Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Symphony-Cantata

There is a symphonic mainstream, but there are also subsidiary currents that depart from it. One of the most interesting--and peculiar--is the "symphony-cantata", that is, a piece that combines the symphony genre with the cantata genre. The symphony is usually defined as a serious piece for orchestra in several movements and the cantata as a piece for voices and orchestra, also in several movements, usually with chorus. Both genres have a long history, as you can read in the Wikipedia articles I linked. But they have only been combined on a few occasions. What distinguishes a "symphony-cantata" from simply being a cantata is the orchestra being given more of an independent role.

The most famous example of a symphony-cantata is never, to my knowledge, actually called that, but it obviously fits the definition: this is the Symphony No. 9 by Beethoven, often nicknamed the "Choral" Symphony. It is the only one of his nine symphonies to make use of vocal soloists and a choir. You might think of it as a normal symphony with a cantata as the last movement. Indeed, it is a characteristic of all the examples I am going to look at, that there are purely instrumental movements as well as movements with soloists and choir (or just choir). One other example is the Symphony No. 13 of Shostakovich for orchestra, bass soloist and bass choir on poems by Yevgeny Yevtushenko. The Symphony No. 14 of Shostakovich is for two vocal soloists and orchestra, no choir, so it does not quite fit the definition. On the other hand, some of Mahler's symphonies certainly do, but they are a whole subject in themselves so I won't look at them here.

Beethoven burst the bounds of the symphonic genre in a very significant way with the Symphony No. 9. A very long work, at well over an hour, even longer than his Symphony No. 3, it is scored for a large orchestra, a quartet of vocal soloists and four-part choir. The text is a poem by Friedrich Schiller that celebrates the unity and brotherhood of mankind--sentiments we might link to the ideals of the French Revolution. Beethoven's setting in the fourth movement of the 9th Symphony illuminates an important transition in music history: the change from the aristocratic patronage of the arts to broadening out to appeal to the middle-class, newly liberated, to some extent, and newly prosperous as well (due to the industrial revolution). Let's have a listen to the Symphony No. 9 by Beethoven which I have blogged about in detail here, here, here and here. This is Daniel Barenboim conducting in his complete survey of the symphonies during the 2012 Proms:

As I mentioned in my post on the last movement, linked above, this movement is a bit of a dog's breakfast, meaning rather a mess, with awkward vocal parts that are just barely singable. Verdi in particular noted that, while praising the first three movements. Despite this, there is that great tune that Beethoven struggled a long time to create. The piece has far more admirers than critics, of course. But what is interesting is to set it alongside some subsequent "symphony-cantatas" which is the subject of this post.

The second example is a rarely-performed piece by Felix Mendelssohn. In 1840 there were festivities in celebration of the 400th anniversary of the invention of printing and Mendelssohn wrote a piece that he termed a symphony-cantata which was performed in Leipzig twice, once at the command of the King of Saxony and again at the Birmingham Festival in England. It was a very popular piece in the 19th century, but has been almost forgotten today. The Symphony No. 2 in B-flat majorOp. 52, is commonly known as Lobgesang (Hymn of Praise) and uses texts from the Bible which you can find at the Wikipedia link.

What is particularly interesting is the historical context. Mendelssohn was born into a prominent Jewish family; he was the grandson of the famous philosopher Moses Mendelssohn. But he, like other musicians of the time, was baptised a Christian and rose to the very heights of power in the musical world of Germany. He was also famous internationally, being particularly successful in tours of England. For much of the 19th century it seemed as if the revolutionary ideals of the late 18th century were being realized. Prejudice was diminishing, peace, at least in Europe, was widespread, and the middle-class was becoming more and more prosperous. Science and industry were moving forward with great success. By the end of the century the time was being referred to as the "Banquet Years" (see the book by Roger Shattuck).

The symphony by Mendelssohn is a fine work, well worth listening to, and one that wholeheartedly celebrates the good fortune felt in 19th century Europe. Here is a fine performance from the 2009 Proms:

One suspects that the fact that the symphony is not popular now is that so much of the 20th century seemed to utterly repudiate the comfortable optimism of the 19th century, of which this is such a fine example.

The 20th century saw the near-extermination of Jews in Europe. Those composers who did not flee from Germany in the 1930s often ended up in concentration or death camps. Music recalling this dark time is deeply bitter and pessimistic. The Symphony No. 13 of Shostakovich is an excellent example of this type of symphony-cantata, with its denunciation of anti-Semitism. Here is a performance conducted by Valery Gergiev:

But in between the slightly bland, from our point of view, optimism of the Mendelssohn and the sardonic bitterness of the Shostakovich comes a very odd example of the symphony-cantata from, of all people, Charles Ives. Written between 1910 and 1924, bracketing the First World War, his Symphony No. 4 consists of four movements, two of which have choral parts and the other two being purely instrumental. It is a very complex work, but one rife with oddities and aesthetic inconsistencies. Ives' earlier symphonies tend to be derivative of works by Schubert anDvořák and with the Symphony No. 4, one senses that he is experimenting with the form. He finally seems to have worked out a successful approach to the multi-movement orchestral form in his two Orchestral Sets composed around the same time. The spirit of the symphony, one gathers from Ives' comments, is existential and questioning. Here is a performance conducted by David Robertson:

Apart from the choir, there is also a prominent part for piano. The first movement is a meditative hymn setting an Epiphany text by John Bowring. The second movement is one of Ive's complex tapestries weaving together all sorts of disparate elements and tunes. The third movement, most incongruously, is an updated setting of a student exercise in fugue! The last movement combines the choir of the first movement with the complexity of the second.

For me, this is an aesthetic hodge-podge that is simply unsuccessful. But it is much admired in some quarters. I suppose you could consider this a very early attempt at the multiplicity of post-modernism. Or an experiment that just doesn't work!

What do you think?


Anonymous said...

The Ode to Joy is one of those ueber-famous, ueber-shallow melodies ("Hey Jude" is another one). If only Mozart could have written that last movement!

At any rate, I've always found the 5/6/7 to be vastly superior to the 9th. Just a matter of taste, I guess.

Bryan Townsend said...

The first three movements of the 9th are very fine indeed. And if he miscalculated with the 4th movement, then it is understandable given the enormous social, political and aesthetic upheavals of the time.

I think taste is something that is sometimes well-founded and sometimes not!

Marc Puckett said...

I'm forced to endure, with as much patience as I can muster, the occasional singing of a 'hymn' at Mass whose words are fitted to the 9th's Ode to Joy melody. Hannah Arendt coined the term 'the banality of evil'; this is a real instance of the evils of banality (as well as a horrible crime against the Sacred Liturgy) but it's never occurred to me that the B. fourth movement itself is less than first rate. Hmm.

Bryan Townsend said...

Let me hasten to say that the majority opinion on the last movement of the 9th is that it is one of the greatest things ever. But there is a stubborn minority us that thinks that it is vocally awkward and messes up a perfectly good symphony. Plus, it seems to have encouraged Mahler in some of his worst excesses (cough*Symphony of a Thousand*cough).

Marc Puckett said...

How is it 'vocally awkward'? Hmm. For what it's worth, I'm more likely to turn to the sonatas and chamber music than to the symphonies when the Beethoven itch occurs.

Bryan Townsend said...

Brutally difficult to sing, especially for the choir.