This Thursday, the Seattle Symphony celebrates the 113th anniversary of its first performance on December 29, 1903 under Harry West. Classical KING FM celebrates with a full broadcast of the orchestra’s recording of Gustav Mahler’s massive Symphony No. 8 at 8:00pm, hosted by Sean MacLean. The orchestra has had a history of both rocky patches (1921-22 season cancelled, mergers and then subsequent separations with Tacoma Philharmonic musicians in 1947-48) and huge successes (opening of the $120-million Benaroya Hall in 1998, 21 GRAMMY nominations and two awards).
It’s rare that 1,000 musicians are seen onstage for performances of this piece – the “Symphony of a Thousand” moniker was tacked on by a concert promoter, and was apparently abhorred by Mahler himself. The Eighth Symphony is certainly Mahler’s largest symphonic work in physical onstage forces, and represents a return to some elements of his earlier symphonies after the less programmatic, more existential Five and Six: it features long moments of innocent and breathlessly romantic music, and multiple combined choruses and vocal soloists that verbally articulate its philosophical content. Like all Mahler, we get fascinatingly disparate musical elements and thematic contradictions – the symphony’s first part is a setting of the medieval Latin hymn Veni, creator spiritus (“Come, Holy Ghost, Creator”) while the second part is a dramatic setting of the final scene of Goethe’s Faust in German that makes extensive use of the vocal soloists. Mahler didn’t write an opera, but the monumental second part of his Symphony No. 8 comes close.
In September, 2008, nearly 400 musicians assembled onstage in Benaroya Hall’s S. Mark Taper Foundation Auditorium to perform the work under the direction of then-Music Director Gerard Schwarz. Schwarz brought together Northwest Boychoir, Seattle Pro Musica, Seattle Symphony, Seattle Symphony Chorale and top vocal soloists including Lauren Flanigan, Jane Eaglen, Jane Giering-de Haan, Nancy Maultsby, Jane Gilbert, Vinson Cole, Clayton Brainerd and Harold Wilson for this historic performance in Seattle.
Here’s what Mahler had to say about his Eighth Symphony, speaking to the historian Richard Specht in 1908:
“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. This Eighth Symphony is remarkable for the fact that it unites two poems in two different languages, the first being a Latin hymn and the second nothing less than the final scene of the second part of Faust. Does that astonish you? I have for years longed to set this scene with the anchorites and the final scene with the Mater gloriosa, and to set it quite differently from other composers who have made it saccharine and feeble; but then [I] gave up the idea. Lately, however, an old book fell into my hands and I chanced on the hymn “Veni creator spiritus” – and at a single stroke I saw the whole thing – not only the opening theme, but the whole first movement, and as an answer to it I could imagine nothing more beautiful than Goethe’s text in the scene with the anchorites! Formally, too, it is something quite novel – can you imagine a symphony that is, from beginning to end, sung? Hitherto I have always used words and voices simply in an explanatory way, as a short cut to creating a certain atmosphere and to express something which, purely symphonically, could only be expressed at great length, with the terseness and precision only possible by using words. Here, on the other hand, voices are also used as instruments: the first movement is strictly symphonic in form but all of it is sung. Strange, in fact, that this has never occurred to any other composer – it really is Columbus’ egg, a ‘pure’ symphony in which the most beautiful instrument in the world is given its true place – and not simply as one sonority among others, for in my symphony the human voice is after all the bearer of the whole poetic idea.”