Gustav Mahler completed his Symphony No. 8 in E flat, "Symphony of a Thousand," in 1906. The name "Symphony of a Thousand" was not the composer's idea but an impresario's. It was written for the largest ensemble yet conceived, consisting of three sopranos, two contraltos, tenor, baritone, bass, double choir, boys' choir, orchestra, and organ. The work's premiere took place on September 12, 1910, at the Exposition Concert Hall in Munich. Mahler conducted a cast totaling (himself included) 1,003 performers. The reviews were glowing, making the premiere easily the triumph of his artistic career. It is an incredible thing to make so many musicians work together and make any sort of sense, from both the perspective of a conductor and a composer. No one really thought this sort of thing was possible before Mahler went ahead and proved it a viable act. His contributions were such that they shaped the nature of artistic courage in the modern era.
The work is under 90 minutes in duration and in two parts. The first part is a medieval Catholic hymn, Veni creator spiritus. It is the briefer of the two movements and generally praises God with robust vigor. The declaration of faith is of course clear and implicit. It is also constantly choral in delivery and amazingly clear, with no polyphonic jams to speak of. The second part of the symphony is a setting of the final movement from Goethe's Faust. This part is more of a secular cantata, featuring the soloists more prominently. Its first section is an adagio followed by a scherzo, and then a finale. Other than the almost nocturnal opening of the second part, there is little music in this work that is mysterious; it is mostly very direct and never murky. In the manner of Goethe, the second part is openly romantic, somewhat pastoral, and clearly Germanic. Mahler rarely lets the texture thin out much, and manages to keep the variety of soundscape and the interest of the listener consistent. At the end of the twentieth century, it was not unusual to attend live performances of this piece, in spite of the enormity of the cost to stage such a work. Some writers contend that it was the great choral document of the twentieth century, just as Beethoven's Ninth Symphony is the choral document of the nineteenth century. This is not actually the case, insofar as the musical language of Symphony of a Thousand is still firmly entrenched in late nineteenth century tonality. It is however a great work. The amount of ideas that Mahler can process simultaneously is astounding. It is the combination of certainty and wonder that makes this work succeed.