… But please don’t let that choice lead you to expect any kind of erudite musical analysis . What you’ll get here is just some faltering attempts to chart my introduction to and enthusiasm for this ‘song’, this song-and-a-half (!), this extraordinary spirit lifting piece of work.
I was first introduced to Mahler when some teaching colleagues of mine at my first school (so we’re talking 40 years ago) invited me for coffee one evening. They had recently moved in together and seemed to have very little in the way of luxuries but they had a record player on the floor of the living room, and a bunch of LPs, and the guy was eager to play some of them for me. ‘Listen to this’ he said with some excitement, putting on Mahler’s first symphony, and moving the needle to the third movement. ‘Listen to the way he plays with ‘Three Blind Mice’!’ I listened politely, was amused and intrigued and something more by what Mahler was doing with this simple canon of a tune – three blind mice or Frere Jacques or Bruder Martin or whatever you want to call it. He had made of it a very neat, slightly spooky funeral march and it gave me a little bit of a chill. Yep, Mahler, one to watch, I thought. But although I bought a copy of that first symphony, it’s fair to say I more or less forgot about Gustav for the next two decades.
So we picked up our acquaintance again about a decade and a half ago in some local municipal library where, browsing through the CDs, I noticed the complete symphonies of Mahler, a nice little box set that I could book out of the library for a minimal fee for three weeks. It was the days of the mini disc player – (in fact, if I’m honest, I can’t quite disassociate Mahler from that now defunct, outdated little silver machine, which for at least a year or so I carried everywhere..) What I did was to transfer all ten symphonies onto two mini-discs, yes, feeling a little proud of myself for condensing so much music into so small a space. (Ha) And I became, as you do, a little obsessed. When I was out and about, or when I was marking papers, it was either symphonies 1 to 5 in my ears, or symphonies 6 to 10. And perhaps I ought to be a bit ashamed to say that although I loved and lived in the music, they all kind of blended into each other, and I didn’t really take the time to distinguish one masterpiece from another.
But…. a few years further on… that is less the case. In particular this here eighth symphony has established a particular place in my listening and in my heart, especially, as you might not be too surprised to hear, the first section, based as it is upon a ninth century Pentecost hymn ‘Veni Creator Spiritus’.
A 9th Century Latin text, certainly (some scholar called Rhabanus Maurus, apparently) though I suspect that this kind of invocation song has been a bread-and-better chant amongst Christian Communities from their earliest foundations ; since Pentecost, perhaps, a communal reminder and an affirmation of our dependence on God’s own spirit to infuse, strengthen and enable us. I’ve long known Edward Caswell’s 19th century hymn ‘Come Holy Ghost, creator blest’ without realizing that this too was a translation of the same ninth century Pentecost text; another similar version ‘Come Holy Ghost, our souls inspire’ is probably of the same origin. Isaac Watts in the early 18th century wrote his own invocation hymn – ‘Come Holy Spirit, Heavenly Dove’. The wonderful Taize repertoire includes the powerful chant ‘Veni Sancte Spiritus’ where soloists sing more extended invocatory prayers over the general repetition of that one phrase. And many contemporary Christian songs echo the same call. It’s our heart cry.
And in Mahler’s eighth symphony, after one brief organ chord, the cry ‘Veni Creator Spiritus’ breaks upon us in full throated chorus – in fact this symphony, often nicknamed with slight hyperbole ‘Symphony of a Thousand’ boasts three choirs (two mixed choirs and a boys choir) as well as eight (count ‘em, eight!) soloists. It packs quite a punch, and the phrase is repeated, broken up and overlapping for the next couple of minutes, before the soloists come in separately and the rest of the Latin text is taken up and developed. Let me be honest and say that in the whole 25 minutes of this section of the symphony ‘Veni Creator Spiritus’ are more or less the only words that I can clearly distinguish; for most of the time I am just carried along by the twists and turns, the changes in key and tempo, the shifts from one choir to another, sensing the more reflective passages, till we surge back towards the end of that time to the words of that initial invocation. I find it utterly exhilarating. I’ve read enough to know that Mahler himself felt that it was one of the most special and most optimistic pieces that he had ever created. I believe he felt it to be ‘an expression of confidence in the eternal human spirit’. I can see that – but isn’t it kind of ironic too that it’s in crying out to be touched and invigorated by the Original-Creative Divine spirit, that the unique wonder and creativity of the human spirit also comes into focus?
I have yet to, but would love to, see this symphony being performed live. Up until now I have made do with youtube clips. I recently watched one with Leonard Bernstein conducting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. Such is the intensity of the piece that within minutes, Bernstein’s hair takes off and acquires a life of its own as he stabs the air with his baton in a seeming frenzy of ecstasy. I know I don’t need it exactly, but I’m searching for clips that have simultaneous Latin and English translation subtitles ( as yet no luck) wondering if understanding the lyric will give an even further dimension of joy and enlightenment to my appreciation of this ‘song’. You never know.