Symphonies - Great Symphonies

There are dozens and dozens of symphonies to be heard dating back hundreds of years, filling CDs in their thousands and played by orchestras large and small, ensembles of various instruments and even soloists. Defining a great symphony is hard.

To pick a great symphony is almost to guarantee offence: my choice would exclude at the earliest stage some works which others find to be masterpieces - for example Elgar's First Symphony and Mahler's Third Symphony. When I was young the esteemed publication "Gramophone" magazine produced a short booklet describing the essential elements of a basic collection of classical music. There were plenty of symphonies in it but I was always perplexed as to why one of my favourites Scriabin's First Symphony wasn't in the list. "How many great symphonies could there be?" I thought

What's become clear to me over the years is that there are just too many to include even a basic survey and the number grows. There may be such a thing as a great symphony "on paper" but it probably only appreciated by a very small number of very clever people who can pick up its nuances off the page. Great symphonies require great performances and even today conductors keep plucking symphonies from the "also ran" category or bumping good symphonies into the great category. Many people wouldn't have given Bruckner 1 or Prokofiev 3 the time of day had it not been for Abbado' advocacy, Bernstein champion Ives 2 and I dare say Bruckner 8 would have languished had Karajan not recorded it repeatedly.

So the situation is rather fluid.

There's also a curious effect which reverses the process. For much of the end of the 20th Century Beethoven's Fifth symphony was untouchable, it was worshipped, venerated and played and played and played. The result was a accelerating depreciation of its value. In the 1960s a performance of Mahler's Third symphony was a rare thing. The early 1950's paperback "The Symphony" had the author of the section on Mahler admitting he'd never heard the Eighth. As those symphonies have been performed more and more their ubiquity has generated a certain blase approach. Whereas Beethoven 5 became a commonplace symphony and its grandeur was overlooked, in the case of Mahler 3 & 8 the grandiosity was overlooked as the scarce product became more open to marvel through performance. The results were bad for all three symphonies: similar stories can be told for other works.

The emotional effect of a great symphony is as overwhelming and visceral as an opera or fantastical theatrical experience. The sounds and how they put together may lead one to a whole series of emotional reactions but these are generally personal. To speak of the meaning of a symphony is hard to aggregate for a varied audience.

There are occasions when there is some general mood is applied to and reflected in a work: The Leningrad and New York premieres of Shostakovich Seventh Symphony "the Leningrad Symphony" must have been moving given the city's siege, they say the Bernard Haitink's performance of Beethoven's Fifth at the Proms on the night Shostakovich died had a intense fire all of its own, and I can speak of the personal experience of the Funeral March from Beethoven's Third symphony "Eroica" at the Proms on Sept 11 2002 that a mass of people were moved in a way that captured that day of shock, fear and dread.

Generally the great symphonies - like great paintings show many moods of the observer.

Though with symphonies one has the mood of the performer to encounter as well. In the Noughties, Claudio Abbado performed Mahler 5 with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra - one night, the night the radio chose to record the work, the principal flautist chose to dominate the work in a way none I've heard before or since. Emmanual Pahud through force of will and some volume dragged the Finale to being a woodwind lead (not brass lead) extravaganza. the overall effect (sadly not capture don the CD release of the performance) was to shed different lights on the great carnival Mahler creates. I also recall a performance of Scriabin 4 directed by Sinopoli from the podium, but led with a fantastic power and style by Jim Wallace on principal trumpet. So players and conductors have their role in this too.

The symphony can reflect the listener's mood - recently I listened to La Mer in an uff'ish state and noted how angry the music appeared at times. The symphony can open a door to some emotional undercurrent unexpectedly. And yet it can also wear its heart on its sleeve - clearly there is much to be said of works like Beethoven 1, Haydn 94 and Prokofiev 1 which leave us with a smile.

The great symphony may bring us to face things and hear things we'd rather not encounter: Mahler's threnody in his Ninth, Brahms' tragic Fourth Symphony, Vaughan-Williams nihilistic Sixth. These share a common threads with some people. Some are suggested - Osmo Vanska's recent confession that he heard tears at the end of Sibelius 5 will have caused some to re-assess its powerful closing pages in a new way. But the process is somehow cathartic and magnetic. A composer's voice speaks very personally to the individual across the ages. There can be no doubt that much of the power and attraction of this music is that the sounds prompts a very personal response and that is done across the years. It is satisfying to think that the human condition has changed so little.

So my list of great symphonies is long and varies with my mood, the fashion and my motivation.
- A great symphony will cause me to stop what I'm doing and concentrate - a reviewer of Toscanini's recording of Beethoven's Ninth said it prompted one to pace around the room.
- A great symphony will take me on a complete journey - usually a dramatic one - but I will have a sense of wholeness.
- The content will be visceral.
- The response to its music will probably be physical: goosebumps, tears, neck hairs bristling, or perhaps a huge sense of ecstatic release (yes like an orgasm - but not quite). And it will be there sometime but not on others.

My feeling is that anything more than that is too hard to explain - there is something to do with the way symphony is built which means it fosters more of those responses. And where it is not built in those ways these responses are absent. There is something to do with the way these works build in a series which helps us appreciate the later works more than earlier ones.

But there is one great conundrum I'd like to share: there are a group of symphonies by fine symphony composers which seem to be a complete mystery to us: Prokofiev 7, Nielsen 6, Vaughan Williams 9, Shostakovich 15, Sibelius 7 - all these works (all last symphonies by wise men) seem to be very simple extensions of the composer's art and yet too often defy satisfying performance and hence satisfying responses in the audience. Perhaps we have to wait for enlightenment in these works or perhaps the compositional midas touch was never granted these works and we just haven't worked that out.

Whichever the final element of mystery is needed in all works of art and so that should be added to our list of identifying features of the great symphony - but not too much mystery please Sergei, Carl, Ralph, Dmitri and Jean!


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