Mahler’s Eighth and coming out of COVID-19

The Coronavirus pandemic has hit the arts hard, and only recently have we seen tentative shoots of recovery where live music is concerned. The great choral epics are still some way off, it would seem – which leads John Earls to ponder when he might complete his personal Mahler symphony cycle…

Mahler’s Eighth is the only one of his symphonies I haven’t seen performed live. It’s not because I haven’t wanted to. The sheer scale of the piece (it includes eight soloists, two choirs, children’s chorus and full orchestra including concert organ) means it is the least performed of his symphonies. It is also regarded by some as too grand, incoherent, and even kitsch, in comparison to the others – Part 1 is a setting of the Latin Hymn Veni Creator Spiritus and Part 2 a setting of the final part of Goethe’s Faust.

The last two times it was performed in my home city of London personal commitments (a friend’s wedding and my son’s birthday) prevented me from attending and completing my personal ‘live Mahler cycle’ (although with due respect to my son he said he wouldn’t mind too much if I went).

The Eighth has been on my mind again recently. Firstly, Stephen Johnson has just published a book on the symphony, The Eighth: Mahler and the World in 1910. I’ve not read it yet, but very much look forward to doing so (I loved his essay on Shostakovich). But Johnson’s book is about the time of the symphony’s premiere. My thoughts have been about the symphony in the present and the future. More specifically, in the context of the coronavirus pandemic and coming out of COVID-19.

It’s been well documented how seriously live music, and the arts generally, have been hit by the pandemic. The recent government announcement of support is welcome, but much work still needs to be done and many organisations continue to face an existential crisis.

With lock down and social distancing I realised (perhaps rather selfishly) that I wouldn’t be seeing the Eighth, nicknamed the Symphony of a Thousand (although not a term Mahler himself used), any time soon. But then I started thinking about the piece itself and what it gives to us in this extraordinary time and as we start to come out of COVID-19. To be honest, the Eighth isn’t even my favourite Mahler symphony. However, its themes of enlightenment, redemption, and the power of love, whilst being somewhat perennial, may have a particular resonance at this moment.

Much of the classical music I have been listening to since lock down has tended to be subdued, dare I say austere. This has particularly been the case in respect of recently streamed concerts such as the wonderful June series put on by the Wigmore Hall in association with BBC Radio 3, beautifully bookended by Stephen Hough’s playing of solo piano pieces by Bach and Schumann, and Mark Padmore and Mitsuko Uchida’s performance of Schubert’s Winterreise.

So, at first, there was something quite disconcerting and then ultimately uplifting about the sheer force of listening to the Eighth again, not least when orchestra and choirs combine to such powerful effect right from the off, including the organ. There are some wonderfully delicate moments in its hour and a half too.

Which version to listen to? Two recordings often cited are those by Georg Solti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (Decca, 1971) and Klaus Tennstedt and the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s performance at the Royal Festival Hall in 1991 (EMI, 2011). Both are excellent (although Tennstedt probably just shades it for me). I also have a soft spot for Sir Simon Rattle’s 2004 live performance with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (EMI, 2005).

It is notable that two of these are live recordings and, of course, much of what is said about Mahler’s Eighth is about it being seen or heard live. Which brings me back to my point about performance. There is something about the combination of the mass assembled forces performing together and being joined by an audience in an even bigger collective. Stephen Johnson (again) put it well in a recent episode of Radio 3’s Music Matters with Tom Service: “A great deal about the ecstasy of this piece is about unity and many, many voices being combined together”. True that. And not just in the context of COVID-19.

I’m still disappointed that I probably won’t get to see a performance of Mahler’s Eighth (at least as we traditionally know it) any time soon. However, I do know that when I do eventually see it, in whatever form, it will have a very particular significance and will, no doubt, be incredibly moving. And not just because I will have completed the cycle.

John Earls is Director of Research at Unite the Union and tweets at @john_earls

You can watch Sir Simon Rattle conducting the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, massed choirs and soloists (including Christine Brewer, Soile Isokoski and David Wilson-Johnson) in a 2002 performance of Mahler’s Symphony no.8 as part of this year’s BBC Proms TV coverage. The broadcast will take place on BBC Four on Sunday 9 August.

Photo credit: Thomas Søndergård conducts massed Proms forces and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales in Mahler’s Eighth Symphony at the BBC Proms in 2018. (Chris Christodoulou / BBC)

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