There is no single story to tell about the development of the symphony after 1900. In the 20th century, as the looming shadow of a certain composer of THE NINE began to retreat, we lost something of the clear thread that wound through our understanding of the 19th century’s treatment of the genre. (Say what you will about Beethovenian anxiety of influence — at least it was an ethos).
Instead, we found a huge explosion of new ideas and issues for composers to grapple with — atonality, electronics, non-Western musics, to name just a few. For some, the 20th century mandated symphonies be written as white hot responses to turbulent times. Others rejected this fire, preferring theirs to be cold glasses of water. Some overthrew the prescriptions handed down by generations before, compressing, expanding, rotating, twisting the very stuff of symphonic tissue into exciting, unfamiliar shapes and sounds. A few avoided the term “symphony” all together, but they don’t fool us!
The idea behind Unsung Symphonies is to highlight some symphonies that we don't know that well, or at all — and that we hope are new to you, too — in an effort to develop new narratives and make sense of the symphonic deluge of the last hundred or so years. Every week, we'll take on one symphony. As this blog develops, we may include timely themes, paired works, spotlights on national traditions, and interactive features. Who knows — maybe we'll even write a symphony.
At this early stage, for something to qualify as a “symphony,” it really only needs to have “symphony” (or its non-English equivalent) in the title (except when it doesn’t). We’re generally focusing on symphonies that were composed in the 20th century, but that won't prevent us from jumping back to Georges Onslow1 every once in a while. And by "unsung," we mean those that don't seem to sit atop the orchestral canon. We will try hard to avoid the tendency to describe things new to our ears entirely in terms of similarities to, or influence by, better known works or composers. And if you've heard of one symphony or know it well, that doesn't make it "unsung" — it just means you’d better help educate everyone in the comments. As we like to say, one listener’s Beethoven is another’s Rodion Konstantinovich Shchedrin. Conversely, if you don’t find your favorite obscurantist symphoniker featured in a post, fret not — we are open to suggestions and would be thrilled to discover new works from you, our reader (we’re looking at you, Axel Ejnar Hakon Børresen Society.)
Your symphonic reality tour guides are Matthew Mugmon and Frank Lehman.2 Both are Ph.D. students at Harvard working on their dissertations. Matt’s a Mahler guy, and his thesis looks at the transmission of ideas about Mahler’s music in France and the United States. Frank gives film music some much deserved theoretical attention in his thesis about tonality and transformation in Hollywood scores. Both are big into Seinfeld and The Big Lebowski, and they reserve the right to pepper their posts with references.
— Matt and Frank