Mahler - Symphony No. 8 (Haitink)

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Gustav Mahler
Symphony No 8 in E-flat major
'Symphony of a Thousand'

Gwyneth Jones, soprano 1
Arleen Auger, soprano 2
Barbara Bonney, soprano 3
Jard van Nes, alto 1
Carolym Watkinson, alto 2
Werner Hollweg, tenor
Thomas Hampson, baritone
Robert Hall, bass

Philharmonia Chorus London
Concertgebouw Orchestra
Bernard Haitink

Amsterdam, 1988


The Symphony No. 8 in E-flat major by Gustav Mahler is one of the largest-scale choral works in the classical concert repertoire. Because it requires huge instrumental and vocal forces it is frequently called the "Symphony of a Thousand", although the work is normally presented with far fewer than a thousand performers and the composer did not sanction that name. The work was composed in a single inspired burst, at Maiernigg in southern Austria in the summer of 1906. The last of Mahler's works that was premiered in his lifetime, the symphony was a critical and popular success when he conducted its first performance in Munich on 12 September 1910.

The fusion of song and symphony had been a characteristic of Mahler's early works. In his "middle" compositional period after 1901, a change of direction led him to produce three purely instrumental symphonies. The Eighth, marking the end of the middle period, returns to a combination of orchestra and voice in a symphonic context. The structure of the work is unconventional; instead of the normal framework of several movements, the piece is in two parts. Part I is based on the Latin text of a 9th-century Christian hymn for Pentecost, Veni creator spiritus ("Come, Creator Spirit"), and Part II is a setting of the words from the closing scene of Goethe's Faust. The two parts are unified by a common idea, that of redemption through the power of love, a unity conveyed through shared musical themes.

Mahler had been convinced from the start of the work's significance; in renouncing the pessimism that had marked much of his music, he offered the Eighth as an expression of confidence in the eternal human spirit.

The Eighth Symphony's two parts combine the sacred text of the 9th-century Latin hymn Veni creator spiritus with the secular text from the closing passages from Goethe's 19th-century dramatic poem Faust. Despite the evident disparities within this juxtaposition, the work as a whole expresses a single idea, that of redemption through the power of love. The choice of these two texts was not arbitrary; Goethe, a poet whom Mahler revered, believed that Veni creator embodied aspects of his own philosophy, and had translated it into German in 1820. Once inspired by the Veni creator idea, Mahler soon saw the Faust poem as an ideal counterpart to the Latin hymn. The unity between the two parts of the symphony is established, musically, by the extent to which they share thematic material.


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