What Makes a Symphony - Part 2
January 26, 2014 by Christine Gengaro, Ph.D.
Last week’s blog took up the subject of the Symphony. So far we’ve seen its emergence in the mid-1700s as a simple three-movement genre for amateur string groups, and we’ve seen it grow in both length and complexity over its first century and a half. The symphony at the end of the nineteenth century is lushly orchestrated with multiple themes that perhaps undergo transformation in the course of the work. The basic four-movement structure is often still there, and the main pillars of sonata form are often detectable. The symphony, as its name suggests, is a work in which instruments sound (“phone”) together (“syn”), and at its heart seems to be the exploration, transformation, and resolution of themes.
Just a short tangent before we continue with the symphony. In the late nineteenth century, some composers were writing symphonic pieces that replaced the four-movement structure with a single movement. These “symphonic poems” or “tone poems” were programmatic, that is, they conveyed a narrative or an idea, usually indicated in the title. Franz Liszt was the one who coined the term symphonic poem to describe the single-movement works he was writing 1848 to 1858. His topics included, Hamlet, Prometheus, and a nationalistic look at Liszt’s native land (in a tone poem called Hungaria). In the late 1860s, Tchaikovsky composed a symphonic poem based on the story of Romeo and Juliet. Themes illustrate the vendetta between the two families, the help of Friar Laurence, and the love between the two protagonists. Everyone will recognize the love theme. If you’ve ever seen a movie or commercial where two people in love run towards each other in a field, chances are this is the music that played. As the century clicked over from the nineteenth to the twentieth, one man reigned as the king of tone poems, and that man was Richard Strauss. He composed tone poems based on Don Quixote, Don Juan, the exploits of Till Eulenspiegel, and—perhaps most famously—the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche in Also Sprach Zarathustra. Finnish composer Jean Sibelius was also fond of the genre, using symphonic poems to write about his beloved homeland. The symphonic poem eventually fell out of favor in the twentieth century, as Romanticism was replaced with a new ethos.
So we return to the symphony with Gustav Mahler, the master symphonist of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. It could be argued that he was the one who brought the symphony near its breaking point in terms of the amount of time, people, and ideas one could involve in a single piece of music. It’s no surprise that Mahler was once quoted as saying, “the symphony must be like the world; it must be all-embracing.” When Mahler died in 1911, the symphony had become an all-embracing creation, featuring perhaps hundreds of people (Mahler’s Eighth, the “Symphony of a Thousand” has often featured more than a hundred participants), instruments, voices, and the exploration of musical ideas.
The symphony, it appeared, just couldn’t get any bigger. Nothing can keep growing indefinitely, and the symphony was no exception. It’s also clear that once the twentieth century was underway that many composers didn’t want to write such massive pieces any more. The style was changing, and an opposing style, featuring smaller groups and less programmatic music, was gaining intensity. The outbreak of World War I also had an effect on the types of pieces that were composed. In a very real and practical sense the war had depleted the funding of most European orchestras, and had tragically ended the lives of many young musicians. Smaller orchestras—chamber orchestras—became more popular. In some ways, this was absolutely a reaction against the giant spectacles of the Late Romantic Symphony, but it might also have been a matter of good taste; how could composers keep producing works of that scope in the face of all of the loss?
The definition of the symphony continued to change, and in fact the word symphony began to apply to different kinds of works. Composers like Dmitri Shostakovich still composed four-movement symphonies, some in a very modern idiom, and some decidedly more conservative (he was greatly influenced by the political and cultural climate of Russia in the 1930s). But when Sibelius wrote his last symphony in 1927, and it consisted of a single movement. Musicologist Stephan Walsh described Sibelius’ evolution to this end: “he arrived at the point where large musical conflicts could truly be resolved in a single-movement symphony of twenty minutes’ duration.” Since Sibelius also wrote tone poems, we can compare them to his symphonies and see what the composer felt was different about the genres. For Sibelius, the symphony—not the tone poem—was still the place to work through musical contrasts and conflicts. American composer Samuel Barber was greatly influenced by Sibelius’ last symphony when he composed his First Symphony (in One Movement) from 1936. It’s a single movement divided into four sections, and it represents a compressed version of a traditional four-movement symphony.
The four-movement structure never went away, of course. English composer Ralph Vaughn Williams wrote nine symphonies, most of them in a four-movement format, some of them programmatic in nature. He was inspired to write the Third, known as the Pastoral, while serving in the First World War. In the 1930s through the 1950s Paul Hindemith provided a German voice in the realm of the twentieth century symphony. Although his symphonies still maintain some of the same structural details of earlier symphonies, the harmonic language and style are clearly modern. French composer Olivier Messiaen pushed some boundaries with his Turangalila-Symphonie from the late 1940s. It’s a symphony in ten movements, which are linked by four musical themes.
Although Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, known as the “Choral” symphony is one of the most popular pieces in the repertoire, symphonies in the last hundred years have stayed mostly instrumental. There are exceptions, of course. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, American composer Philip Glass composed three symphonies. Symphony No. 5 “Choral” is scored for chorus and orchestra and consists of a dozen parts. Symphony No. 6, or the Plutonian Ode Symphony features a soprano soloist and orchestra. It has three movements which are based on the three parts of the Alan Ginsburg poem on which the symphony is based. His Seventh Symphony “A Toltec Symphony” takes inspiration from Native American culture from before European colonization. It also features a choir.
In the latter part of the twentieth century symphonies, chamber symphonies, and sinfoniettas continued to flourish. Numerous composers have put their own personal stamp on the genre of the symphony: Schuman, Rochberg, Harbison, Schnittke, Rautavaara, Branca, Hovhaness, and John Adams. The final chapter of the symphony is yet to be written, and who knows how the definition of Symphony will change as the years go by. The size of the orchestra has changed a lot over time. We’ve seen that a symphony can be played by hundreds of people or just two dozen. The instrumentation has become more colorful and nuanced over the centuries, and the amount of movements is pretty variable. What seems to be the most important factor is the presentation and exploration of themes. If individual composers keep finding new and unique ways to do this—and we can imagine they will, the symphony will continue to thrive.