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This Day in UMS History: Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 (March 23, 1997)

Hill Auditorium
March 23, 1997

Mahler 8 Performed at Hill Auditorium (1997)

Mahler’s Symphony No. 8
Grand Rapids Symphony
Catherine Comet, conductor
UMS Choral Union
Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus
Grand Rapids Choir of Men and Boys
Boychoir of Ann Arbor

Leafing through the 1997 program book for a March event, this concert struck me because of two things: a letter written by Gerald R. Ford and a picture of Gustav Mahler.   Ford, who was the Honorary Chairman of this collaboration between UMS and the Grand Rapids Symphony, recognized with pleasure the cities of Grand Rapids and Ann Arbor, and the organizations that made this evening possible: the Grand Rapids Symphony and UMS.

Even as a professional musician, there’s a shocking amount of music and music history that I simply don’t know. I have performed five Mahler symphonies (1, 2, 3, 5, and 7), but have never heard Mahler 8, arguably his most famous. Shocking, perhaps, but also wonderful to know that music is a well that will never run dry. After spending four hours rehearsing Bartók’s Fourth Quartet yesterday, I listened to his Second Quartet for the first time ever today.  So reading these program notes was an educational experience for me.

Mahler 8 combines two very different texts: the medieval Catholic hymn “Veni creator spiritus” (“Come, Holy Spirit”) and a scene from Goethe’s Faust (in German, of course). The program note says:

“[Mahler] saw no distinction between humanism and religion; in the Symphony No. 8 he sought to emphasize the link between the early Christian belief in the Holy Spirit which descended on the disciples like tongues of fire. Goethe’s Faust, on the other hand, tells of man’s ascent into a god-like state, transformed from mortality and led heavenward by the ‘Eternal-Feminine.’ Goethe altered the original version of the legend so that Faust is not damned for his sins, but is redeemed through the power of Gretchen’s love. Mahler explained, ‘the essence of it really is Goethe’s idea that all love is generative, creative, and that there is a physical and spiritual generation which is the emanation of this “Eros.”’  The kinship between Platonic love and the early Christian concept of God’s love – both of them able to create, edify, and redeem – unifies these two diverse texts into a single philosophical expression.”

The great conductor Leopold Stokowski, who conducted the US premiere (1916), compared the experience of hearing it for the first time with the impression Niagara Falls must have had on the first early explorers.  Mahler said: “Try to describe the whole universe beginning to ring and resound. These are no longer human voices, but planets and suns revolving.”

The heartfelt nature of this piece is indicated in a final quote from the program note:

“Mahler’s wife, Alma, once remarked, ‘Gustav is always on the telephone to God,’ to which his biographer, Michael Kennedy, added, ‘In No. 8 he was on the hot line.”