In the concluding scene of the 1995 movie Mr Holland’s Opus, we finally get to hear the piece that music teacher Glen Holland (Richard Dreyfuss) has been writing for the last thirty years. It lasts about three minutes and is played by an ensemble that features not only standard orchestral instruments, but also electric guitars and a drum kit. And he calls it An American Symphony.
Would Peter Maxwell Davies, or Judith Lang Zaimont—two composers writing symphonies in the mid-1990s—have recognised it as such? Maxwell Davies’s Fifth Symphony (1994) may only last twenty-five minutes, but his Sixth Symphony (1996) is double that length. Three minutes hardly seems long enough. It’s certainly worlds away from the ninety-minute length of Mahler’s Third Symphony, written in the mid-1890s!
And then there’s the instrumentation and style. Should a symphony really feature instruments associated with pop and rock?
It may be ‘just’ a movie, but the scene makes me wonder: what did it mean to call a piece of music a ‘Symphony’ at the end of the 20th Century? Who was still writing one, and why?
After 1945, in the desire to make a fresh start culturally, the symphony was undoubtedly seen by many as old-fashioned. You won’t find a symphony in the output of high modernist composers Milton Babbitt, Karlheinz Stockhausen, or Luigi Nono. In the 1950s and ’60s they were more interested in using new electronic technologies to create super-complex musical structures.
Instead, the genre seemed to be the preserve of more-or-less ‘traditional’ composers—such as Vaughan Williams, Malcolm Arnold, and Edmund Rubbra in Britain—who continued to write for the orchestra in a grand manner that shared something with the musical language of Mahler’s symphonies. When Polish avant-gardists Henryk Górecki and Krzyszstof Penderecki turned to the genre in the 1960s and ’70s, they also adopted this more traditional sound-world. You may remember Classic FM’s role in generating the huge popular success in the 1990s of Górecki’s Third Symphony, written in 1976:
Anyone studying with The Open University can log in to the NAXOS music library to listen to the entire recording.
Yet, at the same time, some composers still saw the potential to say something new or socially relevant. The symphony’s political role continued to be fostered in the later twentieth century in the output of Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski, a strong supporter of the Solidarity movement for social change. And many other prominent modernist composers—such as Roger Sessions, Per Nørgård, and Michael Tippett—continued to see the symphony as the ultimate expression of the serious artist.
Equally, though, the symphony’s lofty and rather serious demeanour wasn’t immune to challenge, with some symphonists actively embracing aspects of popular culture.
Michael Dougherty’s Metropolis Symphony (1984-1993), for instance, was inspired by Superman comics, while the madcap finale of John Adams’s Chamber Symphony (1992) was named ‘Roadrunner’ after the cartoon character. Symphonies, it seems, could be fun again—just as in Haydn’s day—and without the layers of bitter irony that underpin the humour in Shostakovich’s Ninth Symphony (1945).
Stylistically, too, the symphony had begun to broaden its horizons. Jazz had been introduced by Malcolm Arnold in the 1960s (his Sixth Symphony features Charlie Parker-inspired motifs over a bossa nova beat), while Tan Dun’s Symphony 1997 mixed Western classical music with the sounds of his own Chinese heritage, and Tsippi Fleischer’s Symphony No. 5 (2003) combines Jewish calls to prayer with the voice of Israeli rock star Shalom Hanoch.
By the 1990s Philip Glass was using digital techniques to produce works that could be performed live in the traditional concert hall only with difficulty—much like a rock or pop album. His Symphony No. 4 ‘Heroes’ (1996) draws its musical material and the titles of its movements from David Bowie’s 1977 album of the same name.
Glass himself claimed that the word ‘symphony’ was now merely a label of convenience, that it simply identified a piece of music with a certain level of ambition in terms of its length, content, and form. Others didn’t even feel the need to use the word: John Adams’s Harmonium (1981) is often considered a choral symphony in all but name.
Is the word ‘symphony’ now so vague as to be redundant, then? Given that it had a similarly indeterminate meaning for much of the eighteenth century—when similar pieces may just as likely have been called ‘overture’ or ‘sinfonia’—the symphony may simply have come full circle.
That brings us back to Mr Holland’s An American Symphony (written by film score composer, Michael Kamen). Was it really a symphony? Well, given the wide range of music that’s shared the name, a case could be made—though at three minutes, it’s still a little on the short side. A symphony that brief hasn’t been seen since the eighteenth century: some of William Boyce’s compositions from the 1740s and ’50s (which he called ‘symphonys’) last just five minutes.
What’s certain is that a genre that had been proclaimed ‘dead’ at various points in its history—not least by Wagner in the nineteenth century—was able to continually reinvent itself, suiting the myriad different styles and compositional aims that characterise post-Second World War music. And with diverse ‘symphonies’ by Peter Maxwell Davies, Arvo Pärt, Katy Abbott, and James Macmillan all dating from after the millennium, the symphony is still very much alive and kicking.