So said Gustav Mahler to friend and fellow composer Jean Sibelius, shortly before the premiere of Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 in E-flat major (Symphony of a Thousand). Clearly, Mahler heeded his own advice. His Eighth Symphony was his most monumental creation, a work of unprecedented size and emotional power. Mahler premiered the work himself on Sept. 12, 1910 in Munch. That performance turned out to be the greatest triumph of his career.
This weekend, music director Giancarlo Guerrero will lead the Nashville Symphony Orchestra in its first-ever performance of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony. The Nashville Symphony Orchestra Chorus, Blair Children’s Chorus and eight vocal soloists will join in the concerts on Sept. 7 and 9 at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center.
The concerts should keep Guerrero busy, because the Eighth Symphony is a challenging job to conduct. That’s partly due to size. The nickname “Symphony of a Thousand” is no misnomer, since Mahler conducted nearly that many performers during the Munich premiere. While the Nashville performance will be scaled down – Guerrero will be leading about 400 choristers and musicians – the performance is still huge. Instruments will not only be placed onstage but, to enhance the acoustics of the piece, located around the hall. Guerrero will have to keep all of these musicians together with the two mixed choruses, children’s chorus and eight soloists. No easy task.
Composed in 1906, Mahler’s Eighth Symphony was remarkably original in its day. Mahler rejected the traditional four-movement layout. Instead, he divided the symphony into two parts. The first opens with a triumphant chord in E-flat major and the loud declamation “Veni, creator spiritus,” the title of a ninth-century Latin hymn. The second sets the concluding scene from Goethe’s Faust, a tragic poem rich with allusions to classical mythology. Amazingly, the Eighth Symphony often sounds like an oratorio. But its large orchestral and choral scope makes it into a true symphony.
In composing his “Symphony of a Thousand,” Mahler obviously owed a huge debt to Beethoven. Mahler was fixated upon Beethoven as a model for his symphony, and for good reason. Beethoven revolutionized the symphony with his setting of a choral text in his Symphony No. 9. For Mahler, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony came to embody both a template to be followed and a model to be transcended.
Where the Ninth Symphony only sets a choral text to the last movement, the “Symphony of a Thousand” is entirely choral. It was Mahler’s way of upping the ante. It was probably no accident that the themes of the Ninth Symphony and the “Symphony of a Thousand” are similar. The “Ode to Joy” in Beethoven’s Ninth concerns itself with the goodness of God, the transcendence of earthly existence and the embrace of divine love. The “Veni, creator spiritus” and the final scene of Faust strongly reflect these themes: the hymn is a plea for the Spirit of Love to come into the hearts of every person, and the ending of Faust sees the eponymous character ascending with angels to heaven, where he meets three female figures representing the facets of transcendent love.
Mahler also reflected back on Beethoven in the exceptionally German nature of his symphony. For Mahler, German culture was an ideal for which to strive. The choral setting of the symphony, along with the selection of the most famous work of Goethe (arguably the quintessential German poet) reflects not only Mahler’s desire to transcend Beethoven but also to create the premier German symphony.
The timing of this weekend’s performance is fascinating because of the historical resonance of our time with Mahler’s. Americans are a typically larger-than-life bunch: the bigger it is, the better we like it. For that reason alone this symphony is more than likely to please, particularly in a city so well-known for its music. The symphony was premiered at a time much like our own. In 1910, Europe was at the height of its power, but it was torn asunder a mere four years later as World War I exploded across the continent.
Mahler’s symphony, as grandiose as it is, reflects both the aspirations of a then-proud Europe and the tragic eruption of war four years later. Americans seem to have a similar sense of historical inevitability: we feel both decadent and on the verge of a turning point. How appropriate, then, that a symphony of this magnitude and universality should be the first symphony performed in the 2012-13 season at the Nashville Symphony. It truly should embrace everything.
If you go
Nashville Symphony Orchestra performs Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 in E-flat major. Performances are 8 p.m. Friday, Sept. 7 and 7 p.m. Sunday Sept. 9 at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, One Symphony Place. Tickets are $50 to $139. Call 687-6400 or go to www.nashvillesymphony.org.