Saturday, February 14, 2015

Ten Best 20th Century Symphonies

When I say "best" I don't mean that all of these are my favorites to listen to, though some of them certainly are. But other ones are included simply because they are very important pieces. I can't say that I find the Charles Ives symphony very listenable, nor the Peter Maxwell Davies. But they are pretty important nonetheless. Give them a try and you might like them. The list is in chronological order. Yes, I know that the last symphony spills into the 21st century, but it is almost exactly one hundred years after the first symphony on the list so makes for a nice symmetry.

The symphony had a chequered history in the 20th century because for a lot of the century and for a lot of composers the ideology of modernism dictated that the symphony was an obsolescent form, tied inevitably to worn out tonal structures. After a while, along with modernism itself, this restriction faded away and we find full-blooded symphonies by modernist icons such as Peter Maxwell Davies establishing themselves in the repertoire. But for quite a while the major composers tended to avoid calling anything they wrote a "symphony" for fear that their membership in the composer's union be revoked! Ok, just kidding about that last bit. But there were a few outstanding major pieces of orchestral music that would likely have been called symphonies at another time in music history. For this reason two items on my list are not called symphonies:

1. La Mer (1905) by Claude Debussy. A lovely three movement work that was as close as Debussy got to writing a symphony and, in my books, deserves to be considered one anyway. The movements are:

  1. "De l'aube à midi sur la mer" – très lent – animez peu à peu (si mineur)
  2. "Jeux de vagues" – allegro (dans un rythme très souple) – animé (do dièse mineur)
  3. "Dialogue du vent et de la mer" – animé et tumultueux – cédez très légérement (do dièse mineur)

2. Symphony No. 7 in C major, op. 107 (1924) by Jean Sibelius. The culmination of Sibelius' symphonic thought this is a much-concentrated work in a single, twenty-minute movement:

3. Symphony No. 4 (1924?) by Charles Ives. There are four movements:

  1. Prelude: Maestoso
  2. Comedy: Allegretto
  3. Fugue: Andante moderato con moto
  4. Finale: Very slowly – Largo maestoso

4. Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta (1936) by Béla Bartók. This is a major symphonic work in four movements that is Bartók's best writing for orchestra. The movements are laid out in a slow-fast-slow-fast structure with the first movement a kind of fugue:
  1. Andante tranquillo
  2. Allegro
  3. Adagio
  4. Allegro molto

5. Symphony No. 5 in D minor, op. 47 (1937) by Dmitri Shostakovich. It would not be much of an exaggeration to say that this symphony saved Shostakovich's life. He was under severe condemnation by Stalin at the time and withdrew his Fourth Symphony from rehearsal and wrote this one, hoping to regain official favour. As it was appealing enough to the general public, he lived to compose another day. At the first performance the audience gave him a half hour standing ovation. There are four movements:
  1. Moderato
  2. Allegretto
  3. Largo
  4. Allegro non troppo

6. Symphony in Three Movements (1945) by Igor Stravinsky with these movements:
  1. Overture; Allegro
  2. Andante; Interlude: L'istesso tempo
  3. Con moto

7. Symphony No. 6 (1966) by Allan Pettersson in one movement:

8.  Symphony No. 3 (1976) Henryk Górecki. There are three movements, all lento:

9. Symphony No. 7 (2000) by Peter Maxwell Davies is in four movements. Davies has indicated that Haydn was an important influence. If a different symphony were available I might have chosen one, but this was the only one, the whole of which was available on YouTube.
  1. Exposition
  2. Minuet and Trio
  3. Slow Movement
  4. Development

10. Symphony No. 8 (2006) by Philip Glass. In three unlabeled movements (only partly available on YouTube). My favorite movement is the last one:

UPDATE: Bonus symphony: I probably should have included this symphony instead of one of the ones I did include. But I forgot all about Prokofiev's Symphony No. 1, usually known by its nickname the "Classical" Symphony (1917):

If I were to drop one on the list so I could include the Prokofiev, which one would you vote for?


Anonymous said...

No Carl Neilsen? No Ralph Vaughan Williams?

Bryan Townsend said...