I recently taught a class on the history of the symphony, and I hold with Mahler that the Symphony should be like the world. It should embrace everything. ‘Symphony’ means ‘harmonious sound’, and symphonic form dictates that two diametrically opposed ideas must be brought together in synthesis. I take from this that the symphony must be a reflection of everything in life: tragedy and comedy, high sublimity and low comedy, beauty and ugliness, creation and destruction, everything that existence is, everything brought together to sound in the context of everything else a kind of cosmically harmonious totality.
So with that in mind, here are, one per composer, one symphony each by the ten composers that I think best demonstrate what a symphony can do. Except for the first two, the rest should not be considered in any official order at all.
1.Everything that existence is, the very peaks and valleys of creation, is reflected here. This work is everything, in my strong opinion, that a symphony is supposed to be. Every yin in this symphony is balanced by a yang. Except perhaps for ‘long’, no adjective works for it any better than its opposite. Even ‘big’ doesn’t work in a symphony in which there are so many intimate moments. High sublimity stands alongside crude humor, the most beautiful music in the world right next to noise that’s ugly as sin, everything in the universe that creates and everything in the universe that destroys. It’s all here in this symphonic masterwork of masterworks.
2.It almost seems profane to not put Beethoven 9 at the top, but wherever it is, it has to be on the list. To me, Beethoven 9 is about the whole of the world and how the angry loneliness of the individual is gradually pacified into realizing that the community matters more than any person. It is for that reason that perhaps it does not get the top spot, because the community can so often exploit the individual, much as Hitler and Stalin did this great work.
3.There is so much here that sounds together, so many popular songs unrecognizably strung together in a mad collage, and yet within that dissonance is pure joy. Yet right after that utterly insane second movement is a slow movement of pure simplicity, followed by a finale that is an emanation from a more sensible dimension than ours, where it’s possible to be both as chaotic as the second movement and harmonious as the third.
4.In Mahler, everything of the world is represented in music. In Sibelius, everything is abstracted. Rather than human invention, natural invention - storms and treelight, the birds that fly through the air and the insects that crawl on the ground. Mahler inflates life to include everything within it, Sibelius distills to the essence. A whole symphony grounded into one movement, with the transitions from one movement to the next happening imperceptably. Together, Mahler and Sibelius form the core of the symphonic canon.
5.In the Berio Sinfonia, we hear the stream of consciousness itself. The first movement is philosophical thought rendered in music. In the third movement, we hear a Mahler scherzo that is an improvement upon the original, recording not only the experience of Mahler but the experience of listening to Mahler. The final movement seems to be a commentary upon a commentary upon a commentary on the material that already transpired in an endless recursion.
6.Messiaen’s Turangalila is a hymn to universal love (or perhaps the universe of love) in which the universe itself seems to be incorporated into the texture. This is love in the sense of eros, in which the exuberance and awful immediacy seems to incinerate everything within its path, and within its path, Messiaen seems to incorporate literally everything.
7.I think the original symphonist laid his symphonic pen down at 104 because he arrived at the summit of what his orchestral art was capable of doing. Haydn always incorporated darkness and played with it against his fundamentally sunny works, but 104 is the perfect fusion of light and darkness. After 104, it was left to fundamentally darker-minded creators to go to battlefields where light could triumph over darkness.
8.“Inextinguishable” “Music is life, and is therefore inextinguishable” This is the message of Nielsen 4, and it is a statement about the elemental life force, the will-to-life, that animates us and lets us keep going under the most adverse of circumstances, circumstances like the world in 1916 when Nielsen wrote it. It is, in all kinds of ways, a successor symphony to Beethoven’s Eroica, but it is in a musical language all its own.
9.“Pathetique” The obverse side to Nielsen’s Inextinguishable is Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique. Whether or not Tchaikovsky meant it as a suicide note, it’s clearly a symphony about death that begins and ends in the bowels of the low instruments. There are two motifs that occur all throughout the symphony, one goes stepwise up - life, and one goes stepwise down - death. But even if it’s about death, it’s a life-embracing work. The whole reason for going on living is given all throughout this symphony, and even if the struggle against death eventually proves futile, that does not mean it was not in vain.
10.“Leningrad” Like Shostakovich himself, the symphony is still senselessly derided for no reason than Shostakovich was coerced into writing music that the West found unfashionable. And yet here Shostakovich managed to incorporate a universe of life amid a maelstrom of death, with resolution and hope that life may yet go on, even in a world that demands premature death of so many. Shostakovich will be remembered long after his critics, he always has been.
The more I put in, the more I feel like I’ve left out, so I should probably stop here…