Sunday, August 14, 2016

Project 366 - The Orchestra: Symphonies and more

To mark the fifth anniversary of ITYWLTMT, we are undertaking a long-term project that will introduce - and re-introduce - musical selections in the context of a larger thematic arc I am calling "A Journey of Musical Discovery". Read more here.


The next few installments of our ongoing look at the Classical Repertoire considers the orchestra, as a natural, scaled-up, progression from chamber music. As we started to discuss in our earlier look at “team play”, the orchestra is a large musical ensemble, laid out in discrete sections of primarily string, wind and percussion instruments.

Sections of an Orchestra

The term orchestra derives from the Greek name for the area in front of an ancient stage reserved for the Greek chorus. Nothing much needs to be said about the orchestra as an ensemble, other than it has evolved through the last 500 years in size, scope and texture, going from so-called period instruments (some of which have fallen into obsolescence) to the instruments we recognize today. Gone are the viola de gamba and the oboe d’amore, and long-live the cello and the English horn!

Size and breath provide endless possibilities to orchestral composers – sometimes known as symphonists - and works typically found in the orchestral repertoire fall into three broad categories, along the lines of what we can hear at a typical subscription concert: symphonies, overtures, and concertos. The concerto (which literally means concert) is a form that has evolved quite a bit throughout music history, and I have chosen to look at concertos in an upcoming, separate installment of our project.

What is a Symphony?

Etymologically, the word symphony is derived from Greek, meaning "agreement or concord of sound", "concert of vocal or instrumental music". Not surprisingly, with such a broad meaning, the terms "overture", "symphony" and "sinfonia" were widely regarded as interchangeable up until the Romantic period.

In the sense of "sounding together," the term symphony begins to appear in the titles of some 16th- and 17th-century works. For most of the Baroque period, the terms symphony and sinfonia were used for a range of different compositions, including instrumental pieces, usually part of a larger work like an opera. The "Italian" style of symphony, often used as overture and entr'acte in opera houses, became a standard three-movement form: a fast movement, a slow movement, and another fast movement. 

Over the course of the 18th century it became the custom to write four-movement symphonies, following a pattern we refer to as the classical symphony:
  1. oopening sonata or allegro
  2. slow movement, such as adagio
  3. minuet or scherzo with trio
  4. allegro, rondo, or sonata
Variations on this pattern, like changing the order of the middle movements or adding a slow introduction to the first movement, aren’t uncommon.

The most important symphonists of the latter part of the 18th century are Haydn, who wrote at least 107 symphonies over the course of 36 years, and Mozart, with at least 47 symphonies in 24 years. The three-movement symphony died out slowly; about half of Haydn's first thirty symphonies are in three movements; and for the young Mozart, the three-movement symphony was the norm, perhaps under the influence of his friend Johann Christian Bach.

The symphony became a true work horse for composers, a “rite of passage” from also-ran to significance, probably starting with Beethoven, and from that point on to Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann and Brahms. In fact, Brahms First symphony was a work that had an excessively long gestation - there was an expectation from Brahms' friends and the public that he would continue "Beethoven's legacy" and produce a symphony of commensurate dignity and intellectual scope—an expectation that Brahms felt he could not fulfill easily in view of the monumental reputation of Beethoven. Early attempts at a symphony morphed into his piano concerto in D Minor and a good ten years later, probably in 1868 Brahms finally realized what would become the final structure of his first Symphony. The work would not premiere for 8 more years, in 1876.

Small Orchestral Works

Everything is relative – works come in all shapes and sizes, yet symphonies are viewed as “large orchestral works”. Indeed, some can be quite substantive, require a large complement of musicians, and can be lengthy, lasting sometimes close to an hour from beginning to end.

In the film Rhapsody in Blue, in clear abuse of poetic license, George Gershwin’s father on his death bed, hears a performance of the Cuban Overture and shows much satisfaction when the performance clocks past ten minutes in duration, declaring it “a major symphonic work” by virtue of crossing that arbitrary threshold.

What I take from that episode is that even if works aren’t coined to be “large”, they can still be terrific pieces of music, and cannot be merely dismissed as “filler” for a program. As I will try and illustrate, a whole class of works, from operatic preludes to ambitious symphonic poems, or even suites of disparate dances, can be just as significant in their content and message as the great symphonies of the orchestral repertoire.

It is common in orchestral concerts to program overtures, a term we intuitively apply to the instrumental introduction to a stage work. The term overture means a lot more than just that. In fact, the term was used interchangeably in the late baroque and early classical eras with sinfonia. In some of Verdi and Rossini’s operas, they actually identify the overtures as sinfonias! Some compositions by Johann Sebastian Bach and Georg Philipp Telemann which we often refer to as dance suites are also titled overtures!

It is sometimes customary for major orchestras to commission works from local composers. More often than not, these works are used at the start of a program, or after intermission.


During the early Romantic era, composers such as Beethoven and Mendelssohn began to use the term overture to refer to independent, self-contained instrumental, programmatic works. One of Beethoven’s attempts at overtures for his opera Fidelio (or Leonore) include an attempt that is viewed as so intricate and complex that it is often heard in concert only – you may know it as “Leonore No. 3”. Such works are precursors to a genre known as the tone poem (or symphonic poem), a form devised by Franz Liszt.  The distinction between the two genres was the freedom to mould the musical form according to external programmatic requirements. The symphonic poem became the preferred form for the more "progressive" composers, such as César Franck, Richard Strauss, Alexander Scriabin, and Arnold Schoenberg, while more conservative composers remained faithful to the overture. In the age when the symphonic poem had already become popular, Brahms wrote his Academic Festival Overture, as well as his Tragic Overture. Examples clearly influenced by the symphonic poem are Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture, and  his equally well-known Romeo and Juliet  - labelled a 'fantasy-overture'.

Exploring the orchestral repertoire - Some Listener Guides

Listener Guide #27 - "Curtain Raisers": We explore concert overtures – short pieces of music that launch orchestral concerts. A wide range of selections are proposed, including a few Slavic/Russian favourites. (ITYWLTMT Podcast #226 - 22 July 2016)



Listener Guide #28 - "Karl Bohm Conducts Haydn and Mozart" - Conductor Karl Böhm in Mozart’s great symphonies no. 40 and 41. (ITYWLTMT Podcast #227 - 5 Aug 2016)




Listener Guide #29 - "Karl Bohm Conducts Richard Strauss": This old favourite recording of mine, featuring Karl Böhm conducting four works by his friend and mentor Richard Strauss, including two of his oft-heard tone Poems: Till Eulenspiegel and Don Juan. (Vinyl's Revenge #17 - 24 May 2016)

Listener Guide #30 - "Beethoven 2 by 4": This montage features two symphonies and two overtures by Beethoven. (ITYWLTMT Podcast #43 - 17 Feb, 2012)


Listener Guide #31 - "Symphonies in C": We take a look at three Symphonies in C by Haydn, Schubert and Bizet. (ITYWLTMT Podcast # 159 - 6 June 2014)


Listener Guide #32 - "Brahms Fourth Symphony": Eugen Jochum conducts Brahms' Fourth symphony. (ITYWLTMT Podcast # 89 - 25 Jan, 2013)


Listener Guide #33 - "Bruckner's Fifth": A “live” performance of Bruckner’s Tragic symphony from August 1951 at the Salzburg Festival featuring the Vienna Philharmonic under Wilhelm Furtwängler. (Once Upon the Internet #26 - 15 April 2014)


Listener Guide #34 - "Wagner overtures: Tannhäuser, Der Fliegende Holländer, Die Feen": THree Wagner overtures, from an early Digital recording by the Concertgebouw led by Netherlands native conductor Edo De Waart. (Vinyl's Revenge #2 - 21 Oct. 2014)