Symphony Studies: Mid-Term Report

by Glenn on May 1, 2016

Roughly a third of the way through my study of The Symphony by Michael Steinberg, here’s how I would tell the story of the symphony (previous attempt a few months ago here):

The idea of a symphony is codified in the late works of Mozart and Haydn. In their earlier works, they (and their contemporaries) experimented with the number and forms of movements, but in their late symphonies (for the most part) a pattern develops: two faster outer movements are bookends for two slower inner movements. One of the slower movements will be an andante, the other a minuet and trio. The idea with these middle movements is contrast.

1. The first movement normally follows sonata form (sometimes with a slow introduction)—two themes are presented, played with, and brought back before a conclusion.

2. The andante is a simpler and more song-like form than the opening movement.

3. The minuet introduces a different meter in what feels like a connection to the waltz.

4. The last movement is another sonata or a rondo or a combination of the two in what also often feels like a connection to dance music.

Aside: Because Steinberg doesn’t include early symphonies (beyond a couple by Haydn I haven’t listened to, yet) and doesn’t take an historical approach, I’ve picked up an old edition of Preston Stedman’s The Symphony (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1979 ) to do some backfilling. He describes the symphony concept this way:

“Formal matters were dominated by the sonata concept, i.e., a multi-movement (usually four) plan of contrasting tempos (fast, slow, fast, faster) and forms which expressed itself in all instrumental music.”

He also connects the symphony to other instrumental writing:

“A sonata for orchestra was called a symphony; for four strings, a string quartet; for a single instrument, a sonata.”

As soon as the concept of a symphony is established (an oversimplified and perhaps unfair characterization because Mozart and Haydn displayed inventiveness within the form) Beethoven comes along as a possibility maker and the symphony begins to change:

1. Key relationships are more adventurous. It begins with the first moment of Beethoven’s first symphony. The symphony is written in C Major, but the first chord is a C7, implying the key of F Major. I don’t know how Beethoven’s first audience reacted—seems like you would have had to have perfect pitch to understand the joke. It could be that Beethoven’s listeners had “better ears” than many of us today, but what most can hear, I think, is how in the introductory bars of Beethoven’s First, the key is pretty unsettled until the key is firmly established with the tempo change and the first theme.

2. Related to the first point, sounds become more dissonant and rhythms more complicated There is a spectacular moment in the last movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony where the bright and sunny finale is interrupted by bars of stridency—a figure that I think Shostakovich grabbed to use in one of his symphonies. Also, the opening of the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth is quite dissonant.

3. Slow introductions get longer—the introduction to Beethoven’s Seventh was the longest so far—and tempos within movements begin to vary.

4. The weight of the last movement increases. It’s not that the last movement is necessarily that much longer, but it becomes an important exclamation point to the symphony. With the increase of the weight toward the end of the symphony, there is a corollary which is the idea of a victory symphony. For example, the last movement of Beethoven’s Fifth is a transformation of the first movement—the whole symphony leads to that finale, which provides resolution for the tension of the first movement.

5. The length of the symphony as a whole grows—see Beethoven’s Third and Ninth.

6. The number of movements is altered—increased by one with the five movements of the Pastorale Symphony—and movements are connected to each other as Beethoven designed in his Fifth and Sixth Symphonies.

7. The minuet becomes (or, is replaced by?) a scherzo. The gentle country dance of a Mozart symphony becomes much more intense with Beethoven. (I think some of this change may have begun with Haydn. If he didn’t use the word scherzo—“joke” or “play” in Italian—he certainly was having fun.)

8. Text and voice are introduced in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

9. The size of the orchestra increases.

10. The number of types of instruments used is increased as is a growing independence for the wind instruments whose quality is improving dramatically during Beethoven’s lifetime.

11. Musical elements from one movement are reintroduced into a later movement. In the opening of the last movement of his Ninth Symphony, Beethoven revisits the themes from the first three movements before introducing his Ode to Joy theme.

12. The motif has become an organizing element. Beethoven writes some lovely tunes, but the melody Beethoven uses in the opening of the Fifth symphony isn’t a tune so much as a repeated motif.

13. Programmatic elements (i.e. musical sounds that are representational of sounds outside the symphony) are introduced. (There are some precedents in the music of Haydn, but where Haydn dabbled, Beethoven luxuriated.) This includes both elements from nature and sounds of people. You get both in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 and in the last movement of his Symphony No. 9 there is that Turkish band that makes a dramatic entrance.

14. With Beethoven, the symphony has the possibility of being a personal expression and a philosophical statement. This isn’t to say Mozart and Haydn don’t sound like themselves or say anything in their music, but it seems with them there was an artistic framework that both sought to realize in creative and imaginative ways. Beethoven has a sound and with symphonies like the Fifth and Ninth, especially, we can discuss ideas the music seeks to present. I don’t think you would say of Haydn, “What is he saying in the Oxford symphony?” We could though, for example, ask of Beethoven’s Ninth, “What is he telling us through this music?”

I want to be careful of suggesting too much causation, but my sense is that with Beethoven cracking open so many doors of possibilities, later composers will eventually open wide those doors. All of these actualized possibilities make it more and more difficult to define the symphony after Beethoven. The symphony in the hands of Berlioz, Dvořák, Bruckner, Tchaikovsky, et al becomes a diverse and individualistic practice.

Tonality gets more adventurous and symphonies incorporate greater and greater dissonance. Some of this seems to me to be a stretching exercise—heightening the sense of relief when we finally arrive home.

Dissonance and rhythmic complexity grows and grows and I suppose the zenith of this could be Charles Ives who, in layering separate pieces on top of each other, creates an impressive cacophony.

More symphonies begin with long, slow introductions (see Bruckner) and tempos within an individual movement can vary dramatically—Elgar’s First Symphony is in my head these days: the first movement begins and ends slowly with a faster middle section. The last movement of Mahler’s First Symphony will begin and end with fast tempos, but in the middle there is a lot of space.

While the final movement of the symphony gains more and more weight, it’s interesting to me how some composers approach it. Tchaikovsky in his Sixth and Mahler in his Ninth add an emotional heaviness—contemplating death. Mahler in his Fourth is counterintuitive, adding a “light” weight to his final movement. What has come before is heavy and so he adds a simple song to close out the symphony. And yet everything that has come before is building to that last song.

Symphonies get really long, Bruckner and Mahler especially. At the same time, and I don’t know if it’s some sort of conscious reaction, some symphonies get shorter—I’m thinking of Sibelius who, unlike Bruckner and Mahler, doesn’t seem to be trying to make ultimate statements in his music.

I am surprised how the number four remains typical for the number of movements. But there are exceptions. Mahler went for six in his Third symphony. Sibelius went for one in his Seventh. Schmidt’s Symphony No. 4 has four distinct movements, but they are all connected in one long expression. The best connection between movements for me is Eglar’s First, where the hyperkinetic scherzo flows into the adagio with one violin note connecting the two. They key change that happens at that moment is sublime. Tchaikovsky in his Sixth Symphony (later copied, perhaps, by Mahler) keeps four movements, but inverts them so the faster movements are interior, bracketed by slower movements.

The wildest scherzo I think is found in William Walton’s First Symphony. Sibelius doesn’t have a scherzo in his Third. Tchaikovsky puts a scherzo into 5/4 meter. Mahler’s dance movement (my terminology) goes through a revolution. Symphony No. 1 is a simple country dance, Symphony No. 2 is a delightful, nostalgic palate cleanser, Symphony No. 3 is all about color, Symphony No. 4 is sarcastic and dark, Symphony No. 5 is an epic horn solo. All things are possible for the scherzo.

Text and voice find their way into the symphony, although I guess I’m surprised how few composers walk through this door. Mahler is the biggest and seemingly exclusive proponent, but there are others. A Mendelssohn symphony-cantata Lobgesang (“Hymn of Praise”) doesn’t make Steinberg’s list, but Górecki’s Symphony No. 3, Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, does.

Orchestras keeps growing in size and variety—It begins with Berlioz who, in his Symphonie Fantastique, created a new orchestra, including Eb clarinet and english horn, four bassoons, two harps, much percussion and two ophicleides (replaced today commonly by tubas). Mahler will take the size of his orchestra to a incredible level and becomes quite inventive with off-stage musical effects. What’s interesting is how the symphony doesn’t just get bigger and bigger. There are other approaches. Sibelius, for example, comes to mind, who may be either reactionary or neo-classical in his approach.

Instrumental variety keeps growing. I loved the use of piano in Shostakovich’s First Symphony, but Mahler is probably the most inventive with offstage elements and the use of cowbell and mandolin. (The wind and brass instruments continue to improve, but thinking of Mahler reminds me of a rabbit trail known as the Viennese oboe, which allows you to do a glissando. There’s a moment in Mahler’s Third, that loses it’s effect because the modern instrument has eliminated this possibility.)

Musical elements can find their way into the final movement—Mahler’s First and Elgar’s First and Tchaikovsky’s Fourth and Fifth are examples. The antecedent for them is Beethoven’s Ninth, though the interesting thing there is that Beethoven seems to reject those themes in the final movement. So I don’t want to suggest a precedent.

The motif seems to be the operating principle for Bruckner.

Programmatic elements are either embraced (Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique) or ignored (a lot of composers) or embraced but later denied—Mahler’s First, Second, and Third symphonies, for example. This idea of a programme for music becomes a point of contention. Should music portray something or should it be pure/absolute, existing for its own sake and not representational of anything?

There is a corollary to the idea of programmatic music, which is the inclusion of folk elements. Dvořák and Tchaikovsky, especially, seem to include these elements.

Finally, the symphony does become a personal and/or philosophical expression for some composers. Mahler in his Second Symphony attempts to portray the last trumpet call. On the other extreme you have Sibelius, whose music is an expression, but of nothing beyond the music itself. And, of course, there’s everything in between.

*  *  *

One challenge of thinking and writing about history is that it’s possible, maybe unavoidable, that you will miss many connections. The history of the symphony as an art form should not be told in isolation. As you tell the story of the symphony you need to weave in some other stories as well.

One is the story of the funding of music. There was a time when music was sponsored by the church and/or the court. Somewhere along the line, we find people with disposable income who will pay to listen to music or purchase printed music and instruments so they can perform it themselves. For an artist like Bach, a church job was very helpful. Haydn’s gig with the Prince of Esterházy was pretty important to his financial grounding until later in life when spreading fame would take him to England on tour. It’s interesting to read how many composers were subsidized—Sibelius by his government and Tchaikovsky by an admirer.

Another story is the improving quality of instruments. The industrial revolution makes some things possible. It makes, for example, the modern piano possible, because you can mount strings on an iron frame instead of just wood. With respect to Mozart and Haydn and Beethoven, you notice in the years following how much more flexible the brass instruments are. They no longer play the harmonics, but can tackle scales. The woodwinds and brass rather than doubling string lines and playing chords (respectively) come into their own.

Nationalism becomes part of musical compositions. The music of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven has a central European (Germanic/Austrian) sound. It is music tied to a certain place. In the way that Elgar sounds English and Dvořák sounds Eastern European and Tchaikovsky sounds Russian, music sounds more and more like it’s from different places. Perhaps tied to this is the idea of using folk music in a symphony.

Performing traditions have evolved and a historically-informed performance practices (HIPP) have been uncovered. Sometimes these two things are in conflict. For example, a tradition developed of playing the slow movement of Beethoven’s symphonies very slowly—much slower than the actual metronome markings indicated. So that now many artists are offering what sound like radical reinterpretations of Beethoven’s music even though it may be more like what those first audiences heard.

What we know of how music before the 1900’s sounded like is based on what we read. The actual sound of music in the time of Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven was a be there for it proposition. If you wanted to hear Beethoven’s Fifth, you had to be at the concert. If you liked it, you couldn’t pick up a CD to play at home. But you might find someone with a reduced score for piano that you could play or hear performed. The point is, the music had to be performed live. Today, we talk about playing a CD or other digital file, although it can be argued that the recording is a representation of the performance.

Audience decorum has changed. It was common for audiences at one time to applaud wildly after individual movements of a symphony. The movement might even get played again or the composer brought to the stage to take a bow. Now, audience applause between movements is frowned upon.

*  *  *

I don’t know if this is true, but it feels true: certain composers appeal to different people. Or in my case the same composer might have a different appeal at different stages in life. In my case, Tchaikovsky’s symphonies were my favorite earlier in life. Today, it’s Mahler, although this study is reminding me of some forgotten (for example, Beethoven’s Seventh) and neglected (Sibelius’s Fifth) classics. Even Shostakovich isn’t so scary anymore.

One comment

[…] The Ninth is about making all things possible—for starters: orchestra size, performance length, harmonic and rhythmic intensity, and the inclusion of voice and text (I’ve tried to document the ways Beethoven was revolutionary here.) […]

by The Beethoven Revolution « on 15 May 2016 at 10:33 am. #