First we begin a brief history of the symphony:
The symphony first appeared on programmes – inevitably in aristocratic settings – during the early years of the 18th century, often a natural development from the Italian overture (which usually comprised three movements). By the 1770s, the four-movement form we usually think of was established and one of its earliest (and still one of the greatest) exponents was Joseph Haydn who wrote 104 symphonies. Mozart’s 41 took the symphony on a step and, as the 18th century dawned, Beethoven infused the form with a new expressivity and power. His Third Symphony, known as the Eroica, burst into the world in 1805 and extended the length of the symphony dramatically (its first movement alone is longer than many complete symphonies written a couple of decades earlier). Beethoven’s nine symphonies remain the pinnacle of the form, performed daily and still providing spiritual nourishment to audiences of every nationality and creed.
The 19th century found most of the great composers writing symphonies – Schubert (eight), Brahms (four), Schumann (four), Mendelssohn (five), Tchaikovsky (six, seven if you include the Manfred), Dvořák (nine) for example.
The four movements – usually fast, slow, faster, faster – often included a dance form as one of the central movements (usually third), and often a theme and variation form might be included (Beethoven’s Third) or a variant such as a passacaglia (Brahms’s Fourth). As a vehicle for expression, the symphony had assumed a major role and reached its apogee in the years surrounding the turn of the 20th century. Bruckner’s nine extended the length yet again, and Mahler, as he famously told Sibelius, believed the symphony ‘should embrace the world’: he used his 10 (or 11 if you include the song-symphony Das Lied von der Erde) to explore psychological states and philosophical questions that still mesh powerfully with audiences 100 years after his death.
The 20th century found the ‘centre of gravity’ of symphonic writing shift north from its Austro-German heartland to Scandinavia and Russia/Soviet Union. The Finn Sibelius wrote seven, the Dane Nielsen six, and the Soviets Shostakovich (14) and Prokofiev (seven) contributed greatly to the genre. The French and Italians largely ignored the form, though it was taken up enthusiastically in America (Copland, Hanson, Bernstein, Harris, Piston and others). In the UK – and largely from practitioners of late-Romantic, tonal writing – the symphony flourished in the 20th century: Elgar wrote two, Bax seven, Walton two, Vaughan Williams nine (continuing to write symphonies when the musical public had imagined he’d delivered his last word in the genre) and Malcolm Arnold (nine).
Today’s major symphonists – and the form has rather fallen from favour (partly no doubt to constraints of time and budgets!) – include Philip Glass (nine), Leif Segerstam (261! as of 2012), Maxwell Davies (nine), Per Nørgård (eight) and David Matthews (seven).
Mozart Symphony No 40
Scottish Chamber Orchestra / Sir Charles Mackerras
‘There is no need to argue the credentials of Sir Charles…’
Beethoven Symphony No 5
ORR / Sir John Eliot Gardiner
‘So palpable is the excitement of these live performances that it…’
Dvořák Symphony No 9
Budapest Festival Orchestra / Iván Fischer
‘Iván Fischer is truly “one on his own”, a fund of fascinating…’
Tchaikovsky Symphony No 6
Philharmonia Orchestra / Sir Charles Mackerras
‘There is an immediacy and incisive, almost forensic clarity to this…’
Bruckner Symphony No 5
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra / Nikolaus Harnoncourt
‘The word “vision” is much misused these days yet to talk of…’
Mahler Symphony No 5
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle
‘It made a fine nuptial offering for Rattle and the Berliners…’
Sibelius Symphony No 5
Lahti Symphony Orchestra / Osmo Vänskä
‘Every so often a CD appears which, by means of some…’
Copland Symphony No 3
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra / James Judd
‘This time there’s no question about Naxos claiming these two…’
Prokofiev Symphony No 5
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle
‘A Prokofiev Fifth as vibrant, intelligent and meticulously prepared…’
Shostakovich Symphony No 10
RLPO / Vasily Petrenko
‘Petrenko’s Shostakovich cycle goes from strength to strength…’