he turned fifty years old. Eight months later he was buried.

It would not be correct to blindly reproach his contemporaries because of their unfavorable or even derogatory2 opinion regarding the preceding seven symphonies. Mahler’s work and personality was something new. New in view of external aspects of the structure, diction, and style of his music. New above all in relation to the sense and symbolism of his output. The more one recognizes that the key to Mahler’s art lies precisely here, the less one can make judgments about his contemporaries, with the exception of the malicious or malevolent ones. What had struggled forth from within him out of doubt and pain, what was hardly even comprehensible to him, who always felt himself as only a vessel of the Divine, could only be recognized by those who stood at a distance when a larger viewpoint for the complete works was provided. Mahler felt this. But he could not create the clarifying work until he had provided the foundation and had completed the passage through the seven transformations of his self. With the Eighth Symphony, he sensed that he had now attained that ground. Here, the soul needed to resonate with its humanity. This recognition of the pure, divine revelation within him caused him to await his destiny from the Eighth. Next to this, the consciousness of its own outward effect was not taken into consideration. His desire was not success, but to be understood. Here, he had found the formula, and it could no longer be misunderstood.

Only from this summit can an overview be obtained. With Mahler, it is necessary for the comprehension of the individual. Mahler’s complete oeuvre is a growth of the one out of the other, a constant labor on a fundamental [270] idea of a kind that seldom reveals itself in such unity and fantastically executed continuity. With most musicians, a diversity of cultivated genres hinders the clarity of the overall view. The interests run off in too many different directions for the hidden unity among them to be readily recognizable. It is most likely to be comprehended with Richard Wagner, where a similar restriction to only one area is apparent. But Wagner’s form was inherently richer and, viewed from the outside, more comprehensive than Mahler’s.

How is it to be explained that Mahler, except for a few songs,3 found satisfaction in this single formal genre? Stimulation to create in other areas could not have been lacking for him within the musical sphere in which he moved. It is more likely that it demanded effort for him to resist such stimuli. For his acceptance as a composer, works of a smaller format and an easier execution would have been very helpful, and as little as one can imagine a string quartet or a piano sonata by Mahler, it would be reckless to claim that his talent would not have been sufficient for works of this kind.

Here, a secret of individual predisposition lies hidden. It is doubtlessly connected to the nature of the talent, although certainly in another sense than that of an assessment of value.

Mahler’s musical feelings were of a cosmic nature. They could only become fruitful through the idea of the sounding universe. Problems of chamber or solo music did not echo within him and made nothing fluently creative in him. Only the cosmic world of the orchestra, in which the individual, even when freely made prominent, always remains an impersonal member of the general community, awakened in him conceptions of an intrinsically creative kind that caused the deepest parts of his nature to resonate. One can find in this, when one wishes, a limitation of his gifts. In truth, such an assessment only proves that Mahler had a confessional nature of unusual purity. Everything artful4 remained strange and odious to him. Even his proclivity for the symphony was not rooted in the artistic attraction that the diversity and wealth of the orchestral language held for him. This artistic attraction was only a consequence of Mahler’s ethical predisposition. It made him into an apostle of universal human love. In one of the Mildenburg letters referred to earlier, there is a passage that is deeply characteristic of Mahler’s nature. After the description of a visit to a bell factory in a Berlin suburb, he tells of his return to the city: “But now back to the general management: the lobbying was in full force. These faces! These bony people! Every inch of their faces carried the traces of the self-tormenting egoism that makes all men so unhappy! Always I and I—and never Thou, Thou my brother!”5 This “my brother” unveils Mahler’s soul. His feeling for the world recognized the creation of God in every creature and included all within the same ardent love of this divine kinship. Such a perception of the world needed to resist forms of creation that, like opera, were directed to an audience divided by class or, like chamber and solo music, to an intellectual elite.





For him as the creator, for whom creating was an ethical as well as an artistic necessity, only an audience without differences of an intellectual or social kind could be considered. His congregation needed to include all [271] that had ears to hear.6 To it he offered his form of art, whose acceptance was bound to no requirements of education, possession of intellect, nor any other possessions. Neither opera, even in the apparently democratizing evenness of Wagnerian reform, to say nothing of aristocratic solo and chamber music, could provide enough for this socialistic artistic attitude. Even the symphonic form as Mahler found it was not what was sought. It did, however, allow for an expansion corresponding to the internal laws of his nature.

Mahler’s religious and ethical attitude was directed toward the fellowship of humanity. He built the temple of his art to this fellowship. He built it such that his works could find no room in the concert halls of his time and burst beyond them. From the inside, this was through the thunderous power of a cosmic life within them that jumped the sonic boundaries of the concert halls. From the outside in, this was through the congregation to which he spoke. It included all who were weary and heavy laden, primarily the poor in spirit, and then the immense multitude of those to whom art had been foreign, those without understanding.7 All who had been able to find no relationship to the artistic establishment of their time, who knew nothing of it and wished to know nothing of it. To them he revealed a new art beyond the social and intellectual boundaries, an art that again touched upon the elemental impulses of feeling.8 The world view that Mahler carried within himself and his all-encompassing, messianic love of humanity necessitated each other. From their union, the necessity of symphonic creation emerged for him, along with the directive for the extension of his symphonic forms. It had determined the development of his previous works. It gave him the impetus for the continuation and culmination of the formal as well as the ideal conception in the Eighth.

Mahler’s symphonies up to the Seventh, apart from the First, which is better assessed as a prelude, divide themselves into two large groups: the Wunderhorn symphonies and the instrumental symphonies. Considered by the content, the first group signifies a confrontation with problems of an unearthly kind, with the relationship to the Divine and the transcendent.

The second group takes up problems of inner personal life, placing the individual with his creations, struggles, and accomplishments in opposition to the world and the powers that control it.9 With the conclusion of the Seventh Symphony, the harmony of the individual with the world had been won, similarly as with the Finale of the Third and, growing out of it, the epilogue-like Fourth, the harmony with the Divine. Two different cycles had been traversed. They come in contact at one point. Mahler had titled the Finale of the Third “What Love Tells Me.” For him, this love was God. He could have also titled the Finale of the Seventh “What Love Tells Me.” Certainly not divine love, and also not the love of man for woman. Love of life, love of the earth, the joy of human existence, as opposed to the otherworldly peace in the Finale of the Third, and as opposed to the fairy tale dream of “heavenly life” in the Finale of the Fourth. This one thing remains common to both fundamentally, inherently different worlds, and each time it is the elemental driving force in the creation and the outcome of the great symphonic journey: love, which penetrates the world and the heavens. This all-encompassing love now becomes, after the thorough investigation of heaven and earth, [272] the basis of a new work. Even the idea alone draws a common denominator for the Mahlerian oeuvre. A cosmic feeling of sound, a socialistic will to form, and an artistic ethos flow into one. This one raises itself, with eruptive force of ecstasy, out of subjective limitations to the height of a human affirmation.

Only this artist was able to take on such a task, and he only after the struggle through a whole life’s work. For the solution, however, he required other means than he had previously used. Here, the orchestra alone could no longer suffice. As a sound symbol of life in nature, as a vehicle for the expression of high-concept emotional experiences, as the mediator of that unspeakable compulsion that works behind the outer appearance of things, the orchestra had been developed by Mahler to the most extreme flexibility of verbal capacity. But now it was necessary to pronounce a clear and conscious confession. Here, the word and the human voice needed to be added. Not, with the exception of the Finale of the Second, the solo voice as before.

No longer did the individual person speak, but all humanity spoke and confessed. All that have breath needed to be drawn in, a choir of all types, solos of all vocal characters, in order to make such an expression of human feeling plausible and to give it convincing strength.

Because of this prevalent use of the choir and vocal soloists, the accusation of a misleading designation of the work has been raised against Mahler. Hermann Kretzschmar, whose Führer durch den Konzertsaal (Guide Through the Concert Hall), while rich in positive information, fails with respect to Mahler because of an inadequate basic attitude, calls it “a senseless reversal of centuries-old concepts when one unhesitatingly10 issues a work as a symphony in which the orchestra’s independent portion is limited to a series of modest epilogues and a single longer prelude.”11 The debate over whether the work is to be addressed as a symphony or as a cantata could be regarded as a futile dispute over words. However, it is about something other than differences of opinion because of a title. What matters is the recognition that this symphony as a form, even in consideration of the resources used, is for Mahler the fulfillment of that which he envisioned as the original nature of the symphonic work of art.

Decisive for him was not the kind of representational media, not the sequence and construction of individual movements. What was decisive was the expansion of the symphonic form to the representation of a cosmic experience. An all-pervading feeling of nature, reflected in a form that is bound to the ideal condition of a human fellowship, this was his conception of the nature of the symphony. If, in external details, it contradicted the traditional concepts, then, by virtue of his creativity, he has set a current concept against the historical one. Accordingly, one misjudges not only the character of the Eighth Symphony when one denies it the right to the name of the genre; one also misunderstands the primary focus of Mahler’s output in general. As conspicuously as the Eighth outwardly stands out from the preceding works, in truth it is as much a necessary consequence, actually a fulfillment of the earlier symphonies, the most unified declaration of the Mahlerian will, the pure incarnation of his spirit and his ethic.



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