Friday, July 6, 2007

Reading a Good Symphony

I think I have mentioned before that, to me, listening to a symphony is often as satisfying as reading a good book. All my posts about composers were therefore a preparation for this new thread, where I will share some ideas on how you, too, can enjoy and appreciate the remarkable art form of the symphony.

First, a general definition of a symphony. Symphony is a Greek word meaning a gathering of sounds. On the most basic level, it is an ordered collection of musical sounds, "sounding together" either simultaneously or in order. Before the symphony as we know it was invented, related words were used to describe such things as the 15 "sinfonias" of J. S. Bach (short keyboard pieces written in three "parts," or "voices," layered on each other and weaving together in counterpoint). Composers a generation later, including C. P. E. Bach, were writing sinfonias (or symphonies) for orchestra.

So, very broadly speaking, the symphony is a musical form originating in the 18th century, that continued to flourish well into the 20th century, and that is still (in some form or other) used by composers to this day. The Symphony is a major piece of music, written for a combination of instruments; a concert piece that can stand on its own, without being attached to an opera, ballet, film, etc.

It is usually (but not always) a purely instrumental piece, scored primarily for a group of violin-type string instruments, usually (but not always) with the addition of wind instruments and some percussion. The size and variety of this orchestra varies from piece to piece, as does the length of the symphony, though these dimensions tended to grow from one generation to another. So, for example, the earliest symphonies may have been written for an orchestra of 12 to 20 string players, plus pairs of oboes and French horns, and lasted about 15 minutes; by its premiere in 1910, Gustav Mahler's "Symphony of a Thousand" ran for 80 minutes and required an orchestra of 100-200 musicians, including keyboards, percussion, harps, and mandolins, plus a choir four times that size - this picture of the piece's American premiere shows 1,068 performers!

Now it is time for your first assignment. If you haven't ever listened to any symphonies, from beginning to end; or, if you have listened to them, but didn't know enough about what you were hearing to enjoy them or understand them - I'm going to take a wild stab at what might be the best symphonies for you to start with. Going out on a limb now: here are a "baker's dozen" of symphonies that, in my opinion, live at the core of the symphonic repertoire. In a future post I will share some observations about these symphonies, and how they represent the nature of symphonies in general.
  • Haydn (F. Joseph), Symphony No. 94 in G major, the "Surprise" Symphony
  • Haydn, Symphony No. 98 in B-flat major
  • Mozart (Wolfgang A.), Symphony No. 40 in G minor
  • Mozart, Symphony No. 41 in C major, the "Jupiter" Symphony
  • Beethoven (Ludwig van), Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, the "Eroica" (Heroic) Symphony
  • Beethoven, Symphony No. 5 in C minor
  • Beethoven, Symphony No. 7 in A major
  • Schubert (Franz P.), Symphony No. 8 in B minor, the "Unfinished" Symphony
  • Schubert, Symphony No. 9 in C major, the "Great" Symphony
  • Mendelssohn (Felix), Symphony No. 4 in A major, the "Italian" Symphony
  • Schumann (Robert), Symphony No. 1 in B-flat major, the "Spring" Symphony
  • Brahms (Johannes), Symphony No. 2 in D major
  • Brahms, Symphony No. 3 in F major
It's hard to narrow the "core" down even this much. I am leaving out a lot of really important and wonderful symphonies (such as Beethoven's 9th), many of which put a particular "spin" or "twist" on the essential format of the symphony. These are the ones that I think best represent the basic format, for those just beginning to appreciate what a symphony has to offer.

There are several ways you can go about completing this assignment. The fastest and simplest way will be to go online to Amazon or ArkivMusic, or to a store (such as Borders) that sells classical CDs, and buy CDs of these symphonies. This could get to be very expensive, though, so you might want to opt for a cheaper and probably slower method, such as checking out classical CDs at your neighborhood public library, spending time with headphones plugged into a CD player at a local college's music library, borrowing the CDs from somebody you know, or even just waiting for the pieces to pop up on a classical radio station (which may take quite a while, but by then you will have heard a wide variety of things).

Finally, here are some specific "landmarks" for you to watch for as you explore the new musical territory you are about to enter.
  1. As you compare the play-list on your CDs of these symphonies, you might notice that symphonies tend to have 4 movements. This isn't always the case. There are one-, two-, and three- movement symphonies; there are symphonies with more than 4 movements. Schubert's "Unfinished" has two (because it's, well, unfinished). It is the only exception to the usual pattern in the above list of works.
  2. Each movement will end in the same key in which it started. In between, it will move first to a closely-related key, then through any number of other keys on its way back to the "home" key, or tonic. The way a particular movement maps its journey through various keys and back to the tonic, is a key aspect of the musical form of that movement.
  3. The first and last movement will be in the same key, unfinished symphonies excluded. So even if the "slow movement" goes off into a different tonal area, the whole symphony will end with an overall sense arriving at home again.
  4. Movement 1 may start with a slow introduction. This is a hold-over to the form of a typical opera overture, from which the symphony evolved.
  5. Movement 1 will usually be somewhat fast, but probably not as fast as the last movement. Many composers seemed to treat the first movement, or perhaps the first two movements, as the most serious part of the symphony, focusing their craftmanship there so that the movement(s) could almost stand on their own. The title of the first movement will often be "Allegro," with or without some additional words - traditionally, Italian words indicating how fast the piece should be played.
  6. Movement 2 will usually be a slow movement, often with words like "Andante," "Adagio," or "Largo" in the title. These Italian terms indicate a slower tempo.
  7. Movement 3 will usually be a "Minuet and Trio" or a "Scherzo." The former is a stylized dance movement with kind of an "oom-pah-pah" accompaniment, which was considered the height of culture at the time of Haydn and Mozart. It may be headed by a self-explanatory tempo marking like "Tempo di Menuetto." The latter is more of a light, playful interlude, sometimes of a humorous nature, sometimes macabre. In some symphonies the order of movements 2 and 3 is reversed (cf. Schumann, for instance).
  8. Movement 4 will typically be a quick finale, often with Italian words in its title, such as "Vivace" (lively) or "Presto" (rapid).
As you listen, try to make note of musical themes which stand out of the general profusion of notes in several ways:

(A) Themes are usually announced clearly and distinctly, in a melody line that shines out clearly over the other parts, if not a grand unison passage where the whole orchestra plays the tune together.

(B) After one or two themes have been introduced, there may or may not be contrasting material - but a true theme will come back again, so you can hear it more than once. In any given piece of music, the theme is like the subject of an essay; everything is structured around it, so that your mind has something to hang onto, and so that the overall "argument" of the piece makes sense.

(C) How the themes are used will be another major factor in the structure, or form, of a movement (in addition to how the piece moves through various keys and ends up in the tonic again). Many symphonies include variations on a theme, perhaps in the slow movement or in the finale. Other forms, such as sonata and rondo, use themes differently. You'll find out more about them in my next post. For now, simply recognizing the themes and listening for their reappearance will be a big help as you begin to enjoy reading a good symphony!

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