A normative definition of "symphony" might go something like this: a piece of music for orchestra, usually in several movements (three to five as a rule) in which the first movement is usually in sonata form, the second movement is usually a slowish movement in various forms including theme and variations, the third movement is a minuet and trio and the last movement is fast and often in rondo or sonata-rondo form. This is the norm laid down by Haydn, though there was certainly a lot of room for variation. The first movement might have a slow introduction, for example. But the basic idea of a sizable piece for orchestra that has a fairly quick opening movement with a lot of substance involving modulation and development, a song-like slower movement, a dance-like movement and a finale with flourish and gusto is one that has had a remarkable longevity--probably because it has room for so much variety.
The durability of the form is reflected in the fact that it was used, not only by its inventor Joseph Haydn, but by Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Bruckner and even Mahler for the most part. The kinds of alterations made to the form are more superficial than essential. For example, the minuet and trio were often replaced by a more energetic scherzo and trio. Sometimes the order of the middle movements was switched with the minuet or scherzo preceding the slow movement. Sometimes there was a fifth movement added and with Mahler, there are often extra movements and the order of the movements is completely changed--a symphony can begin with a march and end with a scherzo or an adagio, for example. But when the symphony continued in the 20th century, as we have seen, it often returned to the Classical format. Prokofiev's "Classical" Symphony is an excellent example.
But we are still left with a significant number of works that are sometimes labeled "symphonies" and sometimes not, but that go completely outside our definition. The Symphony No. 14 of Shostakovich is one of the most radical departures. It is set for soprano, bass, string orchestra and percussion and uses poems by Federico Garcia Lorca, Guillaume Apollinaire, Wilhelm Küchelbecker and Rainer Maria Rilke. There are eleven movements. This looks more like a song cycle than a symphony and indeed, Shostakovich has said that his inspiration for this work came from Mussorgsky's "Songs and Dances of Death", a brief cycle of four songs for low male voice and piano. Some have seen that the links between the movements indicate a loose "four movement" structure. But even so, this stretches the meaning of "symphony" near the breaking point. Here is the piece conducted by Rostropovich:
Now, if that is a symphony, then surely Das Lied von der Erde by Mahler could also be called one, even though he did not do so. This is a piece for tenor and alto in six movements on German translations of Chinese poems. Leonard Bernstein even called it "Mahler's greatest symphony". And if Shostakovich 14 is one, then surely this is as well. Here is a classic recording by Bruno Walter with the score:
I think this might be what Philip Glass would call a "narrative" rather than "numbered" symphony (posted about here), but that is a distinction that breaks down rather quickly. After all, Shostakovich certainly numbered his symphony.
Beethoven carved out a new model, or sub-category at least, of the symphony with his Symphony No. 9, often called the "Choral" Symphony because the last movement adds vocal soloists and choir to the usual forces. This has led to many imitators: Bruckner in many of his symphonies echoes the instrumental movements and Mahler, of course, takes his lead from the choral movement. What Beethoven has done, basically, is turn the last movement into a kind of oratorio, fusing two separate genres together. If you were being critical, you might notice that Beethoven had problems with final movements throughout his career and was often hard-pressed to come up with something weighty enough. In the 9th, he just gave up and threw in the kitchen sink. Here is just that final movement conduced by Bernstein:
Shostakovich did a kind of miniature socialist realist version of the 9th in his Symphony No. 2, which also ends with a chorus:
But there are other ways of departing from the symphonic norm and one way is by appending a verbal narrative or description to the symphony. In the 18th century there arose the subcategory of symphony called sinfonia characteristica of which the most prominent example is the Symphony No. 6 by Beethoven, nicknamed the "Pastoral" because it depicts scenes in the country. There are five movements, each with a descriptive title:
The piece is both charming and evocative:
- Erwachen heiterer Empfindungen bei der Ankunft auf dem Lande (Awakening of cheerful feelings upon arrival in the countryside): Allegro ma non troppo
- Szene am Bach (Scene by the brook): Andante molto mosso
- Lustiges Zusammensein der Landleute (Merry gathering of country folk): Allegro
- Gewitter, Sturm (Thunder. Storm): Allegro
- Hirtengesang. Frohe und dankbare Gefühle nach dem Sturm (Shepherd's song; cheerful and thankful feelings after the storm): Allegretto
A few years later Hector Berlioz did a more fraught, romantic version of the sinfonia characteristica with his Symphonie fantastique. It also has five movements:
- Rêveries – Passions (Daydreams – Passions)
- Un bal (A ball)
- Scène aux champs (Scene in the Country)
- Marche au supplice (March to the Scaffold)
- Songe d'une nuit de sabbat (Dream of a Witches' Sabbath)
And here is the piece:
Now, of course, instead of being called by the 18th century term sinfonia characteristica, this is usually called a "program symphony" that is, a symphony with a program. This is a somewhat awkward genre as one always wonders, does the program really make a difference? Suppose we had no idea what the program was, would we still enjoy the music? Just as much? More? Composers have themselves wondered this as there are lots of examples, Mahler in particular, of composers suppressing the program to a symphony and wanting us to just listen to the music. Of course, every single writer of program notes unearths those suppressed programs and inflicts them on us!
But the program symphony later on turned into a new genre, the "tone-poem" a piece for orchestra in no set form, but one depicting some extra-musical scene or story. There are famous examples of these by, for example, Franz Liszt, who instead of writing symphonies wrote symphonic poems. Wikipedia describes the genesis of this form as follows:
Of course, a historian might want to take all this with a grain of salt and note that, as Beethoven, Schubert, Berlioz and others had already added these resources to the writing of the symphony, claiming that by using them you were creating an entirely new form is more marketing than reality. Out of the thirteen symphonic poems composed by Liszt, only one has entered the standard repertoire. Here it is, Les préludes, a single movement about fifteen minutes in length:Liszt desired to expand single-movement works beyond the concert overture form. The music of overtures is to inspire listeners to imagine scenes, images, or moods; Liszt intended to combine those programmatic qualities with a scale and musical complexity normally reserved for the opening movement of Classical symphonies. The opening movement, with its interplay of contrasting themes under sonata form, was normally considered the most important part of the symphony. To achieve his objectives, Liszt needed a more flexible method of developing musical themes than sonata form would allow, but one that would preserve the overall unity of a musical composition.
Liszt found his method through two compositional practices, which he used in his symphonic poems. The first practice was cyclic form, a procedure established by Beethoven in which certain movements are not only linked but actually reflect one another's content. Liszt took Beethoven's practice one step further, combining separate movements into a single-movement cyclic structure. Many of Liszt's mature works follow this pattern, of which Les préludes is one of the best-known examples. The second practice was thematic transformation, a type of variation in which one theme is changed, not into a related or subsidiary theme but into something new, separate and independent. Thematic transformation, like cyclic form, was nothing new in itself; it had already been used by Mozart and Haydn.In the final movement of his Ninth Symphony, Beethoven had transformed the theme of the "Ode to Joy" into a Turkish march. Weber and Berlioz had also transformed themes, and Schubert used thematic transformation to bind together the movements of his Wanderer Fantasy, a work that had a tremendous influence on Liszt. However, Liszt perfected the creation of significantly longer formal structures solely through thematic transformation, not only in the symphonic poems but in other works such as his Second Piano Concerto and his Piano Sonata in B minor. In fact, when a work had to be shortened, Liszt tended to cut sections of conventional musical development and preserve sections of thematic transformation.
The heir to Liszt's idea of the symphonic poem was Richard Strauss, who wrote what are usually called tone poems. He wrote ten of these, one labeled a symphony (the Symphonia Domestica) and they are mostly more successful than Liszt's. Probably the most famous is Also Sprach Zarathustra, from the book by Nietzsche. The introduction has become particularly famous because of its use in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. There are nine sections, named after selected chapters from the book:
Here is the music:
- Einleitung, oder Sonnenaufgang (Introduction, or Sunrise)
- Von den Hinterweltlern (Of Those in Backwaters)
- Von der großen Sehnsucht (Of the Great Longing)
- Von den Freuden und Leidenschaften (Of Joys and Passions)
- Das Grablied (The Song of the Grave)
- Von der Wissenschaft (Of Science and Learning)
- Der Genesende (The Convalescent)
- Das Tanzlied (The Dance Song)
- Nachtwandlerlied (Song of the Night Wanderer)
Gee, it almost makes me want to write a tone poem based on one of my favorite works of philosophy, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus of Ludwig Wittgenstein!
There is one more piece I would like to mention. This is a tone poem in three movements that has a definite symphonic character. The piece is La Mer by Claude Debussy and here are the movements:
Here is a performance:
- "From dawn to noon on the sea" or "From dawn to midday on the sea" - very slow - animate little by little (B minor)
- "Play of the Waves" - allegro (with a very versatile rhythm) - animated (C sharp minor)
- "Dialogue of the wind and the sea" or "Dialogue between wind and waves" - animated and tumultuous - give up very slightly (C sharp minor)
On the whole, composers seem to have gotten the program bug out of their systems and while we still have symphonies with programs and texts--Philip Glass has written a few--the idea of a three to five movement work for orchestra of pure instrumental music seems to have returned.
So that's my survey of "symphonic oddities" in which there are some remarkably fine pieces of music.