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Classical Music

Houston Symphony Performs Mahler On Classical 91.7

From a concert in May, Eschenbach conducts Mahler’s “Symphony of A Thousand.”

Perhaps it was the topaz sky. Or the pristine waters of the Wörthersee. Or the overall Alpine beauty that surrounds the Austrian hamlet known as Maiernigg. Whatever it was, it served as the backdrop for the composition of one of the most monumental classical choral works ever written.

This Saturday, hear Christoph Eschenbach lead the Houston Symphony in a performance of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony of A Thousand on Classical 91.7. The concert, given this past May at Jones Hall, featured over 400 musicians, chorus members, and vocal soloists to bring to life this triumphant, awe-inspiring work.

Mahler said that, by day, on one of his vacations in his villa, he was “seized by the creative spirit” and immediately set to work on the symphony. He even had a tiny cottage separate from the house that he devoted strictly to composing. The modest 16-square foot structure sat isolated in the forest, shaded by trees. It contained a couple of windows, a desk, a baby grand piano, and a bookshelf containing works by Goethe and Kant .

Unlike the conventional symphonic structure of four movements, he chose to divide the work into two sections – both with the overarching theme of redemption through the power of love. Part I is based on the Latin text of a 9th-century Christian hymn for Pentecost, Veni creator spiritus (Come, Creator Spirit), and Part II is a setting of the words from the closing scene of Goethe’s Faust.

By autumn of 1910, it was ready for premiere. Among those in attendance of the sold-out concert were some of classical music’s brightest luminaries:  Richard Strauss, Camille Saint-Saëns, Anton Webern, and the 28-year-old Leopold Stokowski, who would go on to lead the first U.S. performance of the symphony six years later. The last chords had barely faded before the audience erupted into an ovation that lasted nearly a half hour. When Mahler returned to his hotel afterward, he had a letter from the German writer Thomas Mann waiting for him. In it, Mann praised him for being “the man who, as I believe, expresses the art of our time in its profoundest and most sacred form.”

Mahler's Maiernigg
Mahler’s Maiernigg

It’s somewhat paradoxical to think that something larger than life was born with the confines of a humble dwelling… a single creative burst that resulted in a compositional “swan song.” Mahler led the symphony when it premiered in Munich. It would be the last of his works that he’d see performed in his lifetime, dying just eight months later.

This past May, Christoph Eschenbach led the Houston Symphony, joined by a vast assembly of chorus members in the “Symphony of A Thousand.” Hear it in its entirety this Saturday night at 8PM on Houston Public Media, Classical 91.7.