Mahler's "Veni Creator Spiritus" in his 8th Symphony
  • gregpgregp
    Posts: 632
    After reading Jeffery's piece on Franz Liszt and the "Ave Maris Stella" on the NLM web site a few weeks ago, it made me start to think about the relationship between secular and sacred music, specifically in the first movement of Mahler's 8th symphony. (I know that a year or two ago there was a thread here about Mahler and Jeffrey's logical decision not to listen his symphonies 2, 8, and 9. So Jeffrey, unless you have changed your mind recently, cannot participate in this discussion. ;-)

    Mahler is not to everyone's taste, but I have always loved his music; however, I've never been able to "get" this symphony. Was his use of "Veni Creator" as the text of the entire first movement supposed to be "sacred"? Most commentators think that the generic theme of the symphony is "creative power". After reading Jeffery's article, it made me wonder if Mahler was attemping to write something sacred. He certainly never had any problem coming up with non-sacred texts for his symphonic works and songs previously. So is it sacred music, or just another monster symphony with a slightly more "spiritual" slant?
  • David AndrewDavid Andrew
    Posts: 1,193
    I wrote a rather extensive paper for a doctoral-level class on the history of the symphony (as a genre), using this piece.

    While I did focus the majority of my analysis on structure and thematic relationships between the two movements, it did become clear to me that Mahler was attempting to engage in a kind of exegetical exercise drawing his own relationships between the two otherwise divergent texts. I do not, however, believe the first movement was ever intended to be a liturgical work, and given how poorly the text is chopped up and re-ordered for musical reasons, I don't think it would work as a liturgical piece.

    Mahler was a convert to Christianity, although there are some questions about his motivations for doing so, and in letters written to several different people over the course of his work on this symphony, he did mention his own personal emotional and spiritual struggles with the meaning of the Veni text. The second movement, as most folks probably know, is a "concerted" setting of the last act of Faust. The connection between the fire of love of the Holy Spirit reflected in the Veni Creator text and the love of a "pure woman" as a source of eternal "salvation" in the closing sections of Faust are drawn together musically with the return of the opening "Veni" theme from the first movement, and many common themes of grace, the fire of love and salvation between the two are often linked by a common theme between the two movements.

    I should add that this is one of my all-time favorite pieces, and I listen to it every once in a while, especially if I just want to be bathed in the unrivaled grandeur of the music in its sheer size. It is, after all, called "the Symphony of 1000". Who could not like it: double orchestra, double brass, organ, huge mixed choir, treble choir, 8 solo voices . . . did I (or Mahler) miss anything?
  • GavinGavin
    Posts: 2,799
    David: needs more cowbell.
  • dad29
    Posts: 1,902
    The connection between the fire of love of the Holy Spirit reflected in the Veni Creator text and the love of a "pure woman" as a source of eternal "salvation"

    IIRC, Mahler's wife was not exactly "pure." Something about an architect....
  • JDE
    Posts: 586
    What on earth has Alma to do with this?

    When he wrote "a pure woman" i assumed he was referring to the BVM.
  • Donnaswan
    Posts: 585
    #2 'Resurrection' is something I never ever get tired of listening to. One my top five favs of orchestral music. I like to turn it up really loud in the car on long trips, if I'm by myself. That, and Sea Symphony by VW. I know, I know, they are pagan, if that's the word I'm looking for, but still thrilling.

    Donna
  • David AndrewDavid Andrew
    Posts: 1,193
    I was referring to the "Mater Gloriosa" in the Faust text, not Alma.

    The text of the final chorus reads:

    "All things transitory/ are but parable,/ here insufficiency/ becomes fulfilment,/ here the indescribable/ is accomplished,/ the ever-womanly/ draws us heavenward."
  • gregpgregp
    Posts: 632
    Donnaswan, I love the final movement of #2 also. I also love the story (perhaps apocryphal, but if so I don't want to know), that at the premiere, after the final movement strangers wept and embraced each other.

    David Andrew, I agree that as a liturgical work this is out of the question, but would you call it "sacred" in the same way that you might call "Messiah" "sacred"? Or is it something like a more 'spiritual' version of Beethoven's Ninth?
  • GavinGavin
    Posts: 2,799
    To answer the question, I think the categorizing of some music as "sacred" is a distinction that needs to be thrown out altogether, especially for Mahler. I can see a case for chant, and any setting of the proper or ordinary, but I object to the labeling of any music loosely related to God as "sacred".
  • Donnaswan
    Posts: 585
    gregp, When we were stationed in UK, we were able to hear the #2 live with London Phil or whatever it's called. The most exciting performance I've ever heard, with the brass choirs on the same level we were. I get goosebumps just thinking about it. I wish our local orchestra would do it and the Sea Symphony. I am so over the Beethoven9 when they are looking for an orchestral/choral work for the end of the season. They have done the Mahler 8 recently though.
    Wish they'd do 'Missa Solemnis'. We have a really great Choral Society plus good college choirs that would be capable of doing it here in Knoxville.
    Sorry, I have strayed from subject. But we are learning that Liszt 'Ave Maris Stella' I will come back to it after the Exigencies of Holy Week and Easter
    Donna
  • David AndrewDavid Andrew
    Posts: 1,193
    No, in the final analysis I don't think this can be classified as "sacred", and even less so than the "Messiah". Spiritual, to some extent, but not sacred. ISTM that Mahler viewed the text as poetry and an object of literature (even though he himself asked deeply spiritual questions about its meaning) rather than approaching it as a hymn from the Divine Office.
  • JDE
    Posts: 586
    To borrow the modern parlance, Mahler is "spiritual, not religious."

    That doesn't mean it isn't glorious. It just means it still isn't really fit for church.
  • JDE
    Posts: 586
    For the operatic prototype of the "spiritual, not religious" person, see Mimi's aria in La Bohème: "Non vado sempre a Messa, ma prego assai il Signor." ("I don't always go to Mass, but I pray a lot to the Lord.")
  • IanWIanW
    Posts: 749
    Mahler 8 opened this year's Proms Festival in London last Friday. It's available over the intertubes for the next few days (there may of may not be rights management issues for those connecting from outside the UK - it varies).

    http://beta.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b00t4213/BBC_Proms_2010_First_Night_of_the_BBC_Proms_Symphony_of_a_Thousand/
  • I love the 8th, but the 2nd has to be his finest work. Like Bach's Bm Mass and Handel's Messiah, it is not necessarily a perfect work structurally. All these works borrowed extensively from previous works by their composers and the seams show frequently. For Mahler, however, this is not really a problem. His music is expansive and the joy of it is following and embracing the digressions and then taking enjoyment from their recollections later. If one doesn't totally "get" the meaning of a Mahler symphony, don't feel bad. He pulled all the program information from them after the fact because he felt that this simplified the statements too much AND that his own conception of the work changed while revising (especially the 2nd) to something that was not describable in prose. Christianity is referenced in this work but the music is not exegetical. Mahler was never sure what awaited him after death; his conversion was mostly a matter of convenience in order to get the Vienna Opera position. I hear his 2nd as the statement of a hopeful agnostic, who has been reading too much Schopenhauer!
  • das
    Posts: 16
    Austrian composer, Franz Schmidt, who played 1st cello under Mahler, referred to Mahler's symphonies as "cheap novels".
  • DougS
    Posts: 793
    I don't think it's exactly fair to dismiss Mahler's works as not sacred simply because they're not suitable for a church service. As Michael suggests with the reference to Schopenhauer, Mahler's music falls squarely into the history (albeit quite late) of Kunstreligion, a different concept of "sacred" that still colors the way we think about concert music today. Silence in performances? Not clapping between movements? All remnants of Kunstreligion.

    Is Mahler's music "Christian?" Hardly. "Sacred?" Well, it depends on what your definition of is is. Even Pope Benedict XVI has famously spoken of the sacred dimensions of Beethoven's Ninth--an interpretation befitting his characteristically German attitude toward symphonic music.
  • The 2nd Symphony has to be his best work. @ Michael Could it not be for the trombone chorale? Pure heaven. *sigh*
  • DougS
    Posts: 793
    I like the 2nd, but I also like the 9th and the 6th. #6, which is very underrated, has a big fat juicy appoggiatura in the first movement that's rivaled by few in all the literature.
  • Well, I love the 7th for it's tenor (in Bb) horn solo, but the 2nd is just sublime. The simple motives that are revealed throughout the finale are so exquisite. This is truly the sound of paradise. Listen again to the 5th movement and hear the horn calls as the Final call to the Judgement (Mahler coyly makes this ambiguous as to who is judging). After each call, you hear the differing reactions of humanity. Finally it becomes apparent that all will be resurrected through the juxtaposition of the Ascension and Resurrection motives. Here is where the piece loses its Christian identity if it ever had one. BTW he alludes to that the Christian Resurrection is not the last word when he mocks the teaching by setting "St Anthony preaches to the fishes" in the 3rd movement.
  • Doug, I think many of us agree with Dr Mahrt's proposition that "sacred" means "set apart" for worship. Music can be religious, devotional, and even inspired by the Spirit, but sacred music is used for the worship act. One could use this for the Kunstreligion, but not not from our perspective, I think. Beethoven's 9th is sublime, but not sacred.
  • DougS
    Posts: 793
    Point well taken, Michael, but I don't think we can take Dr. Mahrt's definition and apply it willy nilly to all things, as if there is no other definition of sacred. It's my understanding anyway that his definition is an attempt to clarify the meaning of the word sacred in the context of Church teachings about music in worship--a very specific context.

    Personally, I have no problems with a looser interpretation of the word in general parlance, which was my only point. Pope Benedict has said, in reference to music in general, not just worship music: there is "a kinship between music and hope, between song and eternal life." I think this admits a little bit of "the sacred "into the equation; don't you?
  • Donnaswan
    Posts: 585
    Mahler's 2nd is def. my favorite all-time single work. I never tire of hearing it. I wish I could hear it more often live but just not possible. And rather not hear it that way unless the brass is top drawer. I heard this once in London, conducted by that amateur conductor who has buckets of cash, and goes around the world conducting the Mahler from memory. Only this symphony. Can't remember his name.
    Interesting discussion, Doug and Michael. Where else can one hear such good expositions of various takes on sacred vs spiritual.
  • Donnaswan
    Posts: 585
    LOL- it's been so long since I was on this forum, I forgot I had already told this story about hearing in London. OH well. Chalk it up to old age.
  • IanWIanW
    Posts: 749
    Hi ho, hi ho, it's off to a Maazel Mahler 8 I go ...

    (Yes, I know it doesn't scan, but his Mahler is something special)
  • SkirpRSkirpR
    Posts: 854
    @Donnaswan - Gilbert Kaplan. We should all be so lucky to make a name for ourselves that way - just buy the performers until someone realizes we might have more (or at least just as much) talent than/as the millionare jet-set conductors.

    I saw Kaplan conduct Mahler 2 in Pittsburgh on the first anniversary of 9/11.
  • CHGiffenCHGiffen
    Posts: 4,370
    I just this afternoon listened to the Solti recording with the Chicago Orchestra and Vienna State Opera Chorus of the second part of the Mahler 8th - and remembered hearing him conduct the work in a breathtaking performance in Orchestra Hall in Chicago about 30 years ago. The connection between the 2rd part (setting of the final scene of Goethe's Faust) and the 1st part (setting "Veni Creator Spiritus") is closer than just that of Mahler's feelings - Goethe himself felt there was a connection between Faust and the hymn.