My Mahler Eighth is bigger than yours

My Mahler Eighth is bigger than yours


norman lebrecht

June 21, 2011

Over the past year, there have been more performances of Mahler’s Symphony of a Thousand than at any time since its premiere in September 1910 including – would you believe? – a national premiere in Vietnam.

There was even an attempt to revive the original venue in Munich, now an International Exhbition Centre, but here as is most other outcomes, compromises were made, dreams abandoned and the symphony was scaled down to manageable dimensions. In Munich there were reportedly just 400 performers.

Nothing wrong with that. One of the finest accounts I heard was Andris Nelsons in Birmingham, with 650. Here’s some video.

Gustavo Dudamel, however, does not think small is necessarily beautiful. The Mahler Eighth announced for Los Angeles next February will have well over 1,000 performers and will play in The Shrine, home to the Oscars and the Emmys, a venue that seats 6,500.

It is also surely the first performance of Mahler Eighth to feature a Gay Men’s Chorus. Way to go, Gustavo!

Press release follows.



Los Angeles Master Chorale, Los Angeles Chidren’s Chorus, Pacific Chorale and Community Choruses Join the LA Phil and SBSOV



WHAT: Gustavo Dudamel will lead the combined forces of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela – joined by the Los Angeles Master Chorale, Los Angeles Children’s Chorus and community choruses – in a performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 8, known as the “Symphony of a Thousand,” at the historic Shrine Auditorium for a spectacular performance with over 1000 musicians and singers. A roster of vocal soloists will also take part.


This performance is part of the LA Phil’s Mahler Project, in which Dudamel leads Mahler’s nine completed symphonies with the LA Phil and the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela in the U.S. and Caracas. The LA Phil will perform Symphonies 1, 4, 6 and 9 (as well as the Adagio from Symphony No. 10), and the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela will perform Symphonies 2, 3, 5 and 7. In addition to these symphonic performances at Walt Disney Concert Hall, the Mahler Project will also feature the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela on the Symphonies for Youth Concert Series, and will bring members of the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela together with LA Phil musicians to perform on the chamber music series. Throughout the Mahler Project the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela will also engage in community and education events. Members of SBSOV will lead rehearsals and master classes at YOLA, Dudamel’s signature education program, provide workshops and educational opportunities for LA Phil partner schools, and perform concerts in local communities and schools. International Mahler scholars will host Upbeat Live, the LA Phil’s pre-concert talks, throughout the cycle. Following the performances in Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Philharmonic will embark on a nine-day tour to Caracas performing the symphonic cycle with the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela.

For more information and complete schedule, please visit:

WHO: Los Angeles Philharmonic

Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela

Gustavo Dudamel, conductor

TBD, soloists

Los Angeles Master Chorale, Grant Gershon, Music Director

Los Angeles Children’s Chorus, Anne Tomlinson, Artistic Director

Pacific Chorale, John Alexander, Artistic Director

Angel City Chorale, Sue Fink, Artistic Sirector

Angeles Chorale, John Sutton, Artistic Director and Conductor

Choir of All Saints Church, Pasadena, James Walker, Director of Music

Chorus of the Inner City Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles, Charles Dickerson, Music Director and Conductor

Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles

Los Angeles Chamber Choir, Chung Uk Lee, Music Director

Los Robles Master, Lesley Leighton, Artistic Director

Pasadena Pro Musica, Stephen Grimm ,  Director

Pasadena Master Chorale, Jeffrey Bernstein, artistic director

Philippine Chamber Singers – Los Angeles, Anthony Angelo Francisco, Artistic Director and Conductor

Vox Femina Los Angeles, Iris S. Levine, Artistic Director

National Children’s Chorus, Luke McEndarfer, Artistic Director


WHEN: Saturday, February 4, 2012 at 8 p.m.



  • Some of the ironies in Mahler are merely amusing, the way his emotions, like those of Puccini, are so over-blown and precious that they actually deflate themselves. But there are other ironies that have a quality of horror about them. Especially in the 8th, one senses that trajectory of Germanic culture that would so completely surrender itself to pathos and grandiosity that only catastrophe could ensue.

    Another part of the irony that is so horrific is that there are today so few people who perceive and understand the historical and aesthetic meanings of that trajectory. One sees that cluelessness in these recent performances and their reception. It makes me wonder if a second catastrophe might be somewhere on the horizon, not in the ways of nationalistic, industrial war, but in some sort of world where humans passionately surrender to the cogs of an Orwellian technocracy. Or is that just a day dream?

  • Mr. Osborne, I think you’re on to something; not a day dream but a nightmare. Keep going…

  • Gene in L.A. says:

    Music is not dangerous. Oscar Wilde said “The value of an idea has nothing to do with the honesty of the man expressing it.” The same, and probably more, could be said of music. What do an invocation to the Creator Spirit and the final scene from Goethe’s Faust have to do with any twentieth-century political movement? Are there arcane harmonic and contrapuntal clues in Mahler that shed light, somehow, on the incubation of National Socialism? Does his gigantism prefigure Hitler’s Final Solution? I am not convinced.

  • Much more to the point, Oscar Wilde said, “Life imitates art far more than art imitates life.” The metaphors of art and philosophy are the seeds that shape the identities of cultures.

    Even a brief glance at the19th century Germanic cultural realm illustrates this. In _The World as Will and Idea_ (1819), and other influential works that followed, Arthur Schopenhauer created a philosophy which advocated turning away from spirit and reason to the powers of intuition, creativity, and the irrational. This view deeply influenced Nietsche, who in _The Birth of Tragedy_ (1872) proclaimed that art and literature must harness Dionysian elements of the irrational. This view created the radical will of Nietzsche’s “Superman” in _Also Sprach Zarathustra_. Schopenhauer and Nietzsche profoundly influenced the German cultural realm, ranging from Wagner and Pfitzner to Wedekind and Freud, to Strauss and Mahler.

    History also illustrates that the rise of nationalism in the symphony orchestra developed in tandem with the growing autocracy of the conductor, which was culturally isomorphic with the counter-revolutionary authoritarianism that evolved after the suppression of the 1848 revolts in central Europe and continued through the Third Reich.

    The symphony orchestra’s romantic ethos exemplified by transcendentally justified cultural nationalism, and the objectifaction of the musicians through the increasingly autocratic power of the conductor, made it a useful cultural symbol appropriated by National Socialist ideology. As Hitler once remarked when laying the corner stone of a new museum:

    “Art is an exalted mission requiring fanaticism. He who is chosen by providence to reveal the soul of a people around him, to let it sound in tones or speak in stone, suffers under the power of the Almighty as a force ruling him, and will speak his language, even if the people do not understand or do not want to understand. And he would prefer to take every affliction upon himself than even once be untrue to the star that guides him internally.”

    These words reflected a worldview long established by romantic composers. And with mind-bending irony, this pathos and grandiosity is nowhere more evident than in Mahler’s 8th symphony.

    Symphonic music was considered the most German of arts, and people had long been conditioned to believe that its artist-prophets “suffered under the power of the Almighty”, and that they rose above the mundane world in an “exalted mission” to “reveal the soul of a people”–a mission culturally isomorphic with that of their Führer’s. And through the phenomena of the conductor and composer as artist-prophets, they could see that transcendental élan and passion could justify and enforce the subjugation of others, while at the same time symbolizing cultural superiority–behavior that also characterized Hitler. At the height of its influence, the power of the symphony orchestra as a culturally isomorphic social metaphor was clearly observable. We see exactly what Oscar said, that life imitates art, that it creates the concepts through which we formulate our societies.

    Western culture learned the hard way that romantic, radical will is dangerous. The Holocaust and 50 million dead in WWII was a horrific price to pay. And yet people still refuse to accept that these events were, in part, the manifestation of long-standing cultural values. This makes it all the more likely that some new variant will happen again.
    (My apologies for the long post.)

    • PJ de Boer says:

      Mr Osborne, your post goes completely beyond the fact that music of the Bohemian Jew Mahler was considered just as entartet as that of any Jewish composer. Nowhere in any music, however passionate, it is uttered that millions should be murdered for the sake of some sick racial ideology. As conductor Edo de Waart once said about Wagner: “A fascist augmented triad does not exist”.

      • Thank you for your thoughts Mr. de Boer. Where we would disagree is the idea that art has to have a simple, literal meaning to have social effects. Music is much more than triads, scales, and trills, so to speak. It is based on aesthetic philosophies that often have concrete social and political meanings. This is why Hitler and Stalin exercised such strict control over musical expression. They knew music can change societies.

        Mahler was just one small part of the historical mosaic of romanticism’s transcendental, cultural nationalism, and its concepts of radical will and the artist-prophet. Between 1860 and 1933 very few people understood that these ideologies would contribute to a form of political totalitarianism through misappropriation by National Socialism. After the fact, Thomas Mann explored the idea in his novel _Dr. Faustus_ published in 1947, but very few others have explored the theme. We should also remember that Futurism’s praise of war, machinery, and cult of the transcendental hero also contributed to National Socialism’s ideologies.

        This cultural nationalism was deeply imbued with racial ideologies, especially in the German-speaking world. We see this evidenced to this day in the Vienna Philharmonic’s exclusion of musicians who are visibly non-Caucasian. The orchestra feels such individuals would destroy the ensemble’s image of Austrian authenticity. This policy is directly mainly toward the thousands of Asian musicians who have studied in Vienna over the last 50 years. There might not be a fascist triad, but there are certainly aesthetic ideologies that lead to racist and totalitarian values.

  • A question for you, William Osborne. Since I find myself completely absorbed in your reply to this post and wholeheartedly agree that life imitates art, where can I purchase your book on this subject? If you haven’t published a book —or at least a blog—exploring the rise of nationalism in the symphony orchestra, the growing autocracy of the conductor with its artist prophets that engaged in the subjugation of others, and our current dilemma of the rise and surrender to Orwellian technology, I hope you will do so.

    • Thank you, Marjorie, for your interest in my thoughts. In 1997, two well-known academic publishers (Garland, and Northeastern University Press) asked me to write a book about these topics, with a special focus on the inclusion of women in orchestras, but I declined since I devote my life to composing. To write a book about the ideas I outline above would entail years of work. Such controversial ideas would also have to be highly documented and incredibly accurate, which would require years of research. In 1999, I published a 5000+ word article in _Leonardo Music Journal_ outlining the ideas in more detail and using the Vienna Philharmonic as a case study. Though still vastly inadequate, you can find it here:

      I wish I had about ten lives to live – or at least a lot more energy and ambition.