[Source photo: Wikipedia]
In the early 20th century, German-lead symphonism found its highest expression in the mega-symphonies of Gustav Mahler, but ended abruptly with the defeat in the Great War of both Germany and the Double Monarchy - that last state fell apart, leaving Austria with Vienna as a small rump-state. Typically, the two symphonies Schoenberg wrote were for chamber ensemble, as was the miniature Symphony by Webern.
The symphonic tradition was however continued elsewhere, in the Soviet Union (where Shostakovich, the 20th century's greatest symphonist after Mahler, lived; he wrote 15 symphonies; other Russian symphonists are Myaskovsky (27), Weinberg (22) and Prokofiev (7)), in the United States (Harris, Schuman, Copland, Hanson, Bernstein, Piston, Thomson and others), in Scandinavia (Sibelius, Madetoja, Nielsen, Langgaard, Pettersson, Holmboe, Wiren, Nørgård, Rautavaara etc), in England (Elgar, Bax, Brian, Walton, Vaughan Williams, Malcolm Arnold), in The Netherlands (Vermeulen, Andriessen, Pijper, Gilse, Badings), in France (Roussel and Milhaud), in Italy (Casella, Malipiero), in South America (Chavez, Villa-Lobos), in Japan (Yamada, Akutagawa, Mayuzumi, Bekku, Ohki, Ifukube), and elsewhere.
The symphony kept flourishing and even survived the 20th century's next disaster, that of the Second World War, which in Europe led to a strong disillusionment with traditional culture (as this had been implicated in Nazism). Music went down the path of increasingly sterile atonality, finally winding down into non-musical "sonological" experiments. Thankfully, we have survived even the destruction by the postwar generation, and... the symphony is still doing great! Now, as in the past, writing a symphony is considered as the highest proof of musical mastery.
In the 20th century, symphonies were written in all countries of the world that were influenced by Western culture, and they show the greatest variety imaginable. We also find many eccentric composers, who stubbornly went their own "enfant terrible" way. The symphony in the 20th c. provides a colorful and multi-faceted spectacle, ranging from the mystical struggles of Scriabin and Langgaard, the Gothic choral edifices of Brian, the multiphonies of Ives, the ironies of Nielsen and Sibelius in their last symphonies, a symphony honoring silent film Hollywood stars by Koechlin, to the extreme essays in aleatoric music with a great diversity of quotations by Schnittke, the meditations by Hovhaness which include not only Armenian and Indian elements, but also Chinese and Japanese, a symphony including a full performance of a traditional Japanese Nagauta by Yamada and a symphony bringing Buddhist shomu chant on stage by Mayuzumi, or Philip Glass' symphony "Heroes" which is based on music by David Bowie and Brian Eno...
Here are my favorite 20th century symphonies (Part One, from the first three decades of the century):
1. Alexander Scriabin, Symphony No 3 in C minor Op 43 "Le Divin Poème" 
Alexander Scriabin (1872-1916) was an eccentric who lived in his own fantasy world. He also was a typical fin-de-siecle artist, a voluptuary who translated some of the period's Art Nouveau atmosphere into lush and often orgiastic sound. Scriabin wrote five "philosophical" symphonies: the Mahlerian Symphony No 1 (1899-1900), in six movements and with solists and chorus in the exalted hymn to art of the final movement; the Symphony No 2 (1901), a gloomily introspective work which however doesn't lack in vitality and grandeur; the Symphony No 3 (1902-4) subtitled "The Divine Poem," in three movements: "Luttes," "Voluptés" and "Jeu Divin;" the Poem of Ecstacy (1905) which Scriabin called his Symphony No 4 even though that rather stretches the definition of the form - it is again a combination of sensuality with spirituality crashing over the listener in undulant waves of sound; and finally the similar Prometheus "Le Poème du feu" (1910) with a rhapsodic and hieratic character. The last two works are shorter than the first three (roughly 20 minutes in playing time rather than 50) and are of course more like symphonic poems. My favorite is the Third Symphony, about which I have already written in my post about eccentric symphonies by cult composers. Here are the main points. Scriabin's Third Symphony is a sort of fin-de-siecle "soul drama," written for vast orchestral forces. The subject matter of the symphony is the development of the human spirit towards the divine. Man's Ego consists of a "divine part" and "slavish part" and these continually struggle with each other, until they finally attain unity and bliss and so true freedom. The symphony consists of three parts, linked without pause: (1) Luttes ("Struggles"), a mysterious and tragic Allegro in c minor; (2) Voluptés ("Delights"), a sublime Lento in E major; and (3) Jeu divin ("Divine Play"), a radiantly joyful Allegro in C major. The work starts with a short prologue (Lento) which introduces the three leading motives of the symphony: "Divine Grandeur" (an unforgettable motif in the low brass), "The Summons to Man" (an ascending trumpet call) and the "Fear to approach, suggestive of Flight" (literally "flighty" strings). And of course, if you prefer to regard all these metaphysics as so much hot air, you can also enjoy Scriabin's music on a purely abstract level!
[Youtube] [Performance listened to: Neeme Jarvi with The Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra on Chandos]
2. Josef Suk, Asrael Symphony for large orchestra in C minor Op 27 (1905-1906)
Another mega-symphony in an intensely personal vein, although here a more singular utterance as Josef Suk only wrote one more symphony, an earlier one which is a somewhat bland affair borrowing heavily from Brahms and Dvořák. Suk was more a salonesque miniaturist (he wrote many small piano pieces, although these were usually linked in series) than a symphonist. Except in this huge and shattering funeral symphony, dedicated to the memory of the composer Dvořák, Suk's mentor and father-in-law, and Suk's wife Otylka, who also happened to be Dvořák's daughter. Suk started work on the symphony about eight months after Dvořák's sudden death; when he was in the middle of the composition, in July 1905, also his wife Otylka died at age 27, so he recast the work in two parts to commemorate both persons nearest to him: the first three movements dedicated to Dvořák, and the last two to Otylka. The resulting ambitious work was a novelty for Suk in its grand scale and solemn style. The solemn opening of the first movement starts with a fate theme that is heard throughout the symphony. Asrael, by the way, is the Angel of Death. The fourth movement is a gentle portrait of Suk's wife, warm in tone. The finale culminates in an all-passion-spent version of the fate theme as a musical sign that Suk had come to terms with his grief. The final chord is in C major. Asrael is hyper-emotional music, a larger-than-life creation.
[Youtube] [Performance listened to: Libor Pesek with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra on Virgin Classics]
3. Alfredo Casella, Symphony No 1 in B minor Op 5 (1906)
A first symphony, written by a 22-year young composer, but with a truly distinctive identity. Alfredo Casella (1883-1947) came from an old Torino family and studied at the Conservatoire in Paris with Gabriel Fauré. Although Ravel was a good friend, Casella was not influenced by French Impressionism, but rather by the great Austrians as Mahler and Strauss, as well as Russian composers as Rimsky-Korsakov. Thanks to his Italian lyricism and keen sense of drama, his music is all his own, as is demonstrated in this symphony, the first of three (the second was written in 1909, the third in 1940). The orchestration, for one thing, is very imaginative, making frequent use of dark, crepuscular sonorities. The symphony is in three movements (which may be the only French aspect) and starts with gloomy cello/bass led music answered by rocking woodwind and harp. The slow movement is a melancholy meditation, the 20-minute long third movement employs the second theme of the opening movement as a chorale. There are several big climaxes, but the music ends softly, with an enigmatic return of the opening melody on solo cello. A symphony brimming with energetic youthfulness.
[Performance listened to: Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma conducted by Francesco La Vecchia on Naxos]
4. Arnold Schoenberg, Chamber Symphony No. 1, Op. 9 (1906)
Schoenberg represents the reaction against the huge (in length and number of performers) symphonies of Bruckner and Mahler. Anyway, ten years after Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony, when the war had been lost by Austria and the empire fallen apart, there was no interest anymore in exaggerated utterances and small chamber-like symphonies became the norm in the German-speaking world (and not only there: in the 1920s, also elsewhere in Europe Neo-Classicism with its smaller forms took hold, while the contents changed from deep confessions to light entertainments). We also find a further step in the dissolution of tonality in this symphony from 1906. The symphony is remarkable for its whole-tone and quartal harmony, and its initiation of dynamic and unusual ensemble relationships, involving dramatic interruption and unpredictable instrumental allegiances. The form is a Lisztian model, that is to say, in the broad outlines of a single-movement sonata, the scherzo and andante are interpolated between the sonata's formal sections. There is an unparalleled beauty and wealth of ideas in this work, which belies its short duration of only 20 minutes. The 15 solo instruments have all individualized parts (like in chamber music), which has been combined with a symphonic approach.
[Youtube] [Performance listened to: Michael Gielen with the SWF Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden on Philips (with piano concerto)]
5. Gustav Mahler, Symphony No 10 in F sharp (1910)
Mahler is the most typical late 19th-early 20th century symphonic composer, the man of the mega-symphony, of symphonies in which he expressed a whole world view. Mahler wrote ten symphonies: 1 (1888), 2 (1894), 3 (1896), 4 (1901), 5 (1902), 6 (1904), 7 (1905), 8 (1907), 9 (1910), 10 (1910), as well as Das Lied von der Erde (1908-1909), which was in fact his Ninth Symphony but not counted as such for superstitious reasons. Mahler's first four symphonies are often classed as his "Wunderhorn" group owing to thematic links with settings of songs from the anthology of German folk poems "Des Knaben Wunderhorn" ("Youth's Magic Horn"). Symphonies 5 to 8 are then "middle period," and 9 and 10 "late works." As Mahler said: "My symphonies represent the content of my entire life." Mahler used his symphonies to explore psychological states and philosophical questions that still mesh powerfully with audiences 100 years after his death. When 40 years ago I started listening to Mahler (I had a series of records with Rafael Kubelik as conductor, which I played until they were gray), he was by far not as popular as today, although his ascent had already begun thanks to among others the efforts of the Concertgebouw Orchestra and, separately, Leonard Bernstein. When I was a student, Mahler's music was my daily companion. I got to know his symphonies very well, except one: No 10, Mahler's last, uncompleted symphony, and that is therefore the one I want to discuss here. No 10 is often left out of recordings of the full symphonies, and I developed the mistaken idea that it was just a series of sketches. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Not only is there a complete draft score, Mahler also already scored movements 1 and 3. A draft score is not a final score - Mahler used to change many details while scoring - but close enough to say that what we have of the 10th symphony is true Mahler, and not Deryk Cooke (the musicologist who with several collaborators made the performing version which is usually played today). Moreover, the 10th symphony also is more positive than the "dark night of the soul" of the 9th Symphony. Instead of plunging farther into a preoccupation with death, Mahler was clearly moving again towards a more vitally creative attitude. The 10th Symphony has an extraordinary structural balance: two Adagios frame two scherzos, which themselves frame a sort of intermezzo called "Purgatorio." The symphony starts in death-haunted nostalgia, moves to forced happiness and unease, until finally achieving serenity in the finale. It is interesting to ponder what Mahler's 11th Symphony would have been like, and how his career would have proceeded had he lived longer...
[Article in The Atlantic about the 10th Symphony]
[Youtube] [Performance listened to: Simon Rattle with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra on EMI Classics]
6. Edward Elgar, Symphony No 2 in E Flat, Op 63 (1909–1911)
That Edward Elgar was not only the patriotic composer of imperial Pomp and Circumstance cliches, is demonstrated by his sensitive Second Symphony (and by his excellent chamber music). Elgar wrote his First Symphony in 1908 when he was 50, a confident, triumphant, but also rather imperialistic work, an expression of the jingoist ideals of Edwardian England. The Second Symphony followed three years later and was very different: a work full of nagging doubt and with a sense of struggle below the surface, an elusive attempt to capture the "spirit of delight" (as in the Shelley quotation on the score that reads: "Rarely, rarely comest thou, Spirit of Delight!"). This can be heard right at the beginning where the opening note has to wrench itself into being before blossoming forth into the first theme. The second movement is a massive funeral march, with something of a veiled radiance, publicly dedicated to the memory of Edward VII, and privately to several friends of Elgar. It has been called an expressive combination of tenderness and melancholy, typical of Elgar. The scherzo contains a violent crescendo, like a nightmare, and the Finale is deceptively serene, closing the symphony with a radiant quietness (very different from the boisterous First Symphony). An ambiguous and multi-layered work.
[Youtube] [Performance listened to: Bernard Haitink with the Philharmonia Orchestra on EMI]
[Youtube] [Performance listened to: Bernard Haitink with the Philharmonia Orchestra on EMI]
Franz Schmidt (1874-1939) is an Austrian composer who is combined a reverence for the great Austro-German lineage of composers with very personal innovations in harmony and orchestration. Unfortunately, as so many composer of his generation, he seems to have fallen between two stools: his works are too complex for the conservatively minded, yet too obviously traditional for the avant-garde. Since the last decades of the previous century his music has enjoyed a modest revival like that of his contemporaries. The Second Symphony is a glorious symphony, a real tour de force: three large movements, of which the second is an extremely inventive set of variations. Where Mahler had given way to modernity by breaking up classical forms, Schmidt (two years after the death of Mahler) takes stock by bringing the most important architectural schemes since the Baroque together: fugue technique and variation and sonata form, at the highest level of craftsmanship, realized by a giant orchestra in late-romantic, post-Wagnerian ecstatic sound - while that was still possible. Note that in this 3-movement symphony in fact the Scherzo, the fourth part of the classical symphony, is not lacking: Variation 9 is the scherzo of the Symphony, Variation 10 its Trio, after which the Scherzo is repeated. The Finale, a Rondo, starts with a fugue as introduction, and here the theme of Variation 11 is used. And this again thematically close to the theme of the first movement. The symphony ends with a large apotheosis, a chorale that in its turn is based on variation 8... This is gloriously lyrical writing for the lush Viennese strings and brass (containing eight French horns). A sunny symphony.
[Performance listened to: Neeme Jarvi with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on Chandos]
8. Charles Ives, Symphony No 4 [1910-1916]
Charles Ives (1874-1954) was a modernist who has been called the greatest American composer. Perhaps the most remarkable piece of orchestral music Ives completed was his Fourth Symphony (1910–16). The list of forces required to perform the work is extraordinary and eccentric in the sense that although six trumpets are called for, one of them only plays one note in the whole piece; and a whole choir has to join and sit on stage during the length of the symphony, while it only sees 30 seconds of action at the beginning and again at the end. For a certain part of the work, a second conductor is necessary. No wonder this symphony, although considered as the culmination of Ives' musical achievement, is seldom performed. The first complete performance was given in 1965, more than a decade after Ives' death. The symphony starts with a prelude that asks questions to which the succeeding movements try to provide answers - in the style of Ives' The Unanswered Question. It also contains a hymn, "Watchman, tell us the night." The second movement is a riotous multiphony quoting dozens of well-known American tunes, an Allegretto inspired by a story of Hawthorne. Ives himself described the third movement, a fugue, as "an expression of the reaction of life into formalism and ritualism." The final movement, Largo maestoso, is a sort of struggle between dissonance and traditional tonal music, taking up earlier motifs and building to a tremendous climax (with the choir) after which the piece ends quietly with just the percussion playing as if from a distance. Ives said this "had something to do with the reality of existence and its religious experience."
See my post about eccentric symphonies by cult composers.
[Youtube] [Performance listened to: Boston Symphony Orchestra and Tanglewood Festival Chorus conducted by Seiji Ozawa on Deutsche Grammophon]
9. Karol Szymanowski, Symphony No. 2 in B flat major Op 19 (1911)
Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937) was the most celebrated Polish composer of the early 20th century. Written at age 27, the Second Symphony is one of the first works by Szymanowski in his mature style. As we also see in his string quartets, there are several unconventional elements, such as the fact that the symphony is in two movements and that it begins with a violin solo. The opening movement has a passionate and grandiose character and provides contrasts in its use of solo instruments in a varied orchestral texture. The second movement is almost self-contained and consists of a theme and five variations. It is playful, festive and dance-like. Also in this movement, the solo violin makes an emotionally effective appearance. The movement ends with a sixth variation followed by a fugue, its chromatic subject dramatically introduced and developed with continuing contrasts of orchestral texture. After an interruption by a gently lyrical section, there is a massive conclusion to the symphony.
[Performance listened to: Karol Stryja with the Polish State Philharmonic Orchestra Katowice on Naxos]
10. Rued Langgaard, Symphony No. 6 "Det Himmelrivende" [1919-20]
Rued Langaard (1893-1952) was a Danish "cult composer" whose musical style was at odds with his Danish contemporaries. Only in recent decades becoming recognized, he has more than 400 works to his name, including 16 symphonies, the Music of the Spheres, 150 songs, works for piano, organ, and an opera entitled The Antichrist. Langaard saw music as a fight between good and evil and the 6th symphony, with the title "The Heaven Storming" is the embodiment of such a cosmic conflict. Langgaard's music is visionary, extreme and bizarre. The Sixth Symphony of 1919-1920 is one of Langaard's strongest works. Here Langgaard releases the forces of good and evil, light and dark, and God and Satan against each other. This Christian-based contrasting of "good and evil" is not my worldview, I rather think in shades of grey, but it makes for good drama. The apocalyptic symphony is in one continuous movement that takes the form of variations on a theme. That theme permeates the whole symphony and has two different shapes, a pure, light one, and a dark, chromatic one. Langaard displays absolute technical mastery of the orchestra and invokes the enormous power of the brass to drive "the storming armies of evil under the canopy of heaven." One of the most astonishing symphonies I know. See my post about eccentric symphonies by cult composers.
[Performance listened to: The Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Neeme Järvi on Chandos]
11. Carl Nielsen, Symphony No 5, Op 50, FS 97 (1920-22)
Carl Nielsen (1865-1931) is widely recognized as Denmark's most prominent composer. His Fifth is a very unconventional and original symphony, a one-of-a-kind work. It confounds all expectations of what a symphony is supposed to be. At the premiere, the audience was stunned by the weird battle between the snare drum and the orchestra in the first of the two movements; a near riot ensued, like the premiere of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. The symphony has been cast in two movements. The first section of the opening movement is a sort of prelude, with bizarre color combinations and amorphous themes. The second section starts with a broadly flowing theme, treated contrapuntally, while the music grows to a cacophonous climax. The above mentioned snare drummer is given the task of interrupting the orchestra, playing ad libitum and out of time, as if to destroy the music. The second movement begins with a scherzo-like section. The work's final section starts with an elegiac and harmonically intricate fugue, after which a bustling coda is based on both the section's opening music and the first movement's wailing figure. A sort of battle between the forces of order and chaos.
[Youtube] [Performance listened to: Esa Pekka Salonen with the Swedish radio Symphony Orchestra on Sony]
12. Jean Sibelius, Symphony 7 in C (1924)
The Seventh Symphony was Sibelius' last published symphony, and it is as unconventional as the above symphony by Nielsen. It is notable for having only one movement. Development is continuous from the outset, making a discussion of first and second subjects irrelevant. The form is open to various interpretations - for example the slow opening section has been labeled both as an introduction and as an exposition. The strings dominate in this symphony, but there is also a distinctive trombone theme - in fact, the trombone solo, which occurs three times, punctuates the symphony like three great pillars. The Seventh Symphony must be counted among the most individual examples of organic growth in all music. Its formal aspect is unique and arises as the inevitable result of the content.
[Youtube][Performance listened to: Sir Alexander Gibson conducting the Scottish National orchestra on Chandos (with First Symphony)]
13. Sergei Prokofiev, Symphony No. 2 in D minor Op. 40 (1924-5)
When Prokofiev wrote his Second Symphony, he was settled in Paris and intent on writing a piece in the vanguard of musical modernism. Although the two-movement form is modeled on Beethoven’s final (Op. 111) piano sonata, this is music “of iron and steel,” an onslaught comparable to Stravinsky’s Sacre. The first movement, full of nervous energy, starts with strident trumpet fanfares and charging strings – it is fact an 11 min assault full of anger, bitterness and violence. The second movement, a set of six highly brilliant variations, starts more gentle, with a glorious oboe theme. Each variation is clearly delineated and the range of emotions is remarkable: fast, mercurial music; beautiful slow passages; vigorous percussive writing; patches of aggression and violence; and it all ends with a glowingly orchestrated march.
[Youtube][Performance listened to: Mstislav Rostropovitch conducting the Orchestre National de France on Erato (with Third Symphony)]
14. Willem Pijper, Symphony No 3 (1926)
Willem Pijper (1894-1947) has been called the most important and influential Dutch composer of his generation. He was mostly self-taught. In the early 1920s, he grew into one of the most advanced composers in Europe, working with "cell technique," polytonality and bitonality. As long-time teacher at the Conservatories of Amsterdam and Rotterdam he exerted a large influence over several new generations of Dutch composers. Pijper's large and varied output includes operas, three symphonies, concertos for piano, violin and cello, and five string quartets as well as a number of chamber works. His impressive Third Symphony was written for Pierre Monteux, who performed it frequently. It is in one movement, but as usual the sections allegro, adagio, scherzo and allegro can be discerned.
[Youtube][Performance listened to: Radio Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Jac van Steen]
15. Havergal Brian, Symphony No 1 in D minor "Gothic" [1919-27]
Although rarely performed, cult composer Havergal Brian (1876-1972) was extremely prolific until a very advanced age - he wrote a total of 32 symphonies, of which the First one calls for the largest orchestral forces demanded by any conventionally structured concert work. "Gothic" as Brian uses the term here, points to the Gothic style in architecture, to the age in which the great cathedrals of Northern Europe were built. Brian saw these huge stone edifices as symbols of Western culture, as monuments to the struggle of the human spirit against immense odds. Such a struggle had just taken place: the Great War, which had shaken Western values by its cruel violence and unbelievable death toll. Brian, however, reaffirms the idealistic Western tradition in the vast choral movements of the symphony - the Te Deum is meant in a secular rather than religious way. On the other hand, in the orchestral movements Brian reflects on the horrors of the war. Take for example the start of the first movement which its violent tympani attack propelling the music forward, or the brutal, raw march in the second movement. But war and peace go together, there are also moments of great beauty such as the passage for solo violin near the end of the first movement. Brian uses traditional (late-Romantic) idioms in a wholly nontraditional way, thereby severely undercutting the expectations of the listener. He places harmonic opulence at the side of lean polyphony, he combines types of music that are mutually inimical, he elides transitions, suddenly switching from one mood to the next. His music is often extremely violent, but that is paired with sudden patches of peaceful and soft music. In other words, he continually pulls the rug away under the feet of the listener. See my post about eccentric symphonies by cult composers.
[Performance listened to: Martyn Brabbins with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and the BBC Concert Orchestra on Hyperion]
16. Virgil Thomson, Symphony on a Hymn Tune (1926-28)
Not the cacophony Ives made of his hymn tunes, but also not a straightforward "populist" peroration, in his First Symphony Virgil Thomson (1896-1989) wrote sensitive and affectionate music in which he often falls back on small groups of solo instruments so that the symphony has a strong chamber music character. The main theme (which returns in every movement) is based on an old Scottish melody called "How Firm a Foundation." When the theme appears in the first movement, the harmonization is on purpose half out of focus. This is followed by various dance-like passages derived from the theme. The first movement ends with a humorous "farmyard" cadenza for trombone, piccolo, solo cello and solo violin. The contemplative andante in its turn ends with a suggestion of a distant railway train. The next movement is a strongly rhythmic passacaglia on the hymn-tune bass. The concluding Alla breve reintroduces all the chief material of the symphony, including the hymn in full. This movement was used by Virgil Thomson as the finale of the film The River, for which he later composed the musical score. A rural America that has long since disappeared, but that was dignified and sweet.
[James Sedares conducting the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra on Naxos]
17. Anton Webern, Symphony Op 21 (1928)
A miniature symphony for small orchestra that lasts only 10 minutes, but packs more punch than many much larger works. This is pure twelve-tone serial music, deliciously atonal. Webern's tone rows have been arranged to take advantage of internal symmetries, which gives his work motivic unity. Webern also uses a technique called "Klangfarbenmelodie," splitting a musical line or melody rapidly between several instruments, rather than assigning it to just one instrument, thereby adding color and texture to the melodic line. The Symphony consists of two movements: the first movement is based on a complex canon; both halves of the movement are repeated. The second movement is a very concentrated set of variations. An enigmatic work of immense restraint and luminous clarity.
[Performance listened to: Pierre Boulez with the Wiener Philharmoniker on Deutsche Grammophon]
18. Albert Roussel, Symphony No 3 in G minor Op 42 (1930)
Albert Roussel (1869-1937) has been called the greatest French symphonist of the first half of the 20th century, but that reputation rests mainly on his two last symphonies (of four), and especially on his Third Symphony. This is a vigorous masterpiece, concise and classical in form. It was one of the many works commissioned by Serge Koussevitzky for the 50th anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, where it had a triumphant premiere. A simple five-note motive serves as the cyclic bond between the four highly succinct movements. The music brims with energy, the harmony is harsh and often polytonal. There is a strong motoric drive in the fast movements, like in Prokofiev's music of the 1920s. The initial, hammering Allegro Vivo has an unforgettable impact. The Adagio ascends to a majestic double-fugue. The Scherzo takes the form of a witty fast waltz, and the symphony ends with a vigorous Allegro con Spirito.
[Performance listened to: Charles Dutoit with the Orchestre National de France on Erato (with First Symphony)]
19. William Grant Still, Symphony No. 1 in A-flat, "Afro-American" (1930)
The first symphony written by an African American to be performed by a leading American orchestra. The work combines a fairly traditional symphonic form with blues progressions and rhythms characteristic of popular African-American music at the time. In this way, William Grant Still (1895-1978) integrated black culture into the classical form. The Afro-American Symphony is centered on a single blues-like theme which runs through the entire symphony, and is treated differently in each of the four movements. In the third movement, a banjo is used for atmosphere. Still gave the four movements the subtitles "Longings," "Sorrows," "Humor" and "Aspirations." Still was born in Mississippi as the son of two school teachers. He earned his living writing background music for radio and television. In addition to symphonies, Still's classical compositions include chamber music, operas, and ballets.
[Performance listened to: Detroit Symphony Orchestra conducted by Neeme Jarvi]
20. Aaron Copland, Short Symphony (Symphony No 2) (1933)
What is designated as Copland’s "Second Symphony" is better known as his "Short Symphony." Strangely enough, this attractive, concise rhythmical work is almost never played and there are only few recordings. It shows us Copland before his populist, sometimes rather bombastic (Third Symphony) Americana phase, letting us glimpse him in neo-classical guise, the Copland of The Symphonic Ode, the Piano Variations and the piano trio Vitebsk which were written around the same time. The Short Symphony is preoccupied with complex rhythms, and although the Mexican composer Carlos Chavez premiered the work in Mexico City in 1934, no Northern-American orchestra dared attempt a performance of this intricate work. In 1937, Copland therefore reworked the symphony into the Sextet for Clarinet, Piano and String Quartet, with hardly any changes to the music itself. It was only in the late sixties that the Symphony received a limited circulation in performance in the U.S. The work is in three movements played without pause. The first movement is scherzo-like in character. The second movement features a song-like middle part, but also has several dissonant climaxes. The finale is once again bright in color and rhythmically intricate. In fact, this is one of Copland most successful compositions, full of marvelous colorations and (poly)rhythms.
[Performance listened to: Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop on Naxos]
Posts about classical music include:
- Best String Trios
- Best String Quartets, Part One (ca. 1750-1850)
- Best String Quartets, Part Two (ca. 1850-1900)
- Best String Quartets, Part Three (ca. 1900-1925)
- Best String Quartets, Part Four (1926-1945)
- Best String Quartets, Part Five (Postwar period)
- Best String Quintets
- Best String Sextets
- Best String Octets
- Best Symphonies from the Twentieth Century, Part One (1900-1933)
- Best Symphonies from the Twentieth Century, Part Two (1933-1951)
- Best Symphonies from the Twentieth Century, Part Three (1951-)
- Unique Symphonies from the 19th Century
- Eccentric Symphonies by 20th Century Cult Composers (1) - Scriabin, Ives & Langaard
- Eccentric Symphonies from 20th Century Cult Composers (2) - Havergal Brian & Matthijs Vermeulen