Gerard Schwarz conducts Mahler's massive "Symphony of a Thousand" next week in its Benaroya Hall debut.

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Gustav Mahler didn’t much care for the moniker “Symphony of a Thousand.” He called it a “Barnum & Bailey” nickname for his monumental Symphony No. 8 in E flat major, a gimmick created by an agent who booked the piece’s 1910 premiere in Munich.

On the other hand, there was a reason for the alternative title. That first performance (which found many artistic luminaries in the audience, including author Thomas Mann and composer Edward Elgar) literally assembled more than 1,000 instrumentalists, choristers and vocal soloists.

Mahler himself conducted the combined talents in Munich. It was a massive undertaking, replicated since then in some performances that require displacement of concert-hall seats to accommodate all those musicians.

Other undertakings of the Eighth, however, make do with less. Earlier this month at the Hollywood Bowl, the Los Angeles Philharmonic was part of a roster of (only!) 305 musicians.

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“It’s surprising the Eighth is played as often as it is,” says Seattle Symphony Orchestra Music Director Gerard Schwarz. “It calls for huge forces.”

Next week, Schwarz will conduct the piece for the first time in his career, leading a crowd of almost 400: the Seattle Symphony, as well as the Seattle Symphony Chorale, Northwest Boychoir, Seattle Pro Musica and eight vocal soloists. The latter include soprano Lauren Flanigan (hailed by Time magazine as “the thinking man’s diva”), mezzo-soprano Nancy Maultsby (singing an alto part) and tenor Vinson Cole.

“The Symphony of a Thousand” is “taxing, but a most appropriate way to celebrate our anniversary in Benaroya,” says Schwarz.

The Eighth is the stuff of legend, hailed in The New York Times as “the symphony to end all symphonies,” “cosmic and sprawling.”

“It was Mahler’s greatest success, and it was written very quickly,” says Schwarz. “At first, he had a block. Then it poured forth. He was so excited, and he said all his other symphonies were a prelude to it. It brought him great joy.”

A blend of the sacred and secular, the Eighth is an apotheosis of Mahler’s passionate, intense music. It reflects release from his longtime depression, and celebrates transcendent love and the eternal.

The first part of the symphony is built around a Latin hymn from the fourth century, “Veni, Creator Spiritus” (“Come, spirit of creation”). Part two retells the final episode of Goethe’s “Faust,” in which the title character finds salvation.

“The story of Mahler’s symphonic output is the story of his evolving attitude toward the Will,” says Eric Hanson, chair of the instrumental music department at Seattle Pacific University. (Hanson will lecture one hour before the performance.) “The Will is the blind, striving, masculine force that inhabits everything and is too insatiable to posit goals which will satisfy. This explains all the misery in the world. This idea evolves in Mahler’s symphonies, and in the Eighth, when Faust is redeemed in the eternal feminine, the Will has a goal that will satisfy.”

Mahler, a Jew who converted to Catholicism in order to become kapellmeister to the Vienna Philharmonic, “was religious, but not a church- or synagogue-goer,” says Schwarz. “He believed in grandeur, in nature, mountains and trees, everything in life that’s good. The Eighth is the culmination of Romanticism, but spiritual-romance, redemption.”

Says Hanson: “This is the music of the universe.”

Tom Keogh:

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