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Symphonic after all these years

June 24, 2007|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

TRY though it might, the 20th century could not kill off the symphony. On my CD player at the moment is the first recording of Valentin Silvestrov's gelatinous Symphony No. 6, written a dozen years ago and released this month on ECM New Series. Also of recent vintage are recordings of Peteris Vasks' obsessive Symphony No. 3 (2005) on Ondine and Philip Glass' thumping Symphony No. 8 (2006) on the composer's own Orange Mountain Music label.

These are big, magnificent orchestral exercises, grandly conceived. The Silvestrov is nearly an hour, Vasks' comes in at 42 minutes, and Glass' is only slightly shorter. They are abstract scores, their composers content to manipulate musical themes without worrying about much apart from the music, just as the Classical style dictated.

But these works are also decadent, full of excess. And that is the surprising bit. If up-to-date symphonies can be vital, fresh, exciting, distinct, interesting, unusual, weirdly haunting, mystifying -- and I think all those adjectives apply at some point in each of the three -- that means the genre has somehow survived a debauched phase since at least 1911, the year Mahler's heart gave out while he was finishing his 10th Symphony. When genres start to go, they tend to go quickly. Ten, 20 years of dissolution is a pretty good run. A century of decadence is impressive.

The modern symphony -- a term from the Greek that means "sounding together" -- is a product of mid-18th century triviality. It developed in Mannheim, Germany. The town had a flashy orchestra that was known for its "rockets" and "steamrollers," and these special instrumental effects proved the perfect tool with which J.S. Bach's sons -- along with other Young Turks -- could rebel against the old man and the complexity of the High Baroque.

Haydn began writing his symphonies in the 1760s, followed by Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. Before long, the symphony became sophisticated, embracing all the latest thinking about harmony, rhythm and form. The conventional four-movement, carefully argued Classical symphony typically lasted half an hour or less. Beethoven's Ninth, which he started sketching in 1812 and premiered in 1824, lasts about 80 minutes. It begins with what could be an evocation of the starry cosmos. It famously ends with a chorus and four vocal soloists gloriously extolling brotherly love.

With the Ninth, Beethoven begat symphonic bloat. A century of stretching -- metastasizing? -- began. Harmony grew more chromatic. Musical forms became more fluid. By 1830, Berlioz was using the symphony as a nightmarish confessional in "Symphonie Fantastique."

Later in the 19th century, Bruckner and Mahler institutionalized symphonic gigantism. Bruckner's mighty sound praised God. Mahler brought the world into his monumental orchestral masterpieces by incorporating folk and popular music. He praised and doubted God. He approached the symphony as if it were an autobiographical musical novel.

But Mahler's Modernist disciples -- Schoenberg, Berg and Webern -- saw the symphony as a dead end, the last explosion of Romanticism. The genre lost its hold on the most progressive French composers -- Debussy and Ravel -- as well. Two years after Mahler's death, Stravinsky changed music in Paris not with a symphony but with "The Rite of Spring," a ballet.

The symphony persisted in Germany, Austria and France mainly as a reactionary mainstay. But it took root elsewhere, acquiring a nationalist character in Finland (Sibelius), Denmark (Nielsen), Mexico (Chavez), Brazil (Villa Lobos), Britain (notably Vaughn Williams) and America (with Ives, Copland, Bernstein, Henry Cowell and several others in competition to write the Great American Symphony). Many composers today simply write orchestral pieces and give them fanciful names.

Only in Russia and the onetime Soviet satellites has the symphony thrived in a direct line between the 19th and 21st centuries. It has been the rare Russian composer who has not been a symphonist. Despite the difficulty involved, Prokofiev and Shostakovich symphonically weathered Stalinist storms.

The latter's 15 symphonies, written between 1926 and 1971, are an uneven bunch. The first bursts forth with a 19-year-old's exuberance. The 15th is slow, sardonic, death-haunted. These works' political significance can be argued over, but not the fact that they graphically charted the composer's wildly changing emotional states, which were often directly related to the behavior of Lenin and then Stalin.

An unkind denigration, less heard lately than it was a few years ago, is that Shostakovich's symphonies are warmed-over Mahler. Whether that is so or not, Shostakovich's symphonic self-indulgence had a huge effect on the musical life of the Soviet Union. He had found a way to express himself in an environment of censorship, and Mahler was the model.

Memory and meaning

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