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Symphonies are dying? Maybe. But what exactly is a symphony?

Whatever happened to symphonies? (A reply)

5 minute read
How could Zaller have dismissed Brahms?
How could Zaller have dismissed Brahms?
Let me say at the outset that I have long admired Robert Zaller's many erudite and magisterial essays on classical music for Broad Street Review. I'm in awe of his depth of knowledge on a wide range of subjects. But I can't say the same of his recent essay, "Whatever happened to symphonies?"

"The classical symphony," Zaller writes, "as defined by Haydn and Mozart and redefined by Beethoven, was a work in four independent movements, typically a sonata-form allegro (sometimes with an overture), a minuet and trio, a slow movement in song form, and a rondo finale. Beethoven substituted the scherzo for the minuet and trio, but with the same A-B-A form."

I admire Zaller's bold attempt to define Classical symphonic form in a single paragraph. But I can't imagine where Robert got his definition. I will venture this much: He couldn't have derived these ideas from listening to the actual symphonies of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven.

What was a Classical "'song'?

Granted, the first movements of these symphonies, which do sometimes open with a slow introduction, are virtually all in sonata-form (although I've never seen a symphonic introduction referred to as an overture). Zaller's references to minuets, trios and Beethoven's scherzi are true enough, although in the symphonies of these three composers such movements almost always come third. But Robert's description of the second and third movements of Classical symphonies falls more or less into the realm of fiction.

First of all, what is "song form"? I have no idea how that term applies to the Classical style. I'm sure Robert doesn't mean "song" in the modern sense of, say, a jazz standard. Not that it matters, because virtually all the slow movements of the famous Mozart and Beethoven symphonies are all clearly something else.

Dissecting slow movements

With one exception, the slow movements of Mozart's 35th through 41st symphonies employ sonata-form— lush, complex, gorgeous, but nonetheless unambiguous exemplars of the form. The exception is the 39th, whose slow movement is an extension of simple A-B-A form (which, I suspect, is what Robert might mean by "song form").

And here, as a public service, are the forms of the slow movements of the Beethoven Symphonies:

"¢ Symphonies No. 1, 2, 4, 6, 8: sonata-form. (The Eighth doesn't really have a slow movement; its second movement is a sonata-form with no development.)
"¢ Symphonies No. 7 and 9: theme and variations. (The slow third movement of the Ninth is a double-variation movement whose model is Haydn, but in the esoteric style of Beethoven's Late Period.)
"¢ Symphony No. 5: A unique sui generis form based on the idea of theme and variations.
"¢ Symphony No. 3: A funeral march modeled along the lines of similar French post-Revolutionary works, especially the music of Etienne Méhul.

Those confusing rondos

As for the rondo— that's one of the most confusing terms in the classical music lexicon. The Wikipedia article on the subject is excellent, but it doesn't deal with the elusive issue of what the term actually meant to Haydn, Beethoven and, especially, Mozart.

What are we to make of the fact that, even though Mozart called this piece a rondo, it's simultaneously a textbook example of a mono-thematic sonata-form, complete with repeated exposition, development and coda? I have no answer to that question, beyond suggesting that the very question illustrates how little we really understand of how these composers thought about musical form.

Whatever the answer, Mozart never used a rondo in his mature symphonies. The finales of his 35th through 41st symphonies are all in sonata-form; so are the last movements of Beethoven symphonies 1, 2, 4, 5, 7 and 8. The last movements of Beethoven's Third and Ninth are essentially theme and variation movements. This leaves the finale of the "Pastorale" Symphony, which actually is a true rondo.

Unpredictable Haydn

And then there is Haydn. It's virtually impossible to make valid general statements about Haydn's compositional techniques; by the time he composed his most famous symphonies— the two sets written for his trips to London in the mid-1790s— Haydn had been experimenting with symphonic form for some 30 years. The slow movements are more often than not derived from a combination of variation and sonata-form techniques; the finales are sometimes straight sonata-form and sometimes hybrids of sonata-form and rondo. The only thing you can say about Haydn for sure is that you can never tell what he might do next.

Taken as a whole, Zaller's understanding of the symphony after Beethoven is, to say the least, idiosyncratic and, as far as I'm concerned, mostly erroneous. There really is no such thing as "the Romantic version" of the Classical symphony, certainly not in the sense that Zaller implies. He simply ignores that long lineage of 19th-Century composers who continued to write purely abstract, non-programmatic symphonies: Mendelssohn, Schumann, Bizet (only one symphony, but a perfect one! ), Bruckner, and"“ Brahms! How can you write an essay about the history of the symphony that makes only one snide, dismissive reference to Brahms?♦

To read Robert Zaller's response, click here.
To read another response to Zaller by Kile Smith, click here.

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