Symphony Saturday

Here’s something new I think I’ll try doing: a weekly exploration of the world of the symphony.

In discussions of music I’ve had through the years, one topic that comes up a lot within classical afficionadoes is just what classifies a work as a “symphony” anyway. It’s generally thought of as a large-scale work for full orchestra — but then, there are symphonies for chamber orchestra, symphonies for winds, and the like. It’s generally thought of as a work in four movements — but then, you have symphonies by Sibelius with one movement, symphonies by Berlioz with five, a symphony by Schubert with two, and…so on and so on. It’s thought that the first movement of a symphony is supposed to follow the general requirements of “sonata-allegro” form, a requirement that is almost completely ignored by a bunch of symphonies I can name off the top of my head.

Some symphonies can be heard in their entirety in the time it takes me to shower. Others, though, last longer than half the time it takes to roast your Thanksgiving turkey. Symphonies are large-scale orchestral works — except for the ones that add chorus, or voices, or soloists. I had a guy complain once on one of the film music boards I frequented years ago that Howard Shore’s “Lord of the Rings Symphony” — the two-hour long program Shore arranged of his LOTR scores after the third film came out, which was performed all over the country — “isn’t a real symphony”. When I asked why, out came all the objections above, which I then followed with every counterexample I knew.

Point is, the “symphony”, as a concept, seems as flexible and changeable as the “poem” or “novel”. Ultimately, if the composer calls it a symphony, then, well, it’s a symphony. Artistic nomenclature doesn’t work like biological classification, no matter how much we all might wish it did. Just ask any fantasy or science fiction fans to define the genres, and you’ll see what I mean.

So anyway, we’ll start with one of the short ones, from fairly early on in the period when the “symphony” started to settle into something of a regular form. This is the Symphony No. 25 by Mozart, in G minor. It’s one of only two symphonies he wrote in a minor key (the other being the magnificent No. 40, also in G minor). Mozart was only 17 years old when he wrote this work, which is famous for its opening bars (used as opening credits music for the film Amadeus), but is also loaded with typical Mozartean confidence, charm, and his restrained but very clear drama.

Here we have a typical four-movement structure, with the opening movement in sonata-allegro form, followed by a slow movement, a minuet movement, and closing out with a forceful allegro finale. It’s as good a starting point to the world of the symphony as I can think of. To my ears, this work always sounds surprising and fresh, no matter how many times I hear it; those opening syncopations and Mozart’s way of alternating between moments of high drama and lingering lyricism always captivate. Enjoy!

Next Saturday we’ll flash forward in Mozart’s life to the very end.

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