Mahler’s Eighth Symphony– written for a large orchestra, several soloists, and such extensive choral forces as to have earned itself the nickname “Symphony of a Thousand”–was, like most of this composer’s music, the product of a furiously busy holiday. He completed the draft of the enormous work between June and August of 1906 at his summer home in Maiernigg, in Carinthia, and wrote to the conductor Willem Mengelberg: “It is the biggest thing I have done so far. Imagine that the universe begins to vibrate and to sound. These are no longer human voices but planets and sun rotating.”
Human voices, if not planets and sun rotating, had been there in his Second, Third, and Fourth symphonies, all completed during the last decade of the old century. But in those works, as in Beethoven’s Ninth, the singing had been only part of the matter: conclusive in the Second Symphony (with its choral Resurrection finale) and the Fourth (with its soprano-child’s vision of Paradise), discovered and surpassed in the Third (with its song and angel chorus before the adagio ending). The Eighth Symphony is different–and different from any other symphony until Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms–in that the singing goes all the way through. Symphony meets oratorio. Symphony even, in the second part, meets opera. Mahler was one of the great opera conductors; at the time he was completing this work, in 1907, he was also coming to the end of a decade at the head of the court opera in Vienna. Yet he had abandoned, in his early twenties, the idea of writing an opera of his own. His symphonies would be his dramas, with a single character: himself. The Eighth Symphony, even though it has named characters in its second part, still forces on us one overpowering personality. Or else it seems a massive conventicle of all humanity–a ceremonial destined, by virtue as much of substance as of scale, to create its own high occasion.
The first performance took place in Munich on September 12, 1910, with Mahler conducting, and with, indeed, around a thousand people taking part: a hundred and fifty in the orchestra, five hundred in the adult choirs, three hundred and fifty boys. (Among the thousand was the greatgrandmother of the Utah Symphony’s Principal Librarian, Clovis Lark. Her teenage daughter, Clovis’s future grandmother, attended the dress rehearsal and remembered the composer becoming angry with the chorus for shifting about, saying that if he could stand still through the piece, so could they.) The soloists included two singers Mahler had nurtured in his Vienna company, the soprano Gertrude Förstel and bass Richard Mayr, as well as Ottilie MetzgerLattermann, the leading Erda of the period. Facing them in the vast Neue Musik Festhalle (now a transport museum) was an audience that outnumbered the performers by more than three to one, and that also included some distinguished individuals. Richard Strauss and Camille SaintSaëns were there, along with the young Alban Berg and Anton Webern. Thomas Mann, also present, immediately wrote Mahler a note describing his as “the most serious and sacred artistic will of the age.” Since finishing the score, Mahler had gone on to write Das Lied von der Erde and his Ninth Symphony, and to begin his Tenth. But the Eighth was the last work he heard: less than nine months after the performance he was dead.