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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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[273] How much Mahler thought about the work in a symphonic way from the outset, and how distant for him the idea was of turning it to another genre, is proved by the earliest preserved sketch. It shows a plan that is conspicuously divergent from the later design. Four movements are specified. They carry the designations: “1) Hymne Veni Creator, 2) Scherzo, 3) Adagio Caritas, 4) Hymne: die Geburt des Eros (The Birth of Eros).” As far as music sketches, the page only contains the opening theme of the first movement.12 Mahler thus initially thought of a four-part work in which, beside a regular scherzo, the idea from the Fourth Symphony of a “Caritas” Adagio appeared.13 The outer movements were planned as choral pieces, the first as an invocation of the divine creator spirit, the last as a celebration of the earthly illuminator, of Eros.14 Later, Mahler strayed from this plan, moving to a two-part layout. Of course, this twopart design should not actually be viewed as being in two movements. The present second part falls into an Adagio, Scherzo, and Finale. The symphonic construction is therefore preserved, despite the initially unusual external arrangement, and the first movement also displays the sonata-like structure corresponding to the symphonic type. Here is shown a continuation of the division into parts that was used in the Third, Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Symphonies with the innovation that the three movements of the second part are not separated as otherwise, but instead are organically connected to one another.15 Definitive for this kind of layout were the texts used. For the opening movement, Mahler had found the text right away. It was the old Latin hymn “Veni creator spiritus,” for Mahler the invocation of the primeval creative force: love as the basic causative and formative power of all existence. The use of this text was fixed for him from the beginning. From it, the clear understanding of the basic idea presumably emerged. Its opening theme is the first sketch for the work. Adding a complement to this text was the problem upon whose solution the success of the whole depended. Mahler must have brooded for a long time over this complement before he arrived at the plan, as bold as it was outlandish, to use the closing of Goethe’s Faust. Outlandish inasmuch as it must have seemed astonishing and irreverent to couple this fragment from one of the most powerful poetic works of all time with another poetic work. All the more outlandish as the Faust composition held within itself enough to suggest an independent musical creation. For eighty years, it had been one of the most used subjects for compositional treatment, upon which, in addition to many minor and mediocre figures, some of the strongest musical minds had made efforts. Mahler did not adopt the poem as a Faust problem, and did not adopt it from the literary side. He comprehended it purely out of his musical requirement. Therein lies the difference between him and his predecessors, and at the same time his justification. He did not view it with respect to its position within the Faust idea of Goethe, but instead with respect to its emotional content and to the inner process of the complete poetic conception that carried it. For him, the Faustian therein stepped into the background. If he thus avoided from the beginning a comparison to other musical Faust settings, then by this very fact, he was successful in musically and emotionally comprehending the poem in its fullness of innermost life. What drew him to Goethe’s words and scenes was alone the idea of the appearance of love as a purifying, liberating, clarifying power. According to this idea, he selected for composition [274] the scenes from the songs of the Anchorites on through the Chorus mysticus. Thus, although he did not provide a Goethe composition in the philological sense, perhaps he did provide the pure reflection of the emotional process within this self-contained closing section. He thus simultaneously obtained a contrast and an organic complement to the first part of the symphony. There, love as the awakener and the divine revelation; here, love as an active force, as the mediator of a gradual elevation and refinement to a transfigured state.

That was the intellectually poetic and formally structural precondition from which Mahler here created: a cosmic conception of the nature of the symphonic genre, revealed through the elemental creative force of love. Such a conception was designed in a phase of the highest artistic and human maturity, after confrontation with all the component problems, after the erection of a gigantic seven-part symphonic work of which each individual member, although independent, is yet, in view of that which follows, always a preparation, and the whole appears as an overpowering effort from the whole personality toward a final avowal.

The musical execution went parallel to the intellectual and formal conception. It was necessary to find a style that corresponded to the overall meaning of the work. Mahler is supposed to have described the symphony as a gift to the nation, a testimony as to how far he aspired here in his desire to make an impact.16 In reality, the capacity of the work reaches beyond a single nation. As in Beethoven’s Ninth, eternal possessions of humanity are glorified here whose recognition is not bound to the sensitivities of national borders.17 The tonal language needed to correspond to such a radius of impact. In coherence and sweeping power, it needed to exceed both the appealing, yet subjectively rooted folk character of the Wunderhorn style as well as the


symbolism of the later instrumental style. It needed to act as an elemental revelation, to carry the rapturous power of ecstasy within itself, to be clear and graphic enough to inwardly enliven and inspire the masses, and, through the bold pattern of the lines, along with the concentrated force of grand dynamic developmental curves, to compel a unification of the community of listeners that had been previously undreamed of. The technical compositional problem lay in utilizing the summoned mass apparatus—double four-voice choir to which a boys’ choir is added, eight solo voices and large orchestra—in such a way that the art of the construction did not hinder the flow and transparency of the stream of sound. It was vital to discover a kind of polyphony whereby the use of all means of complicated compositional technique always allowed the individual lines to strikingly come forward.18 Mahler not only overcame these difficulties that were produced by the nature of the task, but they raised his language to a surety and convincing power of expression that had nowhere been previously achieved. It is as if inner inhibitions that still existed before were suddenly fallen and the musical purity of his nature streamed out unrestrained. The individual themes sound from an improvisatory effortlessness of invention. They breathe a satisfied beauty, a warm fullness of sonic eloquence, and are so accessible and memorable that a feeling of the appearance of something long familiar and yet for the first time perceptible to the senses [275] becomes alive in the listener. These themes rest upon fundamental human melodies that are latent in everyone and only require a strong creative aura to sound out. One cannot call them original in the usual sense. They contain nothing subjective. Everything that is personally conditioned appears to be removed from them, and there remain only the basic sounds of communal feeling. If such melodies are invented on a small scale, folk tunes arise that everybody immediately knows and nobody knows from whence they actually come. In art music, it is given to few to create melodies of such a kind. And these few also only in moments in which they are able to rise above the limits of their individuality by virtue of a special intuition. In such moments, the artist touches on the primary source of music. Art music again obtains an influx of the popular, which gives it new strength and reason for being.19 The themes of the Eighth stream throughout from this source. Thus, they fascinate less through artistic construction and subtle curves of design than through the richness and strength of their natural sounds. They line up in great quantity and diversity, but upon closer reflection they prove to be inwardly related. One grows from the other, and the relationship reveals itself in many details. Beyond these connections that were partially unknown to the creator, Mahler has set up extensive thematic dovetailing. Individual basic themes pervade the whole work, uncovering inner connections. Periodically closed sections are common to both parts of the symphony along with changes to the text. By this, simplification and clarity are obtained. The parts divide themselves and grow under an internally operative law. Before the listener, the emergence of a form takes place whose necessity and strength he perceives without being able to conceptually understand it. The formal organism lives in a mysterious way, drawing the listener into the spell of its creation, thereby awakening in him the profound excitement of the shared experience of an ecstatic creative process.

This transparency of the organism is also shown in the way in which Mahler makes the means of polyphonic style serviceable for homophonic purposes. From the Fifth Symphony on, Mahler continuously used contrapuntal techniques and forms and thereby obtained flexibility and freedom of voice leading that gave him dominion over the multiplicity of his instruments. But polyphony in the old sense was never his goal. For him, it was not about the interweaving, but the setting apart of the voices. If he writes a fugue, a canon, or a combination of several voices, it is always the effect of temporal succession, never that of spatial superimposition. This is a peculiarity of Mahlerian counterpoint whose ultimate causes can hardly be proved with logically tangible reasons. Thus, the technical, sometimes very intricate linear style of the Eighth never awakens in the listener an awareness of artfulness. The strict intellectual tautness of the old polyphony is lacking. Mahler’s polyphony has the side effect of a simplifying unraveling of a harmonically dense linear technique.20 Beside the trans-personal nature of the melodic invention, beside the inner unity of the themes and the characteristic return of thematic [276] groups, beside the palpable shared experience of the birth of the form, beside the homophonic clarity of the polyphonic technique, there is a strength and vividness of declamation that secures the work an irresistible urgency of effect. Mahler’s declamation is not developed according to modern perception of the meaning and meter of the language. One can rather say that Mahler’s treatment of words, here in a larger text as in the smaller Wunderhorn texts, is often directed, in a logical sense, against the inflection of the language. This very kind of textual treatment, however, makes the listener conscious of the emotional strength of the language, of the poetic mystery of its meaning. It lends the text a musical objectivity.21 A precondition of this effect is Mahler’s gift to sing the text internally, to form its declamation from this strength of vocal sensitivity. This observation touches on perhaps the last reason for the overwhelmingly impressive force of the work. The elemental musical statement, song, again becomes the strongest expression of musical life. Everything sings. Not only the choir and soloists, against whom the orchestra clings and nestles. It sings out of the creating musician, it sings in to the listener, who relives the work from the imagination of internally singing along. It is as if not only, as Mahler writes in a letter, the whole universe were to begin sounding, but as if it were to begin singing.22 It is an apotheosis of song. The voice, the immediate, living bearer of feelings, becomes the mediator from one person to another. From it comes the suggestion of the union of everything, before which the boundaries of individuality melt away in the fire of a Dionysian drunkenness of the senses.23 The textual basis of the first part, the Latin hymn “Veni creator spiritus,” comes from the early middle ages. Supposedly, it was written by the Archbishop of Mainz, Hrabanus Maurus, around the year 800 or according to another legend, by Charlemagne.24 Luther already strongly perceived the force of the powerful words and the heaven-storming sweep of the ideas, and freely translated the poem into German in his hymn “Komm heiliger Geist, Herre Gott.” Compared with this translation, the Latin version has the advantage of the solemn grandeur and rhythmic force of the language. The words stand like massive stones, each in itself a grandiosely perceived image, without any mediating, paraphrasing additions. Each thought is formed in the most concise mold, and, building up, one of them piles on top of the other. From the first call of the creator spirit to the jubilation of the Gloria, it is an uninterrupted series of ardent raptures, in such a feeling of devotion as could only be brought forth in a time whose religious conception was inwardly nourished by an erotic glow.25 The poem, comprising seven and a half brief quatrains, is constructed with a clear architecture. It divides into three sections. The first contains the first two quatrains, the call and salutation of the Creator spiritus, here in Georg Göhler’s translation:26

–  –  –

The second portion, the middle group, containing three and a half quatrains,27 brings the content of the prayer: a plea for strengthening, enlightenment, peace, victory, grace, knowledge of the

Holy Trinity:

–  –  –

It is a Pentecostal hymn, arisen and sung into the world out of the ecstasy of the Pentecostal experience, without dogmatic additions, standing particularly close to the modern artist through the glorification of the spirit as the bringer of revelation.

Mahler solved the task of a musical version of this poem in a simple manner. He takes over the three-part layout for the musical formation and builds the movement as a sonata form.

Thus, he obtains a clear, contrasting grouping, an explication and concisely building final summation of the text. At the same time, he creates connections by means of thematic structure.

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