Twentieth Century Symphonies

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Richard0428

Twentieth Century Symphonies

Post by Richard0428 » Fri Sep 25, 2009 2:55 am

For me one of the most fascinating niches (and a very big niche at that) of classical music is the modern symphony. Far from dying out (the famous stated opinion that the symphony is 'dead' could not possibly have been more mistaken), the symphony in the Twentieth Century has developed into one of the richest, most varied and most prolific musical forms of the last hundred years or so. My rather primitive Excel database, on which I've been collecting 20th Century symphonies for years reached about 3,600 seperate works before I gave up on it a couple of years ago, after realising it would be an impossible job to make it even nearly complete!!
Modern symphonies are of a quite bewildering variety of styles, lengths, subjects, and expressive range. Take the symphonies of that wonderful composer Rautavaara for example: the fourth symphony ('Arabescata'), witten in 1962 when the extreme-progressive ideas of the avant garde were at their height, is an austere piece of abstract constructivism, in which not only the notes, but also the rhythm and dynamics are subject to serial techniques. Contrast that with its predecessor, the great third symphony, in which Rautavaara used the model of Bruckner (complete with opening string tremolo and distant horn calls), and married it to serial techniques (although the work is respendently tonal!) to create surely one of the most beautiful and wonderful orchestral creations of the last fifty years. Then there's the wierd but compelling dream-painting world (created with ample use of the bizarre/creepy sounds of a prominent synthesizer part) of the sixth symphony ('Vincentiana'), which culminates, unexpectedly, in the overwhelming, tonal Apotheosis, one of Rautavaara's most beautiful movements. There's another five symphonies by Rautavaara to hear as well.
I'd love to hear suggestions or opinions on some of the Twentieth Century's other less well-known symphonies. I've been quietly obssessed with the subject for a decade now, and have heard the (complete) symphonic outputs of about a hundred 20th Century composers now, but there's still a lot of wonderful stuff out there.
Besides Rautavaara's astonishing set of eight, here are a few personal favorite symphonic canons, with personal highlights from each: Martinu's six (well established classics: could never choose just one, but numbers 1,3, and 4 are perhaps my favorites), Vaughan Williams (9; nos 3,5,6 are good places to start); Tubin (11; no 4 is a great place to get hooked); Tournemire (years since I heard his eight symphonies, but nos 4 and 7 really stand out), Boris Tchaikovsky (4; nos 2 and 3 are astonishingly atmospheric, the fourth, 'harp' symphony strikes me a a bit of a dud, though); Kancheli (7; nos 5 and 6 are among the most powerful, despairing pieces of music I know); Madetoja (3; no 3 is one of the most delectable symphonies of the century in my view: a miraculously lovely piece, especially the scherzo); Holmboe (14; try any of them).

The list could go on, but it would be great to hear of a few others' favorites or opinions about this endlessly surprising, absorbing area of classical music!

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Re: Twentieth Century Symphonies

Post by rob » Fri Sep 25, 2009 11:22 am

Marvellous thread Richard. Horribly tied up currently, but I'll contribute what I can at some point.

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Re: Twentieth Century Symphonies

Post by fredbucket » Fri Sep 25, 2009 11:24 am

rob wrote:Marvellous thread Richard. Horribly tied up currently, but I'll contribute what I can at some point.
Yes, this is good stuff. Most welcome.

Regards
Fred

Op. XXXIX

Re: Twentieth Century Symphonies

Post by Op. XXXIX » Fri Sep 25, 2009 2:44 pm

Richard0428 wrote: The list could go on, but it would be great to hear of a few others' favorites or opinions about this endlessly surprising, absorbing area of classical music!
Have you tried any of the Malcolm Arnold symphonies? IMO, great stuff, I've managed to hear most of the 9. What do you think of the Robert Simpson symphonies? I've listened to a few by George Lloyd, but I just don't seem to connect with his music.

I'm familiar with some of Tournemire's organ music (there's a lot of it), but haven't heard the symphonies. If they have any of the atmosphere of the organ works, then I must indulge...

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Re: Twentieth Century Symphonies

Post by klavierelch » Fri Sep 25, 2009 3:14 pm

There are of course additional interesting "regions" of 20th century symphonies which could be discussed: e.g. the Russians with Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Myaskovsky etc., US symphonies by Ives, Piston, Schuman, Harris or Sessions to name a few. There are single composers with highly interesting symphonic cycles: Karl Amadeus Hartmann's 8 Symphonies rank very high in my personal ranking, or the symphonies by Allan Pettersson (although I admit these won't be everybody's cup of tea), the 4 symphonies by Fartein Valen or even some of the thirty-something symphonies by Havergal Brian. Also Humphrey Searle or Ernst Toch come to my mind. To be continued...
Ars opus est hominis, non opus artis homo.

John Owen, Epigrammata (1615)

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Re: Twentieth Century Symphonies

Post by Richard0428 » Fri Sep 25, 2009 3:19 pm

Ah, the Arnold symphonies are a fantastic set! Not always easy listening mind you (the seventh symphony, cryptically dedicated to his three children, is a dark piece indeed!) but often provocotive, always fascinating, and often very beautiful: it seems he saves at least one really 'big' tune for each symphony (the tune at the end of the last movement of the first symphony, comes immediately to mind). The Simpson symphonies are a tougher nut, although I really responded to at least half of the eleven. The ninth symphony is rightly regarded as a masterpiece, and for some reason I especially like the 2nd, 3rd and 4th. The Brits really came into their own as symphonists in the 1900s (although they got off to a very good start back in the time of Parry and - especially - Stanford, who both wrote a couple of very lovely symphonies that well deserve the belated reappraisal they've enjoyed on CD).
It's interesting to hear your comments on George Lloyd. I haven't got round to really getting to know them yet (there'll all so darned long, and there's more intriguing stuff to hear first), but the only one so far that caught my attention was no. 7. The 'Arctic' did less than nothing for me, but then opinion is very sharply divided on his worth.
While on the subject of British symphonists, Rubbra is also well worth trying; just about any of the eleven symphonies this prolific Englishman composed are worth trying, but if I had to chose, the last three especially are really very special.

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Re: Twentieth Century Symphonies

Post by Richard0428 » Fri Sep 25, 2009 3:58 pm

klavierelch wrote:There are of course additional interesting "regions" of 20th century symphonies which could be discussed: e.g. the Russians with Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Myaskovsky etc., US symphonies by Ives, Piston, Schuman, Harris or Sessions to name a few. There are single composers with highly interesting symphonic cycles: Karl Amadeus Hartmann's 8 Symphonies rank very high in my personal ranking, or the symphonies by Allan Pettersson (although I admit these won't be everybody's cup of tea), the 4 symphonies by Fartein Valen or even some of the thirty-something symphonies by Havergal Brian. Also Humphrey Searle or Ernst Toch come to my mind. To be continued...

It's interesting to see that while interest in the symphony as a form quickly lost ground in its traditional 'homeland,' the form found a new and remarkable life in the more far-flung corners of Europe and beyond: Britain, Eastern European nations such as Poland and Czecheslovakia, the Scandinavian countries and Russia. In particular Finland (thanks maybe to the example of Sibelius) became one of the most fascinating and fertile single breeding grounds for symphonic music (and orchestral music in general), and continues to be to this day, with composers such as Aho still producing some remarkable works. In Germany Hartmann almost alone really stands out for his magnificent, often very affecting series of top-quality works in the form, although they're pretty emotionally charged stuff: not easy listening!

Op. XXXIX

Re: Twentieth Century Symphonies

Post by Op. XXXIX » Fri Sep 25, 2009 4:13 pm

Interesting discussion. I've only sampled a few of the Simpson symphonies, so cannot really claim to know his music, though what I heard struck me as definitely worth study. Several years ago a friend of mine lent me the complete Rubbra set on Chandos, but alas I had to return it before I was finished working my way through them! I'm hoping Chandos will re-release this set at a budget level, as Rubbra struck me as a major symphonic heavyweight, with some very intense moments. I don't think the liner notes overestimated his profound contribution to the symphonic literature.

Re Parry and Stanford, I frankly and unapologetically adore all of Parry's symphonies (how could one not love them- they're so amiable), but Stanford is, IMO, a more difficult case. The symphonies -and I've plowed through all 7- strike me as incredibly well written, but the musical material seldom sounds very distinguished, it never seems to match up with the technical expertise. (This is a criticism sometimes leveled at Brahms, but not endorsed here.)

To say that Elgar's two symphonies trump anything by Parry or Stanford is -I would hope!- beyond argument.

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Re: Twentieth Century Symphonies

Post by rob » Fri Sep 25, 2009 5:20 pm

Well I have nothing to add - Richard & crowd seem to know everything already! Needless to say I have almost EVERY work mentioned so far (and quite a few of the scores too)...

Just for Jason, Elgar wrote at least THREE Symphonies! In some ways the Third is the finest. For Richard, I really prefer Parry to Stanford...

Anyway in a rush...

Rob

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Re: Twentieth Century Symphonies

Post by Timtin » Fri Sep 25, 2009 7:07 pm

Op. XXXIX wrote: Re Parry and Stanford, I frankly and unapologetically adore all of Parry's symphonies (how could one not love them- they're so amiable), but Stanford is, IMO, a more difficult case. The symphonies -and I've plowed through all 7- strike me as incredibly well written, but the musical material seldom sounds very distinguished, it never seems to match up with the technical expertise. (This is a criticism sometimes leveled at Brahms, but not endorsed here.)

To say that Elgar's two symphonies trump anything by Parry or Stanford is -I would hope!- beyond argument.
As a latter day convert to Stanford, I feel I have to defend the great man! Not only are his
symphonies excellent, but so too all of his chamber music with piano. And such works as
his Stabat Mater, Requiem, Songs of the Fleet, the concertos, the organ music and many
fine songs put him top of my British composers by a country mile (sorry Elgar fans!). With
a large ouput and consistently high quality Brahmsian style, my big regret is not having
discovered this brilliant composer many years ago. (I can't imagine anything more dreary
than Elgar's Ab Symphony.)

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