On June 10-12, 2022, the Minnesota Orchestra presents Mahler’s Symphony of a Thousand, with eight vocal soloists and four choirs joining the Orchestra to perform Gustav Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, known as the Symphony of a Thousand, in the final concerts of Osmo Vänskä’s 19-year tenure as the Orchestra’s music director.
The concerts take place at Orchestra Hall on Friday, June 10; Saturday, June 11; and Sunday, June 12. The June 10 and 11 performances will be recorded for a video production that will include the complete concert plus a behind-the-scenes look at the recording of the symphony that will take place the week following the concerts. The video will be available for streaming on the Orchestra’s website from July through November 2022, with Melissa Ousley as host. Broadcast and digital use of the concert is made possible by David and Shari Boehnen. The June 10 concert will also be broadcast live on stations of YourClassical Minnesota Public Radio, including KSJN 99.5 FM in the Twin Cities.
Symphony No. 8, Symphony of a Thousand
In Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, a massive force of voices and orchestra are so interwoven, sharing equally in the sublime musical ideas, that the work is no mere symphony with singing, but a genuine marriage of vocal and instrumental sonorities. This mystical and stirring work, of which Mahler led the premiere performance only eight months before his death, brings together a medieval hymn (molded into an immense sonata structure) and the final scene of Goethe’s verse drama, Faust.
During the decade that Gustav Mahler was director of the Vienna Court Opera, only the summer holidays were free to him for composing. Of all his symphonies, none was created more swiftly than the gigantic Eighth, written in a spirit of exultation and assurance in the span of a mere eight weeks. Because of the mass of singers and enlarged orchestra it demands, it is known as the Symphony of a Thousand—a title Mahler disliked but was used to publicize the work’s premiere. Completing his draft of the score on August 18, 1906, Mahler jubilantly addressed the conductor Wilhelm Mengelberg: “I have just finished my Eighth! It is the biggest thing I have done so far. And so individual in its content and form that I cannot describe it in words. Imagine that the whole universe begins to vibrate and resound. These are no longer human voices, but planets and suns resolving…”
Indeed, the voices of the Symphony No. 8 seem to transcend their humanity, for Mahler puts them to work as if they were instruments. Voices and orchestra are so interwoven, sharing equally in the sublime musical ideas, that the work is no mere symphony with singing, but a genuine marriage of vocal and instrumental sonorities. Why such monumental forces? Perhaps to match the scale of the thought, which expresses not only the hope for all mankind for redemption, but of the artist for the breath of inspiration.
“My greatest work”
In 1906, as soon as Mahler had unpacked his bags at Maiernigg, on the shores of the beautiful Carinthian lake known as the Wörthersee, he was tormented by a fortnight of despairing idleness. His wife recalled that “he was haunted by the spectre of failing inspiration.” One morning, just as he entered the little lakeside cottage where he tried to work (sparsely furnished, with only a piano and the collected works of Kant and Goethe), the exalted idea of the ancient Latin hymn Veni Creator Spiritus (Come, Creator Spirit), took hold of him and—in his own words—“shook me and drove me on for the next eight weeks until my greatest work was done.” Recalling how quickly the work evolved, he noted in a letter to his wife Alma: “In art as in life I am at the mercy of spontaneity. If I had to compose, not a note would come.”
While the impresario Emil Gutmann was making preparations for the premiere of the Eighth Symphony in Munich on December 12, 1910, Mahler was busy conducting in America; in his absence, Bruno Walter was charged with the preliminary rehearsals, though Mahler returned in time to lead the forces of just over a thousand participants in the final rehearsals. Walter has left a vivid account of that week:
“Those were great days for us who were privileged to attend the rehearsals of the Eighth. The immense apparatus obeyed with devotion the master’s effortless direction. All performers were in a state of solemn exaltation, and this was true, above all, of the children, whose hearts he had captured from the beginning. It was a great moment when, greeted by the thousands who filled the giant exhibition hall, he took his place facing the thousand performers—at the zenith of his life and yet marked for an early death—when his music invoked the creator spiritus by whose fires it had been generated within him, and when from all lips burst forth the yearning call of his life....
“When the last note of the performance had died away and the waves of enthusiastic applause reached him, Mahler ascended the steps of the platform, at the top of which the children’s choir was posted. The little ones hailed him with shouts of jubilation and, walking down the line, he pressed every one of the little hands that were extended towards him….At the performance itself he seemed to be at the height of his power—the uplifting of his soul once more had given back to the tired heart its onetime vigor. But it was the last performance of one of his creations that he himself conducted.”
Eight months later, Mahler was gone, leaving a mystical and stirring work that brings together a medieval hymn (molded into an immense sonata structure) and the final scene of Goethe’s verse drama, Faust. Only Mahler would have dared such a conception for a choral symphony.
The music: Playing by its own rules
hymnus: veni, creator spiritus. Like Mahler’s other symphonies, the Eighth proceeds according to its own rules. A massive chord resounding from the organ heralds the tumultuous cry of the two choruses, Veni, veni, creator spiritus, a march-like theme that functions as the principal subject of the 25-minute sonata movement. A contrasting theme, a sweetly expressive setting of the third and fourth line as the poet begs for grace, is given to the soprano. The development gets under way in an orchestral interlude marked by the tolling of bells. In its course, the main theme is transformed into a striking new cry (beginning with the word Accende—“Kindle the light of our understanding”), and its summit is crowned with the double fugue based on the original theme. Additional brass are summoned for the gleaming coda. “No other work of Mahler,” observed Walter, “is so saturated with the spirit of fervent affirmation.”
final scene from Faust. Of all the composers who drew inspiration from Goethe’s drama Faust—and the ranks include, among others, Berlioz, Liszt, Schumann and Gounod—none may have more closely paralleled the poet’s intention than Mahler. He restricts himself entirely to the closing scene of Part II, Faust’s triumphant redemption, a scene unmanageable on the stage, which Goethe never intended anyhow. The original choruses and solos are given perfect realization by Mahler, and though the sections vaguely trace the slow movement, scherzo and finale of a more traditional symphony, the unorthodox structure emanates from the flow of the poetry itself.
The final scene traces Faust’s journey to heaven, and his course to salvation counterbalances the supplication of the opening hymn to the Spirit. The setting is a mountainous landscape where, on different levels, hermits have built their cells, each symbolizing a level of perfection. Faust’s remains are borne by angels who affirm the central thesis of the drama, “Whoever strives with all hist power, we are allowed to save.” He is welcomed by one of the penitents, Gretchen, who loved him on earth and now, in eternity, has been transfigured into one of the wise. The blessed boys announce that Faust’s mission in heaven is to instruct those whose lives on earth were terminated before they could range through all the human experiences he has known. Finally, the Mater Gloriosa, symbol of the enthroned Virgin, ushers Faust into eternal happiness.
Instrumentation: 8 solo voices, double chorus and children’s choir with orchestra comprising 5 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 4 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, 4 bassoons, contrabassoon, 8 horns, 8 trumpets (4 offstage), 7 trombones (3 offstage), tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, tamtam, triangle, glockenspiel, chimes, 2 large bells, 2 harps, piano, celesta, organ, harmonium, mandolin and strings
Program note by Mary Ann Feldman.
At these performances, the Orchestra is joined by eight vocal soloists and singers from the Minnesota Chorale, National Lutheran Choir, Minnesota Boychoir and Angelica Cantanti Youth Choirs. Profiles of the soloists and choirs appear in a supplement to the program magazine. Below is a listing of singers from the four choirs.
Kathy Saltzman Romey, artistic director
Barbara Brooks, accompanist and artistic advisor
Laura E Amos
Ivy S. Bernhardson
Alyssa K. Breece*
Laurel E. Drevlow*
Linda S. Neuman
Shari M. Speer*
Karen R. Wasiluk
Elisabeth M Drost*
Susan Sacquitne Druck*
Marcia K. Evans*
Heather A. Hood*
Claire M Klein
Krista J. Palmquist*
Barbara S. Prince*
Deborah E. Richman
Joy E Roellinger
Marcia Van Camp
Jason José Bendézu
Patrick L. Coleman
Benjamin G. Cooper
Tom Knabel, MD
Scott D. McKenzie
Jeffrey J. Raehl*
John R. Henrich
Evan Clay Kelly
Jon C. Lahann*
Paul L. Nevin
William B Smale
Michael R. Tomlinson*
Russ Vander Wiel
* section leader
National Luthearn Choir
David Cherwein, artistic director
Roselyn Hanson Weber
Jill Maltrud Reid
Roxanne Litchfield Holey
Tom von Fischer
Mark S. Johnson, artistic director
Angelica Cantanti Youth Choirs
Elizabeth Egger, artistic director
Audrey Riddle, executive director
Andrea Dittmer, choir manager
Carmen Olivia Hanson
Omera Syed Asif