Symphony Studies: What I’ve learned so far

by Glenn on January 13, 2016

Based on what I’ve read and heard these past months, I would say this about the history of the symphony. It’s a story in three parts:

Part One—Haydn and Mozart

1. Haydn more or less codified (and Mozart appropriated) the idea of a symphony as a collection of contrasting movements in related keys. While early on Haydn played with the number of movements, as he continued composing, a symphony commonly consisted of four movements.

2. While tempos change from movement to movement, within a movement the tempo normally stayed consistent so that each movement could be described in terms of its overall tempo or mood: allegro, lento, menuetto, vivace, etc. The one exception is the first movement, which sometimes began with a short, but slow, introduction.

3. The operating principle for putting movements together as a symphony was the gentle juxtaposition of speed and/or meter, which could be any combination of fast vs. slow or major vs. minor or 4/4 time vs. 3/4 or 6/8. While the Haydn and Mozart symphonies are not cookie cutters, as there are distinctions and particulars that make each of their symphonies unique and memorable, in the larger stream of history there is a kind of homogeneity to these early symphonies. They aren’t so different from each other.

4. The opening movement was the weightiest and usually followed sonata form. The middle movements would include a slower one with a lovely tune and a minuet and trio which, because it is usually in three, feels like music appropriated from dance for the purpose of listening. An upbeat conclusion often followed in rondo form (a-b-a-c-a-b-a).

Part Two—Beethoven

5. Haydn made the rules, and then Beethoven broke them. Beethoven was the possibility maker for all who follow him. Beethoven:
—stretched key relationships;
—altered tempos within the same movement;
—increased dissonance;
—moved the weight of the symphony toward the end of the work; 1
—added extra-musical meaning to the music;2
—expanded the size of the orchestra and made interesting instrumental inclusions, including the human voice;
—connected movements to each other both physically, as he did with the 3rd and 4th movements in his Fifth Symphony, and thematically, as he did in the Ninth, reintroducing ideas from the earlier movements.

Part Three—Everything after Beethoven aka In Beethoven’s Long Shadow

6. The operating principle since Beethoven: Do what you want. Of course you need to find people who will underwrite, perform, and listen to your music but, then, do what you want. A symphony is hard to define, now, but I think it’s safe to say it’s a label supplied by a composer for a musical work for a classical orchestra.

The “rules”:
—You can have one movement or you can have many movements;
—You can write a short work or you can go on and on (Mahler’s Third for example in the common repertory, or Havergal Brian’s Gothic Symphony in its one-off excesses and limited performance history);
—Your orchestra can be small (e.g. for Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony) or a “Symphony of a Thousand” (see Mahler, Gustav);
—You can include just about any instrument (Mahler is my favorite for his inclusion of cow bells, but he also threw in mandolin, alternately tuned violin, and off-stage this and that, etc.);
—You may connect your music to a program so that it represents life in some way or you can declare your music to be “absolute,” free from those associations—”it is what it is” as we might say, don’t read too much into it.
—(With Sibelius still in mind, and nearly a hundred years after Beethoven) it’s as though symphonies can be discussed in terms of personalities now—some of them quite strong. Rather than describing a movement as a particular tempo, it’s more about affect. And the collective affect within a symphony means that you can describe a symphony nearly in psychological terms—brooding and cerebral, for example, which is the way I would describe Sibelius’s Fourth Symphony.

* * *

One of the questions I am considering as I take this journey through Steinberg’s selection of symphonies is to what extent should a Christian be listening to this music? If following Christ has a behavioral component (and I think most of us would agree that it does even if we wouldn’t quite be able to get together on either the motivation for it or the way in which it is manifested), then to what extent should a Christian either pay attention to or forsake this music?

I’ll admit, I take some sort of pride, I guess we can call it, in listening to symphonic music. During the Christmas—er, Holiday—season that just passed, I am more than normally aware of the music that is piped into the businesses I visit. I’m going to call it the soundtrack of commerce—the music we hear as we run our errands and participate in the shopping economy. This is music designed to be heard but not necessarily listened to.  One of its qualities is that it will be heard. It’s ubiquitous—the store without music is an oddity (and an oasis) during Christmas3—and sufficiently loud (one store designed for teenagers where we looked for presents for the nieces was excessively loud) to make hearing it unavoidable.

And yet you run into a couple of problems that discourage real listening. First, the noise of commerce is distracting. If the music is too much about details, those details will be lost. Second, it’s music without much of a dynamic range. The music operates at a fairly uniform volume. You are never forced to lean in or pull back (except that one store for teenagers).

I don’t think I’m that elitist. There’s a lot of Christmas music in the malls that I do enjoy.4 And there’s certainly a lot of it that is appealing. But I wonder if it’s a little like food. There is something pretty satisfying about sugar, salt, and fat in the diet. We can be judgmental and say, “McDonald’s sucks,” or we can admit there is a certain attraction to it—fast and cheap and, as far as good, well, sugar, salt, and fat do have a way of speaking to us, don’t they?

The problem with fast food is not that it doesn’t taste good, but it is addictive and pretty unhealthy. The food is actually engineered to entice us and we end up consuming that which kills us.

And maybe this is the way music functions as well: put the right groove to something and it goes down easy. Without making a point to say that this or that music is good or bad, I think we should be able to agree that just as there are meals that are better and worse for us, with music there is better and worse. For now I am going to say that the Western symphonic tradition is among the best music available to me. I believe I am called to pursue the best. I think that is a Christian impulse.

This symphonic music, whatever we call it, is not pushed forward by our culture. It would either be drowned out by or disturbing to the business of shopping. We have to go searching for it. We need to find a quiet place (which could mean being alone or gathering with other quiet people) to experience it. We are lucky we live in the time we do. Just over a hundred years ago, the only way to hear music was to hear it performed live, whether it was you or someone(s) else playing it. Today we have options. (Understatement.)

One thing that needs to be said: There are great artists performing in every arena of music and I enjoy many types of music. The first Christmas song I heard this past season—more than a week before Thanksgiving in a big box-style office supply warehouse—was Diana Krall’s “Sleigh Ride,” if I recall correctly. She is a phenomenal musician.



1Prior to Beethoven the finale was a playful finish. Now the final movement had become a destination. You really experience this in Beethoven’s Ninth, when the themes from each of the preceding movements are reprised briefly and rejected before we stumble into the theme that will dominate the last movement. And, oh yeah, we added soloists and a choir just to make sure you understood this last movement was significant.

2With the extra-musical allusions in the Pastoral Sympony (Number 6) you have both the music and what the music is pointing to. There is debate how specific Beethoven’s meaning is, but there’s no doubt that he opens a door to an idea that Berlioz crashes open. The music is not just sound, but it is a representation of something in the world.

3Read this tweet the other day from Miroslav Volf. He’s right, of course.

4Although I have reached my soul’s threshold for “For We Need A Little Christmas.” I think there was a little glitch in the cable streaming service a few years and, wow, did it ever get played a lot. I still have not titrated down to safe levels—sorry Angela and Johnny.


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[…] 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): […]

by Symphony Studies: Mid-Term Report « on 1 May 2016 at 8:20 pm. #