Join 3,425 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


What is a symphony?
June 29, 2010 5:58 AM   Subscribe

Imagine this: 'This evening we are going to hear the 2nd Symphony by Claude Debussy, the Austrian première of Insect Life by the Finnish opera composer Kalevi Aho, and the 2nd Symphony by Bela Bartók.’ What is a symphony? What does the concept mean nowadays? And what does it mean, to compose symphonically?
posted by Wolfdog (45 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

 
Thanks. I hope to read the article later. However, it can be hard to slog through something in a small font with such long paragraphs and no subheadings.

I sometimes listen to Debussy's La Mer and wonder how our experience of it would be different if it were called Symphony No. 1.

For anyone interested in doing some well-informed but enjoyable listening to symphonies, I highly recommend The Symphony: A Listener's Guide by the late Michael Steinberg.
posted by Jaltcoh at 6:54 AM on June 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


Originally used in several different senses, the word symphony now mainly refers to a symphony orchestra — a large ensemble including strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion—or a work created for such an orchestra and having several particular attributes. It is usually an extended work — of not less than three, but usually not more than five movements, for a medium to large orchestra. It is sometimes referred to as a sonata for an orchestra.
posted by moor at 6:58 AM on June 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


Well, I suppose that answers that question!
posted by Wolfdog at 7:07 AM on June 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm really glad to read someone talking about this; unfortunately, this is just the sort of jargon-based music writing that does more to obfuscate than elucidate. Case in point:

The fundamental principles of classical symphonic thought, which underpin the art of motivic interplay that was more than sufficient for composers from Haydn to Beethoven and Brahms to Tchaikovsky, were also embraced in the 20th century by the 2nd Viennese School and their 12-tone disciples, with broadly expressive gestures and with considerable intellectual curiosity.

This sentence means almost nothing. First, what are the fundamental principles of classical symphonic thought? There isn't enough consensus on that to throw the term around. Second, how exactly do those principles "underpin the art of motivic interplay?" Motivic interplay may be one of the fundamental principles of classical symphonic thought and, especially for Mozart and Beethoven, I would say that it is, but what does that have to do with underpinning? Not to mention the brazen remark about the Second Viennese School...

Analytical music writing is really, really difficult, but if someone is good at it, a reader should be able to understand what the author is saying and attach the concepts to concrete musical examples. I suspect that many people will read this article and think that they have gleaned some understanding about how symphonies work; unfortunately, if you pick apart the writing, most of it is either patently wrong or, at least, thoroughly confused writing peppered with academic-sounding phrases thrown in to lend an air of authority.
posted by nosila at 7:14 AM on June 29, 2010 [3 favorites]


My imagining was going well until I combined the notions of "Insect Life" and opera. High-pitched buzzing queen bees came to mind, unfortunately.

But as for the actual content of the article... it's certainly a quality analysis by a devoted student of symphonic music. You're right, though: difficult to read and a bit dense. As a potential alternative, I'm rather fond of this article on what a symphony is. The author does a good job of clearly explaining what a symphony is intelligently but in in accessible terms while also doing a bit of nose-thumbing at the very classical definition of a symphony and the people who would embrace it.
posted by GnomeChompsky at 7:15 AM on June 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'll look through the article later on, but I can talk about this from a personal perspective. Indeed a few months ago I was asked by a very much senior colleague and composer of a few symphonies if I would ever call a work of my own a symphony. I replied that I thought it unlikely because it just isn't really me. I've since thought about why I wouldn't do so, and I think it's because, in my mind, there's something very stodgy and self-congratulatory about the title. Stodgy, not just because it carries the weight of the Beethovenian tradition, but that it also carries the weight of lesser symphonists of the last century whose music I associate with academicism. Self-congratulatory, because it is a loaded term and as such it frames a work in a way which I find personally problematic. I would much rather use a much more personal title for such a piece and have the music speak for itself. So that's why I'm unlikely to call a work of mine a symphony.
posted by ob at 7:21 AM on June 29, 2010


What's a symphony? 1. Since the Classical era, a large-scale composition for orchestra, in four movements, the first of which is in sonata form. The four-movement point distinguishes a symphony from an orchestral tone poem (single movement) and a ballet played as a stand-alone concert piece (episodic, due to having to fit in with the dances.) 2. Anything the composer wants to call a symphony.

Def. 1 is the paradigmatic perfectly clear case. As is often true of theoretical categories with real-world instances there is continuous variation between the prefectly clear case and big orchestral works that are obviously not symphonies; we keep our categories clear by suppressing consideration of intermediate instances. (Similar question: what is a species in palaeontology, where the criterion for species division between two living species--namely that they can't interbreed--is hardish to prove.) But it's certainly true that the more a big orchestral composition the composer calls a symphony differs from the prefectly clear case of symphony the more it moves toward def. 2 where the composer says "It's a symphony because I say it is" and jfuller goes "OK, have it your way. Well, maybe.... Naaaaa."

P.s. works scored for something other than live orchestra (e.g. banks of synths) don't qualify as symphonies due to not being prestigeous enough. It's a non-technical but utterly indispensible part of def. 1 that the piece is performed by live lady musicians (and the conductor, if female) in long plain-black dresses and live male musicians (and the conductor, if male) in white tie, and the season ticket holders in white tie or at least black. Jeans (but not t-shirts) still OK for SRO folks.
posted by jfuller at 7:26 AM on June 29, 2010


I trudged through this article, and I'll try to summarize what I found:

"There are lots of composers, and I will list so many of them that you will feel a certain sense of confusion, which should given you an idea of what a symphony is. Your guess is as good as mine. I really like Kalevi Aho, even though he sounds like a pain in the ass."

From GnomeChompsky's link: "It's really about how big and important a composer thinks an orchestral work is."

There are more cynical ways of putting this, but I think that nails it.
posted by hanoixan at 7:37 AM on June 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


I play in a local orchestra. Musical terms, rules, and these kinds of distinctions are a lot like grammar, IMO. There is at least a fuzzy-logic sense to what it means for a composition to be a symphony, and no, we didn't just make these terms up to irritate you (although I will grant that some of us use the language, as with any other jargon, in an irritating way).

(aside: it's like when your doctor doesn't necessarily just call it "that bony thing on the end of your elbow" when telling you you broke it and you're gonna need a cast. He or she is trained to think about arm-bones in a much different and more precise way. Now he/she *should* also be able to put it in layman's terms (i.e. "that bony thing on the end of your elbow") but don't think he's being snooty when he writes it up on the chart using this long name you can't pronounce.)

It's a complex form with roots in a historical period when the rules were much more strictly enforced, and modern/post-modern examples often subvert those rules. In much the same way, poets write in old forms while bending and breaking the form. Nevertheless, the form provides a starting point, if only for an argument about whether those bends and breaks are legit.

Now if you REALLY want headaches, talk to some "period instrument" geeks and "composer's intentions" wonks...
posted by randomkeystrike at 8:01 AM on June 29, 2010


In my experience (I'm a conductor and study and conduct symphonies, btw), a symphony isn't quite "anything the composer wants it to be," but that's not too far off. One thing a symphony must have is that it must be symphonic, that is, it must use Development (in the specific, musical sense) in presenting and extending its ideas. Leonard Bernstein first offered this definition in his wonderful Young People's lecture "What Makes Music Symphonic?"

I recently tackled this question myself for a lecture-recital with a more specific twist, "The 21st Century Symphony." I asked, 'what makes a symphony, and what makes a recent symphony meaningfully contemporary?' Short lecture, so really sort of a gloss on the topic, but we performed a brand new symphony by NY composer Jonathan Newman (that is SUCH A GOOD PIECE), and even went and presented this very challenging program to a huge retirement community to test my thesis that substantial music can play well anywhere. (It did.)

We documented the whole thing, so if you're interested you can watch and listen here.
posted by LooseFilter at 8:16 AM on June 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


I've heard me some Stravinsky and I've heard me some Sibelius. Call the Stravinsky whatever you want but it tends to get me every time, dramatic, surprising, daring, whereas the Sibelius just kind of .... ummm ... [one's grasp of musical terminology fails]

If the argument here is that Sibelius is more mathematically (theoretically?) correct, then I say to hell with the math (theory).
posted by philip-random at 8:17 AM on June 29, 2010


"It's really about how big and important a composer thinks an orchestral work is."

Disagree completely--maybe for mediocre composers, but the talented, skilled composers with whom I've worked (and who've written a symphony--a minority of them) don't think that at all. The term "symphony" is most commonly a simple adjective describing a large-scale, developmental work that is primarily instrumental. It would be a little absurd to call a 30-minute, through-composed, multi-movement work a Suite.

Most often a composer calling a piece a "symphony" is simply an appropriate description to generally indicate to listeners what sort of musical experience awaits (large-scale, developmental, likely through-composed and probably multi-movement symphonic work). Just like "opera" or "cantata" or "concerto" or "album," it describes the outlines of what you're about to hear.
posted by LooseFilter at 8:23 AM on June 29, 2010


(philip-random, may I recommend the final movement of Sibelius's Symphony No. 5? It may change your mind about his music some (it is glorious music), but he is definitely not a composer to accuse of privileging math and/or theory above his expressive impulse! He can be hard to follow, certainly. Sibelius is amazingly subtle in his development, but what I love about his symphonies--#5 in particular--is his ability to create these huge landscapes of sound and make you feel like you're just soaring over them. I find his symphonies ultimately very affirming. Here is some great background on the piece.)
posted by LooseFilter at 8:30 AM on June 29, 2010


whereas the Sibelius just kind of .... ummm ... [one's grasp of musical terminology fails]

I really recommend his 1st, 3rd, and 6th Symphonies, especially the 6th if you haven't heard it. I've never understood why people refer to the 2nd and 5th as his main accomplishments.
posted by Jaltcoh at 8:32 AM on June 29, 2010


Sibelius and Aho are interesting to me because they both seem to have quite personal interpretations of the word. Why Sibelius called his 7th symphony a symphony, for example, but didn't use the same term for Tapiola may be a hard question for anyone not named Jean Sibelius to answer. With Aho, you can spend a lot of time pondering why certain works were distinguished as concertos and others which would seemingly fit that bill were titled as symphonies. Maybe there isn't a good answer and it is capricious, but I find it's the kind of question that provokes thoughtful listening. (And I would hardly call Aho's music a pain in the ass, although that might apply to the 6th symphony; I wouldn't know, since I've never heard it. He does write a lot of music that calls for virtuosity, and he can terrify in many ways, but he also writes with warmth, charm, humor and beauty.)
posted by Wolfdog at 8:36 AM on June 29, 2010


Jaltcoh: However, it can be hard to slog through something in a small font with such long paragraphs and no subheadings.

Readability!
posted by CitrusFreak12 at 8:41 AM on June 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


> whereas the Sibelius just kind of .... ummm ... [one's grasp of musical terminology fails]

Have you tried Luonnotar? If you have and you're still meh then, y'know, tastes differ. If you haven't, may I recommend it as as hair-raising in its own way as anything else in music? Remote and non-human but yet vital and alive. Which makes it flat-out scary and not even a little bit meh.
posted by jfuller at 8:43 AM on June 29, 2010


Well, I suppose that answers that question!

I assume they meant to hyperlink? Maybe?
posted by Think_Long at 8:44 AM on June 29, 2010


ob: interesting, do you think the term retains any currency, or is it completely anachronistic in your estimation? Do you think it has negative associations that may drive listeners away?
posted by LooseFilter at 8:46 AM on June 29, 2010


symphonies are the prog rock of the 19th century...
posted by ennui.bz at 8:53 AM on June 29, 2010


symphonies are the prog rock of the 19th century...

Reminds me of a customer review on Amazon of a Prince album that said, "Prince is like a black Beck."
posted by Jaltcoh at 8:55 AM on June 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


Prince is like a black Beck

That is funny and wrong in so many ways.
posted by Think_Long at 9:09 AM on June 29, 2010


What is a symphony?

If you have to ask, you don't need to know.
posted by fourcheesemac at 9:17 AM on June 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


(That was a joke, by the way. Maps, territories, etc.)
posted by fourcheesemac at 9:17 AM on June 29, 2010


Blarg. Debates like this are why no one listens to orchestral music anymore.
posted by Lutoslawski at 9:29 AM on June 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


Blarg. Debates like this are why no one listens to orchestral music anymore.

Yeah, just the other day, my friend put on some orchestral music, and I kinda liked it, but then it occurred to me that eggheads were probably arguing about it on the internet, so I switched the damn thing right off.
posted by straight at 9:47 AM on June 29, 2010 [4 favorites]


ob: interesting, do you think the term retains any currency, or is it completely anachronistic in your estimation? Do you think it has negative associations that may drive listeners away?

I really think that depends on one's background, and we're all a product of our respective backgrounds. I would hazard a guess that the term does retain some currency in the US, but much less so in Europe. All of my colleagues have written symphonies, which makes me think that it is part of the American orchestral tradition to some extent. If I can be totally reductive and talk about European contemporary music as either belonging to a modernist camp or to an Andriessen-esque camp, it's obvious that neither group really calls anything a symphony any more (of course there's the Andriessen "Symphony for Open-Strings" but I think we can take that as being an ironic title.) The term is too loaded with 19C associations for both groups. I think this is evidenced by the fact that if we look at adherents of Andriessen this side of the Atlantic like the Bang on a Can composers, none of them have pieces called "symphony". So, with my background being what it is (i.e. a bit of both European-camps) I would never use the term. For me it is anachronistic. As far as negative associations are concerned, I'd just say that it's hard to seem hip and to write a symphony.
posted by ob at 10:12 AM on June 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


Blarg. Debates like this are why no one listens to orchestral music anymore.

Yeah, just the other day, my friend put on some orchestral music, and I kinda liked it, but then it occurred to me that eggheads were probably arguing about it on the internet, so I switched the damn thing right off.


Oh come now. That's clearly not what I was getting at.
posted by Lutoslawski at 10:42 AM on June 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


Aho.
posted by infini at 10:59 AM on June 29, 2010


Comments have been posted for this long without anyone pointing out that neither Debussy nor Bartok wrote symphonies??
posted by watt_defalk at 12:37 PM on June 29, 2010


The fundamental principles of classical symphonic thought, which underpin the art of motivic interplay that was more than sufficient for composers from Haydn to Beethoven and Brahms to Tchaikovsky, were also embraced in the 20th century by the 2nd Viennese School and their 12-tone disciples, with broadly expressive gestures and with considerable intellectual curiosity.

This sentence means almost nothing.


As someone with musical training, this sentence makes perfect sense to me.

Not everything can be made accessible -- prior knowledge is often assumed at the professional-writing level. If the article were about physics or philosophy, I wouldn't expect to follow it that easily.

On the other hand, this sentence...

"Another exponent of a formal way of thinking that constantly appears to contemplate transgressing accepted boundaries was the Swede Allan Petersson, who was indeed always preoccupied with thematic coherence, but whose highly energised streams of sound nevertheless forced their way out of, and beyond, all formal limitations."

...leads me to believe that the author is just getting paid by the letter.
posted by coolguymichael at 12:40 PM on June 29, 2010


Comments have been posted for this long without anyone pointing out that neither Debussy nor Bartok wrote symphonies??

I alluded to it.
posted by Jaltcoh at 12:51 PM on June 29, 2010


That's clearly not what I was getting at.

It's honestly not clear to me. What's the connection between discussions about how to classify a given piece of orchestral music and declining interest in orchestral music?

Do arguments about what music really counts as hip hop imply that soon no one will listen to hip hop anymore?
posted by straight at 2:06 PM on June 29, 2010


"composer's intentions" wonks...

These are the constitutional originalists of the music world. "Look if the sounding fathers had meant for us to..."
posted by Babblesort at 2:17 PM on June 29, 2010



Comments have been posted for this long without anyone pointing out that neither Debussy nor Bartok wrote symphonies??


That's the point of the example in the paper, it raises questions of whether or not composers have written symphonies that they just didn't call symphonies, e.g., can those pieces be considered symphonies if they are not called that by those who composed them? Even if they meet many of the markers to qualify for such classification? From the linked essay (emphasis added):
How did we begin? With symphonies by Debussy and Bartók? Let us now imagine that Debussy had described La Mer as a symphony, and also his Three Nocturnes and Ibéria - rather along the lines of Mahler’s 2nd Symphony or Szymanowski’s 3rd or Enescu’s 3rd. Suppose Bartók had classed the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta and the Concerto for Orchestra under the symphonic heading
(Also, the post starts with "imagine this," so I sort of took it as read.)
posted by LooseFilter at 2:42 PM on June 29, 2010


These are the constitutional originalists of the music world.

This made me laugh out loud.
posted by LooseFilter at 2:43 PM on June 29, 2010


A symphony's like a concept album. It's a long musical experience in which all the parts work together. Because of the length, if you really feel it and give it your attention, you can get a much more powerful effect than you get from a song.

Musically its a lot more involved than a pop concept-album. There are often dozens of parts moving at once, all working together to slowly have their way with you. You can't expect to follow all that with your head at first; it might be 20 or 40 or 80 listenings before you really appreciate the lay of the land and architecture.

And if it's a great performance you can come back to it, year after year, decade after decade, and get the same result over and over.

If you get that from jazz or Floyd, great! whatever turns your crank.
posted by Twang at 3:13 PM on June 29, 2010


I hear a symphony as a thorough and complete description of a World: I am shown its continents; I am shown its great seas and oceans; I sail down to ground-level to see its flora and meet its fauna; I am flown millions of miles out to experience it as a pale blue dot.

Most else is just a fly-by.
posted by tapesonthefloor at 3:17 PM on June 29, 2010


Oh come now. That's clearly not what I was getting at.

Ok, what were you getting at?
posted by kenko at 3:38 PM on June 29, 2010


That's clearly not what I was getting at.

It's honestly not clear to me. What's the connection between discussions about how to classify a given piece of orchestral music and declining interest in orchestral music?

Do arguments about what music really counts as hip hop imply that soon no one will listen to hip hop anymore?


Ok, what were you getting at?

Because classical music dorks (I am one) bean plate and get their long hair in knots over silly and unanswerable ontology of aesthetics questions like "what is a symphony" and it contributes to the culture of unapproachablity, whether phantom or real, that turns people off to concert music. It's what gives people the impression that they don't know enough to appreciate classical music, or that such special knowledge even exists. Esoteric and ultimately futile debates such as these slowly strip away the true gravity of great works like La Mer, turning them into little but fodder for the academy. This is just music we're talking about here, right?

The idea that a symphony is so-defined by something inherently musical, or even inherently structural, is simply absurd. The idea that there is even a definition to be had - a definition with more stricture than the fluidity of the historical concept of the large ensemble work, beyond the set of the works that happened to be named so, is equally absurd. Why is it that Corigliano writes symphonies but Lee Hyla doesn't, though they both compose works for the same ensemble, of relatively the same length, multi-movements, blah blah? Is it because of some content congruity in Corigliano's work that isn't in Hyla's symphonic works? Does La Mer lack some inherent musical tissue or structure or any actual ontological or musical element that is present in Schnittke 1 that makes one a symphony and the other not? I mean, come the fuck on. Musicologists need to find something else to masturbate about. If La Mer had been called Symphony 1 would it change the work? No. Would it change our experience of it? No. Might it change our impression of it? Indeed, it might; and if it does, it's probably a symptom of weakness in the work or foolishness in the listener, e.g. "that piece sucked. oh, it was a symphony you say? well, ok. In that case I liked it." What? Perhaps this is sounds a bit Kantian, but I mean it in a punk-ish way.

There are five movement symphonies, one movement symphonies, symphonies with rock bands, symphonies that are comprised of movements of songs, symphonies for concert bands; hell, there's probably some fluxus work called "Symphony No. 5.3" that calls for the musicians to eat their instruments and then go plant a flower or something. This whole thing is indicative of the greater problem of how we oppress our musical artworks by trying to capture these non-linguistic things in language. It's not what it is until someone tells you it is, right? Yeah, right. But that's probably another story for a different day.

The very idea of a musical 'work,' let alone a sort of categorical work, is a fairly recent concept and one that philosophers, musicians and historians can't seem to agree on and for good reason. It's sort of like when Wittgenstein says of a string quartet that you cannot say, "i liked it, give me another, because they are not the same." Any definition of 'symphony' will be arbitrary, and any evidence found will be confirmation bias. Perhaps one could construct some interesting conjectures regarding what works have been called symphonies in light of the economic, historical and political contexts in which they were composed and/or performed and from there deduce a trend or two, but that's probably the farthest you could inquire with any *interesting* result. The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works is an excellent exegesis of this (yes, metaphysical) view.

The hip-hop analogy, and I get what you're getting at, doesn't translate here, for lots of reasons. Is [example] hip-hop or not is also a stupid question (for what would change based upon this delimiting? And who would decide?), but it's not the same question. We are not asking if La Mer is indeed an example of concert music, or orchestral music, but why it should or should not be classified as a 'symphony,' specifically, as if such a description goes beyond the title, as if we have any, or indeed should have, some common idea of exactly what we should mean.

The crux of the issue is we are here talking about labels, about how we decide how to hear things and what to think of them and what gets put in the m(a)us(ol)eum. Why didn't Bartok call "music for strings, percussion and celeste" symphony No. 2, or whatever, why didn't he call it 'music for strings and percussion," for that matter? Because he didn't fucking feel like it, that's why.
posted by Lutoslawski at 5:14 PM on June 29, 2010


"Another exponent of a formal way of thinking that constantly appears to contemplate transgressing accepted boundaries was the Swede Allan Petersson, who was indeed always preoccupied with thematic coherence, but whose highly energised streams of sound nevertheless forced their way out of, and beyond, all formal limitations."

How about spelling Pettersson's name correctly, if you're going to be writing about his work with any authority?
posted by VikingSword at 5:34 PM on June 29, 2010


A symphony is at least half an hour long, with a bunch of violins, and I love'm.

(in three to five movements or something)
posted by ovvl at 7:00 PM on June 29, 2010


The Electric Light Orchestra's Eldorado is a symphony. It says so on the cover.
posted by philip-random at 9:44 PM on June 29, 2010


It's sort of like when Wittgenstein says of a string quartet that you cannot say, "i liked it, give me another, because they are not the same."

I'd have to read Wittgetnstein to find out what he's on about here, but that makes no sense to me at all. When I first heard a Beethoven string quartet, I basically said "I liked it! Give me another!" and I am eternally grateful that he did.
posted by straight at 7:55 AM on June 30, 2010


it contributes to the culture of unapproachablity, whether phantom or real, that turns people off to concert music.

I don't buy this. In our era, there are three main contexts where people decide to listen to music or not: Going to a concert, friends sharing music they like, and people browsing through the vast internet jukebox of everything ever recorded.

In none of those cases are you likely to find a big debate over what constitutes a symphony between you and your decision of whether to listen to Beethoven's Seventh today. People listen to pop music because that's what they like, what their friends like, the concerts that their friends are all going to on the weekend.
posted by straight at 8:02 AM on June 30, 2010


« Older Historypin...  |  Paul, an octopus in Germany, h... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments