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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

The Story of the Symphony

What follows is a compilation of three radio scripts designed as an overview of the history of the symphony. It's not intended to be an exhaustive survey. It simply aims to provide a few signposts and some historical context for anyone interested in the overall development of this important musical form.


PART 1: Up to 1800

Those of us who know and love classical music are always dealing with forms and structures, different ways in which composers "package" their ideas and present them to the world. In this post we’re going to explore the major form, the most important "package", in orchestral music, as important to music as the novel is to literature. That form is the symphony.

Let’s start by listening to the first few moments of this: [listen]

The most famous of all symphonic openings, that music dates from the early nineteenth century. By that time everybody in Europe probably knew what a symphony was, where it belonged, and what it did. Today we have symphony orchestras which play symphonies and other things besides, but where did symphonies come from?

Let’s go back to that melting pot in time and place which gave to western Europe so many of the forms and even words which are in common musical usage – Italy in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Giovanni Gabrieli was an organist at the basilica of St Mark in Venice between 1585 and 1612. He was the nephew of another leading musician at St Mark’s, Andrea Gabrieli. The younger Gabrieli wrote some of the most sumptuous music for this most sumptuous building, both vocal and instrumental. (See an earlier post in this blog on some of the composers who worked at St Mark’s.)

St Mark's, Venice

This is one of his instrumental works, designed for religious use in a city where processions and public spectacle were as much a part of devotion to God as they were public and civic events. Gabrieli published this work in 1597 in a collection called Sacrae Symphoniae – sacred symphonies. [listen]

The word “symphony” is derived from two Greek words – syn meaning “together” and phōnē meaning “sounding”. This simple origin led to the invention of the Latin word “symphonia”, which was used in the middle ages to describe, among other things, instruments like the bagpipe which could produce more than one note at a time. Another instrument of the middle ages was the hurdy-gurdy, a string instrument operated by the turning of a handle. Several strings sounded at the same time on the hurdy-gurdy, and this led to its name in some languages being derivations of the word “symphonia”. Even as late as 1619, the writer Michael Praetorius used the word “symphonia” to describe stringed keyboard instruments like the harpsichord, because they could produce more than one note at a time.


You’ll note that these early uses of the word all pertain to instruments, and it was because of this that the word eventually came to be attached to instrumental music – music played by different instruments sounding together. This doesn’t mean that there wasn’t some overlap into the world of voices; both Gabrieli and his German pupil Heinrich Schütz wrote “sacred symphonies” which include voices and instruments. The term was used loosely, often overlapping with the word “concerto”, which was used in some contexts to describe a piece which mixed voices and instruments. But by the middle of the 17th century, the word “sinfonia” (to give it its Italian form) was used pretty well exclusively to describe a piece of music for instruments.

The term’s use varied according to local practice. In England and France in the late 1600s, the term symphony could be used to describe an interlude for instruments within a work that used voices. In Purcell’s famous anthem Rejoice in the Lord alway the instrumental introduction and interludes are called “symphonies”. The bass line scales in opening symphony give the anthem its nickname of “the bell anthem”. [listen]

Closterman: Henry Purcell (1695)

In his larger theatre works, Purcell used the term symphony to describe instrumental movements, particularly those with a special character or function. In The Fairy Queen, written in 1692, there is in the third act this beautiful little piece called Symphony while the swans come forward. This dance interlude was designed to cover stage action and provide aural contrast from the many vocal numbers in the piece. [listen]

By the start of the 18th century the term symphony, in whatever language, had narrowed even more to mean an instrumental movement that introduced a larger work, such as an opera or a cantata. In August 1731, JS Bach wrote a cantata for a church service which marked the inauguration of the new Leipzig town council. He took as the basis for this music the prelude to his partita (or suite) in E major for unaccompanied violin, reworking it into a splendid piece for solo organ and full baroque orchestra. The solo organ part, of course, was designed to show off his own performing skills, and this magnificent piece was the regular theme music for my radio program Keys To Music between 2003 and 2017. [listen]

In the world of opera in the early 18th century it was regular practice for composers to write what we would call an overture, an instrumental piece to start the work. The terms overture and symphony were largely interchangable at this time, even in languages other than English. Coming from the French word ouvert meaning “to open”, the term was often used in its French form – ouverture – when the composer was writing what came to be called a “French overture”. The French overture was characterised by a slow and stately introduction, usually using what are known as “dotted” rhythms – long, short, long, short, long. After this slow introduction there followed a faster section which was usually imitative; one part started off, then this was joined by another part playing something similar, and then another part joined, and so forth. Sometimes there was a slow closing section, but not always.

Nearly all of Handel’s operas and oratorios open with a French overture. Here’s the overture from his opera Ariodante, dating from 1735. It conforms perfectly to the French overture form and in Handel's day would have been called a sinfonia or an overture interchangeably by the musicians involved. [listen]

The French overture – so-called because it developed in France in the late 17th century – was immensely popular with many composers, not only Handel. However, like the concerto grosso, that particularly Baroque form of concerto writing beloved of Bach and Handel, the French overture did not have a lasting presence in music beyond the middle of the 18th century. The other form of overture, the “Italian” overture, was the form that would eventually lead to what we now know as the symphony.

The French overture had a slow introduction and a fast main section. The Italian overture was in three sections, fast-slow-fast. Some composers treated the latter fast section as a reprise of the first, while others wrote completely different music for the final fast section.

Here’s an overture from an opera by the German composer Reinhard Keiser. Keiser was immensely popular in his day, writing more than 60 operas. He was a major figure in the mad and wonderful world of opera in Hamburg, which flourished between the 1670s and the 1730s. His opera Croesus was premiered in 1711 and substantially revised for a revival in 1731. In the 1711 version, it opens with a French overture, but moving with the changes of the times, the 1731 version (linked here) opens with a new overture, this time in the Italian fast-slow-fast form. You’ll hear that Keiser treats the second fast section as a reprise of the opening one. [listen]

From the middle of the 18th century there is a very blurred line between Italian overtures designed for the opera house, and concert symphonies in the Italian overture structure. In fact, many composers published their opera overtures as concert symphonies with no reference to the operas from which they came, and sometimes this involved combining and juggling movements from the overtures to different operas. It was only a matter of time before composers wrote concert symphonies in the Italian overture form that never were opera overtures, and thus, the symphony as we know it was born.

The Italian overture continued to be used by composers such as Johann Christian Bach, the youngest son of JS Bach who lived and worked in London and who was such a strong influence on the young Mozart. JC Bach’s opera overtures were regularly published as stand-alone concert symphonies, and he also wrote concert symphonies with no connection to opera. Here’s a typical example of an opera overture which was in three independent movements and which therefore had no real structural difference with the early form of the concert symphony. It’s the overture to JC Bach’s opera Adriano in Siria, which premiered in London in 1765. [listen]

Gainsborough: Johann Christian Bach (1776)

Six years before this, in 1759, a 25 year old composer was just starting to make his way in the world. While working for Count Karl Joseph Franz Morzin in Vienna, Joseph Haydn composed his first symphonies. There were the first of a glorious sequence of 108 or more such works which would see the symphony transformed from a cast off from the opera house to the major form of musical expression in western culture. Haydn’s early symphonies include many in the three movement structure of the Italian overture, but even at this early stage he (and others) experimented with the addition of a fourth movement – a minuet and trio with the minuet repeated – between the slow movement and the final movement. This rapidly became the standard form for the symphony, although composers continued to write symphonies without minuets now and then for the rest of the century.

In his old age, Haydn wasn’t quite sure about the actual order in which his symphonies were written, but he thought that this work, composed around 1759, was his “number one”. It’s in the three movement Italian overture form and takes 12 or 13 minutes to perform. For its day, this music was very modern; bear in mind that this was written around the year Handel died. [listen]

To finish this first part of our survey, I can’t resit playing something that’s pretty marvellous. The JC Bach overture we heard earlier was composed for an opera performed in London in 1763. In the audience at one of the performances was almost certainly the seven year old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, on part of his travels with his father and sister. JC Bach and the boy Mozart knew each other well, and the following year, in 1764 – aged eight – Mozart wrote his own first symphony, a delightful work in three movements. One shouldn’t expect a work such as this to plumb great depths of emotion; the symphony wasn’t doing that in the hands of any composer at the time, let alone a boy, but I can only marvel at this. At the age of eight I wouldn’t have been able to properly copy out this symphony, let alone compose a bar of it. [listen]

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1763)

PART 2: The 19th Century

So far we've covered the various uses of the term "symphony" up to and including the late 18th century, during which the symphony as we know it developed out of the Italian opera overture. Originally a fairly lightweight piece of music in three movements, fast-slow-fast, the symphony by 1800 had become the major form of orchestral music, and by that time it had also taken on an extra movement, a minuet and trio between the slow movement and the finale. The symphony was the equivalent of the novel; that is, it was the pre-eminent form of musical expression in instrumental music. If a composer had major things to say, they were best said in a symphony.

On April 2, 1800, Beethoven’s first symphony [listen] was performed. Right from the start it was evident that Beethoven was not content with merely emulating the style of Haydn and Mozart. Rather, he used classical forms like the symphony, the piano sonata and the string quartet as vehicles for his own special muse. Over the next 24 years, the other eight symphonies appeared, of course in the context of all the other music he wrote. However the nine Beethoven symphonies stand as great towering landmarks of music literature which have influenced composers from that day to this.

Hornemann: Ludwig van Beethoven (1803)

Beethoven single-handedly developed the symphony into a very different sort of work from those which had come before. He showed that the symphonic form could contain depths of expression, and individuality of expression, that neither Haydn nor Mozart could have conceived. All of the Beethoven symphonies cost their composer huge amounts of effort, time and rethinking. Most took years to write, from initial ideas to completion of the score, as the composer’s copious sketchbooks testify.

I love all the Beethoven symphonies, but my favourite is the seventh [listen], which was first performed in December 1813. It’s a magnificent work, with each of the four movements driven by the power of rhythm and obsessed with key relationships a third above or below the home key. The second movement was such a hit at the premiere it had to be immediately encored.

Living in Vienna at the same time as Beethoven was Franz Schubert. 27 years younger than Beethoven, Schubert was without doubt a genius, a composer of rare intellect and sensitivity. The problem was, he lived in Vienna at the same time as Beethoven. Anything he did would be overshadowed by Beethoven in the eyes of many (and especially in the eyes of Schubert himself; see an earlier post in this blog on Beethoven’s contemporaries). He also suffered from the fact that, unlike Beethoven, he was not a virtuoso who could make his mark as a performer as well as a composer. Schubert was an introverted and private person who lacked Beethoven’s boldness in the presence of others.

Schubert found his niche in the writing of small-scale works, most notably art songs for voice and piano which were designed for performance among friends in small informal gatherings, rather than for the concert hall. The German term for such a song is Lied, and the plural, Lieder, is used in musical parlance to describe this form of song.

Rieder: Franz Schubert (1825)

This doesn’t mean that Schubert didn’t attempt larger forms. He wrote operas and orchestral works, including symphonies. His orchestral writing in his first six completed symphonies (all written within a period of four years) is strongly influenced by Mozart and Haydn. Eventually, though, the mark of Beethoven is evident, especially in the last two of his symphonies, although these works also show Schubert had developed his own individual voice as well. The second last symphony was unfinished, with only two movements completed and the third barely begun, but it’s still a much-loved work. The last symphony Schubert did manage to complete was the so-called “Great” C major symphony, a work of enormous scope and vision which is still a challenge to any orchestra that would play it. The last movement, in particular, is utterly exhausting for the strings, because of the triplet and dotted rhythms which are seemingly endless. They make the texture unbelievably exciting and they are a perfect accompaniment to the melodies in the winds and brass, but if the conductor chooses to observe the repeats then the strings know they have to go into serious training to get through it. Schubert never heard this symphony performed; even long after his death it was considered by many orchestras to be simply unplayable. [listen]

Just an point to ponder: Schubert wrote that symphony - his last - at the age of 30, the same age Beethoven was when he wrote his first symphony. Schubert at that age had barely a year to live. Makes you wonder what he might have produced, doesn’t it...?

Beethoven died in 1827, Schubert died the following year. In that year, 1828, a young French composer named Hector Berlioz heard Beethoven’s fifth symphony for the first time and decided to write a symphony of his own. French composers had largely avoided the symphony before then; it was deemed to be a particularly Austro-German form. This virtual lack of antecedents makes the genesis of Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique, which was first performed in 1830, all the more amazing. This symphony comes only three years after the death of Beethoven.

Prinzhofer: Hector Berlioz (1845)

The Symphonie Fantastique would without doubt have come as a complete shock to those who heard it in 1830. For a Frenchman to take the symphony as a form was one thing, but to so thoroughly personalise it was quite another. Not even Beethoven would have dared write something so bold, so individual, so shocking. Yet Berlioz takes Beethoven’s sixth symphony (the Pastoral) as a starting point in two respects. Both the Pastoral and the Symphonie Fantastique have five movements, instead of the more usual four. And Berlioz adds to the usually abstract form of the symphony a narrative thread, called a “program”. Beethoven’s Pastoral symphony was programmatic, with the movements depicting things in sound – a scene by a brook or a thunderstorm, for example. In the Symphonie Fantastique Berlioz makes the symphony more dramatic, more “programmatic” than Beethoven could have imagined. It tells the story of an artist who, spurned by the woman he loves, turns to opium for solace. The first movement tells of his dreams and passions, while in the second he dreams of seeing her at a lavish ball. In the third movement he dreams of wandering the open countryside, lost in the contemplation of his unattainable love. In the fourth he dreams he has murdered her and is sent to the guillotine, while in the fifth movement he dreams of his soul being tormented in a witches’ sabbath. This “symphony of fantasy” (a better translation than "fantastic symphony") contains some of the most challenging, and for its time, completely unprecedented orchestral writing. Berlioz was largely self-taught as a composer and this enabled him to move in new directions and create new sounds with the orchestra at a time when the orchestra itself was growing and developing into the ensemble we know today. It’s so full of innovations it’s impossible to cover it adequately here, but most startling of all was Berlioz’ use of an idée fixe, a recurring little melody that we encounter in every movement symbolising the unattainable beloved. No-one had ever done that in a symphony before. In the ballroom of the second movement, for example, he sees her across a crowded room of dancers swirling in an intoxicating waltz. [listen]

The posthumous first performance of Schubert’s final symphony took place in 1839, nine years after Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique and eleven years after Schubert’s death. This enterprise was the work of two other famous composers: Robert Schumann, whose idea it was to perform the piece, and Felix Mendelssohn, who conducted. Schumann, like Schubert, was more at home in the intimate forms of Lieder and piano music, but he did venture into the worlds of opera and symphony. His first symphony (the "Spring" symphony) was composed as a direct result of his hearing of the Schubert symphony, and in all he completed four symphonies, between 1841 and 1852. The third symphony, written in late 1850, has the nickname of the “Rhenish” symphony, meaning to do with the Rhine. The work is cast in five movements and in celebrating the rich legendary and historical associations of the Rhineland, it’s one of Schumann’s most joyful creations. Here’s how the “Rhenish” symphony ends. [listen]

In the second half of the 19th century there was an interesting contradiction in the world of composition. The 19th century tended to shy away, philosophically, from more classical forms like symphonies and sonatas, and yet composers usually had to have a go at writing at least some works in these forms. Works in freer forms which were less-regularly structured – like the intermezzo, ballade, tone poem or prelude – these are the works which to me seem to really sum up the romantic ethos.

But despite this, composers, even the most wildly romantic ones, wrote more formal works, even if they were sometimes failures. Edvard Grieg and Richard Wagner each wrote a symphony, works that are quite forgotten these days, and Camille Saint-Säens is famous for his third symphony (the “organ” symphony), although his two earlier symphonies are pretty well forgotten now as they are unimportant student works. Franz Liszt wrote programmatic symphonies based on Goethe and Dante, but his best orchestral works to my mind are the single-movement tone poems.

In Vienna in the late 19th century composers (and music lovers) tended to align themselves into one of two camps – those who followed Wagner and those who followed Brahms. The two composers’ styles were seen as completely incompatible, as were the works of those composers who subscribed to one or other camp. Given this, it’s interesting that two composers, Brahms himself and the enigmatic Anton Bruckner (an ardent Wagnerian), are both nowadays remembered for their symphonies. Bruckner, born in 1824, didn’t complete his symphony first symphony until he was into his 40s. He heard his first Wagner – a performance of Tannhäuser – in 1863 and it instantly made him a disciple. Bruckner’s devotion to Wagner’s sound-world, if not his personal philosophy, was immediate and complete. While writing the second movement of his seventh symphony, in February 1883, Bruckner received the news that Wagner had died: it was 20 years to the day since he first heard Tannhäuser and the vast slow movement of the seventh became a gigantic funeral oration for Wagner. This movement alone takes more than 20 minutes – Bruckner wrote on a vast scale – and no survey of the 19th century symphony would be complete without a reference to this extraordinary composer. [listen]

Anton Bruckner (1886)

Brahms, who was close to being an exact contemporary of Bruckner, called Bruckner’s music “symphonic boa constrictors, a swindle that will be forgotten in a few years”. Thankfully Brahms was wrong. Bruckner also had his supporters, who maligned Brahms in statements like this one from the composer Hugo Wolf: “One cymbal crash by Bruckner is worth the four symphonies of Brahms, with the serenades thrown in”.

Thankfully that point of view is also as wrong as it is extreme. The four symphonies of Brahms, while not conceived on the scale of Bruckner, are masterpieces nonetheless, and unlike Bruckner, they continue clearly the tradition where Beethoven left off in the 1820s. Brahms’ first symphony took him something like fifteen years’ work, and it was completed in 1876. The second symphony, by contrast, was finished the following year! The third symphony was completed in 1883, and in 1885 Brahms finished his fourth and final symphony. Bruckner’s seventh, linked above, was premiered in 1884, right at the time Brahms was writing his own fourth symphony, and the contrast between the two works is stark. Brahms’ style is compact, classical, even baroque in its clarity, yet completely suffused with his own deeply-felt romanticism. [listen]

Johannes Brahms (1889)

And so to the last decade of the 19th century. Bruckner died in 1896, with the finale of his ninth symphony incomplete. Brahms died the following year. A few years before, in 1893, the Russian composer Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky completed his own sixth and final symphony. It was an extraordinary work, and one which has been the focus of enormous speculation ever since. Tchaikovsky’s first three symphonies are interesting works, but they don’t stand out from the other Russian symphonies of the period. Then, in 1877, he produced his fourth symphony, a dynamic, fascinating and innovative work that was joined by the fifth symphony in 1888. After failed attempts to write a symphony in 1892, Tchaikovsky wrote his sixth symphony in a burst of creative activity in 1893. It was radical in many respects, but most notably for two reasons. Firstly, the graceful second movement is in the unusual time signature of 5/4, five beats in the bar, a time signature rarely used before then. Secondly, the final movement, rather than being the traditional fast finale with a great climax, is a long slow movement, full of sadness and foreboding. This unusual ending helped fuel speculation when in the November of 1893, only six days after the symphony’s premiere, Tchaikovsky suddenly died; to this day nobody really knows why.

Whatever the circumstances of his death, there is no doubting that Tchaikovsky’s sixth is one of the great symphonies, a towering and moving masterpiece of the first order. The morning after the premiere Tchaikovsky discussed the idea of title for the symphony with his brother, Modest. After suggesting calling it the “tragic” symphony, Modest then came up with the Russian word pateticheskoy which the composer immediately liked and wrote on the score. He later changed his mind about the title, which is usually printed now in French – pathétique – but it has remained. In English this word is best translated as having shades of both “tragic” or “emotional”, emotions that seem to pervade much of the symphony, even in the graceful waltz-like 5/4 movement. [listen]

If the 19th century seems to be a century in which the symphony went through enormous change, then wait till we look at the 20th century. The 19th century saw the individual composer become much more visible, but despite its expansion harmony largely remained intact. In the 20th century nothing was sacred and this led to the symphony being used to describe the greatest joys and the greatest horrors known to man.

PART 3: The 20th Century

I’ve often wondered how composers at the start of the 20th century felt about the times in which they lived. In the years immediately following 1900, the western world was poised to become, in Aldous Huxley’s words, both brave and new, but like all periods in history, only the past and the present were certain.

In 1973 Leonard Bernstein gave the Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard University, and after performing part of Ravel’s Rapsodie Espagnol he spoke about the year in which it was written, 1908. He said in part:

1908, if the truth be told, is not all that safe in its tonal mansions. Far from it; there’s something else in the air; a disturbance, a prescient feeling that all this smug optimism can’t last – neither tonality, nor figurative painting, nor syntactical poetry, nor indeed, the seemingly endless growth of the bourgeoisie, or of colonial wealth, or of imperial power. Sensitive minds are hinting at a social collapse, a monstrous World War...At the same time, Mahler is writing his Ninth Symphony, agonizing over its reluctant and protracted farewell to tonality....This too, is 1908.

Bernstein could very well have included this music in his summary, which was first performed that same year. [listen]

The first symphony of the English composer Sir Edward Elgar was written when he was fifty. It builds on the music he had created in the years before 1908, most notably the Enigma Variations, Sea Pictures, and the three oratorios The Dream of Gerontius, The Apostles, and The Kingdom. The first symphony was received with wild enthusiasm when first performed, and it had 100 performances within a year. It was dubbed “Brahms’ Fifth” by some parts of the British press, just as Brahms’ own first symphony had been nicknamed “Beethoven’s Tenth” when it appeared.

Edward Elgar (c. 1900)

Symphonies in the 20th century tended to take one of two paths. Sometimes they were monumental musical statements, like both of Elgar’s symphonies. This was a logical extension of the symphony as it was at the end of the 19th century. The symphonies of Bruckner, Brahms, Tchaikovsky and their contemporaries were all large-scale works. Gustav Mahler’s symphonies took the term “large-scale” to greater extremes, both in terms of length and in terms of emotional depth (not to mention the size of his musical forces), and many composers in the 20th century followed the spirit of this approach: the symphony was regarded as the grand orchestral statement, the magnum opus in the world of instrumental music.

Gustav Mahler (1907)

Mahler’s eighth symphony (composed in 1906 and premiered in 1910) is his most monumental, scored for a huge body of performers both instrumental and vocal. It encompasses perhaps more than any of his works his notion that a symphony should embrace the whole world. [listen]

The other approach to the symphony – and to composition in general in some respects – was a reaction against this. This view seemed to regard the symphony as having reached its point of maximum scope. It couldn’t continue to grow for ever, and so a return to the roots, the origins, of the symphony was called for: a smaller scale, with smaller orchestras, a new look at the classicism of Haydn and Mozart. Throughout the twentieth century many composers passed through a so-called “neo-classical” phase (see an earlier post in this blog on this), when their music sought refuge and new inspiration in the forms and sounds of the 18th century. In that most turbulent of years in Russia – 1917 – a young Russian composer did exactly this with his first symphony. He wrote for a Haydn-sized orchestra, and approached the writing of a symphony with the thought, “what would Haydn write if he were alive today?” This was the result. [listen]

This is the music of the 26 year old Sergei Prokofiev, his first symphony, nicknamed the “Classical” symphony. Of course, the use of a neo-classical style in that work doesn’t mean that all of Prokofiev’s works could be so classified. The fact is, though, that Prokofiev’s style is clearly tonal, and his structures, melodies, accompaniments and harmonies - in fact, everything about his music - is crystal clear, razor sharp.

In all Prokofiev wrote seven symphonies, the others being on a much larger scale than the “Classical” symphony. One of his contemporaries, the Finnish composer Jan Sibelius, also produced seven symphonies, and at the time Prokofiev was writing his first symphony, Sibelius was at work revising his fifth and composing his sixth. Sibelius’s sixth symphony, first performed in February 1923, was written at a time of crisis for the composer, then in his mid-50s. Increasing self-doubt, changing fortunes with the musical public, and a losing battle with alcoholism marked this period of his life. His works became more distilled, more focussed and less grandiose as he got older. There’s a classical restraint in the sixth, evidenced by his focussing on the strings and winds, with a relatively sparing use of the brass. The work is at once detached and yet touching, with an air of simplicity that belies the complexity of thought that must have gone into its creation. It’s not neo-classical but it’s certainly moving away from the big, monolithic symphonies of Mahler. [listen]

The four works I’ve mentioned so far in this part – Elgar’s and Prokofiev’s first symphonies, Mahler’s eighth and Sibelius’ sixth – were all written within the space of fifteen years. This is quite extraordinary and demonstrates the way in which composers in the 20th century wrote music in their own individual styles.

Perhaps no composer in the 20th century demonstrates this more than Igor Stravinsky. Stravinsky’s earliest works date from the dawn of the 20th century, and they reflect very much his study with that bastion of the Russian musical establishment, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. [listen]

If you don’t know this music, you might almost be tempted to think that it’s by Rimsky-Korsakov or another of the Russian romantics. Stravinsky’s Symphony in E flat, Op. 1, was written between 1905 and 1907. It shows that Stravinsky had completely assimilated and mastered the late romantic style of his teacher. Within a decade, however, he’d developed his own very different style, not by rejecting romanticism, but by developing it, pushing it to its limits in his own way, and chiselling out a new, exciting and dynamic sound world of his own. In that decade, Stravinsky was concerned with ballets rather than symphonies, and it's the period in which he created The Firebird, Petrushka, and The Rite of Spring.

In the late 1920s, though, Stravinsky underwent what is sometimes described as a major shift in his style, when he embraced neo-classicism. Many composers in the first half of the 20th century looked back to the forms and the “feel” of 18th century music for inspiration, but in Stravinsky’s case it was a logical development of where his style was going, and in reinterpreting classicism, Stravinsky rediscovered the symphony. In 1920 he had written a work in his early modern style called Symphonies of Wind Instruments which showed him even at that stage thinking of forms of the past. This work is in a single movement with contrasting sections, and shows Stravinsky using the term “symphony” in the same way Gabrieli would have used it in the sixteenth century. Between 1930 and 1947, though, the dates that span his preoccupation with neo-classicism, Stravinsky produced his major orchestral symphonies.

Igor Stravinsky

In 1930 came the Symphony of Psalms, a three movement work for choir and orchestra which reflects so many of Stravinsky’s preoccupations. We see religious faith (yet a faith kept at arm’s length). We see a highly individual approach to the orchestra (the work has no violins, violas or clarinets, but it includes two pianos and many more flutes, oboes and trumpets than was usual). And we see Stravinsky’s ability to grab the listener with melodic lines and rhythmic cells that always keep us involved. [listen]

Nine years later, in 1939, Stravinsky began his Symphony in C, which he completed the following year. A more classical title you couldn’t come up with. The work is slightly acerbic, always interesting, with a drive that sweeps us up in its momentum. [listen]

In 1942 Stravinsky started to write a work for orchestra which had a prominent piano part, not unlike the way Petrushka had featured the piano three decades earlier. Before long this developed into Stravinsky’s last essay in the symphonic form, the Symphony in Three Movements. One of his most powerful and dynamic works, the Symphony in Three Movements could very well be used to summarise all of Stravinsky’s work in the first half of the 20th century. [listen]

By the early 1950s Stravinsky was heading in a completely different direction, writing in a serial style at a time when most composers had abandoned it, and he wrote no more symphonies.

I’ve spent a lot of time on Stravinsky, and perhaps surprisingly so, as he’s not primarily remembered these days as a symphonic composer. Yet I feel that he is one of the three Russian-born composers who gave to the 20th century undeniably “classic” works in the symphonic form. Of the others, Prokofiev I’ve already mentioned. However, there can be no doubt that the major contribution to the symphony in the 20th century was made by the other Russian composer of these three: Dmitri Shostakovich.

No survey of the 20th century symphony can omit Shostakovich. His first symphony was completed in 1925 when he was just 19. It’s a stunningly brilliant work which caused a sensation at its premiere. It heralded the start of a major career as a composer of more than just symphonies of course, but the fifteen symphonies of Shostakovich span his entire creative life, the last being written in 1971, four years before his death. The first symphony sounds amazingly fresh even today and it can still hold its own in the concert hall against any symphony by any other composer. [listen]

A huge amount has been written about Shostakovich and his eternal struggle against the Soviet regime, which sought to stifle his creative voice (and those of countless others, of course) time and time again. Shostakovich’s life is reflected in his symphonies, all of which are major orchestral essays, tantalisingly full of hidden meanings and ambiguous messages which are still the source of much divergent opinion today. When taken as a whole his symphonies are a moving, staggering testament to one man’s depth of feeling.

Dmitri Shostakovich (c. 1950)

The fifth symphony appeared in 1937. Having received serious criticism for his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, Shostakovich knew he was required by the authorities to produce something which could be interpreted as upbeat and positive. The fifth symphony contains moments of severity, and moments of aching beauty, such as the third movement. [listen]

At times in his symphonies Shostakovich reveals his very well-developed sense of irony, even satire. He was, despite the darkness of his life and much of his music, capable of a black humour. This is clearly evident in his ninth symphony, composed in 1945. By the middle of the 20th century, the writing of a ninth symphony had taken on an aura, a mystique. It was supposed to be a major work – something which grew out of the fact that Beethoven’s last and biggest symphony is his ninth, and Schubert, Dvořák, Mahler and Bruckner all concluded their symphonic careers with their ninth symphonies. Shostakovich thumbs his nose at this, and turned his ninth into one of his most playful works. The two obsessive notes on the trombone, first heard within the first minute, seem to fly in the face of tradition. [listen]

This too-brief mention of Shostakovich omits some of the century’s most overwhelming music: the siege of Leningrad as depicted in the 7th symphony, the incredible power of the 10th, the bleak despair of the 13th and the autobiographical last will and testament of the 15th. It’s pretty amazing stuff.

Of course, the 20th century saw symphonies come from almost every country, despite the domination of the Russian-born composers I’ve referred to. In the United States, the enigmatic and individual Charles Ives wrote four symphonies, and the seven little-known but actually highly significant symphonies of Howard Hanson, who died in 1981, have yet to become widely-known. The same could be said of the fourteen symphonies of Roy Harris, who is sometimes described as an “American Janáček”. Other important American composers who wrote symphonies include Samuel Barber, William Schuman, and the prolific Alan Hovhaness, who wrote – wait for it - 67 symphonies. (The current record number, though, must surely belong to the Finnish conductor/composer/violinist Leif Segerstam. As of January 2020 he had written 337 symphonies. That’s not a typo.)

Even the most famous of all American composers, Aaron Copland, wrote symphonies which are little-known today. His first work to be given the title “symphony” was the Symphony for Organ and Orchestra, dating from 1924. This was revised in 1928 as a work for orchestra without organ, and this version was designated his official first symphony. In 1930 Copland devised a work from an earlier ballet score and called it a Dance Symphony, but this was not given a number as part of his symphonic canon. The official second symphony came in 1933, a Stravinsky-like neo-classical work called the Short Symphony. This work was premiered in Mexico in 1934 but had to wait ten years before it was heard in the United States, because many conductors and orchestras balked at its rhythmic complexities.

Copland’s final symphony, his third, appeared in 1946, and it’s an epic work of full symphonic proportions and classic grandeur. It combines both the folksy, popular side of Copland’s output (as known from his much-loved Rodeo, Billy the Kid, and Appalachian Spring ballet scores) and the more serious and austere side of his music. Before the finale, the symphony quotes his famous Fanfare for the Common Man, written four years before in 1942, but the rest of the work proves that Copland was one of the greats. [listen]

So, what about Australia? Two composers spring to mind in the symphonic context: Carl Vine and Ross Edwards. Carl Vine was born in Perth in 1954 and as of 2020 his output includes eight symphonies. Vine’s style is in some respects reminiscent of Copland’s: a blend of rhythmic vitality and melodic invention which is engaging and at times intoxicating. An excellent example of this is the wild tarantella which concludes the fifth symphony, composed in 1995, which is nicknamed the “percussion” symphony. It features, almost as soloists, four percussionists who play a staggering array of instruments against the force of a full symphony orchestra. This is how the symphony ends. [listen]

Carl Vine

Of a completely different ilk are the symphonies of Ross Edwards, who was born in 1943. He has to date written five symphonies, which tend to be inward-looking and meditative in tone. The first is called Symphony Da Pacem Domine and dates from 1991. The Latin title comes from the Gregorian chant for the Requiem Mass and means “Give peace, Lord.” It has a double application in the case of this particular work. It was begun during the first Gulf War in 1991, and the tone of the piece is profoundly affected by the illness of the Australian conductor Stuart Challender, to whom the work is dedicated and who died shortly after it was completed. It’s in a single continuous movement lasting about half an hour, and it really needs to be experienced complete in order to appreciate its extraordinary power. [listen]

Ross Edwards

The symphony isn’t dead. It doesn’t even smell funny. It’s alive and viable and still offering composers a framework, even if it’s only a conceptual framework, for their ideas. I can only wonder what will become of it by the end of our century.

This article is based on a series of three Keys To Music programs first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in August, 2003. Revised versions of these programs were broadcast in August and September, 2009.

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