Thursday, September 11, 2014

And the Winner Is: Beethoven

The year-long symphony guide project by Tom Service at the Guardian ended this week with, of course, the Symphony No. 9 of Beethoven. This was a predictable choice as it has the kind of status no other symphony quite manages. This is actually rather surprising since, in the two hundred years since it was written, probably every symphony composer has tried his best to write something grander than the 9th, but despite the efforts of Mahler, Bruckner and others, no-one, it seems, has succeeded! Here is Tom's overview:
The Ninth Symphony is arguably the single piece that inspired the methodology of musical analysis, a discipline of forensic musicological close-reading of the score that tried to prove just how unified and coherent a conception this symphony truly is underneath its chaotically diverse surface. It’s been held up as the central work of Western classical music both by those who imagine it as the ne plus ultra of symphonic, technical, and compositional imagination and mastery, and by those who want to say that classical music can embrace the world outside the concert hall as well as within it, and that the piece is a sounding bell of social change, of emotional hope, and even of political reform.
Hmm, I'm not sure that the first claim is true, but I would love to see his evidence. That statement would apply even more to the Symphony No. 5 of Beethoven, I would have thought. The Ninth has certainly inspired more than its fair share of commentary. I'll leave you to go read Tom's interesting commentary. Just a couple of things. Here is the scorecard for the whole series. Just a few composers were honoured with more than one entry. Beethoven got five, Mozart four, Mahler three and a few others got two each. Here is the list:

Beethoven: 5, 8, 6, 3. 9
Mozart: 38, 31, 29, 41
Mahler, 1, 6, 9
Haydn: 6, 102, 
Sibelius 6, 7,
Bruckner 8, 6
Schubert, 8, 9
Tchaikovsky 1, 6

Incidentally, I have written single posts on every Beethoven symphony, except the 9th,  which you can find using the search gadget on the right. Why not the 9th? Because I needed a post for each movement.

Now let's have a listen. Here is Daniel Barenboim conducting from the 2012 Proms cycle of the symphonies:

So, how would I have done it differently? Certainly I think Beethoven and Mozart should get multiple symphonies. I think Haydn should have had more coverage--the "Farewell" at least and one of the Paris Symphonies. Mahler, ok and Sibelius and Bruckner and Schubert and Tchaikovsky all good, though I would certainly have included the Sibelius Symphonies Nos. 2 and 4. But I think the big problem was including an awful lot of really peripheral figures like Walton and Farrenc and Myaskovsky and only covering one symphony by Shostakovich! I think anyone with any serious exposure to music history would not have made that mistake. By giving Shostakovich one symphony alongside these other composers, the implication is that they are of equal importance. In bowing to diversity by including the Webern Symphony and the Stravinsky Symphony of Psalms, you miss out on giving a better account of who really were the important symphonic composers. Shostakovich very much was and should have had three of his symphonies included in the series: Nos. 5, 7 and 10. Also, despite the fact that he doesn't even make it into the Oxford History of Western Music, Allan Pettersson really is a very important symphony composer, with his fifteen symphonies, more important as a symphony composer than several of those on the list. Finally, Mieczysław Weinberg with his twenty-two symphonies is possibly as important as Pettersson, though there is not yet an integral recording, as there is with the Swedish composer. 

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