Monday, August 9, 2010

The Symphony Abides

There are a lot of symphonies out there. And the big guys — Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Dvorak, Brahms, Mahler, Sibelius, and Shostakovich — weren’t the only ones cranking them out. Yet our experiences of the symphony in the concert hall and on recordings tend to arrive courtesy of the names above, with a dutiful smattering of a few others for variety now and then. As it turns out, there are many, many more. In our blog, Unsung Symphonies, we look at some of the most fascinating, challenging, and (let's be upfront about this) just plain weird music to come from 20th-century symphonists with decidedly non-household names (at least, as symphonists).

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

1. "The French Beethoven."
2. Disclaimer: The last thing these guys are qualified to give a tour of is reality.


  1. Bravo!
    I can't wait to learn more about Symphonies and Seinfeld. Much luck in your blogging adventures.

  2. Fantastic! I love discovering new symphonies. Can't wait to see what you uncover. Hooray for the symphony!!

  3. Thanks guys -- if you have suggestions for pieces to cover, let us know!

  4. Sounds like an interesting journey you are embarking on. Good luck. :)

  5. and let us not forget, let us NOT forget, that uh, keeping an uh, a 19th century composer, as uh, anxiety of influence, with y'know...Bloom...that ain't legal either.

  6. Jake, what are you a #*%ing Romantic Aestheticist ranger? ;)

  7. This is not 'Nam, this is blogging. There are rules.

  8. O frabjous blog!

    A few nominations: Richard Arnell's 4th symphony, Eyvind Alnæs's 2nd, Hausegger's Natursymphonie, Persichetti's fifth, Prokofiev's 3rd, Röntgen's bitonal symphony, Boris Tchaikovsky's 2nd, Karl Weigl's 5th, maybe the Zemlinsky Lyric Symphony?

    Only the Röntgen might be hard to find. You want the score? I can get you the score, believe me. There are ways. You don't won't want to know about it, believe me.

  9. Great suggestions David! Weigl's 5th is on the docket, so stay tuned. And Rontgen's bitonal symphony sounds very interesting!