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Mahler's Eighth Symphony: The Development of the Chorus Mysticus

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Mahler's Eighth Symphony: The Development of the Chorus Mysticus

Mahler's Eighth has a strong reputation, partially deserved and partially undeserved, for being the outlier in the composer's symphonic oeuvre. It also carries the entirely undeserved reputation of being a gargantuan, over-the-top showpiece: "Symphony of a Thousand", big, loud, and somewhat less intelligent than its siblings. It is true that with his Eighth, Mahler used larger forces than he had ever used before or would ever use again, and it is also true that the harmony is less chromatic than the works that surround it in the composer's output. As opposed to the preceding symphonies, which run all over the map in terms of key, the Eighth remains for a surprisingly large portion of its substantial length in E-flat major or minor, with E major and D major taking up a good deal of the rest.

The work does represent a development towards the "late style" of Das Lied von der Erde and especially the Ninth and Tenth Symphonies in its treatment of its motifs. Here, more than ever before, Mahler sought to derive all of his themes out of a few small cells that proliferate throughout the entire work (it is no surprise, from this perspective, that Schoenberg thought so highly of the work, this procedure resembling his own methods). Mahler's labeling of the divisions of the work "Part 1" and "Part 2" is apt, because the basic thematic material is common to both, despite the linguistic and cultural disparity between the texts. To give an entire analysis of the symphony, attempting to track every single one of these changes as new motifs give birth to still further developments with their own forms, would be as tedious for a reader to slog through as for me to write. I have decided to focus only on how Mahler builds the final Chorus Mysticus, showing some of the most important stages it goes through over the course of the work before reaching its final form.

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The first three lines of the above passage are contiguous. Some extensions follow, and the fourth line represents the cadence at the end of the theme.

Elements of this melody begin to appear as early as Part 1.

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Partway through the development section, the music reaches the key of E major for the first time with the words "Accende lumen sensibus" (Kindle a light in our senses), and this key will recur throughout the symphony at important points, always with a "heightened" connotation. Shortly afterwards, the children's choir enters with the second line in the above, which already has much of the rhythm and some of the shape of the chorus mysticus's first line. The "accende" theme itself has the shape and most of the rhythm of the second part of that same line. Much of the beginning of Part 2 focuses on developing the flute line above, seemingly searching for the correct version of the theme (the second part of the flute line is an important motif in its own right).

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After both the orchestral and choral introductions, a baritone solo follows, which starts off in a manner identical to the final melody. On the second time, the pitches are the same, though the rhythm still differs, and the continuation quickly diverges.

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Nearing the end of the movement, after the appearance of Mater gloriosa, the tenor soloist begins to sing this melody once again, and it resembles the final version even more closely, though its third line moves into D-flat major rather than the D major of the final version. After this, it diverges and does not return.

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As for the final cadence, it derives directly from the opening of the work, note-for-note. In Mahler's vision, Goethe's transformation of Faust is a part of the same spiritual experience as the evocation of the "creator spirit" in Part 2.

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