Music: Long Live the Symphony

The death of the symphony has been announced at least as often as that of the novel. Both obituaries have been premature. (I just finished reading Josh Gilder’s brilliant new novel, Ghost Image, a cross between Raymond Chandler and Dostoyevsky.) In the symphony’s case, its demise was diagnosed due to either the supposed exhaustion of tonality (à la Arnold Schoenberg), on which it depends for its development, or its replacement by electronics (a la Milton Babbitt). However, a flood of recent releases of heretofore little-known works in the genre proves the perdurability of the form from the time of its announced expiration to the present day.

The dividing line between the life and death of the symphony was drawn by what are called the First and Second Viennese Schools. The great tradition of Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner, and Mahler supposedly crashed into the limits of tonality early in the 20th century and came literally to a screeching halt. Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg composed anew according to what was supposed to be the “historically inevitable” system of atonality.

Someone forgot to tell Karl Weigl (1881-1949), who went on to write six symphonies. Actually, Schoenberg must have tried to tell him because their close working relationship cooled after Schoenberg abandoned tonality. To his credit, Schoenberg had the generosity to write in 1938, “I always considered Dr. Weigl as one of the best composers of the old school; one of those who continued the glittering Viennese tradition.” And that is what we hear in abundance in Weigl’s Symphony No. 5, Apocalyptic Symphony, written in 1945 as a salute to the memory of Franklin Roosevelt.

Weigl worked for Mahler at the Viennese opera, and this symphony bears out Weigl’s remark that it was “the most instructive period of my life.” In 1938, Weigl fled from the Nazis to the United States, where he wrote the Fifth Symphony. It is steeped in Mahler’s spirit and musical idioms but also shows his kinship with Bruckner and with Weigl’s contemporary, Franz Schmidt, who had written his own “apocalyptic” work, The Book of the Seven Seals.

Drop the appellation “Apocalyptic” from your expectations in listening to Weigl’s symphony because it is not over the top in the way the title suggests. It is extraordinarily rich and dramatic but within the means of the composers already mentioned. Specific to Weigl are a couple of interesting touches. He begins the symphony with the orchestra tuning up—out from which then blasts a theme from the brass to bring order to the proceedings. I love this touch because when first exposed to the orchestra as a youth, I thought that the orchestra tuning up was the actual start of the composition I was hearing.

Also, Weigl sometimes generates power by compressing his melodies, which then flex themselves in an effort to muscle their way out of their confinement. Pressure reaches its release in the rapt adagio (more than 15 minutes in length) at the heart of the symphony. Brucknerian in its breadth, Mahlerian in its style, this movement contains great music. In its still beauty, it is hard to find a comparison to it other than the sublime adagietto of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. Stokowski premiered this work in 1968, and gorgeous music like this was his meat. I would love to have heard what he did with it. However, Thomas Sanderling and the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra sweep us away on this superb BIS recording. Please buy it so that BIS will record the other five symphonies.

The Telarc label has released a stunning CD of two symphonies, the First and Sixth, along with the one-movement Miserae, by another little-known composer, Karl Amadeus Hartmann (1905-1963). Hartmann stayed in Germany during the war years but refused to have his works performed under the Nazis. His disturbing music, angry and sorrowful, would not have pleased the Übermensch. It is music under the pressure of impeding horror, a visceral response to the direct experience of evil. Perhaps Mahler, having seen the death camps, would have written something like this. It is harrowing, haunting music, full of distress and alarm. This is the apocalypse, and it is not an easy listen. However, despite the harsh dissonance Hartmann employs, he does not stray over the border from music into noise—though he comes close, especially in parts of the raucous Sixth.

Written just before the war, the First Symphony, Essay Toward a Requiem, is an eerie, powerful premonition of the nightmare about to engulf the world. It employs a contralto solo, with texts by Walt Whitman. The explosion of timpani and brass that launches the work is one of the most galvanizing symphonic openings that I have ever heard. Then, the contralto, sung here so expressively by mezzo-soprano Jard van Nes, solemnly intones: “I sit and look out upon all the sorrows of the world, and upon all oppression and shame….” Difficult as it may be to listen to, this phantasmagorical work is unforgettable, especially in Leon Botstein’s riveting performance with the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

There is no space here to do justice to a multitude of other releases, but you should know about them. The Naxos budget label’s reissues of American symphonies from the now sadly defunct Delos label are a rebuke, in and of themselves, to anyone who thinks the symphony is in the graveyard. You should simply go and buy any Naxos release featuring the symphonies of David Diamond (b. 1915) or Walter Piston (1894-1976). They feature the superb work of conductor Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony. Together, these two composers helped define American symphonic greatness in the mid-20th century. Naxos has done a singular service in bringing these indispensable recordings back into circulation.

Naxos has also released a recording of Ned Rorem’s three symphonies. Rorem, 80 years old this year, is almost more infamous for his candid diaries than he is famous for his music. That is a shame now being remedied by a spate of birthday-year releases, three from Naxos alone, the latter two featuring chamber and vocal music. Surely, one reason for the neglect of Rorem’s music was the dominance of what he cleverly calls the “serial killers,” the twelve-tone or “serial” disciples of Schoenberg who forbade Rorem’s kind of music for so much of the 20th century. While Rorem made his name primarily as a composer of art songs, Jose Serebrier’s recording of Rorem’s three symphonies, with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, proves that Rorem is also capable of the long-line melodic thinking required by the symphonic form.

Rorem’s three symphonies are products of the 1950s and show the influence of Piston, Diamond, and Aaron Copland, especially in Rorem’s grand declamatory statements—try the first movement of Symphony No. 1, for instance. His similarity with Diamond most likely has its roots in their shared love of Ravel’s music, reflected in the exquisite refinement found in these three works, and extensive habitude in France. (The Third Symphony is Rorem’s farewell letter after living in his beloved France for eight years.) The music bustles, charms, enlivens, and enchants. It can be wistful— almost like Poulenc—and, then, moving in that special open prairie kind of way that American composers of that era captured to perfection, though it is also clear that Rorem is a big-city boy who has heard jazz. The fact that two of these works are receiving their recording premieres—and, in the case of the Second Symphony, only its second performance ever—proves that the “serial killers” almost got Rorem’s works to the undertaker. How nice that he has lasted long enough to witness his music’s survival and to hear it played so superbly under Serebrier’s inspired direction.

As if to prove that the symphony is alive and well today, conductor Serebrier (b. 1938), who is also a composer, penned his Third Symphony, Symphonie mystique, this year in the astonishing period of one week. Any haste is belied by the high level of craft this work for strings exhibits. Serebrier is not afraid to write long, bare lines, which is a sign of major melodic talent. The work begins with the only fast movement in the entire symphony. An insistent, lacerating motif in the upper strings is punctuated by an attempt to insert a gorgeous melody that sounds as if it is coming out of the great tradition of 20th-century British works for strings. The motif wins. The second movement begins with a doleful lament for cello solo in a melodic line of breathtaking length. It is a mesmerizing feat of introspection that is finally reinforced by a high violin line and, then, the other strings. This movement is expressive of an almost Russian sorrow. After an anxious, hesitant introduction, the third movement lopes into a weary waltz that keeps melting down into silence. Pizzicato strings try to lash it to life, but it cannot manage. Laden with nostalgia, it collapses to a poignant end. The last movement picks up a variation of the waltz theme, exquisite in its delicacy, that is passed to a soprano vocalise, floating in the netherworld. It, too, softly expires, mysteriously.

This is a very moving work whose movements are closely interwoven, as repeated attention reveals. One could not hope for more in the performance, with Serebrier conducting the Toulouse National Chamber Orchestra, in what must be the definitive rendition. The CD includes seven other very attractive works, mostly for strings, that Serebrier has written over the last 50 years.

So, I say, if the symphony is dead, long live the symphony!


  • Robert R. Reilly

    Robert R. Reilly has written for many publications, including The Wall Street Journal, Reader's Digest, The American Spectator, and National Review, and is the author or contributing author of over 20 books. His most recent book is America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding (Ignatius Press).

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