What is a... Symphony?

Stephen Johnson gets to grips with classical music's technical terms

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What is a... Symphony?
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It's sobering to consider how much argument there’s been over the years about what constitutes a ‘real’ symphony.

Surely, you might think, if a piece of music works, and the composer chooses to call it ‘Symphony’, that’s an end to matter? Oh, dear me, no. Intellectual battles have been fought long and hard over whether a symphony should have a title or a literary programme, or whether it should be pure, ‘absolute’ music.

Not just intellectual battles: there are reports of fistfights between supporters of Brahms (the classical, ‘absolute’ symphony) and Liszt (the descriptive programme-symphony).

Controversy even touches on seemingly minor details of instrumentation: critics of Franck’s Symphony argued that it couldn’t be the genuine article as it included a cor anglais; Bruckner similarly struggled for weeks against the impulse to put harps in his Eighth.

So is there anything that can be said about symphonies in general which sets them apart? Well, for one thing, it isn’t form. Symphonies can have any number of ‘movements’ from ten (Messiaen’s Turangalîla) to one (Sibelius’s Seventh).

You may be able to identify outlines of classical ‘sonata form’, ‘variation’, ‘scherzo’ or ‘rondo’… but the intellectual process may in fact be closer to watching a speeded-up film of a plant growing from seed to full flower.

This notion of growth gives us a clue. In the overwhelming majority of symphonies, from Haydn’s ‘Clock’ to John Adams’s Doctor Atomic, some notion of process, of sustained movement from A to B, seems to be fundamental.

In some 18th- and early 19th-century concerts, movements of symphonies were performed with other items in between; yet it seems that listeners returned to the symphony with a sense of unfinished business: only when the finale had played its part was the intellectual and emotional journey over. 

And ‘journey’ is the mot juste. As in the novel, which came to prominence at the time the classical symphony was beginning to define itself, an element of narrative is crucial. And as with the novel, some kind of conflict is usually what sets it in motion. To borrow a phrase from William Blake: ‘Without contraries there is no progression’.

For a six-word summary of the spirit of symphony, you could do a lot worse than that.

This article was first published in the July 2013 issue of BBC Music Magazine

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