Mahlers 8th Symphony : A Unique and Unprecedented Epic Work? — Tan Chan Boon — INKPOT

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Mahlers 8th Symphony : A Unique and Unprecedented Epic Work?

By Tan Chan Boon
(Translated by Liong Kit Yeng, edited by Derek Lim (Ed)

Editor’s Note: This essay, originally in Chinese, was originally submitted to the local Mandarin newspaper for publication, but rejected due to its length and the time lapse between the concert by the SSO of the local premiere and the submission of this essay. The author hopes that aspects of Mahler’s Eighth will pique the interest of readers and lead them to do their own research into Mahler’s Eighth. It is aimed at readers with some musical knowledge.

Mahler’s Eighth As An Unprecendented Work

Throughout the history of Western music, true choral-symphonic works are rare. Frequently, when an orchestra of a huge setting is augmented with choral parts, the emphasis would often be shifted away from the orchestral motif to the vocal portions, diluting the intended musical message of the orchestra.

Hence a question is raised: is a work such as Mahlers 8th Symphony (or Symphony of A Thousand) a straightforward symphonic work with choral parts added to it, or is it simply a dedicated choral symphonic work with massive accompanying orchestral parts1?

Examples of the latter are easily found. An example of the former, a symphonic work with choral parts, would be the final movement of Beethovens Symphony No. 9. This form can also be found in symphonic poems, where short segments of choruses are added at the end of the compositions. So which is Mahlers Eighth a symphonic work with chorus or a choral work with orchestra?

The answer is neither. A more accurate way of describing Mahlers 8th symphony (or M8 in short) would be as a symphonic work that places equal importance on the interaction between instruments and human voices.

What makes Mahlers Symphony of A Thousand so unique in the history of works with choir and orchestra is that it retains the musical characteristics of a gigantic instrumental symphony rich symphonic parts, colourful harmony and skilful contrapuntal writing despite incorporating huge choral forces.

In this work, the choral parts move as counterpoint melodies that interact with and complement one another, and not simply in unison or with very few vocal parts. For example, more than 10 vocal parts may sing at the same time with each part singing an entirely different melody, but each blends well with the rest in harmony.

The listening pleasure is further enhanced by an enormous orchestra, where the orchestration is juxtaposed with contrapuntal writing techniques to showcase the brilliance of Mahlers composing skills.

Detractors of Mahlers Eighth think that there is nothing much to the work. That would be to underestimate the difficulty in writing a score of towering scale like M8 2, a typical performance of which runs for approximately 90 minutes3. But beneath the surface glamour and technical difficulties in writing such a work lie the ingredients which make it monumental, that is, the dramatic and philosophical nature of the work. It took a man of Mahlers vision much deep thought and great inspiration, to come up with something of such poetry and philosophy, and this vision can be seen not only in the two texts, but also throughout the orchestral parts.

In terms of conducting, Symphony No. 8 could possibly be considered the most difficult work in history of Western music. In conducting this symphony, expressing the inner feelings is even more challenging than conquering technical difficulties. I have been conducting orchestras for years, and have also taken part in international competitions for conducting. Hence I can fully understand and be able to differentiate the levels of difficulty in music to be conducted.

The most obvious difference between M8 and other symphonies is the number of movements as well as the symphonys form. There are 2 parts in the work but they are not labeled as movements 4. Part I: Hymn Veni, creator spiritus, approximately 22 to 28 minutes long, is half the duration of Part II: Final Scene from Goethes Faust (it can also be seen as an ultra-long prelude 5 to Part II).

Magnificent examples of contrapuntal writing and harmony abound from the first page of Mahlers Eighth. Essentially it is a massive sonata form, characteristic of the post-Romantic composing style, whereby the scale of Recapitulation exceeds Exposition. The development cleverly leads into the recapitulation with a mammoth double fugue. It isn’t easy to write a normal double fugue, let alone a gargantuan one, with several hundred people performing, with more than ten parts harmonizing and progressing together, even more so for a tonal double fugue! Interestingly, when Mahler was composing this symphony, he always took along a music score written by a predecessor for reference, none other than J.S. Bachs BWV 1080, Die Kunst der Fuge!

Motif development
It was Wagner who first used and developed the leitmotif (leading motive or representative theme) in opera. Mahler did the equivalent to his themes in his symphony, tying together both movements in a single work and between his different symphonies, in so doing establishing a massive oevre. Mahlers version of leitmotif can be seen as taking composition standards to another level.

People familiar with Mahlers works will observe his signature composition method where a basic motif develops and evolves gradually throughout the course of the many movements of a work. In the case of Symphony No. 8, the main themes and motifs that appear in Part I gradually transformed into Part II as profound, touching and sacred melodies, putting into music what one might describe as ones yearning for eternity. Through his clever development and distortion of themes, the eighth move from sadness to happiness, from evil to good, from darkness to light.

I had a chance to discuss Mahlers works with some authorities on the academic aspects of Mahler some years back7. The general agreement was that Part II of Symphony No. 8 is an extended version of the Sonata form. Mahler had combined the last 3 movements of a traditional 4-movement symphony 8 format into one robust movement lasting approximately 52 to 60 minutes 9, hence dissolving it into an Extended Sonata form.

Is there any precedent to Mahlers Eighth for this form? The answer is yes, as one could refer to these works: the last movement of Mahlers Symphony No. 2, the first and the last movements of Symphony No. 3, last movement in Symphonies No. 6. and No. 7, the last movement of Bruckners Symphony No. 8, as well as the last movement of Beethovens Symphony No. 9. All fit in one way or another into what one might call the extended sonata form.

The 8th in relation to the other symphonies.
Just as Mahler himself once said, if one could not understand his first five symphonies, then it would be difficult to understand his 6th symphony. By way of extension, what he said applies to his 7th and 8th symphonies as well.

To understand what Mahler meant by this, one must have at least a passing familiarity with his previous 7 symphonies. Starting with his first symphony, each of his subsequent symphonies was a stylistic breakthrough, creating a new writing style, yet marking every one with his signature style of composition so that none could be mistaken as having been written by anyone else.

The duration between the composition of Mahlers symphonies resemble life journeys. Emotionally and technically, the disparity between Mahlers first 2 symphonies is large. Mahler once described his development between Symphonies No. 1 and No. 2 as that of a child growing into an adult. In contrast, Symphony No. 3 wasnt too different from No. 2, however obvious changes were present, especially in the non-choral portions. Symphonies No. 3 and 4 were close, stylistically, but influential orchestration changes surfaced beyond the 3rd symphony 10.

There was a huge gap between Symphonies No. 4 and No. 5, hence researchers often view No. 5 as a conclusion to Mahlers earlier symphonic styles 11, as well as the launch of a new symphonic era. It was described as the little brother of the three musketeers 12 (referring to Symphonies No. 5, 6 and 7).

Symphonies No. 5 and No. 6 were rather far apart in terms of style and technique.. It was during the birth of the 6th symphony that Mahlers philosophy towards life experienced a tragic transformation. The stylistic changes between Symphonies No. 6 and No. 7 were relatively fewer, comparable to the relationship between No. 3 and No. 4; they shared the same ideology and writing techniques. Parts of them were indeed written at the same time. There is a significant difference though: the finale in No. 7 took on the characteristic tragic ending in No. 6 and further expanded it into yet another magnificent conclusion.

The interval between completion of the 7th and the 8th symphonies was short, but none of his previous massive symphonic works could possibly have surpassed the success of the eighth symphony 13. An interesting analogy to this phenomenon is that of the fighting technique Ru Lai Shen Zhang (Buddhas Palm) described in a Chinese gungfu legend. The first 8 levels of this technique (where irradiated palms were being blasted through the air) were powerful, but even a combination of them could not surpass the mystical 9th level. Similarly, the finale of his eighth symphony, even comparing the first seven, is undeniably the most magnificent of them all, in fact, Mahler had mentioned many times that his 8th symphony was his greatest composition, even after he wrote The Song of the Earth 14 as well Symphony No. 9 15.

Over these years, I have been fortunate enough to have attended 8 performances of Mahlers 8th Symphony at different occasions, including 6 from Mahler Festivals in Europe, and 2 concerts in Singapore. I was also being invited to view all the overseas rehearsals. These were tremendous learning experiences 16.

I am extremely happy and appreciative that the Singapore Arts Festival this year had chosen to open the arts season with the Singapore premiere of Mahlers Symphony of A Thousand. In spite of the heavy financial, human and material resources required to put together this production, I certainly hope to see a second performance of this work in the near future. I applaud the efforts by the combined chorus and the orchestra to have brilliantly presented this demanding work. And after the performance of Mahlers 8th Symphony, the Singapore Symphony Orchestra has definitely scaled to new and greater heights!

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