When I saw the Philadelphia Philharmonic Orchestra perform Mahler’s Eighth Symphony at Carnegie Hall in 2008, there were 335 performers on stage, including a chorus of 205 people. It was pretty impressive. But that was nothing compared to the symphony’s premiere.
Mahler’s Eighth is sometimes called the Symphony of a Thousand and it turns out that’s just about how many people were in the original performance:
In the time of Mozart a symphonic composer was very well content to have an orchestra of forty men or so — a few strings, a few wind and percussion instruments. Beethoven rather upset some of the symphonic traditions by writing his ninth symphony, which requires a chorus and four solo voices. Liszt and Berlioz carried the symphonic upsetting of traditions a bit further. Gustav Mahler, however, has seemingly gone several steps further than any of his predecessors.
His eighth symphony lasts about an hour and three quarters. In the finales Mahler has eight trumpeters and four trombone players in addition to the regular orchestra, who all stand up in a row at the top of the platform and blow for all they are worth into the faces of the audience. Besides these extra brass players there are in the orchestra itself four trumpets, eight horns, four trombones, a tuba, four kettledrums, and three pairs of extra cymbals, not to mention the great organ, which also goes full blast. These in addition to the usual instruments of the orchestra and 850 voices. To enumerate exactly, the symphony demanded 7 soloists, 500 men and women chorus singers, 350 children, and an orchestra of 170 men!
“There were a lot of interesting details,” writes one critic. “In the orchestra, for instance, one could note a double bassoon, elongated by the attachment of an aluminium tube two or three feet long, in order, I suppose, to secure lower tones than possible with the ordinary instrument. The busiest bee in the hive, not excepting Mahler himself, was the kettledrum player.
“It was a mere bagatelle for him to play two drums, one with each hand, while tuning a third with his teeth. He also had a faithful Achates, who spent most of his time tinkling triangles, ringing bells, banging big drums, etc. However, when the demands became too great even for the almost superhuman ability of the aforesaid kettledrum player, this true friend would drop his own work, spring twenty feet across the platform, never once upsetting a music desk, snatch up a pair of sticks, and let loose on the kettledrums numbers three and four, while the first artist confined himself to numbers one and two.”
Wikimedia has a photo from 1910 of the whole ensemble in their final rehearsal. It looks like quite a spectacle. I don’t think even half that many people could have fit on the stage at Carnegie Hall.
POSSIBILITIES IN MAHLER SYMPHONY (PDF)
From March 5, 1911