Saturday, July 5, 2014

A Tour of the Symphony

I have a friend who is just discovering a love for classical music and I was thinking about putting together a tour of the symphony for her (assuming she has a couple of hours to spare). Then it occurred to me that this would be a good topic for a talk I was thinking of giving at a local venue that has been doing talks on art and culture. So let me just run through the bare bones of the talk. Please leave a comment if you have some thoughts on this.

A Tour of the Symphony

Joseph Haydn (1732 - 1809)

The symphony, that is to say, pieces written for symphony orchestra, usually with that title and also usually in a few separate movements, dates from between 1757 and 1759 when Haydn got his first position with Count Morzin and wrote his first symphonies. Here is his Symphony No. 1 in D major:

There are only three movements, fast, slow, fast, which reflects the back history of the genre as it derived from this three-part layout as an instrumental interlude in the opera house. Soon, Haydn would add a fourth movement, usually a minuet and trio. The earliest famous symphony by Haydn is the Symphony No. 6, also in D major, nicknamed "Le Matin" as the opening seems to depict a sunrise:

As this is a tour of the symphony as a whole, not just Haydn's symphonies (we could easily spend a week just on those) I am going to jump way ahead to one of his later ones, the Symphony No. 92 in G major, nicknamed the "Oxford" symphony as it was performed at the ceremony when he was awarded an honorary degree from Oxford:

The last movement is the kind of joyful finale that no-one seems to have done better than Haydn.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 - 1791)

The tragically short-lived musical genius Mozart was a brilliant imitator of musical styles from his childhood. But his exposure to the music of Haydn caused him to develop a much more profound style. Mind you, when it came to the concerto and opera he had nothing to learn from Haydn, but with the symphony and quartet he certainly did. Here is his last work in the form, the Symphony No. 41 in C major, nicknamed the "Jupiter". The last movement reflects one by Haydn using some of the same themes, but with Mozart it is a tour de force of counterpoint with five different themes:

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 - 1827)

It was Beethoven who wrote symphonies so formidable that they established the form as the most important one in instrumental music. And with his Symphony No. 9, with its added vocal soloists and chorus, he even burst those bounds. All of his symphonies are important, but perhaps the one with the greatest unity is the Symphony No. 5 in C minor:

Franz Schubert (1797 - 1828)

Even more tragically short-lived than Mozart, Schubert was dead in his thirty-first year. He wrote nine symphonies of which eight are performed (the seventh was never scored) and of which the last two, the "Unfinished" and the "Great C Major" are absolute masterworks. It is hard to choose, but for sheer poetic intensity I don't think the first movement of the "Unfinished" can be beaten:

The score to this piece, consisting of only two movements, hence the nickname, was given by Schubert to a member of the Graz Music Society on the occasion of his being given an honorary diploma. This was in 1823. They simply sat on it for a long time and it was not performed until 1865!

The 19th Century

In the 19th century composers both felt and tried to avoid the overwhelming influence of Beethoven. The symphony had some ups and downs as a result. I am not going to try to be comprehensive in this tour as there simply is not enough time! So I will just say that there are some strange and wonderful examples such as the Symphonie fantastique by Berlioz as well as some charming ones by Schumann and Mendelssohn, but it is not until a bit later with the symphonies by Bruckner, Brahms and finally Mahler and Tchaikovsky that the 19th century symphony reaches its peak. These works are so very lengthy it is hard to excerpt them, but I will put up two examples, the first movement of Brahms' first symphony that he agonized mightily over:

And the first movement of the Symphony No. 5 by Gustav Mahler:

The 20th Century

The symphony saw a remarkable resilience in the 20th century despite the fact that the basic principles of modernism would seem to doom it to complete irrelevance. But the symphony rebounded, if not in the central part of Europe, then in its periphery, especially in Finland and Russia.

Jean Sibelius (1865 - 1957)

Sibelius covers the transition from the 19th century symphony into the 20th century symphony, but also begins the strong tradition of symphonic writing in the Scandinavian countries. In his magical ability to capture the feeling of a northern landscape and imbue it with a deep human expression, he knows no equals. Here is his Symphony No. 4, written in 1911:

Sergei Prokofiev (1891 - 1953)

In 1917 Prokofiev wrote his first symphony, nicknamed the "Classical" Symphony, returning to the ideals of Haydn and Mozart.

Not only the durations, but also the instrumentation evokes the early symphonies by Haydn.

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906 - 1975)

Shostakovich was one of the greatest symphonists of the 20th century and was long reviled because of it. Since his death, however, his music has become more and more popular. He captured, through intense expression, irony and sarcasm some of the experience of life under a totalitarian dictator. His Symphony No. 5 was written, quite simply, to save his career and possibly his life after his music was condemned by Stalin's cronies for departing from the requirements of socialist realism. He manages to tread the fine line between populism and musical integrity:

Allan Pettersson (1911 - 1980)

Pettersson is far less known than the other composers on my list, but he was an uncompromising symphonist and wrote music like no-one else. Follow the link for his biography. His music is impossible to excerpt as most of his symphonies are in one long movement. One of the most accessible is his Symphony No. 7, written in 1967:

Philip Glass (1937 -)

The latest symphonist I want to cover is Philip Glass, who began as a minimalist and slowly evolved into a classicist. His Symphony No. 8 was written in 2005. The ending is remarkably subdued, a fascinating contrast with the ebullience of the finales of Haydn:

So that's the symphony: 257 years old and not showing its age in the least!


Rickard Dahl said...

Interesting tour. It's the first time I've listened to a symphony by Allan Pettersson and it's certainly intense. Also the first time I listen to Philip Glass' 8th symphony. It's a very interesting symphony with nice melodic material. Indeed, while it may remain a bit on the minimalistic side, it does indeed seem to have a more classistic approach. I didn't realize that Glass made a move towards classicism as you pointed out. I wonder if when modernism and postmodernism loses its' force if we will move towards a sort of updated classical style, probably with different harmonies, orchestrations etc. but where the aesthetic aspects are far more important. One can only speculate.

Bryan Townsend said...

Yes, it is rather surprising where Philip Glass has evolved to. I am growing more and more fond of his music, which has always had a kind of magic to it.