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Thread: the word "symphony"

  1. #1
    Captain of Water Music Ouled Nails's Avatar
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    the word "symphony"

    ... has greatly expanded in its defintion. I don't mean by this that symphonies have gotten bigger and louder and two hours long! I mean that a particular genre known as the "symphony" during Beethoven's time has turned into a much more liberal genre in the twentieth century.

    But when? and by whom?

    I'm thinking of Milhaud's miniature symphonies (before he got to the longer ones), only a few minutes in duration, which I believe was an interesting reaction to the infatuation with larger and larger and larger symphonies.

    But the growing "amorphousness" of the symphony is quite typical of the entire century. Twas the case with Shostakovich's Seventh -- quite a sensation in 1942, from deep in southern Russia to London and to America. Dmitri was not following classical form; he was communicating time, wartime, in each movement, from the invasion, to the impact, to the growing resistance, to victory (before it actually occurred).

    An older compatriot of Dmitri, Nicolai Myaskovsky, composed no less than 27 symphonies before he died in 1950. They have very different forms! Some in one movement; other in numerous movements. Some more like tone poems; others like a suite. Some for a band orchestra.

    Hovhaness further used the term "symphony" for a great variety of purposes to the point where one wonders, what is a symphony?

    So, that is the question:
    What is a symphony?

  2. #2
    Admiral of Fugues Contratrombone64's Avatar
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    No strict definition can be had:

    Orchestrally speaking: a piece of music played by an ensemble, sometimes with obligato solo instruments (Neils Gade used solo piano in a couple of his seldom performed 8 symphonies, some with singers and choirs (Mahler 8 takes this to extraordinary lengths), sometimes with large forces and some times tiny.

    Organ speaking: Vierne and Widor wrote "symphonies" for solo organ, all of varying structures.

    Interesting subject my friend.
    Last edited by Contratrombone64; Jul-27-2010 at 05:28.
    I'm not an atheist and I don't think I can call myself a pantheist. We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many different languages. The child knows someone must have written those books. It does not know how. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but doesn't know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God.
    —Albert Einstein.

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    Captain of Water Music Montefalco's Avatar
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    Another composer contributing to the ambiguity of the term is Scriabin. His first symphony has 6 movements, his second 5, and his third comprises of 3 movements, but they are played without a break between them.
    I think that the term symphony would have different meanings depending on the composer who wrote it and the period in which it was written.

  4. #4
    Admiral of Fugues Contratrombone64's Avatar
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    Funny, the father of the symphony (Haydn) just happened to be the most prolific composer for the genre of his time (that's not in disput). However, earlier symphonists wrote equally interesting works than those really early Haydn ones (before his strum und drang stage): the brothers Stamiz and CPE Bach spring to mind.
    I'm not an atheist and I don't think I can call myself a pantheist. We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many different languages. The child knows someone must have written those books. It does not know how. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but doesn't know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God.
    —Albert Einstein.

  5. #5
    Commodore con Forza Soubasse's Avatar
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    I guess if one looks at the broader repertoire, the word Symphony seems largely to apply to a "sizeable ensemble playing an extended work in a symphonic style" - the significant exceptions being the the sorts of pieces already mentioned. With that reasoning though, one could arguably refer to Holst's Planets as a symphony, even though technically it's a suite.

    Does anyone know of a "Symphony for piano" for example? That could set the feline amidst the fauna.

    The Organ Symphonies set themselves apart because of the "orchestral" nature of the instrument, so again, speaking broadly, it does seem to apply to a work that involves changes of instrumental texture ... hmm ...

    This is an interesting discussion! More please
    Music is made to transform the states of the soul, for an hour or an instant (J. Alain)

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    Admiral of Fugues Contratrombone64's Avatar
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    Holst's Planets is a Suite and was even titled that by the composer.
    I'm not an atheist and I don't think I can call myself a pantheist. We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many different languages. The child knows someone must have written those books. It does not know how. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but doesn't know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God.
    —Albert Einstein.

  7. #7
    Commodore con Forza Soubasse's Avatar
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    Yes I know, that's why I said "technically". It probably wouldn't surprise you to know the number of students I've heard refer to it as "that symphony thing of Holst" I'm always quick to point out to them (usually unsubtly) "It's a SUITE!!!"

    Etymologically speaking, the original Greek definition of the word 'symphony' (ie, sounding together) is far too broad in the context of this discussion as that implies that anything for two or more instruments counts as a symphony.

    It's really quite interesting now, looking at the evolution of the symphony, from the small scale - what we would now call Chamber works - of the Baroque to the gargantuan offerings of Mahler and Messiaen. As far as I'm concerned, Ludwig certainly turned the form on it's ear ('scuse the expression) with his 3rd and then the likes of Berlioz, Shostakovich, Mahler et al, kept taking it further.

    Actually, speaking of Berlioz, would it be fair to suppose that the "symphonic style" (?) took another turn in the Romantic era with the idee fixe / tone poem methods of writing?
    Music is made to transform the states of the soul, for an hour or an instant (J. Alain)

  8. #8
    Admiral of Fugues Contratrombone64's Avatar
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    Matt ... I hate to disagree wtih you about Shostakovich and Mahler, niether did anything to add to the form of the symphony. Both of them wrote fairly traditional works of "roughly" four movements, all with a scherzo a slow movement. Beethoven, however, did make big changes to the form by introducing trombones, another pair of horns (yes, I know, Haydn also wrote a couple of Sinfonias with four horns) and thus giving birth to the "romantic orchestra" as was handed down to Brahms (who also provided no innovation).

    One composer of the romantic era that changed the format of the symphony and its orchestra was the Dane, Neils Gade (love his 8 symphonies a lot, shame they're never played), he introduced a piano to the texture. Considering this was at the time of Felix Mendelssohn (and a good friend of Gade), it was certainly unique for its time. It did not, however result in a change of format.

    The 20th Century has at least seen the advent of structure, it seems that a large number of modern symphoies I've been tortured with in the concert hall are extended single movment works.
    I'm not an atheist and I don't think I can call myself a pantheist. We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many different languages. The child knows someone must have written those books. It does not know how. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but doesn't know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God.
    —Albert Einstein.

  9. #9
    Captain of Water Music Ouled Nails's Avatar
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    It is clear, to me at least, that the conventional Romantic symphony, however greatly expanded with respect to instrumentation, followed a fairly conventional style: lots of strings and some proportionate balance with wind instruments, and percussion. All of that was subverted by some composers, and respected by others, in the 20th century. Shostakovich is indeed a traditionalist in following earlier convention, in all of his symphonies. But the composers who wrote "minute" symphonies, those who called a string symphony a "symphony" and then identified later works as "String symphony," those who referred to what very much sounds like a symphony as a "concerto for orchestra," those who called a symphony anything with six or more instruments, totally obliterated that Romantic Era convention.

    I would argue that the exclusively French tradition of calling an organ work a symphony is a different matter altogether. It's a cultural trait unique to France's aesthetic traditions that has nothing to do with "modern" subversion of a conventional symphonic form. Writing for the organ was so separately institutionalized in France, such as the musical education of the blind, as to form a completely separate development.

    Can we agree that the term symphony becomes highly personalized during the 20th century; it's a matter of personal identification more than of any conventional form to be emulated?

  10. #10
    Admiral of Fugues Contratrombone64's Avatar
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    Ouled - I think the term symphony is very rubbery term. And yes, the French use of it in relation to the pipe organ is unique, however C-Coll prided himself on creating large instruments with then unique orchestral voicings, this would most certainly have influenced Widor and Vierne.

    I guess you are right about the 20th century use (I'm assuming you also mean to add the 21st century as we are firmly there too?). Modern Australian composer, who are very fond of composing symphonies (some of them delightful, some of them ghastly) and they certainly are of a very unique approach. The only thing I might say about this in an Australian context is this: most of these symphonies (by our better known composers) are written as commission by our various orchestras, hence tend to use the resources at hand. All of the major sympony orchsetras here are large, virtuoso ensembles, with the exception of the Tasmanian Symphony, which only has around 48 permanent members. This commisioning process does, in my experience tend to flavour the orchestral palet used ... I mean, if you are invited to compose a symphony for the Melbourne or Sydney Symphony Orchestras, why wouldn't you use their over 100 players?
    I'm not an atheist and I don't think I can call myself a pantheist. We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many different languages. The child knows someone must have written those books. It does not know how. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but doesn't know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God.
    —Albert Einstein.

  11. #11
    Commodore con Forza
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    The old Italian term "sinfonia" seems to have applied to pieces much shorter than what we regard as a symphony. Handel and others wrote pieces they called "symphonia concertante".

    Composers probably have a certain amount of leeway in what they choose to call their pieces. As for Widor's "organ symphonies", no less an authority than Marcel Dupre called them "suites of pieces", and there is some evidence that Widor had already written a number of the "pieces" before he included them in his "symphonies".

    As for as Haydn, Mozart, et. al., what came to be called symphonies were written with what we would call a 'chamber orchestra' in mind -- hardly the 100-member collections we now call a symphony orchestra. It helps to remember that they were almost indentured servants to wealthy families (Haydn and the Esterhazy family) who were expected to compose music for the entertainment of their employers.

    A symphony is a symphony is a symphony.

  12. #12
    Captain of Water Music Ouled Nails's Avatar
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    It certainly is! At the same time, and this is where a term becomes interesting in that it is intrinsically mind forming, we do not think of Debussy's La Mer as a symphony. We do not think of "tone poems" as symphonies. But that is totally subjective because other composers calles works identical in form a "symphony." Ralph Vaughan Williams' seventh symphony is as much a tone poem as anything else. But we call it Symphony no. 7, "Antarctica."

    Our own conception(s) of a symphony is being directed by a composer's definition of his work.

    Very subjective.

  13. #13
    Admiral of Fugues Contratrombone64's Avatar
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    Ouled - fascinating thread. As wonderful as Mozart was, he certainly did nothing to add to the genre, sadly. In fact poor old Mozart really did nothing but shine as a stirling example of confirmity as it relates to the Classical mould.

    One sadly neglected composer of the symphony is Louis Spohr. I know about 6 of his symphonies, all quite odd. Spohr was quite experimental in harmony and texture and some of his symphonies contain smaller ensembles of solo instruments, quite unique for his time, too.
    I'm not an atheist and I don't think I can call myself a pantheist. We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many different languages. The child knows someone must have written those books. It does not know how. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but doesn't know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God.
    —Albert Einstein.

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