The Eighth: Mahler and the World in 1910

The Eighth: Mahler and the World in 1910
By Stephen Johnson
The University of Chicago Press, 294 pages
A review by R.C. Speck

Sometimes, through the expanse of time, classical music can appear like a placid ocean. But underneath there is always tremendous activity. Stephen Johnson, in his book The Eighth: Mahler and the World in 1910, shows us how active things were with Gustav Mahler while composing and conducting his titanic choral Eighth Symphony.

Johnson approaches his subject from several angles. He discusses the volcanic energy which Mahler applied to his work. His recently diagnosed heart lesion was weighing heavily upon him, but he refused to let health concerns hamper his output. Back then he was known more as a conductor than a composer, so, in a sense, he had something to prove with every new work. His Eighth Symphony, however, posed unique challenges simply because of its size. Known as “The Symphony of a Thousand,” this work called for hundreds of singers and full orchestra and is one of the largest scale works in the classical repertoire.

Johnson uses the memoirs of Mahler’s famous wife Alma for a source, and so, much of this history his filtered through her perspective. Her life as a work-widow to a man so career obsessed was lonely and difficult, and through her letters we learn about her angst when having to choose between her husband and her lover and future-husband Walter Gropius.

The music itself gets a detailed analysis. So do Mahler’s inspirations—musical, literary, and philosophical. Beethoven’s choral Ninth Symphony, of course, looms large, as does Wagner. Mahler also appropriates text from Goethe’s Faust and Latin hymns from the Middle Ages. As an avid reader, Mahler was greatly influenced by the ideas of Nietzsche and Schiller.

Johnson next tackles the thorny issue of identity. When analyzing Mahler’s famous assertion that he was part Bohemian, Austrian, German, and Jewish and an intruder everywhere, Johnson demonstrates aspects of each of these identities as they appear in the Eighth. For instance, was the fact that the symphony’s 1910 premier held in Munich a political statement supporting German cultural hegemony? The French certainly thought so. And how could Mahler’s use of the rational progression of contrary themes in Part I not be more German?

Pages are also dedicated to the Viennese presence in Mahler’s music. In Part II of his Eighth, the violin tremolos, the piccolo and clarinet solos, the rapturous lyrics, and the flowing songlike accompaniments evoke Schubert, Bruckner, and the best of the Viennese musical tradition. And as for Mahler’s intruder identity, Part II also expresses his profound loneliness by lamenting how the wanderer is a stranger everywhere.

In recounting the tragedy of how Gustav Mahler died before his time, Stephen Johnson has helped ensure that this great composer will never wander from our memory.

This book review appeared in the summer issue of Quarter Notes, the member magazine of WCPE Radio, The Classical Station. To receive a subscription, become a member today!

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