On Sept. 12, 1910, Gustav Mahler introduced Symphony No. 8 — a massive, hulking work featuring an enormous double chorus and the largest orchestra ever put on stage at the time. Given its scale, Mahler's publicist quickly dubbed it the "Symphony of a Thousand."
Michael Tilson Thomas, music director of the San Francisco Symphony, recently won a Grammy for his recording of Symphony No. 8. But he tells NPR's Guy Raz that he didn't understand the symphony the first time he heard it.
"I thought it sounded like the most cacophonous caterwauling I had ever heard," Thomas says. "There were all sorts of singers screaming at the top of their voices and instruments playing way out of their comfort zones, and I thought it was the most grotesque assemblage of noises I had ever heard."
Many years later, Thomas says, his feelings changed.
"I began to realize the incredible depth of humanity that the piece has — how much humor, how much wit, how much parody, how much astonishing inventiveness. There are surprising illuminations of the text. ... I hadn't experienced those things before."
Mahler had written large-scale symphonies before, but this piece was of unprecedented proportions.
"People perceived that this piece was a major cultural event," Thomas says, "and people were coming from all around the world to hear it."
Symphony No. 8 takes its text from the closing scene of Goethe's Faust, with its theme of divine redemption and elaborate characters and scenes. The symphony itself is equally elaborate, powerful and emotional. Thomas says it comes close to what a Mahler opera might have sounded like had he written one in his lifetime.
"In this kind of classical music," Thomas says, "the shape of the music, the structure of the music, the architecture of the music is in a way the most powerful emotional aspect. Because you have the beautiful melodies, you have the moving harmonies, you have the amazing orchestration — all these things — but then you have what happens to these things, how they are transformed, how they are brought back."