How well do you know the symphonic repertoire? Pretty well, you might flatter yourself. And the symphony post-1900?
Well, here is a little quiz . How many symphonies did each of the following write?:
So how did you do? I suspected so. Until three years ago I would not have done so well myself. But I have listened to a lot of symphonies in that time with the deliberate intention of broadening my knowledge. In this essay I will list the 20th Century symphonies I think you should know if you don’t already. It’s a personal list of course.
First let me randomly explore some of the highways and back lanes of the modern symphony. The best neglected cycle of the 20th Century? Of those which I know, Prokoffiev’s probably. Everyone knows the Fifth, and it is a work of epic statement for sure. But I like the Third equally, an amazing wild beast of a piece. But listen to its exquisite slow movement. I also like his Fourth and Sixth. His idea of writing a symphony is very Russian: expressivity and ‘message’ trump considerations of structure at every turn. But only dry academicism denies that great symphonies have been written that way too.
The best American Symphony of the century? Try Roy Harris’s Third, a one-movement emulation of Sibelius’s Seventh that miraculously does its own magnificent thing. Or – a long-standing favorite of mine – the magnificent Short Symphony of Aaron Copland, a work denied many outings by its not being what everyone wants from Copland, its enormous rhythmic difficulty (parts of it are as difficult as Le marteau sans maître) and its, well, shortness. The best British Symphony? The two by Elgar have to figure in any reckoning, longueurs and all. Walton’s First still has the aura of the bad boy on the loose in the bad Thirties, and remains a great achievement. His neglected Second is worth exploring. Can I mention the Symphony by my late friend Minna Keal (1909-99)? It was premiered at the Proms in 1989, by a stroke of ill fortune on the same programme as Tavener’s The Protecting Veil, and seems to have sunk without trace. I treasure my photocopy of Minna’s extraordinary hand-written score: neither poor eyesight nor eighty-year old hands stopped her from producing a sternly beautiful script, and these words might apply to the music too. It’s a raucously dissonant, taxing piece, but written with iron technique and integrity.
My candidate for a 20th Century Symphony that is not repertoire but should be? Martinu’s Fourth. It is a masterpiece quite simply, as a recent performance by the Berlin Philharmonic on their digital concert hall website demonstrated. Lazy orchestral culture that can afford to neglect such works.
So here they are, my 20th Century symphonies that you may not know, but should:
And the answers to the quiz: