There may be more than one way to skin a cat, but there is only one way to write a symphony

A few long flights back, I had the pleasure of conducting the Helix Ensemble in a program of three symphonies, a true musical bumper crop in one evening.

Two of the names on the program were all but synonymous with the word “symphony:” Haydn and Beethoven, represented by their 60th and 4th respectively. The third name on the program was bound to be new to most listeners- my friend and colleague Philip Sawyers, whose 2nd Symphony we gave the 2nd UK performance of.

One of the cool things about being Ken is that I do get to do a fair bit of new or relatively unknown music, and I’m constantly inspired and encouraged by the wealth of new pieces I come across that I genuinely like and admire. However, in the case of Sawyers 2, my reaction to a flip through of the score went beyond admiration and affection to genuine surprise and delight- I was looking at the score of a genuine, bona fide symphony. I come accross a lot of exciting new pieces of music in a year, but very few exciting new symphonies.

The 20th c. started out as the best of times for the symphony, giving us the last several works of Gustav Mahler, the Elgar symphonies and the Sibelius symphonies, as well as Nielsen, Ives and many more. Later decades gave us compelling symphonies by Copland, Shostakovich, Walton, Prokofiev and many others ranging from Harris to Schnittke to Vaughan Williams.

However, post World War II, the schism between progressives like Boulez and symphonists like Shostakovich meant that the symphony came to be viewed more and more as a relic of a bygone era. The symphony became synonymous with conservatism. In recent generation, progressive composers and teachers have often contended that the symphony had run its course as a genre, and that in the post WW II years, there was simply nothing new to say in the genre. Their reasoning looks more precarious when you realize that Haydn didn’t leave anything left to do or say when he finished his work on the genre. Beethoven could just as easily have thrown up his hands in 1800 and declared the genre dead as Boulez and his contemporaries did in 1948.

How funny that that should happen in a century that began by showing conclusively that “symphonic-ness” has nothing to do with any particular style, or even with form. Mahler showed in his 5th that you can write a symphony without a sonata-allegro movement. Schoenberg showed in the 1st Chamber Symphony that you could compress all the drama of a Mahler symphony into 15 musicians and 20 minutes of music. We had French symphonies and America, tonal and atonal (I’m not sure there are many totally successful serial symphonies), huge and tiny. Any number of movements from 1-10 seems to be okay, as does any size orchestra from a tiny chamber ensemble to vast instrumental ensembles, off-stage bands and choirs.

Of course, not every piece with “symphony” in the title is really a symphony. Mahler 8 is a piece I love, but I’m not sure “symphony” really describes it. Veni Creator probably alone makes it a symphony, but the 2nd part of the work certainly lives more in the world of Wagnerian opera and Handelian oratorio than in that of Beethovenian symphony. There are plenty of “symphonies” that just aren’t strong enough pieces of music to really qualify- a bad novel and a novel aren’t really the same species, are they? Post Shostakovich, there have been a lot of composers who confused reactionary consertatism or market-tested safeness with symphonicness. A symphony is not measured by what it sounds like, but what it does.

So, if “symphony” is not a style, not a form and hardly a genre, if it can be written for almost any combination of instruments and any length, what makes a “symphony” an actual symphony? What do those that make the grade all share?

I think that when you boil it all down, a symphony is the product of a way of working with ideas. It is a work in which musical ideas interact with each other vertically and horizontally in a symphonic manner.

There is a story about Brahms, who had a young composition student who wanted to write string quartets. At his first lesson, the student put the score of his first string quartet on the stand. Brahms immediately removed it and replaced it with a score of a Mozart quartet. “There’s only one way to write quartets, which was how Mozart did it, how Haydn did it, how Beethoven did it and how Brahms does it. That’s what I am going to teach you.”

It is easy to read this story (if even true) as simply a manifestation of Brahms’ conservatism, but I think there is more to be learned than that. After all, Brahms’ quartets don’t sound like Mozart, he doesn’t shape phrases as Mozart does, his textures, his voice- these are all his own. (The string quartet is an easier genre to define than the symphony- it is a piece for 2 violins, viola and cello). Brahms, technically speaking, was highly progressive, advancing microscopic techniques of perpetual development even beyond what Mozart and Beethoven had achieved. Of course, likewise, Mozart had, even in his quartets dedicated to Haydn, moved away from simply mimicking Haydn. If there is “only one way” to write a quartet, part of that way is to develop one’s own voice, to innovate, to experiment and to evolve.

So, let’s accept for argument’s sake that there is only one way to write a symphony. It’s not for us as performers and listeners to define, but with experience, it is something we can recognize, and perhaps encourage and celebrate. I dig all kinds of music, but it would bum me out if the symphony became and extinct genre. Philip showed me in this piece that one can still write a symphony the only way you can write a symphony and have it be fresh, innovative and engaging. In fact, the only way to write a symphony is to be fresh, innovative and engaging. I bet there are more symphonists out there than I know about, but maybe if we can forget the tired 20th c quarrels that confused style with content, and genre with conservatism versus innovation, we can look forward to more real symphonies.

If there is only one way to write a symphony, then every time a real symphony is written, we get a little closer to understanding what that “one way” is. As composers experiment, revolt, innovate and find their own voices and techniques, we can see what qualities of “symphonic-ness” are disposable, changeable or negotiable and therefore, we get a clearer understanding of what the only way to write a symphony really is.

Still, I think Brahms had it more or less figured out- that it starts with putting Mozart and Haydn on the stand and asking yourself the question “why is this a symphony,” then Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms, Ives, Vaughan Williams, Mahler, Elgar and so on….

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

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