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Symphony No. 8 (Mahler)

The Symphony No. 8 in E flat major by Gustav Mahler, known as the Symphony of a Thousand, was largely written in 1906, with orchestration and final touches completed in 1907.

The piece 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 double bassoon, 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 group consisting of four trumpets and three trombones is placed off-stage. 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. It is because of these massive forces that the work was called the Symphony of a Thousand by the promoter of the work's premiere in 1910 (a name which was not approved by Mahler). In practice, the number of musicians involved in modern performances rarely reaches 1,000.

The work is divided into two large parts. The first, Hymnus: Veni, Creator Spiritus is based on a medieval Latin hymn by Hrabanus Maurus and typically lasts around twenty-five minutes. The movement is almost continuously vocal, with the hymn being sung mainly by the choirs. Despite its apparent complexity, it can been seen as being in a sort of sonata form.

The second part, Schluss-szene aus "Faust", takes as its text the final scene of Goethe's Faust, and is often said to be more like a cantata than a symphony because of its extensive use of vocal soloists. It consists of somewhere in the region of one hour of continuous music, but commentators often see it as being made up of three sections corresponding to the last three movements of the classical symphony: first, a slow adagio section; then a scherzo-like section; and finally a quick and lively finale. The mood changes within each of these sections however, and the boundaries between them are somewhat blurred.

The piece was a great success at its premiere, the only one of Mahler's works to be so well received in his lifetime. It was the last premiere of one his pieces Mahler witnessed before his death (he completed two further pieces, the Symphony No. 9 and the orchestral song cycle Das Lied von der Erde). Today, despite the enormous forces required to mount a performance of the work, and the cost associated with it, performances and recordings of the symphony are not rare.

This work was the first that the publishers Universal Edition obtained an original copyright to. They first published a vocal score in 1910, with a full score following in 1911.

In 2001, there was a performance, the premiere almost identically, in Basel with over 700 singers of 16 Choirs from Basel and 200 members of the Basel Symphony Orchestra. With the around 150 aids the number of 1000 was reached. The use was to introduce a anniversary year for Basel.


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