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The Nature of the Symphony by Arthur Butterworth
Many musical historians have, in their own way, given an account of how the symphony came into being; how it seems to have become perhaps the most significant and revered of all instrumental musical forms. This ought not to cause us to lose sight of several other equally profound instrumental modes of musical expression - the solo sonata, string quartet, concerto and so on - as distinct from the many vocal associations music has always had with words: opera, religious observances, poetry and its consequent expression in art song. However, the ‘symphony’ has long enjoyed a special regard - perhaps for one thing because it is a musical expression on a large scale - compared with the more private or intimate expressive purpose of the sonata.
It has been said that the first classical symphonies probably descended, at least as far as structure was concerned, from the much earlier and simple instrumental suites of baroque times. These early suites comprised several short contrasting movements, perhaps more often than not associated with various kinds of dances; quick, slow, extrovert, introspective and so on; the essence of the suite perhaps being to provide contrasts of mood and style and particularly of rhythms. Whatever this amounted to it seems that the earliest ’symphonies’ (so-called) amounted to little more than such suites more tightly organised as musical structures. So the general convention, almost de rigueur as one might say, came to expect that there would be an opening movement of some intellectual import: that it should of course, be entertaining as well, but that it should also be stimulating to the intelligent listener. Rather like a well-ordered discussion or debate, there should be a main theme expounded and this should be followed by a contrasting, perhaps less-assertive one. Thereafter the two should be combined in some way, demonstrating the skill of the composer, and perhaps cleverly showing the latent relationship between the two contrasting ideas. Then there would be a satisfying unravelling of the whole, leaving the listener with a sense not only of pleasure at having witnessed (or having overheard) this musical ‘debate’ but also a sense of fulfillment at witnessing its outcome. After this initial serious intellectual involvement it was then considered that a more easy-going, lyrical, reflective, or even romantic mood was appropriate. Thus a slower movement usually followed, more simply tuneful than ardently discursive. As a foil to this there then came a more energetic spirit of physical exuberance; some lighter kind of exhilarating dance. Finally, to bring these contrasting moods to a satisfactory conclusion an energetic movement seemed to draw together the main essentials of the previous three in what might most often have been an heroic, triumphant statement, a cogent summary of the whole. So became established the convention of the symphony. The very name itself eventually brought about the description by which the largest ensemble of instruments was established - the “symphony orchestra”.
Throughout the age of Haydn and Mozart, and indeed many others whose names are now either completely forgotten or only very hazily recalled, the conventional and expected form of the symphony was followed.
With Beethoven’s “Eroica” however, and even more so with the “Choral Symphony” such easy-going, conventional ideas changed, so that the very nature of the symphonic purpose began to take on a new stature, more intellectually and emotionally stirring: challenging and stimulating the listener’s response. This prepared the way for later generations of composers to invest the very notion of symphonic expression with far deeper, symbolic meaning. Brahms’ First Symphony was often referred to as “Beethoven’s Tenth”, so monumentally was it regarded. With the immense symphonic structures of Bruckner and Mahler, the nationalist Russians and others, not least the two impressive large-scale symphonies of Elgar, the symphony had become the most important abstract musical form, capable of the most telling intellectual and emotional implications: the abstract equivalent of opera.
However, as with many other conventions of human thought and creativity these large-scale, often over-blown ideas began to be questioned. Shortly after the turn of the new twentieth century composers began to experiment with tightening musical structures: seeking to replace much of the seeming empty rhetoric by tighter, more cogent musical logic. This has been echoed in many other aspects of human design and invention: the one-time unwieldy artefacts have been replaced by equally - or even more efficient - devices, yet on a much smaller scale: massive engineering marvels of the Victorian age have been replaced by elegant, slender creations. Whereas at one time all manner of communication devices - telephones, radios and such - were once bulky and unwieldy, they are now of the slenderest size, but yet are equally or even more efficient.
As a reaction to the growing scale of symphonic structures, shortly after the beginning of the twentieth century, Sibelius sought to express such symphonic ideas in a tighter, less rhetorical way, so that the Fourth Symphony of 1911 was in startling contrast to those of Mahler (who had died that year). In the mid-1920s this was taken even further, so that what had once been regarded as an essential feature: the traditional four-movement form, had been condensed and seen to be effective as a single, concentrated musical structure: the one-movement Seventh Symphony. Several later composers have been influenced by this new philosophy, so that a stage has now been reached where it is possible to look back, as it were, contrasting the old with the new. The one movement symphonic idea perhaps might be compared to a “musical telephoto lens” where, instead of a wide expansive musical panorama the listener is offered a tightly-organised and concentrated musical vision.

Arthur Butterworth
May 2011


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