The symphony requires a massive number of musicians to perform. The main orchestra consists of four flutes, a piccolo, four oboes, a cor anglais, four clarinets (one in E flat), a bass clarinet, four bassoons, a contrabassoon, eight French horns, four trumpets, four trombones, a tuba, three timpani, a bass drum, cymbals, a tamtam, a triangle, bells, a glockenspiel, a celesta, a piano, a harmonium, two harps, a mandolin and strings (violins, violas, cellos and double basses). Additionally, a brass ensemble consisting of four trumpets and three trombones is placed offstage. The work also calls for two choirs, a boys’ chorus, eight vocal soloists (three sopranos, two altos, a tenor, a baritone and a bass) and an organ.
The work is divided into two large parts. The first, Hymnus: Veni, Creator Spiritus is a setting of a medieval Latin hymn by Hrabanus Maurus and typically lasts 25 to 30 minutes; one of the soprano soloists does not appear in this section. The movement is almost continuously vocal, with the hymn being sung mainly by the choirs. Despite its apparent complexity, in it can be seen a type of sonata form.
The second part Schluss-szene aus “Faust” lasts approximately around an hour (longer than most complete symphonies). It takes as its text the final scene of Goethe’s Faust. It is often said to be more like a cantata than a symphony, because of its extensive use of vocal soloists. The music is continuous but can be regarded as consisting of three sections corresponding to the last three movements of the classical symphony: first, a slow adagio section lasting for fifteen minutes with almost no singing; then a scherzo-like section; and finally a quick and lively finale. The mood changes within each of these sections, and the boundaries between them, are somewhat blurred. A number of themes from the first part are repeated, though often in modified form. Mahler described the tremendous finale of this symphony: “Try to imagine the whole universe beginning to ring and resound.”
Premiere and History
Today, despite the enormous forces and cost required to stage the symphony, performances and recordings are not rare. However, the number of musicians involved in modern performances rarely reaches 1,000. In 2001, there was a performance celebrating an anniversary year in Basel, with over 700 singers from 16 local choirs and 200 members of the Basel Symphony Orchestra. Including around 150 aides, over 1,000 performers were involved. The premiere performance in Munich on 12 September 1910 featured a chorus of about 850, with an orchestra of 171. These massive forces led to Mahler’s agent dubbing the work Symphony of a Thousand. Mahler did not approve of the title at all, but it has stuck.
This work was the first to which the publishers Universal Edition obtained an original copyright. They first published a vocal score in 1910, with a full score following in 1911.
The piece was a great success at its premiere, one of few of Mahler’s works to be so well received in his lifetime. It was the last premiere of one his works that Mahler witnessed before his death. He completed two further works, the orchestral song cycle Das Lied von der Erde, and his Symphony No. 9.
- World premiere: September 12, 1910, Munich, conducted by the composer.
- American premiere: March 2, 1916, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, conducted by Leopold Stokowski.
- English premiere: April 15, 1930, London, with Henry Wood conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra.
- Southeast Asian premiere: May 29, 2004, Singapore, by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra conducted by Lan Shui.