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Miss the ecstasy and extravagance of Mahler’s Eighth? You’re not alone

Gustav Mahler
Illustration of Gustav Mahler for “How to Listen” series by Mark Swed. Credit: Micah Fluellen / Los Angeles Times
(Micah Fluellen / Los Angeles Times)

The last Sunday of June, Michael Tilson Thomas was to conduct Mahler’s colossal Eighth Symphony, known as “Symphony of a Thousand,” in San Francisco. Hundreds of performers, highlighted by a collection of choruses and eight operatic soloists, would have packed the Davies Symphony Hall stage and spilled into the wings and onto the balcony. Likely all 2,743 seats would have been filled, and after the performance, backstage would have been packed like a tin of sardines with hugging and kissing well-wishers. That was the grand plan for Tilson Thomas’ final concert in his historic 25-year tenure as music director of the San Francisco Symphony.

What Mahler asked of this most extravagant, most rapturous, most ecstatic, most blissful, most all-consuming symphony was that it be a “joy-bringer.” Instead, a joyless Davies was deserted that day. When we can next gather, body-to-body, breath-to-breath, feels far off in an untoward future.

Mahler’s Eighth deserves another superlative, being the costliest symphony to mount. Again as seen from pandemic-colored glasses, the profligate Eighth promises no joy when orchestras everywhere are facing unprecedented losses of revenue.

Even so, this symphony — which had its premiere in Munich in 1910 and has necessarily been relegated to a special-occasion event ever since — belongs at the top of the to-do list of every capable orchestra. If the bringing of joy isn’t a priority, why make music? Why dream?

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Lose your ego in the exhortations of hundreds of choristers imploring — from quietest whispers to some of the loudest acoustic music possible — glory. Give yourself to the rapt exultations of brass galore but also a strumming merry mandolin. Let the heaven of your imagination take hold in Mahler’s incomparable scene setting. The vision of Goethe’s famous final lines of “Faust” are of a place beyond time in which parable becomes reality; imperfection, perfection; the indescribable, realized. That is how Mahler unbelievably ends this most extraordinary symphony of symphonies.

“Imagine to yourself the entire universe beginning to sound and sing!” Mahler wrote upon finishing the score. “Those are no longer human voices, but revolving suns and planets.”

Yet for distractors, the Eighth represents spiritual and musical kitsch grossly overblown. In Pierre Boulez’s illuminating Collège de France lectures that were recently published, the great rationalist composer and conductor dismissed Mahler’s musical materials as sentimental, at the same time marveling at the brilliant way they are developed.

On the most obvious level, Mahler raises the question of what the modern symphony even can be. During the phenomenal first flowering of the genre by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, the symphony evolved, with notable exceptions, into a standard four-movement form subservient to formal musical logic. A dramatic first movement built upon opposing themes subjected to development and reconciliation and reformation was followed by a lyrical slow movement, a dance-based third movement and a boisterous finale.

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There was plentiful room for fancy and invention. Rules were made to be broken. Beethoven added weight to the ending and a unifying structure. His Ninth, the so-called “Ode to Joy,” famously climaxes with a magnificent choral ending extolling brotherhood. Throughout the 19th century, the symphony remained pure music for such classicists as Brahms, but a flexible anything-goes for Berlioz, be it a psychedelic trip or a near-operatic version of “Romeo and Juliet.”

Mahler, who dedicated his career to writing symphonies and songs (and combining the two), went a giant step further. He needed the symphony to encompass the world. To him, it must contain profound expressions of life and, especially, death; of nature and all that lies beyond nature. Without the specificity of operatic narrative, the symphony, in Mahler’s hands, was liberated to express all we feel and know and wonder.

Coronavirus may have silenced our symphony halls, taking away the essential communal experience of the concert as we know it.

The Eighth has two parts: a vision of heaven and then heaven’s attainment. The first is a huge setting of a medieval Latin hymn, “Veni, Creator Spiritus,” calling forth to the Creator-Spirit to bring us reason, light, joy, grace, peace and love. It begins with an E-flat-major power chord on the organ, the bass reinforced by low winds and strings. A double chorus exhorts the Creator, and the near ecstatic soaring begins. Before long ecstasy will be full bore.

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Mahler then stretches bounds beyond reason, but it’s still a symphony. There are contrasting themes with the opening thematic motive intricately varied and developed. What would be a massive climax, though, for any other composer, is but a step in an unheard-of direction for Mahler. For close to 25 minutes, he piles ecstasy upon ecstasy, presenting a blinding, deafening, altogether staggering vision that has no match in the symphonic literature.

The second part, a setting of the final scene of “Faust,” begins by deceptively bringing us back to our senses. We’re in Goethe’s forest, dense with trees. Water sprays in waves. Lions prowl, all graphically animated in a quiet introduction. But the magic of Mahler — in his hush, in high strings creating a tremulous, vibratory atmosphere — is to reveal this as a mystical place. The lions guard love’s hoard, whatever that is.

Through a process that includes choirs of angels, some children and a parade of celestial figures, Faust has a mystical redemption. Again, this really is a symphony, with thematic development and the trappings of a slow movement, a scherzo and a finale to end all finales. Where the “Veni” ended in hair-raising thrills, the symphony ends in a different kind of thrill, that of affirmation. You no longer need to jump for joy, it emanates all around you.

The highest, most mystical level of being and beyond-being for Goethe, and for Mahler, is love. What the poet called the eternal feminine spurs on the composer. For this Mahler needed a symphony, not an opera or a song or anything else. His symphonic rigor carries us every step of the way. Yet it also releases us from conventional narrative logic. The Eighth may well be the ultimate left-brain, right-brain composition. Counterpoint, harmony, melodic development exercise our critical thinking, while at the same time an excess of color, emotion and sheer creative imagination releases us from critical thinking. It’s enough to lose your head, as many of us have, over this symphony.

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In a new book, “The Eighth: Mahler and the World in 1910,” the British composer and critic Stephen Johnson frames the symphony around the relationship between Mahler and his amorous wife, Alma, whom he feared losing. Much of Mahler’s music is death haunted. The Eighth stands out for its utter excess of love, the force beyond comprehension.

When the 50-year-old Mahler conducted the 1910 premiere (the symphony was written four years earlier), he was, in fact, suffering from a heart lesion that would kill him within a year. The profound, utterly moving sublimity in the symphonic works he wrote after the Eighth — the symphony song cycle “Das Lied von der Erde,” the Ninth Symphony and the incomplete Tenth — is one of longing and losing. The Eighth is the promise of betterment.

Mahler’s Eighth Symphony changes people. Its feeling of community and spiritual reach is palpable. All that is impossible becomes possible. Society can’t afford not to afford that.

Starting points

To understand how the impossible can become possible, listen to just how stirring Mahler’s Eighth can be even on recording.

The most ravishing is the 1975 DVD of an elated Leonard Bernstein in Vienna, although his audio recording from Salzburg that same year or his earlier one in London are also exceptional.

Gustavo Dudamel conducted the world’s largest Mahler Eighth in Caracas eight years ago with a combined Los Angeles Philharmonic and Simón Bolívar Symphony along with more than 1,000 student singers of all ages. In the excellent video, even the camera jumps for joy. It has a special meaning in our current moment, with people of color making up more than 90% of the performers. The eight-minute applause track contains surely the longest, and most moving, cast scroll, with the names of all 1,400 performers.

Pierre Boulez, by the way, made an admirably lucid recording of the Eighth too.

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With live concerts largely on hold, critic Mark Swed is suggesting a different recorded music by a different composer every Wednesday. You can find the series archive at latimes.com/howtolisten, and you can support Mark’s work with a digital subscription.


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