Saturday, February 28, 2015

The Greatest Symphonist

I've always had a tremendous attraction to the symphony: with the exception of opera, probably the greatest musical form (genre, vehicle). A large multi-movement work for the greatest instrument of all, the symphony orchestra, it has attracted the talents of nearly every composer since the early days of the genre in the 1760s. Sure, the more extreme modernists eschewed all the traditional forms. Can you imagine a symphony by John Cage? For twelve radios tuned randomly, no doubt. However, since the 1970s even the more progressive composers such as Peter Maxwell Davies and Philip Glass have been writing symphonies. So I suspect that it still reigns as the greatest instrumental form.

This brings up the question, who is (or was) the greatest symphonist of this quarter-millennium of symphonies? The palm would usually be awarded to either Beethoven, by the classicists, or Mahler, by the romantics. But there are other possibilities. An argument could be made for the fifteen symphonies of Shostakovich, of which some are very, very fine. But what about Mozart? Some of his are absolutely superb. And there is Sibelius, with seven excellent symphonies. The more unbuttoned among us might even vote for someone like Allan Pettersson. You could even make an attempt to put forth Schubert, who wrote eight, but the last two of which are stunning.

But let me sow some seeds of doubt. There is one composer who, towards the end of his life, wrote a set of twelve symphonies, more, you should note, than Beethoven, Schubert, Bruckner, Mahler, Brahms, Dvorak or Sibelius managed in their whole lives, that are as fine as any written by anyone. And this was after having written ninety-four previous symphonies! Now you know who I am talking about: Joseph Haydn. I don't think I have ever listened to any of his symphonies without a feeling of delight. I am just getting to the end of listening to all one hundred and six of them for the second time and I am even more impressed. True, those by Bruckner and Mahler are a lot longer, but so what? There is a lot of padding there, if you ask me! But Haydn? I don't think he was capable of writing anything that was padded, watered down, or just musically weak or questionable. He wrote symphonies the way we might walk to the store or make tea. It was what he had done his whole life and, in my books, he does it as least as well as anyone else.

I give you Haydn, the greatest symphonist. As evidence, here is one of the London symphonies. No. 97 in C major, with no nickname, no special tricks. Just another superb symphony by the master:


Anonymous said...

Very Canadian taste: privileging craft (Haydn, the Beatles) over genius (Mozart, Beethoven).

Bryan Townsend said...

Heh! We Canadians have long struggled with our identity. Apart from not being American, we sometimes wonder who we are. But now i know: we're the ones who privilege craft over genius. I wrote this post partly to stir the pot at bit, I admit. But if all Haydn has is craft, then it is truly heavenly craft. And one suspects that Mozart greatly admired Haydn's craft; and that Beethoven was just a bit jealous of it.

Bryan Townsend said...

"stir the pot a bit" I meant to say.

Shantanu said...

What's genius but excellent craft? Often, music that is stable and enduring is bemoaned, while bridges aren't.

Bryan Townsend said...

Which reminds me of one of my favorite quotes:

"What's madness but nobility of soul
At odds with circumstance?"

--Theodore Roethke