Today, September 12th is the day in 1910 when Gustav Mahler’s monolithic symphonic cantata the Symphony no 8 premiered in Munich. Mahler underwent much soul searching as he wrote it, but the audiences loved it, awarding the performance with a 20 minute ovation.
Mahler himself conducted the premiere for which the impresario Emil Gutman coined the phrase the Symphony of a Thousand, a name which has endured despite Mahler’s reticence. Attending the premiere were the A list of musicians of the time – composers Richard Strauss, Camille Saint-Saëns and Anton Webern; Thomas Mann and the British conductor Leopold Stokowski, who in 1916 would conduct the American premiere of the symphony. Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer were involved in the preparation of the musicians.
Inspired by the words of the Latin hymn Veni Creator Spiritus, the symphony is scored for double chorus, boys’ choir, soloists and large orchestra with added mandolin, celesta, piano, harmonium and organ. The second movement with German text is a setting of the closing scene of Goethe’s Faust.
Though logistically and financially demanding to perform, Mahler’s Symphony No 8 remains one of the most exciting and inspiring works in the canon, loved by performers and audiences alike. It was last performed in Sydney in 2010 at the Sydney Opera House, with Vladimir Ashkenazy conducting the Sydney Symphony. It was indeed an extraordinary musical and visual experience as the entire audience rose to a standing ovation.