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Thread: Question about Modern Symphonies and Their Forms

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    Default Question about Modern Symphonies and Their Forms

    I find symphonies to be fascinating. I like large orchestral works, which is what drew me to symphonies in the first place. As I've learned more, I am amazed how they are constructed. For classical/romantic periods in particular, there is a real form to it, yet you can have really varied sounding works.

    It seems like I have read something along the way that has stated that modern symphonies are really just any large orchestral work. I could be poorly paraphrasing that, but is it true?

    Or, when a composer says this is "Symphony No..." does that imply they are following some sort of form?

    For example, Kalevi Aho has written like 17 symphonies. Are they symphonies just because he called them that and he could have just called them Op. 50 "I think you might like this one?" Or is there something more than them just being a large orchestral work?

    I hope this makes sense.

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    Pretty much, a symphony is what the composer defines it as. It tends to be a largish scaled orchestral work in one or several movements (or one movement divided into separate sections) that has ambitions and an expressive shape to it.

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    Previously, the symphony usually had a four-movement sonata cyclic form. This division was more or less respected practically until the beginning of the 20th century but there are no pre-set rules for modern symphonies in contemporary classical music, and it depends on each composer which approach and solution they choose when composing a symphony. I think that it's often not enough...

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    I am probably wrong but have assumed that a work gets called a symphony when there is a greater degree of formal rigor (even if not any particular model) giving rise to an intended "big statement". I must confess, though, that I tend to be suspicious of modern symphonies as so many seem rather tedious when compared with modern concertos and tone poems. I almost think that modern composers of symphonies may be stuck for ideas!

    Of course, there are many exceptions but I do think that as a music force the day of the symphony is in the past. Many punters, though, prefer symphonies (it is so much easier to collect sets of symphonies than a variety of orchestral pieces) so as an economic force they are still alive.

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    Here is a short but detailed description of the traditional four-movement symphony as established by Haydn in the 18th Century. Most everyone prior to Beethoven followed this format. Beethoven expanded the model and other 19th Century composers followed. Some 20th and 21st Symphonies still resemble the traditional model in terms of form but their expressive content and harmonic diversity is much higher.

    https://somethingclassical.blogspot.com/p/symphony.html

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    I suggest that modern symphonists will still be concerned about development of ideas in an expressive way otherwise there isn't much point in calling a work a symphony imv. David Matthews is a contemporary composer concerned with the modern response to the form and his work is well worth a listen as it has tangible connections to the past.
    Last edited by mikeh375; Jul-03-2020 at 19:13.
    New website and some new music......www.mikehewer.com

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    There are modern symphonies that purport to be symphonic in the sense of themes, development, and all that. The problem is, so much of the music is so complex that the ear/brain can't comprehend it readily and the average (or even advanced) listener can't follow it. There's nothing to hang on to. That's why symphonies from Beethoven, Dvorak, Tchaikovsky and such are so popular and loved - you can follow the musical thought. I love the symphonies of Humphrey Searle - they are very dark, very complex and very atonal. And I'll admit that it took a huge amount of time and work to finally "get it" - and that was only the First. It took getting a score and really studying it to finally unravel it and figure it out. There are just so many composers who either won't or can't write music that the average listener can comprehend at first hearing. They have no one but themselves to blame if no one wants to play or listen to their dreck.

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    Quote Originally Posted by mbhaub View Post
    There are modern symphonies that purport to be symphonic in the sense of themes, development, and all that. The problem is, so much of the music is so complex that the ear/brain can't comprehend it readily and the average (or even advanced) listener can't follow it. There's nothing to hang on to. That's why symphonies from Beethoven, Dvorak, Tchaikovsky and such are so popular and loved - you can follow the musical thought. I love the symphonies of Humphrey Searle - they are very dark, very complex and very atonal. And I'll admit that it took a huge amount of time and work to finally "get it" - and that was only the First. It took getting a score and really studying it to finally unravel it and figure it out. There are just so many composers who either won't or can't write music that the average listener can comprehend at first hearing. They have no one but themselves to blame if no one wants to play or listen to their dreck.
    I wanted to thank everyone for their comments so far! I did have a more specific question on this one. Do you feel it's necessary to only get it through understanding the score? I like a lot of modern work and would love to understand it better; however, I don't really have the musical background to analyze a score.

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    ^ To play its role music must be accessible and must deliver its impact to a lay audience. These days - where far more music is available in recordings than will be performed live in any single venue - most serious composers seem to know that it might take their audiences a few hearings to get there. I would go further as I do think there is a risk in approaching music via its score. It requires wisdom as well as technical skill. That is my take on the question but I find it hard to imagine an argument that would persuade me otherwise.
    Last edited by Enthusiast; Jul-04-2020 at 17:50.

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    Quote Originally Posted by MonagFam View Post
    I wanted to thank everyone for their comments so far! I did have a more specific question on this one. Do you feel it's necessary to only get it through understanding the score? I like a lot of modern work and would love to understand it better; however, I don't really have the musical background to analyze a score.
    This seems to me to be a bit like saying that to really understand a movie, you need to read the script. That should never be necessary for the audience. (Understanding a score, of course, is crucial if you are going to perform a piece, just as understanding a script for a play is necessary for the actors.)
    Last edited by JAS; Jul-04-2020 at 17:57.

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    Historically, audiences did have trouble with newer music even in the 19th c. Mahler famously once performed his then novel 4th Symphony twice on the same concert, believing that a second hearing so soon would help facilitate understanding. There was a time when many concert goers purchased pocket scores so they could study the music they were going to hear. In a pre-LP and pre-radio era that was a good solution. So was playing piano arrangements. Those days are long gone. There isn't going to be a piano arrangement for home use of the Rouse 6th; there are scant few people who could even play it.

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