Monthly Archives: March 2011

Now is the Time, Sunday 27 Mar 2011

My contemporary American music program Now is the Time airs every Sunday night at 10 o’clock on WRTI-HD2. Listen on HD radio or online here. The complete schedule and more information are here.

Coming up this Sunday night:

27 Mar 2011

Tomas Svoboda. Nine Etudes in Fugue Style, Vol. 1

Arne Running. Concertino for English Horn and String Orchestra

Mark Olivieri. Hommage à trois

Are symphonies dying?

First published in the Broad Street Review, 12 Dec 2010. Slightly edited since.

Surveying the symphonic output of Classical composers, and then of composers since, Robert Zaller laments the demise of the symphony in “Whatever happened to the symphony?” While no one would deny that Classical music is changing, I don’t think the symphony is in danger.

To test my opinion, I counted the number of orchestral works of selected composers, from Haydn on. (I omitted opera and film music but included any other works involving an orchestra.) Within that repertoire, then, I counted the number of works with “symphony” in the title. Then I calculated the ratio of symphonic works to a composer’s total orchestral repertoire.

Haydn, naturally, has the largest percentage. After all, Haydn enjoyed 30 years of full-time employment as music director at the Esterházy estate, seat of the wealthiest family in the Hungarian nobility. So it should come as no surprise that symphonies comprise fully 60% of Haydn’s orchestral output.

What happens next, though, is interesting. After Haydn there’s a steep and immediate drop-off during the Classical period: Mozart weighs in at 27%, Beethoven at 17%. But the real surprise is that this decline doesn’t continue after their departure.

Dipping in here and there, and keeping to Germans and Russians, as Zaller does (more on them below), we find: a 23% symphonic component for Schubert, 11% for Mendelssohn, 29% for Brahms, 13% for Tchaikovsky, 14% for Glazunov, 12% for Rimsky, 43% for Bruckner, 56% for Mahler, 8% for Richard Strauss, 6% for Stravinsky, 11% for Prokofiev, 12% for Hindemith, and 25% for Shostakovich.

Americans vie quite nicely with their European counterparts: Bristow at 25% symphonies, Paine at 12%, Chadwick at 5% (the lowest here, but right with Stravinsky), Ives at 11%, Cowell at 19%, Hanson at 17% (neck-and-neck with Beethoven), Piston at 20%, Sessions at a Brucknerian 42% level; and for two composers born in 1900: Copland at 8% and Antheil at 22%.

Edging closer to our time, and keeping just to composers with Philadelphia ties, Vincent Persichetti wrote nine symphonies, George Rochberg wrote six (30% of his orchestral output); Clifford Taylor, Ned Rorem, Jay Reise and Michael Hersch have three each; and Samuel Barber, Gerald Levinson, Aaron Jay Kernis and Jeremy Gill each have two.

For that matter, Charles Wuorinen has written eight symphonies; Philip Glass has seven, and John Harbison, four. Gloria Coates has written 15 symphonies—surely the most by any woman, past or present. Even the decidedly non-academic John Adams, John Williams and Michael Daugherty each have written one symphony. Fifteen of the 23 most-performed American composers, according to the most recent League of American Orchestras list, have written symphonies.

This is a huge number of symphonic composers, present as well as past. True, some of these symphonies aren’t well known. But then, we never hear most of Haydn’s or Mozart’s symphonies, either.

So it doesn’t seem to me that the symphony is on the verge of disappearing. Nor does music today “shy away from grand statements,” as Zaller writes, or “from effusively personal” ones. What is Jennifer Higdon’s City Scape, after all, if not a symphony in the grand style? What is her blue cathedral if not personal?

No, I’d have to say that composers keep writing symphonies in (non-Haydn) Classical/Romantic quantities. And to my ear, at least, their styles are as grand and personal as ever.

Bear in mind: Symphonies are blazingly expensive to produce. Contemporary orchestral commissions tend toward shorter works (much as, say, playwrights tend toward small casts or one-person shows). This is less a matter of artistic taste than practical survival. In today’s depressed economy, it’s amazing that anyone writes symphonies at all.

“Whether we live in a decadent era or merely a fallow one remains to be seen,” Zaller remarks. “But the death of the symphony, Western music’s supreme form, may turn out to be the canary in the coal mine.” I’d rather think that what’s going on is simply the evaporation of Austro-German hegemony—although in calling the symphony “supreme,” Zaller reveals himself to be still under its influence. (I may be, too, as I love the symphony, and even felt compelled to compose one myself.)

Zaller is correct that outside of the German orbit, composers don’t write a whole lot of symphonies. But they never have. That’s not because Italians are more “decadent” or French more “fallow.” It could be that they just don’t like coal mines.

As for America—perhaps because of the 19th-Century German training that American composers underwent, or perhaps 20th-Century America took in all those German-trained refugee composers fleeing from Hitler, or perhaps because of our ingrained feelings of cultural inferiority, or perhaps because America is a grand and effusively personal country—the United States has done more than its share to keep the symphony going. If we Americans stop writing symphonies in the future, it may be because some of these factors recede. Or it may be because we’re less influenced by Esterházy.

Now is the Time, Sunday 20 Mar 2011

My contemporary American music program Now is the Time airs every Sunday night at 10 o’clock on WRTI-HD2. Listen on HD radio or online here. The complete schedule and more information are here.

Coming up this Sunday night:

20 Mar 2011

Mark Hagerty. High Octane

Robert J. Bradshaw. Solo No. 7 “Elucidate”

Joel Mandelbaum. Light and Shade

Jane O’Leary. Silenzio della Terra

Rain Worthington. Yet Still Night

Now is the Time, Sunday 13 Mar 2011

My contemporary American music program Now is the Time airs every Sunday night at 10 o’clock on WRTI-HD2. Listen on HD radio or online here. The complete schedule and more information are here.

Coming up this Sunday night:

13 Mar 2011

Evan Chambers. The Fire Hose Reel

Daniel Dorff. Three Fun Fables

Margaret Brouwer. Demeter Prelude

Peter Boyer. Ghosts of Troy

Leo Kraft. L’Unicorno

Kari Juusela. Apollo and Daphne

Veni Sancte Spiritus

The first section of Vespers, “Veni Sancte Spiritus,” was chosen to be one of the tracks on the new Navona compilation CD, Fine Music, Vol. 1. This is the opening moment of Vespers, just recorders and sackbut, joined by the men’s voices on Alleluia. In Vespers it leads right into the hymn “Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern.”

It seems to be selling really well on Amazon for MP3 downloads. Navona’s put this out as an introduction to their whole catalog, so it’s a mix of instrumentations and styles.

I list all my CDs on this page.

Ferruccio Busoni

On the first Saturday of the month Jack Moore and I host Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection on WRTI 90.1 FM in Philadelphia and on the all-classical webstream at We also broadcast encore presentations of the entire Discoveries series (now nine years and counting!) every Wednesday at 7:00 pm on WRTI HD-2. For a look at all the shows, click here.

Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924). Concertino in B-flat for Clarinet and Small Orchestra, Op. 48 (1918). Ludmila Peterková, clarinet, Prague Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra, Jiří Bělohlávek. Supraphon 3348-2031. Tr 5. 10:18

Ferruccio Busoni. Berceuse élégiaque, “Des Mannes Wiegenlied am Sarge seiner Mutter,” Op. 42 (Elegiac lullaby, Lullaby of a man at his mother’s coffin) (1907, orch. 1909). Hong Kong Philharmonic, Samuel Wong. Naxos 555373. Tr 11. 11:16

Ferruccio Busoni. Orchestra Suite No. 2, “Geharnischte” (Armored Suite) (1895/1903). Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Esa-Pekka Salonen. YLE 9506 Tr 5-8. 27:37

He was the first to perform all 18 Etudes of Franz Liszt together, the first to play all 24 Chopin Preludes together, and over four nights in Berlin he soloed in 14 concertos with orchestra. Fourteen. They couldn’t invent words big enough to describe this new star among pianists, Ferruccio Busoni. Not only star, but they called him sun, giant, and king, tripping over themselves to find superlatives. His octaves were so fast and so even, his passage-work so light, his colors so different, that pianists, stupefied, would rush onstage after his concerts to inspect the piano, so hopeful were they that he had altered it somehow. But no, it was just a piano. No one could believe the magical sonorities he summoned from it, and no one could believe the monumental technique necessary to achieve that.

Nor could anyone believe that he was also a composer.

Busoni was born in Tuscany and raised in the multicultural and somewhat German city of Trieste in what is now northern Italy, but which was then in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His father was a clarinet virtuoso, and his mother, a pianist born in Austria. They were working musicians who concertized often, leaving young Ferruccio without formal schooling. But he was gifted in many subjects, including music, and read voraciously. At nine years of age he entered the Vienna Conservatory. Later he moved to Leipzig, where he became friends with Gustav Mahler, and to Helsinki, where he met his wife and also became lifelong friends with Jean Sibelius.

He loved the tradition of Bach, Mozart, and Mendelssohn, but he also loved and wrote about new trends in music. The avant-garde harmonies of the pianist-composer Liszt appealed to him, although those of that other futurist composer—Richard Wagner—did not. Busoni was at the forefront of new musical thinking. His students ranged from Kurt Weill to Edgard Varèse to Percy Grainger, the conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos, and Hollywood’s Louis Gruenberg (All the King’s Men) and Dimitri Tiomkin (It’s a Wonderful Life, High Noon).

His gargantuan Piano Concerto may be the largest work of its kind ever written, at over 70 minutes and with a men’s chorus thrown in for good measure (we heard the final two movements on a previous Discoveries). His virtuosity at the piano hurt his reputation as a composer, though, and for a long time he was known more for his Bach transcriptions than for his own works. But that is changing.

He wrote the Concertino for Clarinet and Small Orchestra in Switzerland during World War I. The earlier “Armored” Suite is dedicated to Sibelius and other friends from Finland. But a few years later, he found his voice as a composer, with the Berceuse élégiaque. He had written it for piano, but was moved to create an orchestral work from it after his mother died. His old friend Mahler premiered it at an all-Italian concert with his orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, in 1911. It was the last concert Mahler ever gave, as he became ill but insisted, against advice, on conducting. He never recovered, dying three months later in Vienna.

Mahler’s obituaries hardly mentioned his own compositions, but his fame has changed so much that today some are surprised to learn that he was a world-famous conductor. As we become more familiar with Busoni’s music, perhaps someday we’ll have to remind people that he also played the piano!