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What is a symphony, anyway?

Updated Tuesday, 1st November 2011
Robert Samuels wonders what it is that makes 200-year-old symphonies worth listening to today

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Rotal Albert Hall during Proms The Royal Albert Hall, home to the Proms Everyone remembers where they were on September 11 2001. The destruction of the Twin Towers remains a defining moment of the twenty-first century. That September 11 was also two days before the Last Night of the Proms in London, which left the organisers of the BBC Proms in a quandary—to persevere with the traditional last-night jollity seemed entirely out of place in the shock and grief that followed the events in New York. But what music could possibly meet the needs of such a unique moment?

The answer was a symphony.

Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the ‘choral’ symphony, was the piece which fitted the moment perfectly. It is a symphony that ends with a surprise—an entire massed choir and several soloists of a surprise, who rise to their feet, after nearly an hour of entirely instrumental music, to sing a poem by the eighteenth-century German poet Schiller, in praise of universal brotherhood. Beethoven’s setting, to a tune everyone knows (one critic joked that it is the sort of tune you are sure you’ve heard before, even the first time you hear it), remains able to convince the hearer of a message of hope, whatever the circumstances.

One might think that it was Schiller’s words, with their lofty sentiments, which were the important factor here. But I am not so sure—I don’t find the words nearly so inspiring on their own. Nor do I think that it is just because they are set music—I suspect that if Beethoven had set Schiller’s words as an oratorio, it wouldn’t have the staying power of Handel’s Messiah. There was something about the fact that Beethoven’s Ninth is a symphony which made it able to speak to that moment. When the soloists and choir sing, they are singing about something which is already there in the music.

So what is it? What is there about a symphony that makes it able to speak, and to carry on speaking to us? What is it that makes symphonic music relevant to us long after the moment of history which gave it birth? My answers to these questions lie in the things which make symphonies different from other musical works.

For a start, it takes a lot of people working together to perform a symphony. It’s actually a very odd thing to do, to assemble a whole group of professional players—at least thirty or forty, sometimes well over a hundred—to play a long piece which usually has no explanation to go with it, except for the sound that it makes.

Ludwig van Beethoven Portrait of Beethoven by Joseph Karl Stieler Symphonies are expensive to put on, they don’t allow a virtuoso soloist to show off, they seldom make much of a profit for their composer (one of the things which galled Beethoven himself was how much more money Rossini could make with his operas and overtures). The reasons for writing and performing a symphony lie in the joy of common purpose which comes from so many highly-skilled people working together for a common goal.

This is why the words of Beethoven’s Ninth express something that is already contained in the very idea of performing a symphony in the first place. It is no surprise that a symphony orchestra playing together seems to be a picture of a society in which every member supports the others. And indeed, those moments when one member of the orchestra plays a solo line, leaving their anonymous role as part of the mass of sound for a moment and enjoying their moment in the spotlight, are thrilling for the player and for the audience.

The other most obvious thing about symphonies is that they last a long time. They are nearly always divided into sections—‘movements’—each of which is long enough to be a piece in itself. The most popular number of movements is four, although some symphonies have five or more movements. Even a short symphony, for instance one by Haydn, will last at least twently minutes; Mahler’s symphonies nearly all last well over an hour in performance.

The different movements of a symphony are like distinct phases, each one self-contained to some extent, but only making complete sense when seen in the context of the whole. Many people think of their life as a succssion of phases in rather this way, and this is another reason why symphonies can seem to be about ‘big questions’—life, death, meaning—without using anything other than orderly, arranged sound to make connection with these huge, abstract ideas. Symphonies are the accompanying soundtrack to the modern world.

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