sfs logo
sfs logo

You may download these program notes for your personal use, but they are protected by copyright and may not be duplicated, reused, or distributed for any publication purposes, including distribution on the World Wide Web, without written consent of the San Francisco Symphony.

program notes



GUSTAV MAHLER was born in Kalischt (Kaliště), near Humpolec, Bohemia, on July 7, 1860 and died in Vienna on May 18, 1911. He sketched the Symphony No. 8 between June21 and August 18, 1906 and completed the score the following summer. He conducted the first performance in Munich on September 12, 1910 with an especially assembled orchestra, the Riedelverein of Leipzig, the Vienna Singverein, the Munich Central School Children's Chorus, and soloists Gertrud Förstel, Marta Winternitz-Dorda, Irma Koboth, Ottilie Meyzger, Tilly Koenen, Felix Senius, Nicola Geisse-Winkel, and Richard Mayr. The first American performance was given on March 2, 1916 by Leopold Stokowski with the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra Chorus, the Philadelphia Choral Society, the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia, the Fortnightly Club, a chorus of 150 children, and soloists Mabel Garrison, Inez Barbour, Adelaide Fischer, Margaret Keyes, Susanna Dercum, Lambert Murphy, Reinald Werrenrath, and Clarence Whitehill. On November 29-30 and December 1-2, 1972, Seiji Ozawa conducted the first San Francisco Symphony performances with the Stanford University Chorus and Choir (Harold Schmidt, director), the San Francisco Boys Chorus (William Ballard, director), and soloists Marita Napier, Linda Phillips, Donna Petersen, Lorene Adams, Evelyn Petros, Seth McCoy, Laurence Cooper, and Ara Berberian. The most recent performances, in June 1998, were given under the direction of Michael Tilson Thomas, with the SFS Chorus, the San Francisco Girls and Boys choruses, and soloists Christine Goerke, Christine Brewer, Julie Kaufmann, Michelle DeYoung, Stephanie Blythe, Jon Villars, Russell Braun, and Raymond Aceto. The score calls for an orchestra of five flutes (fifth doubling piccolo), four oboes and English horn, three clarinets with E-flat clarinet and bass clarinet, four bassoons and contrabassoon, eight horns, four trumpets, four trombones, bass tuba, timpani, bass drum, tam-tam, triangle, glockenspiel, tubular bells, celesta, piano, harmonium, organ, two harps, mandolin, and strings. There is, in addition, a group of four trumpets and three trombones, separately stationed. Vocal forces comprise two mixed choruses, boys' chorus, girls' chorus, three sopranos (Magna Peccatrix, Una Poenitentium, Mater Gloriosa), two altos (Mulier Samaritana, Maria Aegyptiaca), tenor (Doctor Marianus), baritone (Pater Ecstaticus), and bass (Pater Profundus). The dedication is to "meiner lieben Frau, Alma Maria."

Goethe's subject in Act III of the Second Part of Faust is the union, symbolic and physical, of his tragic hero and Helen of Troy. The association of the two figures is not in itself new. Simon Magus, the first-century sorcerer whose misdeed, as recorded in Chapter 8 of the Acts of the Apostles, has given us the word "simony," is said to have called himself Faustus—in modern Italian he would be Fortunato and in modern American English Lucky—and he traveled and worked with a former prostitute to whom, for a bit of class, he gave the name of Helena. His sixteenth-century successor, who had probably read about Simon in a new edition of a book then 1,200 years old and titled Recognitiones, for professional purposes styled himself Faustus Junior and later simply Doctor Johannes Faust, and he too—"for the sake of order and propriety," as Thomas Mann puts it—acquired a companion called Helena. The conjuring up of the legendary beauty, daughter of Leda and Zeus, came to be one of the standard entertainments in dramatic representations of the Faust stories. In Christopher Marlowe's famous Tragicall History of D. Faustus (1604), Helen takes on greater significance in that it is for her sake that Faust is willing to reject salvation: "Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss." Nowhere, however, is the bringing together of Faust and Helen so boldly drawn as in what Goethe himself called his "Classical-Romantic phantasmagoria," nor so freighted with meaning and suggestion. In their meeting the poet seeks to portray ideal love, to suggest the fusion of Germanic and Greek civilization, and to resolve "the vehement opposition of Classicists and Romantics." And, as Johann Peter Eckermann, the Boswell of Goethe's later years, pointed out, "Half the history of the world lies behind it."

Joining Faust to Veni, creator spiritus—linking the complexities of Goethe's humanism to the orthodoxy, the questionless faith of an eighth-century Christian hymn—Mahler sought to create a similarly encompassing work. We have, in the Anglo-American tradition, no cultural totem quite like Faust, no one work so known, so quoted, so lived with and possessed, as Faust was by cultured Germans during the nineteenth century and at least the first third of the twentieth. The King James Version of the Bible is the nearest thing. It is significant that on the title page of his symphony Mahler does not need to say whose Faust he is setting. Even in that context, Mahler's closeness to Faust was remarkable. A Viennese lady, whose occasional houseguest Mahler was, reported that he was not really so difficult. She provided apples at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and put Bielschowsky's Goethe biography in her guest room, one volume in her country villa and one in her city apartment, and "he was in heaven. Goethe and apples are two things he cannot live without."

top return to top of page

Faust is a recklessly inclusive masterwork whose action, to quote Goethe himself, "covers a good 3,000 years from the sack of Troy to the destruction of Missolonghi" and whose content is expressed in an astounding variety of styles, verse-forms, textures, quotations, allusions, parodies, and in tones sublime and scurrilous. Mahler, one imagines, must often have looked to it for permission for his own unprecedentedly global symphonies.

It was not, however, with Faust that the Eighth Symphony began. The pattern of Mahler's years is well known. In the fall, winter, and spring he conducted, both to earn a living and because the challenge would not leave him in peace, and in summer he composed, sometimes sketching an entire symphony in a couple of months, perhaps finishing it the following summer as well as finding odd moments during the year when he might work on the score. He had completed his Seventh Symphony during the winter of 1905-06, and in May he had introduced his Sixth, the work of 1903-05, at a festival at Essen.

In June 1906, when he arrived at Maiernigg on Lake Wörth in Southern Austria, where he had bought a plot of land in 1899, he had not a glimmer of an idea for a new composition. According to Alma Mahler, he was "haunted by the specter of failing inspiration." By his own account, on the first day he went to his studio, a tiny hut separated from the main house by some hundreds of yards, "with the firm resolution of idling the holiday away (I needed to so much that year) and recruiting my strength. On the threshold of my old workshop the Spiritus creator took hold of me and shook me and drove me on for the next eight weeks until the greatest part of my work was done." He had access only to a corrupt edition of the text of the hymn and, to his chagrin, also found that he had composed too much music for the words. He wired Vienna, asking to have the hymn sent to Maiernigg by telegram. As Alma Mahler tells it, "The complete text fit the music exactly. Intuitively, he had composed the music for the full strophes." (This is not exactly right inasmuch as Mahler omits the second half of the fifth stanza.)

top return to top of page

Mahler was quick to perceive that Veni, creator spiritus was but a beginning, to see that he dared tackle that Holy of Holies in German literature, the final scene of Faust, and that the bridge between the texts was to be found in the third stanza of the hymn: "Accende lumen sensibus,/Infunde amorem cordibus!" ("Illuminate our senses,/Pour love into our hearts!").

He completed the score with astonishing speed. As usual, however, he was in no hurry about the first performance. He had much else on his mind—in the tumultuous year of 1907 his resignation as Artistic Director of the Vienna Court Opera, his decision to go to the Metropolitan Opera in New York, the death from a combined onslaught of diphtheria and scarlet fever of his four-year-old daughter Maria, and unsettling news about his own health; in 1908 a heavy schedule in New York at both ends of the year, the premiere of the Symphony No. 7, and the composition of Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth); in 1909 the start of a three-year contract with the badly dilapidated New York Philharmonic and work on the Ninth Symphony.

Invariably, young musicians such as the conductors Bruno Walter and Willem Mengelberg were excited when Mahler played parts of the Eighth Symphony to them, and he was in turn excited by their response. He became amenable to having the impresario Emil Gutmann organize the premiere, asked Walter to choose and coach the soloists, and became involved himself in the planning of countless details from the placement of the choruses, about which he consulted his Vienna stage designer, Alfred Roller, to the layout of the program book.

top return to top of page

The first performance was very much an event to have been at, similar in that sense to the premiere of Stravinsky's Le Sacre du printemps three years later, and the audience at both occasions has increased tremendously over the years. In his Mahler biography, Egon Gartenberg lists Schoenberg, Klemperer, Stokowski, Clemenceau, Siegfried Wagner, Alfredo Casella, Webern, Stefan Zweig, Thomas Mann, and Max Reinhardt as among those present in Munich, and Berndt W. Wessling adds Goldmark, Franz Schmidt, d'Albert, Korngold, Elgar, Leo Fall, Vaughan Williams, Rachmaninoff, Weingartner, Muck, von Schuch, Leo Blech, Fritz Stiedry, Max von Schillings, the Prince Regent of Bavaria, King Albert I of the Belgians, and Henry Ford. I have not checked out the entire list, but Schoenberg, Elgar, Vaughan Williams, and Rachmaninoff were definitely going about their business elsewhere. In any event, the concert was a glorious and intensely emotional occasion and Mahler's one experience of being completely accepted as a composer. (The impresario Gutmann coined the name Symphony of a Thousand as part of his marketing pitch, and there was truth in his advertising: The performance involved 858 singers and an orchestra of 171, which, if you add Mahler himself, comes to 1,030 persons.)

Tradition ascribes Veni, creator spiritus to Rabanus Maurus, Archbishop of Mainz from 847 until his death in 856, but modern scholarship will not have it so. The hymn, which probably dates from just before Maurus's time, is part of the liturgy for Pentecost, the festival that commemorates the descent of the Holy Ghost upon the disciples (Acts 2). It is also sung at grand celebrations such as the elevation of a saint or the coronation of a pope. Mahler's reference to it as "the Spiritus creator" is characteristic. He could not leave a text alone, and, aside from the omissions noted, he presents the lines in an incredibly dense growth of repetitions, combinations, inversions, transpositions, and conflations. He manhandles Goethe's text, too, making two substantial cuts, one of thirty-six lines and another of seven, presumably on purpose; other omissions, inversions, and altered word-forms (Liebesband for Liebeband, ew'ge for ewige, Frauen for Fraun, etc.) should probably be ascribed to his working from memory.

The Faust chapbook of 1587, which is the literary source for the whole legend and which appeared in English in 1592 as The History of the Damnable Life and Deserved Death of Doctor John Faustus, is an entertainment and a cautionary tale. For Goethe, the career of the old humbug was not just a tale to tell; it was a story upon which to hang an entire Weltanschauung. This became gradually clear to him as he worked on Faust, and that was a long time. He first harbored plans in the 1760s when he was an undergraduate, and he sealed up the manuscript—"ended, but not completed because uncompletable," says Mann-on his eighty-second birthday, August 28, 1831, "lest I be tempted to carry this work further." Being in fact tempted, he opened the packet in January 1832 and tinkered with details until the 24th of that month, eight weeks before his death.

top return to top of page

His most radical change in telling the story is that he makes it end not in death and damnation, but in Faust's salvation. The Faustian quest is not arrogance but aspiration. The moment of salvation is the subject of Goethe's final scene and of the mighty close of Mahler's symphony. The story of Faust I, of the pact with the Devil and the Gretchen tragedy, does not need to be retold here. Faust II seems at first to be not so much a continuation as a fresh start from another perspective (Goethe himself said as much). Faust has been made oblivious of his past. In a series of steps that Goethe wishes us to perceive as successively higher stages of questing, Faust is in service at the Imperial Court, then in love with Helen of Troy and, in that union, the father of a boy called Euphorion. (Euphorion—from the Greek euphoros, easy to bear or well-borne—inherits his father's fierce drive toward the absolute and dies attempting to fly. Goethe intends him as an embodiment of the poetic spirit in general and also as a representation of Byron, the one poet among his contemporaries whom, after the death of Schiller in 1805, Goethe totally respected. Byron had died in 1824, having gone to Missolonghi—Mesolóngion—to take part in the Greek war for independence.) Finally, after Helen's return to the underworld, Faust challenges nature herself as he takes on a gigantic project of land reclamation.

One hundred years old, Faust receives the visitation of four gray women, Want, Distress, Guilt, and Care. Only Care has the power to enter; as she leaves, she breathes on him and strikes him blind. His pact with Mephistopheles demands that if ever he entreats "the swift moment…/Tarry a while! you are so fair!" his life is over and his soul forfeit. Taking, in his blindness, the sound of his own grave being dug to be the sound of his construction plans going forward, enraptured by the vision of the life to arise on the land newly claimed from the elements, he cries, "I might entreat the fleeting minute:/O tarry yet, thou art so fair!" He dies, and in a scene of superb comedy—angels pelt the devils with rose petals, which sting and burn them murderously, and Mephistopheles' own attention is fatally distracted by the bare bottoms of the little boy angels—heavenly hosts wrest Faust's immortal essence from the forces of hell. And with that, Goethe's—and Mahler's—finale can begin.

To say that Goethe composed this finale as though writing a libretto for an opera or oratorio is not simply a matter of justifying Mahler. The musical libretto is one among many poetic styles touched in Faust; besides, we know that Goethe always hoped that at least parts of the tragedy would be set to music. The ideal composer, he said, would have been Mozart working "in the manner of Don Giovanni."

top return to top of page

The visual inspiration for this scene may include Traini's and Gozzoli's frescoes in the Camposanto at Pisa and Wilhelm von Humboldt's description of the Benedictine monastery at Montserrat; the scenario evokes the final cantos of Dante's Paradiso. The scene is set in mountain gorges inhabited by hermits who are named, in ascending order of divine knowledge, Pater Ecstaticus, Pater Profundus, Pater Seraphicus, and Doctor Marianus. Moving among these anchorites is a group of children who died immediately after birth. Angels come bearing Faust's immortal essence, and we learn from younger angels that the roses which had played so critical a part in the capture of that essence were the gifts of penitent women.

Hailed by Doctor Marianus, the Virgin appears in glory. (This is the counterpart of Gretchen's scene with the statue of the Mater Dolorosa in Faust I.) The penitent donors of the roses—the sinner who bathed Christ's feet at the house of Simon the Pharisee; the Samaritan woman who gave Christ water at Jacob's well and to whom he first revealed that he was the Messiah; and Mary of Egypt, who repented a life of sin after an invisible hand had kept her from entering the temple and who, at her death after forty years in the desert, wrote a message in the sand asking to be buried there—intercede with the Virgin on behalf of Gretchen. One more penitent woman, "once called Gretchen," speaks thanks to the Mater Gloriosa for having heeded her prayers on behalf of "my love of old." With Gretchen's reappearance, the immense circle of the poem is closed. The Mater Gloriosa grants to Gretchen that she may lead Faust "to higher spheres." In eight of the most celebrated and the most densely beautiful lines of the world's poetry, a mystic chorus speaks of heaven as the place where parable becomes reality, where earthly imperfection is made perfect, where the indescribable is achieved. Mahler discussed this close in a letter he wrote to his wife in June 1909:

It is all an allegory to convey something that, no matter what form it is given, can never be adequately expressed. Only the transitory can be described; but what we feel and surmise but will never attain (or experience as an actual event), in other words, the intransitory that lies behind all experience, that is indescribable. That which draws us by its mystic force, that which every created thing…feels with absolute certainty at the very center of its being, that which Goethe here—again using an image—calls the Eternal Feminine—that is to say, the resting-place, the goal, as opposed to striving and struggling toward the goal (the eternal masculine)—that is the force of love, and you are right to call it by that name. There are countless representations and names for it…Goethe himself reveals it stage by stage, on and on, in image after image, more and more clearly as he draws nearer the end…[H]e presents it with ever greater clarity and certainty right up to the appearance of the Mater Gloriosa, the personification of the Eternal Feminine.

top return to top of page

And so…Goethe himself addresses his listeners: "All that is transitory (everything I have presented to you here on these two evenings) is nothing but images, inadequate, of course, in their earthly manifestations; but there, liberated from earthly inadequacy, they will become reality, and then we shall need no paraphrase, no figures, no images. What we seek to describe here in vain—for it is indescribable—is accomplished there. And what is that? Again, I can only speak in images and say: the Eternal Feminine has drawn us on—we have arrived—we are at rest—we possess what we could only strive and struggle for on earth. Christians call this 'eternal bliss,' and I cannot do better than employ this beautiful and sufficient mythology—the most complete conception which, at this epoch of humanity, it is possible to attain."

In April 1926, Anton Webern conducted what must by all accounts have been two overwhelming performances of Mahler's Eighth Symphony. Describing them to Schoenberg, he wrote: "In [the first part] I set a real Allegro impetuoso; in no time the movement was over, like a gigantic prelude to the second." This "impetuous" allegro is precisely what Mahler specifies as he hurls the first words of the Veni, creator spiritus at us. Not only is the tempo itself quick, but the musical events—the sequence of ever shorter measures (4/4, 4/4, 3/4, 2/4) and the trombones' compressed variation of the chorus's first phrase—create a sense of utmost urgency. Moreover, as soon as the chorus resumes, the violins, imitated by all the high woodwinds, add a new melody of sweeping physical energy.

With "Imple superna gratia," solo voices begin to emerge and the prayer becomes more quiet, and the change of key from E-flat to D-flat also has a softening effect. "Infirma," the plea for strength, is dark, with fantastical commentary from a solo violin; indeed, this symphony is, altogether, a major outing for the concertmaster. After an orchestral interlude that Theodor Adorno rightly says looks ahead to the cantatas of Webern, one where the metabolic rate is high and Mahler's harmonies are at their most adventurous, "Infirma" returns with stern power.

top return to top of page

Mahler's treatment of what he regarded as "the cardinal point of the text" and the bridge to Faust, the "Accende lumen sensibus," tells us something important about his verbal inversions. His first introduction of that line by the soloists is quiet. But the word order is reversed—"Lumen accende sensibus"—and the great outburst with all voices in unison, including those of the children, coincides with the first presentation of the line in its proper order. The change there of texture, tempo, and harmony makes this the most dramatic stroke in the symphony, and the effect is heightened by the breath-stopping comma that breaks the word accende in two. Mahler sets "Hostem repellas," the prayer that the foe be scattered, as one of his fiercest marches; the appeal to the leader to go before us, "Ductore sic te praevio," is a dense double fugue. The points of the hymn are vividly differentiated, but all the rich detail is subordinated to the eager thrust of the movement as a whole, calling to mind the shouts of "Credo, credo" with which Beethoven pushes aside doctrinal clauses in the Missa solemnis.

Reflecting the difference between Goethe's discursive and theatrical rhapsodies and the concentrated plainness of the medieval hymn, Part II of Mahler's symphony is as expansive as Part I was ferociously compressed. (Veni, creator spiritus is between a quarter and a third of the symphony.) Mahler begins with a miraculous piece of landscape painting, a broadly drawn prelude, hushed and slow, whose elements are recapitulated and expanded in the first utterances of the anchorites and angels. Goethe's spiritual-operatic spectacle draws lively musical response from Mahler. Part of what drew him into the Roman church in 1897 was his attraction to the aesthetics of ceremony.

In some ways this movement is like a song cycle, as Pater Ecstaticus, Pater Profundus, the angel choirs, Doctor Marianus, and the three penitent women bring us their reflections and prayers, each articulated with marvelous individuality—the urgent pleas of the two patres (the one sweetly ardent, the other almost tormented in his passion), the mellifluous song of the Younger Angels, the ecstatic viola and violin rhapsodies that are hung like garlands about the words of the More Perfect Angels, the radiant Doctor Marianus, the all but whispered recollections of the penitent women, the ecstatic vocal line spun by Una Poenitentium as she prays to the Virgin for the salvation of the lover who betrayed her. At the same time, and again parallel to this part of Goethe's composition, much of Mahler's music is recapitulation, even hearkening back to parts of the first movement. This symphony, like Faust itself, is something to be lived with for a long time so that the richly intricate network of references and allusions might take on clarity.

top return to top of page

The final summons of Doctor Marianus to look up to the Virgin's redeeming visage—"Blicket auf!"—rises to a rapt climax. This is the beginning of the finale within the finale. Then, after long moments of suspense, the Chorus mysticus intones the poet's reflections on now and later, here and beyond, image and reality. But, as he does in his Resurrection Symphony, Mahler gives over the power to music without words. Brass instruments, organ, drums, plucked strings, bells, all invoke the symphony's opening phrase—"Veni, creator spiritus"—but now its dissonances, the tense upward leap of a seventh, stretched now in a still greater leap of a ninth, are dissolved in concord, in the roar of the final, long chord of E-flat major. We are home. Prayer has become affirmation. "We have arrived—we are at rest—we possess what we could only strive and struggle for on earth."

—Michael Steinberg

On Disc and in Print
The Mahler Eighth is a challenge to recording producers, but excellent performances have been captured on disc, especially those by Sir Georg Solti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (London/Decca Legends), Klaus Tennstedt and the London Philharmonic (EMI), and Michael Gielen with the Frankfurt Opera House and Museum Orchestra (Sony Essential Classics). I prefer the later of Leonard Bernstein's recordings, the one from Vienna, but this seems to be available only in a collection of the complete Mahler symphonies (Deutsche Grammophon).

The sourcebook on Mahler is Henry-Louis de la Grange's massive biography. Two volumes of the projected four are available in English: Gustav Mahler: Vienna, The Years of Challenge, 1897-1904 and Gustav Mahler: Vienna, Triumph and Disillusion, 1904-1907 (Oxford). Jonathan Carr's Mahler: A Biography is a briefer introduction—intelligent and accessible (Overlook). Michael Kennedy's book on Mahler in the Master Musicians series is one of the best short studies (Dent). Carl E. Schorske includes a fascinating chapter on Mahler in Thinking with History: Explorations in the Passage to Modernism (Princeton). Egon Gartenberg's Mahler is especially good on the professional milieu (Schirmer), and Kurt Blaukopf's biography is a mixture of snappy journalism and opinionated speculation (London). Interesting reminiscences come up in Mahler Remembered, edited by Norman Lebrecht (Norton). The Mahler Album, compiled by Gilbert Kaplan, is a fascinating collection that documents the composer's life in photographs, sketches and drawings, and even newspaper cartoons (Abrams).