London Eighth Symphony commemorates the centenary of Mahler’s death

Mahler’s Eighth – ‘Symphony of a Thousand’: Vivace Chorus, London Symphony Chorus, The London Chorus, Romsey Choral Society, Tiffin Boys’ Choir, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Jeremy Backhouse (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London 15.5.2011 (JPr)

Claire Seaton (soprano 1), Elisabeth Meister (soprano 2), Helen Neeves (Mater Gloriosa), Susanna Spicer (mezzo 1), Deborah Miles-Johnson (mezzo 2), Adrian Thompson (tenor), Colin Campbell (baritone) and Michael Bundy (bass).

In another review a little while ago I wrote how this gigantic undertaking – ‘a gift to the whole nation’ as Mahler called it – was dubbed ‘Symphony of a Thousand’ by the composer’s agent in 1910 and although Mahler did not approve of this, that title has stuck to it ever since. How it was composed in two parts; the shorter first part, to the text of the ninth-century Christian hymn (attributed to Hrabanus Maurus, Archbishop of Mainz) ‘Veni, creator spiritus’, that paves the way for Part II, the final scene from Goethe’s Faust.

I further explained to devotees of Goethe, mythology and Christianity, that this marriage of text and music undoubtedly holds many levels of meaning. Also, that this juxtaposition of sacred and secular texts in this symphony remains its least discussed aspect despite its obvious significance. It must be remembered that Mahler was rather ambivalent about religion though this symphony is an abiding testament to his deep and abiding spirituality; here we have both God and Goethe, eternal life versus eternal love. Mahler’s wife, Alma – not the most reliable biographer, of course – reported that the music of the opening ‘Veni, creator spiritus’ (‘Come, creator spirit’) came to him in a burst of inspiration and this actually ‘inspires’ the thought that for the composer himself it might have resonated more as ‘come, creative spirit’. In fact this symphony was composed in little more than eight weeks in 1906 although Mahler would wait until 1910 before conducting its first two performances in Munich; this was last première of one of his own compositions with which he would be involved.

I have always believed the greater catalyst for the symphony’s composition seems to have been the ‘ideal’ Goethe expressed, as Mahler explained to his wife, Alma, in June 1906: ‘That which draws us by its mystic force, what every created thing, perhaps even the very stones, feels with absolute certainty as the centre of its being, what Goethe here – again employing an image – calls the Eternal Feminine – that is to say, the resting-place, the goal, in opposition to the striving and struggling towards the goal (the Eternal Masculine) – you are quite right in calling the force of love. Goethe … expresses it with a growing clearness and certainty right on to the Mater Gloriosathe personification of the Eternal Feminine!’.

I was delighted to hear much the same views on this Eighth Symphony expounded by Dr Jeremy Barham in his extremely lucid pre-concert talk to a huge audience that filled the arena at the Royal Albert Hall. Fascinatingly he was able to illustrate how, though the symphony seems to be made up of two disparate parts, in fact Part 2 starts to revisit ideas first encountered in Part 1. Especially through the incandescent melody heard first in Part 1 with the text ‘Accende lumen sensibus’ (‘Kindle our senses with light’).

In Part II Faust’s soul is borne aloft by angels from a rocky ravine to heaven accompanied by a number of devotional figures. The chorus intones its famous last words ‘The Eternal-Feminine draws us upward’ and this is at odds with the orthodox Christian vision of God the Father who is glorified at the end of Part 1. So what have we here then? Does Mahler want us to believe that the Christian redemption promised by Part 1 required the redeeming power of love as can only be mediated through the ‘Eternal-Feminine’? For me another spectre other than Goethe – Richard Wagner – haunts this work because this is a typically Wagnerian idea. Indeed the long E-flat minor operatic prelude that opens Part II is deeply meditative and moving and clearly derived from Parsifal. And later when Doctor Marianus rhapsodises about Mater Gloriosa (Virgin Mary), calling her ‘The Queen of Heaven (and) Highest Mistress of the World!’, this is straight out of Tannhäuser. I believe that for Mahler it was Alma who was his ‘Eternal-Feminine’ and that is why the Eighth Symphony is dedicated to her.

This was a very worthy undertaking by Vivace Chorus and the only major Mahler concert in London marking the centenary of the composer’s death on 18 May 1911. The stage platform and choir seats of the Royal Albert Hall were crammed full of the musicians of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, four choruses and a boys’ choir. So probably nowhere near a thousand but still an impressive turnout all the same.

Sadly the line up of soloists was not the strongest and most did not have voices big enough for the Royal Albert Hall or the technique to overcome some of Mahler’s vocal demands at certain times. I assume Adrian Thompson has not been well as he looks a shadow of his former self and he no longer has the refulgent tenor that made him a wonderful Doctor Marianus when I heard him at the Three Choirs Festival in 2007. One singer with some excuse was Claire Seaton (Soprano 1 and Magna Peccatrix) who sang from a seated position due to an obvious injury and this could not help her projection. Helen Neeves of course had no problem with her short contribution as Mater Gloriosa and the best singer by far was Elisabeth Meister as a radiant Penitent.

Under the direction of their very animated conductor, Jeremy Backhouse, all concerned gave us a spirited account of the music and the overall sound was often quite breathtaking. Part I seemed suitably stirring and Part II adequately romantic and transcendental. The massed choirs sang their hearts out though few words were discernable from where I was sitting. Sadly the lights never went up a notch in the auditorium to enable any of us in the audience to follow the words in the Vivace Chorus’s excellent printed programme. The best performances of the Eighth Symphony highlight the symphony’s significant moments and recurring ideas, fusing all these different things together without losing sight of where the work is taking us. It is unlikely Jeremy Backhouse had enough rehearsals with the orchestra – let alone the various choruses – to do complete justice to such a grand and complex work so he is to be congratulated on holding everything together as well as he did. However, a sense of ennui did seem to hover over the opening passages of Part II that suggested conductor and orchestra were just feeling their way through the music at times.

Jim Pritchard