As mentioned before, this year is the 150th anniversary of the birth of the great composer Gustav Mahler. Born to a German-speaking Jewish family in Czech village of Kaliště in the Vysočina Region, he ended up in Vienna, the capital of the Austro-Hungarian empire which then claimed what is today’s Czech Republic as among its lands. As such, his legacy is claimed by both countries. Celebrations in honour of his life and work have taken place in both countries.
During his life, he enjoyed far more fame and respect as a conductor than as a composer. He was chief conductor of the Hofoper (now the Wiener Staatsoper) and conducted a number of concerts with the Wiener Philharmoniker. He was in great demand as a conductor. He had to compose in his spare time. Some of his works are quite massive, both in the amount of time required to perform them and in the amount of musicians required.
Probably the most massive of all is his Symphony No. 8. Sometimes called “A Symphony of a Thousand”, this work calls for a very large symphony orchestra, two choirs, a women’s choir, and a children’s choir. The first recording of this work was made by Maurice Abravenel and the Utah Symphony. The choral parts were sung by the University of Utah choirs with a children’s choir made up of children in the area. Given that where the symphony performed didn’t have an organ (and lamentably still does not today), it is safe to guess that the recording might have been made in the famous Tabernacle on Temple Square. This particular piece of music calls for the organ to be used extensively (as well as for a harmonium!). Alexander Schreiner, the Tabernacle Organist, played the organ for the recording.
This recording brought Maestro Abravenel and his orchestra lasting fame. Gustav Mahler once wrote to his wife, “My time will come!” Unfortunately, his time came long after he was dead. The greatest success he had as a composer came at the premiere of this particular symphony in Munich. During the Third Reich, his works would be banned for Mahler was, well, Jewish. His conversion to Catholicism made no more difference to the Nazis than did Mendelssohn’s devout Lutheran faith. Both were of Jewish ancestry and both were strictly verboten. Following the war, Mahler’s work began to played again. Leonard Bernstein, among others, passionately championed his work.
I’m not going to put up the entire symphony. It is well over an hour in length. The first part, Mahler’s setting of the ancient hymn “Veni Creator”, sung in the offices for the Solemnity of Pentecost as well as at ordinations, is particularly stirring. Sir Simon Rattle conducts the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain and a massive amount of singers. You might notice that he has the children put their hands up to their faces as if they were shouting. Just getting heard above the organ, the three other choirs, the six operatic soloists is challenging enough, never mind the symphony orchestra as well.