“When we speak of a “symphony orchestra,” a “symphony concert” or a work of “symphonic” dimension, we refer implicitly to a concept of the “symphony” which, at least since the time of Beethoven’s significant creation of his nine symphonies, has become essential to our modern understanding of music.
In fact, around 1800, in conjunction with the concept and term “symphony,” the meaning of music in multiple parts demanded by orchestral ensembles received a tremendous impetus. It found a representative status that corresponded to the new middle-class understanding of society and culture. In the symphony, the modern understanding of the world and of existence could be depicted as well as experienced from the position of the listener.
The history of the “symphony,” along with that of opera, was an unprecedented success story—and still is today. But musical thought had absorbed the concept much, much earlier. It is of ancient Greek origin, and denoted a very specific musical detail, namely the combination of two or more tones into a harmonious unity of sound. At the same time, the term also meant the interaction of musical instruments. It was Giovanni Gabrieli who, close to 1600—two centuries before Beethoven—called his collection of music for voices and instruments Sacrae Symphoniae. In so doing, he paved the way for instrumental music to achieve equality with vocal music and therefore its artistic importance.
“Symphony”—this splendid word contains in itself an entire profound dimension of European music history. It is not surprising, then, that we encounter it constantly, even in connection with musical phenomena that may not fit our usual ideas but still let us experience our music in all its historic depth.
Greek: syn (together), phone (sounding). Through the Latin derivation of symphonia, the word entered the vocabulary of musicians as far back as the Middle Ages. To “sound together” is certainly vague as a descriptor, vague enough to have been applied in many ways throughout history. The most familiar is that of a large composition for orchestra, usually in four movements. For many people—even those not habituated to concert halls—Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony towers as an iconic example of the genre so defined. It premiered on 22 December 1808 together with the Pastoral Symphony, the Fourth Piano Concerto and the Fantasia for Piano, Orchestra and Chorus, an evening that for its contribution to the canon was scarcely equaled in music history.
The symphony as a multi-movement orchestral composition had emerged from the Italian opera overture, or sinfonia, about 100 years before. At its origins, it frequently took the form of three short movements in succession, usually lasting not more than six minutes in total, that listeners came to enjoy as independent pieces detached from the operas for which they had been composed. Soon a fourth movement was added, the connection to opera was dropped . . . and more than13,000 were written by the end of the eighteenth century. Its dimensions and rhetorical character had changed since the early sinfonia-as-overture, from a clever assemblage of conventional materials to works more than forty-five minutes long that were thought to provide a spiritual or metaphysical experience. Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony traces a journey from struggle to a heroic major-mode finale so gigantic as to create a sense of awe and wonder that many romantic writers readily associated with the aesthetic category of the sublime.
The term symphony cut different paths before and after its classical and romantic incarnations as a multi-movement orchestral composition. The great Venetian maestro di cappella Giovanni Gabrieli made the most conspicuous early use in two collections of polychoral motets, the Symphoniae sacrae of 1597 and 1615. Gabrieli saw the numerous galleries at St Mark’s Cathedral as an opportunity to compose for spatially separated instrumental and vocal choirs. In a few of his motets, Gabrieli suggested the option of replacing the parts in the vocal choirs with instruments, thereby producing some of the grandest instrumental music of the baroque. Here the brass groups alternate and combine in unpredictable ways, with lively insertions in triple meter and impressive concluding tuttis.
Johann Sebastian Bach’s fifteen keyboard sinfonie are unrelated, “sounding together” not meant in the sense of combining voices and instruments, but perhaps rather as a combination of different contrapuntal lines—the reason Bach chose the title of sinfonia remains unclear. Such was the fragility of generic designations in the baroque that Bach first copied these pieces under the rubric of fantasia into a collection of keyboard music for his son Wilhelm Friedemann in 1722. They also became known as three-part inventions. The intent was manifestly didactic, to teach students how to play imitative textures, although the amount of contrapuntal writing varies greatly from piece to piece, with numbers 3, 5, 8, and 12 on today’s program exhibiting the highest concentration of imitation.
Symphonies by Igor Stravinsky and Anton Webern represent the post-romantic efflorescence of the genre on the program. Stravinsky first conceived his Symphonies of Wind Instruments in 1919 as a memorial tribute to Claude Debussy about a year after the death of his mentor and friend. It pivots between his Russian period, famously exemplified by ballet scores such as Le Sacre du printemps, and his later neoclassical phase. Sharp juxtaposition of Russian folk-motifs recalls the ballets, yet the work is also punctuated by fragments of an austere, funereal chorale that sounds in its most complete form in the final bars. Like Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, the Symphonies of Wind Instruments is end-directed, reflections on a “hero” of sorts. But the musical language is now anti-romantic in as much as it privileges disjunction over dramatic narrative, sober statement over expressive swell. Stravinsky’s choice of the plural “symphonies” for the title is telling, suggesting that older compositional ideal of clever assemblage— composition as many things put together—instead of a romantic monolith that gathers everything into a single vision.
Anton Webern published his Symphony, Op 21 in 1929, about ten years after Stravinsky’s Symphonies. Following the lead of his mentor Schoenberg, Webern had recently begun to shape his work using twelve-tone compositional principles. The generic designation of symphony helped ground the challenging new musical syntax in tradition. Despite a pointillistic surface, the large-scale form of each movement may be readily apprehended: two sections, each repeated in the first movement; a theme and variations in the second movement in which each variation exhibits a distinct character. Webern’s first movement also unfolds as a series of difficult-to-hear canons, a cultivation of counterpoint as an expressive tool, like the Bach of the sinfonie. But Webern’s attitude towards musical expression is much different from that in the symphonies of Beethoven and Stravinsky. Unlike the latter, his score is intensely expressive. Unlike the former, that expression occurs in colorful musical fragments that seem suspended in mid-air.
Steven Huebner is James McGill Professor of musicology at McGill University and co-editor of Cambridge Opera Journal.