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The Eighth

Stephen Johnson

The compelling story of Mahler’s titanic Eighth Symphony.

Date Published
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The Eighth Symphony was going to be different from anything Mahler had ever done before. The intensely personal dramas of his earlier symphonies were a thing of the past – or rather, they were now to be seen as preludes to this new, culminating symphonic statement: he was quite sure it was the greatest thing he had ever written. The first seven symphonies were all, in their very different ways, acts of private confession, the unburdening of a hypersensitive soul, struggling to make sense of its own existence and of the thrilling and terrifying world in which it found itself. The Eighth would speak in different tones, and of a different kind of experience. It would be a bringer of joy through inspired settings of the hymn Veni, Creator Spiritus and the final scene of Goethe’s Faust.

The world première in Munich in the summer of 1910 was the artistic breakthrough for which the composer had yearned all his adult life, filling Munich’s huge Neue Musik-Festhalle on two successive evenings, to tumultuous applause. Stephen Johnson recounts its far-reaching effect on composers, conductors and writers of the time – Berg and Schoenberg and the teenage Korngold, Bruno Walter and Klemperer, and the writers Stefan Zweig and Thomas Mann (the character of Gustav von Aschenbach in Mann’s Death in Venice was partly based on the impression Mahler made on him in 1910). Placing Mahler within his world – in particular the German-speaking world – Johnson re-assesses Mahler’s thoughts in the context of the prevailing thought of his age, not only in relation to the artistic and intellectual movements of the time, but through consideration of political climate and historical background, and on into science, medicine, technology, mass entertainment, and even the development of modern PR. Throughout we are made aware that in that same tumultuous summer Mahler worked desperately on his Tenth Symphony, was betrayed by his wife, and consulted Sigmund Freud. It is a story like no other.

Critic Reviews

Thrilling . . . [a] magnificent, strongly argued and yet wonderfully subtle study. Whatever our final judgment may be on the Eighth, having read Johnson, we shall never listen to it in the same way again.

John Banville, Guardian
Critic Reviews

There have been many books on [Mahler] but Stephen Johnson’s new volume is unique, concentrating on the composer’s mighty Eighth Symphony (the ‘Symphony of a Thousand’), setting the piece and Mahler’s work in general within the context of the world and society he lived in. This is a book written with both passion and scholarship that will send listeners to the composer afresh.

Barry Forshaw, Classical CD Choice
Critic Reviews

In The Eighth, Stephen Johnson leads us through all the complexities of the work with skill and sensitivity

Ian Bostridge, Financial Times
Critic Reviews

An engaging and enthusiastic account.

Philip Hensher, Spectator
Critic Reviews

Johnson’s retelling of the relationship between Gustav, Alma and Walter Gropius is done thrillingly, and at times heart-wrenchingly . . . [The Eighth] has an almost symphonic pacing to it. The bustle and excitement of the first performance sets the scene, before an insightful summary on the background of the symphonic form that Mahler chose as the form of his magnum opus, as well as a taut and very readable analysis of the music and text itself.

Critic Reviews

A fluent and insightful read, rich in humanity like the music itself, and with no trace of the self-regarding agenda that so often bedevils books of this kind. Unmissable, for Mahler pundits and punters alike.

Malcolm Hayes, BBC Music Magazine Books of the Year 2020

Stephen Johnson studied cello at the Northern School of Music, Manchester, and went on to study composition with Alexander Goehr at Leeds University. After a brief period working for BBC Radio 3 he moved into musical journalism. Since then he has broadcast frequently for BBC Radio 3, Radio 4 and World Service, with major projects including fourteen programmes about the…

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