The Etude
Name the Composer . Etude Magazine Covers . Etude Magazine Ads & Images . Selected Etude Magazine Stories . About (NEW)

Is the Symphony Played Out?

Is the Symphony Played Out?
It would be foolish to ask: "Are symphonies played out?" We all know they are not. At nearly every orchestral concert throughout this country and Europe a symphony is played, and this, in the aggregate, makes a large number. To be sure, hundreds of symphonies once popular are now never seen on programs. Of the 104 so-called symphonies of Haydn, at least 100 have vanished; of Mozart's 40 or more, only two or three are heard, at long intervals. The name of many minor composers, once familiar to concert-goers, are now a mere memory, or less than that. Who but an assiduous student of the history of music knows, for instance, that Franz Xaver Richter, of the famous Mannheim school (eighteenth century), composed 69 symphonies? Scores of cases like his might be mentioned.
Of Beethoven's nine symphonies the first and second are kept afloat by the buoyancy of the other seven. These, however, "Will survive many more decades. Nor will the last two of Schubert's be "played out" as long as music remains what it is now; or at least two of Schumann's, or Dvorak's From the New World; or the fourth, fifth and sixth of Tchaikovsky; and others that might be named, including Brahms' second, which may be called an "immortal" masterwork, although, to be sure, Brahms himself was skeptical on this subject. When an enthusiast spoke to him about a certain composition being immortal he asked, with a sarcastic smile, "How long?"
Leaving immortality out of the question, it is safe to say that within this century at any rate it would be foolish to ask, "Are symphonies played out?"
An entirely different thing is the question, "Is the symphony played out?"—that is, the symphonic form.
This question I answer deliberately and vociferously with a "yes," and I maintain, furthermore, that the great symphonic works just referred to have been successful not because they were composed in the symphonic form, but in spite of that great disadvantage. These points I intend to illuminate in this article with a ruthless calcium light.
The attention of American composers, in particular, is called to what follows. Some of them are still dreaming of winning fame by perpetrating long-winded symphonies or sonatas in four interminable movements. If they understood the situation they would not thus waste their time trying to put new wine into old bottles. The new bottles are of the "non-refillable" sort. What I mean by that is that no two symphonic poems have quite the same form.
A warning illustration of the harm done by the symphonic (that is, the cyclic) form may be found in the fate of chamber music. In the whole of the United States, with a hundred millions of inhabitants, there are not half a dozen chamber-music organizations of national fame. The best two of them are, as everybody knows, the Kneisel Quartet and the Flonzaley Quartet, and it is extremely doubtful if these two would have been able to reach their present preëminence had they not been fostered by two millionaires—Col. Higginson, of Boston, who gave the Kneisels their start, and the late E. J. DeCoppet, who must have spent at least $100,000 on the Flonzaley Quartet before it became self-supporting.
Now, why is there so very little public interest in chamber music? Chiefly because of the deadly monotony and academic formalism of the programs. Look at the scheme. The first of five or six subscription concerts has a program offering as its first number a quartet in four movements: allegro, adagio, scherzo, allegro. The second number is another quartet in four movements: Allegro, adagio, scherzo, allegro. The third number is another quartet (or possibly a quintet) in four movements: Allegro, adagio, scherzo, allegro. The second subscription concert begins with a quartet in four movements: Allegro, adagio, scherzo, allegro. The second number is a—"but, for heaven's sake, stop," I
hear the reader exclaim. Well, that's just the way I feel at every chamber-music concert I attend. After the second number in four movements—allegro, adagio, scherzo, allegro—I have had all I can stand of that sort of thing and I make for the door as if I had heard a fire alarm.
Even Mr. DeCoppet, though he was so passionately fond of chamber music that he spent a fortune on it, found three successive quartets iin (sic) four movements, allegro (beg pardon!) too much for his nerves. He told me once that after the second quartet in four movements, allegro (you can't throw anything at me!), he had enough, and was apt to find the third a bore. Now if he, a devoted enthusiast, felt that way, how must it be with the average concert-goer? A few hundred devotees may stand that sort of boredom, as they do a dogmatically dull sermon, from a sense of pious duty, but the thousands, after an experience or two, dodge chamber music as they do an automobile.
A great pity it is, too, for there is so much in chamber music that is beautiful and moving, and that might and would be enjoyed by thousands (instead of a select few) were it not for that everlasting allegro, adagio, scherzo, allegro. The chief culprits, of course, are the composers, who, because Haydn and Mozart wrote quartets in four movements, seem to think that quartets must be written in four movement till doomsday. There is nothing quite so stupid in the history of any other art.
It is done for the sake of contrast, we are told. Fiddlesticks! Is there no other way of securing contrast than by playing four long movements in different tempo in succession? What a testimonial to poverty of formal invention. How far the chamber-music composers are behind those who write for the piano! Pianists, too, used to be fed, with their audiences, chiefly on sonatas in four movements—allegro, adagio, scherzo, allegro—but Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Grieg, Rubinstein, Liszt, MacDowell and many others showed a better way with their short pieces, fashioned in an infinite variety of patterns, and to-day the programs of pianists seldom include more than one sonata, and, with increasing frequency, none at all.
The unfortunate chamber musicians may ask: "But what are we to do as long as the composers, while favoring the pianists with a hundred attractive free forms, keep us forever in the prison of the cyclic form of four contrasting movements?"
What are you to do? Exert pressure on living composers—here is a chance for Americans!—make them drop the stupidly suicidal cyclic form and save chamber music by giving it the same advantages the pianists have been enjoying for nearly a century. In the meantime, take the law into your own hands. Take your hammer and smash the quartets, old and new, into fragments, then pick out the best movements, put them on your programs, and you will attract a hundred for every ten that now come to your entertainments. It would be well, furthermore, to arrange for quartet players short pieces composed for piano. Beethoven showed the way to this when he arranged his pianoforte Sonata, opus 14, for strings. The Kneisel Quartet played this in New York on February 6, 1917.
In the Same Body
To be sure some pedantic critics, wiser than Beethoven, would raise a great rumpus if this were done. They would shout "murder" and "sacrilege," and if only one movement of a quartet were played, as I just recommended, they would accuse the players of "destroying organic unity," and that sort of thing. But there is no organic unity whatever between the four movements of most quartets, nor is there between the four movements of most symphonies. They are in the same boat as the quartets.
If that is the case why do so many more persons attend orchestral concerts than chamber-music concerts? Because an orchestra, with its multitude of instruments of diverse tone-color, presents a much greater variety of impressions, and because orchestral programs are very rarely made up of three symphonies of four movements each. There is seldom more than one, and, with increasing frequency, none at all.
The time will come when symphonies, as well as quartets, will be dismembered and only their best movements played. An exception will be made of those of which all the movements are equally inspired. There are possibly twenty or two dozen symphonies that come under this head. All the others have one, two or three movements that were stuck in by the composer merely to do homage to the artificial cyclical form, which is no form—that is no organic format all.
A dog has organic form. Cut off his tail, or his ears, or one of his legs, and his form is mutilated. Clip off one of the wings of a butterfly, or the fins of a fish, and everybody can see at a glance that something is missing. Even the lowly angleworm, if cut in two, is mutilated. But in the case of ninety-nine symphonies out of every hundred you could omit one or two movements, or transpose some of the movements from one opus to another, and no one could possibly demonstrate that there had been any mutilation, like that of chopping off a dog's tail or clipping a butterfly's wings!
With the form, or anatomical structure, of each of the four movements in a symphony I am not at all concerned in this paper. Much genius and ingenuity have been expended by great masters in building up what is called the sonata-form of the first movement, the song- form of the adagio, or other slow movement, the sprightly scherzo (one of Beethoven's immortal achievements) and the rondo-form of the final movement. To make my argument perfectly clear, let me repeat once more that the only thing I am fulminating against is the cyclic form of the symphony; that is, the composing of mammoth works in four interminable movements which, adding insult to injury, are not in any way connected, and a very large proportion of which, moreover, owe their objectionable existence not to the fact that the composer had something more to say, but to his stupid compliance with the custom of always trotting out the everlasting allegro-adagio-scherzo-allegro. .
Haydn is praised in the histories of music for having separated the three movements of the symphony, as it was before his day, and for adding a minuet before the last movement (for which afterwards Beethoven substituted the scherzo), and thus establishing the form of the cyclic symphony. Fortunately for his good name hereafter Haydn did not add the minuet. The man on whom falls the blame for this innovation is Johann Stamitz, of Mannheim, who died in 1775. Haydn, to be sure, lent the weight of his name to this new departure, and on him falls the odium of having detached the sections of symphonies and making of them separate, incoherent movements, which future composers spun out to tiresome lengths. P. E. Bach's symphonies were still in three connected parts, but Haydn changed all that, and with him begins the cyclic symphony, which has been the bane of music because it has kept out of the concert halls many thousands who otherwise would have been regular attendants.
Mrs. Theodore Thomas relates, in the very interesting biography she wrote of her great husband, that in the early part of his career the word "symphony" was to the average American concert-goer a synonym for "bore," and "it repelled rather than attracted an audience." Why was this thusly? Mrs. Thomas thinks that audiences had to be educated up to symphonies. That is true, but there is a deeper reason. Music-lovers, like novel-readers, resent prolixity. The cyclic form of the symphony invites the composers to dwell interminably on their themes. Each movement, they fancy, must last twelve or fifteen minutes, and there must be four movements. The result is that many movements evaporate into mere "words, words, words," and with mere "words, words, words" you cannot entertain an audience.
The foolish notion that an elaborate symphony lasting an hour is more important or dignified work, or one evincing greater genius, than a shorter piece, is responsible for such unendurable monstrosities as some of the works of Bruckner and Mahler. When   Paderewski told me he was composing a symphony I begged him, almost on my knees, to heed what Dvořák had once said to me: That "no symphony should last more than half an hour." But he was so interested in his work (that's the trouble!) that he made it last an hour, the result being that it is now played very seldom. It would be played ten times as often if he had heeded Dvořák's advice. Thus do composers harm themselves. (I have done the same thing with some of my books. It is so much easier to preach than to practice!)
Liszt the Emancipator
To come back to Haydn for a second: his blunder in separating the symphonic movements did a tremendous amount of harm, and it was not till Liszt showed a better way, by launching his symphonic poems, that composers saw a chance of escaping from the cyclic: monotony of the everlasting allegro-adagio-scherzo- allegro. And how they jostled each other in their eagerness to follow him in this new path! Saint- Saëns was one of the first, and nearly all the composers in France, up to Dukas and Debussy, followed the procession. It was the same way in Russia, in England, in Germany. With the exception of Brahms all the leading orchestral composers thenceforth followed Liszt, though some of them also wrote a few cyclic symphonies, as if to show the critics that they could do it. Liszt himself wrote two symphonies, but they are not cyclic works in the old objectionable sense. "Faust" is really a group of three, "Dante" of two, connected symphonic poems.
Why were these modern composers (including even such conservatives as Rubinstein and César Franck) so eager to travel the road opened by Liszt?
Because Liszt, as Saint-Saëns has well said, more courageous than Beethoven and Berlioz, completely broke the mould of the symphony and the venerable overture, and in place of these (the only two forms available to composers at that time) proclaimed the rule of music free from artificial rules and choosing whatever pattern the composer desires. While Stamitz and Haydn had introduced a dance (the minuet) in the symphony, Liszt showed composers how, by following literary models, they could create an endless variety of forms (such as the pianists revel in, yet different) through the adoption of the Wagnerian system of leading motives which unites all the parts of a symphonic poem into a coherent whole.
The form of Liszt's symphonic poems is therefore as superior to the incoherent cyclic symphonies as that of Wagner's music dramas is in organic unity to the string of unconnected and non-recurring airs that make up the old-fashioned opera.
It is consequently as inartistic as it is foolish and suicidal for American composers to write symphonies instead of symphonic poems. To be sure it is much easier.
One often reads that while Liszt was the pioneer in this new movement, others, especially Richard Strauss, surpassed him in his own domain. This is not so. Strauss is more polyphonic, but polyphonic complexity in him often degenerates into mere virtuosity— an eagerness to do "stunts" and astonish the natives. Perhaps, as a painter of gorgeous orchestral colors Strauss is even more remarkable than Liszt, and as a cacophonist he is bolder. But as a melodist—the main thing—he is far inferior to Liszt.
One of the chief advantages of the symphonic poem over the "played-out" symphony is brevity. In this respect, also, Liszt set a good example, which our composers should be sure to follow. Ten of his twelve symphonic poems last less than half an hour each- most of them much less. The duration of Tasso is 19 minutes; of Les Préludes, 15; Orpheus, 12; Mazeppa, 18; Festklänge, 18; Battle of the Huns, 16. These are the best and most popular of them.
The best and most popular of Strauss' tone-poems are also short, as our own composers would do well to remember. They are Don Juan, 17 minutes; Eulenspiegel, 18; Death and Transfiguration, 24. The later ones, which are less inspired and far less popular, are longer: Zarathustra, 33; Don Quixote, 35; Heldenleben, 40; Domestica, 45. That way lies oblivion.

<< The World of Music     Musical Questions Answered >>

Monthly Archives


You are reading Is the Symphony Played Out? from the May, 1917 issue of The Etude Magazine.

The World of Music is the previous story in The Etude

Musical Questions Answered is the next entry in The Etude.

The Publisher of The Etude Will Supply Anything In Music