“Veni, Creator Spiritus!” from Mahler’s 8th Symphony. A Powerful Invocation…

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WHEN MUSIC AND A PRAYER TO THE CREATOR OF THE COSMOS COME TOGETHER, anything can happen! Just try this 9th century Latin prayer of invocation to the Holy Spirit, “Veni, Creator Spiritus!” (Come, Creator Spirit of God!), set to music as the first part of Gustav Mahler’s 8th Symphony. The whole symphony (which plays in the concert hall for between 80 and 90 minutes!) was written in less than two months between June and August 1906. This link is just for the first part of the symphony, which lasts for 25 minutes. Mahler wrote about it: “I saw the whole piece immediately before my eyes, and I only needed to write it down as though it were being dictated to me”. That is what is known as inspiration!

Way ahead of its time, the symphony is nicknamed “The Symphony of a Thousand” because of the huge orchestral and choral forces needed to perform it. The first performance, with Mahler conducting in Munich in 1910, had a cast of more than 1000 musicians, choirs and soloists! This performance (from 1991) has around 500 choristers and around 150 in the orchestra and soloists. Mahler’s music has been hugely influential on modern film music composers (e.g. John Williams), as you will hear. I take my hat off to any conductor who can pull this symphony off. The counterpoint is so complex that most conductors make a dog’s breakfast out of it. But the conductor really channels it here in this version and conducts it with his whole being (even wiping away a tear at one point). Klaus Tennstedt (1926-1998) was a magical Mahler conductor.

Generally misunderstood and often maligned in his lifetime, Tennstedt was able to identify with an outcast like Mahler who, although conductor of the Vienna Opera and Philharmonic for more than a decade, did not find real musical acceptance for his own deep works until more than half a century later. Tennstedt never had the international accolades of the likes of a Leonard Bernstein or a Herbert von Karajan, but he had a depth to him and emotional power, coupled with genuine humility, which brought an authenticity to the music he conducted which has never been equalled on such a consistent basis by any other conductor (with the exception maybe of Claudio Abbado at the end of his life). For Tennstedt lacked the publicity machines which these other conductors possessed. A shy man by nature, who made no attempt to charm his adversaries (and who also liked a drink or two), he just buried himself in music and was the very opposite of a diva. I vividly recall the first time I ever heard Tennstedt conducting. It was Anton Bruckner’s (equally overwhelming) 8th Symphony with the North German Radio Symphony Orchestra in the late 1970s. It completely blew me away and the experience has lived with me to this day. This is the role of the conductor: To bring a composer’s music to life in a way that would bring fulfilment to the composer and the Spirit which has inspired the music.

In my opinion, this version of this 8th symphony of Mahler is easily the best on YouTube. I am not subjecting you to the full 85 minutes of this symphony but just the first 25 minutes which is the hymn, “Veni, Creator Spiritus!”, the first part. There are a number of climaxes which are overwhelming, and one is aware of being in the presence of a real EVENT. The London Philharmonic Orchestra plays superbly and the London Philharmonic and London Symphony choirs, together with the Eton College Boys’ Choir are phenomenal — as they have to be if they are to pull this work off. Please see it through to its powerful conclusion. May it speak to your soul. This comes with love from me to you…

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