‘A large-scale orchestral work, usually in four movements, of which at least one is in sonata form.’ My school textbook was reassuringly clear about what a symphony is. Fair enough, as far as it went. But as soon as I started exploring – and aren’t all record collectors, by definition, explorers? – I got as far as Sibelius’s three-movement Fifth before realising that ‘as far as it went’ wasn’t anything like far enough. Back to the dictionary, then, and a question of semantics. Sinfonia means ‘sounding together’, and in early operas like Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo (1697) it described an instrumental interlude or introduction in a drama. (Most of us are familiar with the ‘Pastoral Symphony’ in Handel’s Messiah, and Verdi described his discarded overture to Aida as a sinfonia as late as 1871.)
Baroque operatic sinfonias evolved into the multi-section Italian overture – try Handel’s Rinaldo (1711) for an earlyish example; Mozart’s Symphony No 32 (1779) for a late one – with slow and dance movements (often minuets) entering the mix. By the second half of the 18th century, when composers were regularly writing stand-alone orchestral symphonies (though even Haydn’s ‘London’ Symphonies of 1791-95 were still described as ‘overtures’), another concept comes into play. Hans Keller described it as ‘the large-scale integration of opposites’: the notion of a symphony as a multi-part work that, through a purely musical argument, builds widely different ideas and emotions into something greater than the sum of their parts. Beethoven’s nine symphonies are still regarded as the pinnacle.
But Beethoven was Beethoven – a tough act to follow. Schubert spun off into a whole new world in his ‘Great’ C major Symphony (1826). Schumann and Mendelssohn wrote no two symphonies alike; Brahms and Bruckner wrestled with the form for decades, and Berlioz – beginning with his Symphonie fantastique (1830) and culminating in the choral ‘dramatic symphony’ Roméo et Juliette (1839) – pushed in a different direction: the symphony as epic emotional drama. Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony (1893) made it unambiguously clear: those musical opposites could be integrated by overwhelming emotional power, as well as formal argument.
So at the start of the 20th century Gustav Mahler could declare to Jean Sibelius that ‘The symphony must be like the world – it must embrace everything’. Sibelius had said that he admired the symphony’s inner logic, and it’s hard to imagine two works less alike than Mahler’s colossal Eighth (the ‘Symphony of a Thousand’ – 1907) and Sibelius’s super-concentrated, single-movement Seventh (1924). But both are unmistakably symphonies, in a century when the very word could be a provocation. Stravinsky (Symphonies of Wind Instruments – 1920), Webern (1928) and Berio (Sinfonia – 1969) unpicked three centuries of symphonic tradition; Messiaen (Turangalîla-Symphonie – 1948) and Bernstein (Kaddish – 1963) explored Mahler’s limitless world.
For others, however – from Shostakovich, Nielsen and Vaughan Williams to Aaron Copland, Michael Tippett and Bohuslav Martinů – symphonies were a very public affirmation of human values in a barbaric century. Hans Werner Henze used the symphony to interrogate his own musical heritage. ‘The symphony lives!’ declared an astonished Berlin newspaper after the premiere of Henze’s Seventh in 1984, just months before John Adams’s Harmonielehre rocketed into the Californian sky. Adams didn’t call this a symphony, and that’s understandable. Few musical terms carry such baggage. And to write a symphony, now as then, means engaging with Western music’s most ambitious ongoing attempt to create meaning out of sound; declaring to the world that you have something important to say – and are about to deploy all your creative powers to say it.
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This article originally appeared in the June 2018 issue of Gramophone. To enjoy articles like this every month, simply subscribe to Gramophone