Mahler’s 8th symphony was composed in a blaze of inspiration during his Summer vacation in 1906 at Maiernigg in southern Austria. Mahler made his living conducting. Composition was only possible in the summer. The hut in which Mahler wrote the symphony is above the title. This huge and complex work took less than 8 weeks to complete. It was not performed until September 12, 1910 when the composer led 858 singers and 171 instrumentalists in the New Festival Music  Hall in Munich. The sobriquet A Symphony of a Thousand is an obvious one given the army commanded by its composer at its premiere.  Mahler did not like the appellation, but it has stuck.

The first performance was attended by, among others, Richard Strauss, Camille Saint-Saëns, Anton Webern, Thomas Mann,  Max Reinhardt, and Leopold Stokowski, who led the work’s American premiere 6 years later. It was the biggest success of Mahler’s composing career, a career which had few such successes. Over the next 50 years it was performed only rarely. After 1960 when the Mahler revival began it was performed with ever increasing frequency and had been recorded many times.

It is in two parts, both with chorus and soloists. Part 1 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.

Mahler conducting the final rehearsal of his Symphony #8

Mahler conducting the final rehearsal of his Symphony #8

The last words of the final scene are below with an English translation. Poetry, of course, is what is lost in translation. Mahler’s music restores anything lost in translation. The symphony’s final 6 minutes are an apotheosis to redemption, art, and human creativity. They are glorious. Here are two performances of this finale. The first is led by Georg Solti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra with chorus and soloists. I was at one of the performances of this symphony under Solti’s baton that immediately preceded this recording. The first 8 rows of the orchestra were boarded over to accommodate the large forces needed. Unfortunately, the recording of the symphony doesn’t capture the grandeur and sweep of Solti’s realization of Mahler’s titanic work heard in performance.
Mahler 8 finale Solti CSO

Leonard Bernstein and the Vienna Philharmonic recorded Mahler’s 8th before Solti’s was made. And this record does capture all the glory and emotion that its composer enveloped in his estival outpouring of genius. Of course, no recording can approach the impact that this symphony makes when heard live.
Mahler 8 finale Bernstein Vienna Phil

Alles Vergängliche                         All that is ephemeral
ist nur ein Gleichnis;                     is but a symbol;
das Unzulängliche,                         the incomplete
hier wird's Ereignis;                      is here fulfilled;
das Unbeschreibliche,                      the indescribable
hier ist's getan;                          is here accomplished;
das Ewig-Weibliche                         the Eternal Feminine
zieht uns hinan.                           draws us ever upwards.