This symphony is unique among the 10 that he composed but uniqueness does not ensure greatness. To some ears, the Eighth suffers from the bombast and pomposity that infects so much of German music of the Romantic era. Compared to, say, the Second, that truly revolutionary work, the Eighth can sound not so much dramatic as panic-stricken, even hysterical. Johnson makes a strong case for its quality, musically and philosophically, in this 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.
In The Eighth, Stephen Johnson leads us through all the complexities of the work with skill and sensitivity. It’s clearly a piece that he reveres. In its embrace of joy and spiritual uplift, it has been the most controversial of Mahler’s symphonies in our own day, lacking that juxtaposition of sublimity and the banal that makes the composer such a postmodern pin-up.
Johnson has written an engaging and enthusiastic account of the eighth, but it is very much a chronology of events. And it doesn’t quite live up to the suggestion of its subtitle, as much more could have been said about the place of this symphony in the general culture of its time. Symphonic music was central then; any literary intellectual could follow a symphonic argument in detail, and — as Mann’s Doktor Faustus was to show — keep up with the most advanced developments.