Sunday, September 30, 2012

Sunday Classics: Mahler Symphony No. 8, "Veni, Creator Spiritus"


If you can bear the video mis-sync, here's the first 8 minutes of Part I of Mahler's monumental Symphony No. 8, his setting of the medieval hymn "Veni, Creator Spiritus," with Sir Simon Rattle conducting the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain (and soloists and choruses too numerous to mention -- even if I knew who they were) at the 2002 Proms.

by Ken

As I noted in Friday night's preview, there is an unmistakable rupture between Mahler's Eighth Symphony (which has been saddled with the unfortunate rubric "Symphony of a Thousand"; yes, it calls for eight vocal soloists and a double chorus plus children's chorus in addition to orchestra reinforced by organ, but that's a long from a thousand performers) and the song-symphony that followed, Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth). As everyone surely knows by now, in the interim the composer received the dire diagnosis of his untreatable heart disease.

In the Eighth Symphony, however, we find Mahler from the very outset still at his heaven-stormingest, as we heard in the video clip above.

Performances of the Mahler Eighth were once rare events. By now they have become, if not quite commonplace, then hardly rarities, and recordings . . . well, they have become more or less commonplace. Which makes this once-hardly-approachable work much more readily available, but still hardly easy of approach.

We're going to limit ourselves to Part I of the symphony, Mahler's setting of the medieval hymn "Veni, Creator Spiritus." (Part II, which last more than twice as long, is a setting of the final scene from Goethe's Faust.)

In a program note for the San Francisco Symphony, the late Michael Steinberg sketches the background to the composition of the Eighth Symphony:
The pattern of Mahler's years is well known: in the autumn, winter, and spring he conducted, both to earn a living and because the challenge would not let him alone, and in summer he composed, sometimes sketching an entire symphony in a couple of months, perhaps finishing it the following summer, and finding odd moments during the year in which he might work on the score. He had completed his Seventh Symphony during the winter of 1905-06 and in May he had introduced his Sixth, the work of 1903-05, at a festival at Essen.

In June 1906, when he arrived at Maiernigg on Lake Wörth in southern Austria, where he had bought a plot of land in 1899, he had, to begin with, not a glimmer of an idea for a new composition. According to Alma Mahler, he was "haunted by the spectre of failing inspiration." By his own account he went to his studio, a tiny hut separate from the main house by some hundreds of yeard, on the first day "with the firm resolution of idling the holiday away (I needed to so much that year) and recruiting my strength. On the threshold of my old workshop the 'Spiritus Creator' took hold of me and shook me and drove me on for the next eight weeks until my greatest work was done."

He had access only to a corrupt edition of the text and, to his chagrin, he found himself composing too much music for the words. He wired Vienna, asking to have the hymn sent to Maiernigg by telegram. As Alma Mahler tells it, "The complete text fit the music exactly. Intuitively he had composed the music for the full stophes." (This is not exactly correct as Mahler omits the second half of the fifth stanza.)
With regard to the hymn itself, Steinberg writes:
Tradition ascribes "Veni, Creator Spiritus" to Rabanus Maurus, Archbishop of Mainz from 847 until his death in 856, but scholarship will not have it so. The hymn, which probably dates from just befor Maurus's time, is part of the liturgy for Whitsuntide or Pentecost, the festival that commemorates the descent of the Holy Ghost upon the disciples (Acts 2), and it is also sung at grand celebrations such as the elevation of a saint or the coronation of a pope. Mahler's referring to it as "the 'Spiritus Creator'" is characteristic. He was absolutely allergic to the idea of leaving a text alone and, aside from the omissions noted, he presents the lines in an incredibly dense growth of repetitions, combinations, inversions, transpositions, and conflations.


As an overall note, we might heed Michael Steinberg's summarizing comment about Mahler's setting of the "Veni, Creator Spiritus":
The points of the hymn, evidently, are strikingly differentiated, but the detail, even though the building blocks are massive, is subordinated to the eager thrust of the movement as a whole. It might well call to mind the shouts of "Credo, credo" with which Beethoven pushes aside doctrinal detail in the Missa solemnis.


Joyce Barker, Beryl Hatt, and Agnes Giebel, sopranos; Kerstin Meyer, mezzo-soprano; Helen Watts, contraltos; Kenneth Neate, tenor; Alfred Orda, baritone; Arnold van Mill, bass; BBC Chorus, BBC Choral Society, Goldsmith's Choral Union, Hampstead Choral Society, Emanuel School Boys' Choir, and Orpington Junior Singers, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Jascha Horenstein, cond. BBC Legends, live performance from the Royal Albert Hall, March 20, 1959

Adele Addison and Lucine Amara, sopranos; Jennie Tourel, mezzo-soprano; Lili Chookasian, contralto; Richard Tucker , tenor; baritone; George London, bass-baritone; Ezio Flagello, bass; Schola Cantorum of New York, Juilliard Chorus, and Columbus Boychoir, New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein, cond. Columbia/CBS/Sony, recorded live at the opening concert of Lincoln Center, Philharmonic (now Avery Fisher) Hall, Sept. 23, 1962

Note: For all our performances I've listed all three sopranos called on for Part II of the symphony, though Part I has only two soprano parts. (Of course, since the Bernstein performance was of Part I only, only two sopranos were listed.)

MAHLER: Symphony No. 8: Part I, "Veni, Creator Spiritus"

1. Allegro, etwas hastig, "Veni, Creator Spiritus"

Michael Steinberg writes:
In April 1926, Anton Webern conducted what must by all accounts have been two overwhelming performances of Mahler's Eighth Symphony. Describing these performances to Schoenberg, he wrote: "In [the First Part] I set a real Allegro impetuoso; in no time the movement was over, like a gigantic prelude to the second." This "impetuous" Allegro is precisely what Mahler specifies as he hurls the first words at the "Creator Spiritus." Not only is the tempo itself quick, but the musical events themselves -- the sequence of ever-shorter measures (4/4, 4/4, 3/4, 2/4) and the trombones' compressed variation of what the chorus has just sung -- create a sense of utmost urgency. Moreover, as soon as the chorus resumes, the orchestra -- violins, imitated at once by all the high woodwind -- adds a new melody of sweeping physical energy.

BBC Symphony Orchestra, Jascha Horenstein, cond.

New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein, cond.

2. "Imple superna gratia"

The previous section ended with a slowdown; now we're back at regular tempo, and the vocal soloists have their first outing, starting with the first soprano and the tenor. Michael Steinberg writes:
With "Imple superna gratia" the prayer becomes softer and solo voices begin to emerge. "Infirma," the plea for strength, is presented once darkly, then, after an orchestral interlude of which Adorno rightly says that it looks ahead to the cantatas of Webern, with stern power.
Geoffrey Crankshaw writes, in a liner note for the Solti-Decca recording, of the "exquisite passage for vocal quartet":
Interweaving of woodwind, voices, organ, horns, and strings produces tonal effects of startling beauty. Soon the chorus takes over in support of the quartet, and then, suddenly, we are returned to the basic opening material, but this time amplified and elaborated.

BBC Symphony Orchestra, Jascha Horenstein, cond.

New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein, cond.

3. "Infirma nostri corporis"

Geoffrey Crankshaw writes of this section:
Again the mood changes, this time for a sombre D minor episode, in which a solo violin plays an expressive obbligato as the choirs hymn in antiphon. The horns intrude with a statement of the early trombone motif and an agitated orchestral texture is built up, subsiding eventually to a moving restatement of the "Infirma nostri corporis" material, this time employing eight vocalists [um, I count seven -- Ed.] against broken commentary by woodwind and strings.

BBC Symphony Orchestra, Jascha Horenstein, cond.

New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein, cond.

4. Tempo I (Allegro, etwas hastig)

This is an orchestral interlude, a kind of spooky death march, complete with tolling bell.

BBC Symphony Orchestra, Jascha Horenstein, cond.

New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein, cond.

5. "Infirma nostri corporis"

Mahler repeats the lines "Infírma nostri córporis, virtúte fírmans pérpeti and then comes to what Michael Steinberg says "for Mahler was 'the cardinal point of the text' and the bridget to Faust, the "Accende lumen sensibus." Mahler's treatment of it, he says,
points up something interesting about his verbal inversions. His first introduction of that line by the soloists is quiet. But the words are reversed, "Lumen accende sensibus," and the great outburst with all voices, those of the children included, in unison, coincides with the first presentation of the line in its proper order. The change there of texture, tempo, and harmony make this the most dramatic stroke in the symphony.

BBC Symphony Orchestra, Jascha Horenstein, cond.

New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein, cond.

6. "Accende lumen sensibus"

Notice that we're back to "the cardinal point of the text" for Mahler, the "Accende lumen sensibus," now actually set to the "Veni, Creator Spiritus" theme. Michael Steinberg writes:
The prayer that the foe be scattered is one of Mahler's fierce marches; the appeal to the leader to go before us ("Ductore sic te praevio") is a dense double fugue.

BBC Symphony Orchestra, Jascha Horenstein, cond.

New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein, cond.

7. "Qui Paraclitus diceris"

As the recapitulation builds, there is some important writing for the tenor solo. (The tenor part is excruciatingly difficult, requiring the singer to sing at  high volume for ages on end in punishingly high terrain.)

BBC Symphony Orchestra, Jascha Horenstein, cond.

New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein, cond.

8. "Gloria Patri Domino"

Geoffrey Crankshaw writes of the "Gloria," preceded by an orchestral transition and then introduced by the children's chorus:
The noble "Gloria" can be seen as the logical culmination of [the] recapitulation [begun in the previous sections], since it uses much of the same material in sublime rhetoric.

BBC Symphony Orchestra, Jascha Horenstein, cond.

New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein, cond.


We start with Seiji Ozawa's Boston Symphony recording. As I've noted before, Seiji has a particular aptitude for pulling together hard-to-pull-together musical colossuses, and I think if I could have only one Mahler Eighth it might be this one, which boasts strong vocal contributions from the soloists and the chorus.

Or then again, I might go with Wyn Morris's more measured, monumental recording. (Note that this audio clip retains the digital tracking of the CD, which is similar but not identical to the sectioning we heard above.)

Finally, despite its sonic limitations, I have a real fondness for the surprisingly untricked but inspiring 1950 New York Philharmonic performance by Leopold Stokowski, who had conducted the work's U.S. premiere in 1916. The performance was included in the Philharmonic's historical Mahler symphony cycle compiled from 1948-82 broadcast performances, unfortunately no longer in print. (The Eighth has been released by other parties. I would check out the release by Music & Arts.)

MAHLER: Symphony No. 8: Part I, "Veni, Creator Spiritus"

Faye Robinson, Judith Blegen, and Deborah Sasson, sopranos; Florence Quivar and Lorna Myers, mezzo-sopranos; Kenneth Riegel, tenor; Benjamin Luxon, baritone; Gwynne Howell, bass; Tanglewood Festival Chorus and Boston Boy Choir, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Seiji Ozawa, cond. Philips, recorded live, Oct.-Nov.1980

Joyce Barker, Elizabeth Simon, and Norma Burrowes, sopranos; Joyce Blackham, mezzo-soprano; Alfreda Hodgson, contralto; John Mitchinson, tenor; Raymond Myers, baritone; Gwynne Howell, bass; Ambrosian Singers, Bruckner-Mahler Choir of London, Highgate School Choir, Orpington Junior Singers, and Finchley Children's Music Group, Symphonica of London, Wyn Morris, cond. Innovative Music/IMP Classics, recorded Nov. 20-22, 1972

Frances Yeend, Uta Graf, and Camilla Williams, sopranos; Martha Lipton and Louise Bernhardt, mezzo-sopranos; Eugene Conley, tenor; Carlos Alexander, baritone; George London, bass-baritone; Schola Cantorum, Westminster Choir, and Boys' Chorus from PS 12 (Manhattan), New York Philharmonic, Leopold Stokowski, cond. Live performance, Apr. 9, 1950

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