"Mahler's music was as overwhelming as the sight of Niagara Falls must have been to the first white man."
-- Leopold Stokowski
This was Stokowski's reaction to the 1910 world premiere performance of Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 8 in Munich. He was then 28 and the fledgling conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony.
But six years later and well on the way to making the Philadelphia Orchestra one of the world's greatest, Stokowski put his convictions into action. He raised $15,000 and gave the Mahler Eighth Symphony its American premiere in Philadelphia, followed by nine additional performances, including the New York premiere.
The Eighth was done in Rochester in the 1950s and in Toronto just last month, but the Buffalo premiere of this monumental symphony has had to wait 87 years.
It will finally be presented at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church at 8:15 p.m. Thursday, with Raymond Harvey conducting the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, the choir of the host church and the Houghton College Choral Union, organist James Bigham and the following soloists: sopranos Regina Zona, Indra Thomas and Mary Kay Barrington, altos Melissa Thorburn and Melissa Parks, tenor Michael Costik, baritone Brian Zunner and bass Edward Russell.
The performance will be repeated at Holy Tinity Lutheran Church at 8:15 p.m. Saturday and at 4 p.m. Sunday in Wesley Chapel, Houghton College.
Needless to say, Stokowski was not the only one in Munich Festival Hall on Sept. 10, 1910, to be swept away by the Eighth. Dignitaries of the magnitude of French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau, composer Arnold Schoenberg, conductors Bruno Walter, Willem Mengelberg and Otto Klemperer, and literary giant Thomas Mann were there.
Mann, too dumbstruck to attend the reception afterward, later wrote to Mahler: "I was incapable of telling you how much I am in your debt for the experience of that evening . . . so now I beg you kindly to accept the enclosed book -- my latest work. It is, to be sure, a poor exchange for what I have received from you."
What is there about the Mahler Eighth to evoke such reactions?
First, there was its sheer size. The premiere involved 1,028 performers, prompting promoter Emil Gutman to call it the "Symphony of a Thousand." Mahler decried these "Barnum and Bailey" gimmicks, but the title has stuck.
More crucial to the all-embracing reception of the Eighth Symphony was the resolution of a long crisis Mahler had been undergoing. He admitted that in composing the three preceding symphonies he went through the agony of self-doubt, feeling the need for endless revisions and still never satisfying himself, haunted by fear of permanent loss of creative power.
But when he chanced upon the ninth century Latin text "Veni Creator Spirit" (Come Creative Spirit) it seemed to unlock his own creativity, and he composed the Eighth with great speed, completing it in a mere eight weeks.
The Eighth is cast in two "parts." The first is a setting of the Latin "Veni Creator Spiritus," and the second the final scene from Goethe's "Faust," in German; an invocation to the creative spirit followed by a gigantic paean to love.
Some quibble with the term "symphony," claiming that the work is more of a symphonic oratorio. But Part 1 is a huge sonata-allegro structure, while Part 2 can be seen as an Andante, Scherzo and Finale, the whole pretty much matching symphonic form.
There are many striking themes, perhaps the most memorable being that sung at the outset to "Veni Creator Spiritus." Part 2 makes periodic reference to that theme, but is dominated by another first sounded in Part 1 to the words "Accende lumen," while perhaps the most uplifting of all occurs at the end as the tenor sings "Blicket auf!" (Look up!).
Most of Mahler's music is associated with such terms as "Angst" and "Weltschmerz," but the Eighth has been described by one writer as "a mighty dispenser of joy."
And will the upcoming performances actually be a "Symphony of a Thousand"? "No," says Holy Trinity's organist/choirmaster, James Bigham. "We'll have just 340 performers in the chancel, but we're so tightly packed that a cockroach couldn't crawl through."
But fear not, Buffalo. Those 340 voices and instruments will make a mighty sound.