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Symphony No. 4 (revised version) - Sergei Prokofiev

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29th March 2013

The symphonic debut: what makes one successful?

Every artistic career has a beginning, and those formative works and years often shape our perceptions of the artist’s subsequent output in profound ways. Hundreds of great composers have embarked on writing symphonies, and it is instructive and enlightening to explore their earliest efforts in the form, particularly as a reflection of what was to emerge from their pens as they evolved and progressed.

Whose symphonic debuts were the most successful over the long haul? Whose weren’t? And how much does the composer’s approach and the historical situations they found themselves in matter to how we view their work’s place in history? I think we can break them down into five categories: Disappointing, Interesting, Fascinating, Great, and Essential. For each recommended debut symphony I've also chosen a suggested version on CD.

Disappointing: Bruckner, Stravinsky, Wagner, Strauss, and Grieg

It’s considered a bit heretical to question the work of a master, but in these cases it’s justified. The symphony’s reputation post-Beethoven made it one of the go-to mediums of composition for virtually every significant composer of the 19th and 20th centuries, so it was natural for anyone who felt themselves worth their own salt to stake their claim to importance within its confines. These five symphonies were composed at delicate ages in their composers’ respective developments (Bruckner was 41, but got an incredibly late start relative to his historical peers), and the weaknesses were such that their composers never returned to symphonic writing (Wagner and Grieg) or waited 20+ years to write another one (Stravinsky and Strauss). In Bruckner’s case, the work ended up being rejected by its composer and was subsequently numbered with not one but two “zeroes.”

The good news is that the power of perseverance is real. Bruckner, who rejected a second symphony that he composed in 1869 (numbered now with a single “zero”), ended up writing six of the 40 or so greatest symphonies of all-time. Stravinsky and Strauss ultimately composed five symphonies between them, each of them staples of the 20th-century symphonic repertoire. Grieg would go on to compose some of the greatest piano music in history and his incidental music for Peer Gynt is one of the most popular works ever. Wagner only managed to completely re-write musical history with an impact matched only by Beethoven and produced a staggering string of operas to be performed in his very own custom-built performance space.    

Interesting: Tschaikovsky, Dvorak, Mozart, Haydn, and Mendelssohn

It's not that these efforts are bad, it’s just that they pale in comparison to the mature works of their respective composers – like “Love Me Do” annoying Beatles versus “Because” transcendental Beatles. Mozart and Mendelssohn have a pretty good excuse: they were eight and twelve respectively, and Mendelssohn’s first symphony for full orchestra is significantly better and more interesting (written as a downright geriatric 15-year-old). Haydn, for his part, has the even better excuse of being the genius who provided the bridge between the symphony’s roots in the Italian overture/ripieno concerto and the fully flowered four-movement extravaganza that emerged 103 symphonies later. 

The Symphonies no. 1 of Tschaikovsky and Dvorak have two primary things in common. First, they both possess awkward subtitles (“Winter Dreams” and “The Bells of Zlonice”) that only bear passing resemblance to what’s actually taking place musically. Second, both works owe a pretty strong debt to Mendelssohn, particularly the Scotch and Italian symphonies. Both works are certainly listenable, and there are glimpses of the composers at their best, but both ultimately fall well short of being truly captivating. Tschaikovsky and Dvorak both took a while to work the kinks out – it took Tschaikovsky 11 more years to write his first great symphony, the 4th  (though I’m a total sucker for the 2nd) and Dvorak 15 years to write his, the 6th, and it is the second half of their symphonic outputs that we cherish today. 

Fascinating: Penderecki, Brian, Ives, Prokofiev, and Henze

A handful of symphonic debuts leave us with questions because they don’t seem to share much in common with the mature style of their composer. Some of the reasons for this are fairly straightforward given the general musical styles in place at the time.

Prok1.jpg Pen15.jpg

Prokofiev's Classical Symphony was one of the first important works of the neo-classical movement and a deliberate attempt to write in the style of Haydn, an obviously different concept than his later symphonies. Penderecki’s first symphony can likewise be characterized as being a product of its time, an avant-garde frenzy of tone clusters, glissandi, microtones, and all manner of extended techniques – a radical (pun, if you want to call it that, intended) contrast from his style over the last 30 years.

Henze16.jpg Ives1.jpg

Henze’s 1st finds itself in this category because it has gone through multiple revisions and forms to the point that it is almost unrecognizable compared to its original iteration. Ives’ 1st is here because it isn’t chock full of tunes and quotes from American folk music or Protestant hymns but is instead a more traditional work with the occasional paraphrase from the European classics of yore (Tschaikovsky and Dvorak to name two).

Brian1.jpg

Havergal Brian’s Gothic Symphony is perhaps unknown to many, though it did receive a performance at the BBC Proms in Summer 2011. For those who may know it, they will understand its placement in the “Fascinating” section of these proceedings – it is without equal in scope and breadth, a sort of Mahler 8 on equal parts steroids, grain alcohol, rattlesnake venom, and Doritos Locos Tacos. It features some of the most bizarre choral writing known to man and an orchestra the size of a small Appalachian town or a fundamentalist Mormon commune. For all its flaws, though, it is a fairly stunning achievement and in spite of the gargantuan forces at play, it never feels entirely out of control. Not surprisingly it does not have a lot in common with his later symphonies (he wrote another 31, 21 of them after the age of 80!), which itself is about the only thing that it has in common with the other pieces in this category.              

Great: Brahms, Beethoven, Schubert, Sibelius, and Elgar

Brahms14.jpg Elgar1.jpg

Alright, so what’s the difference between “Great” and “Essential”? How does Brahms not end up in whatever amounts to the stratosphere? The quick and possibly terrible answer is time, plain and simple. Many composers felt like composing a symphony in a post-Beethoven world was an almost impossible task, and Brahms felt that more than anyone else (because the world at large had appointed him as Beethoven’s successor). Brahms ultimately took 21 years to complete his First Symphony, not completing it until after his 43rd birthday. In fairness, Brahms churned out his Second Symphony less than a year later. Elgar likewise had his debut symphony in the works for over a decade and did not complete it until age 51. On the bright side, both of these works are polished to an absolute diamond shine – the Elgar is one of the all-time underrated masterworks in any form and the Brahms is, well, Brahms Fucking 1!

Beethoven15.jpg SchubertAll.jpg

Beethoven, Schubert, and Sibelius all share the same attribute that is subject to criticism, and that is that they are somewhat derivative. Beethoven’s and Schubert’s both bear the heavy influence of Haydn (and to a lesser degree Mozart), even though there are plenty of stylistic features in both works that we would associate with their composers’ mature sound.

Sibelius14.jpg

Sibelius’s owes a great debt to Tschaikovsky, though it too has many concepts that Sibelius would return to (sound concepts, though not formal concepts). It should be noted that calling something “derivative” is an admittedly weak argument. I’ve listened to and studied symphonic music for the better part of the last two decades, and I couldn’t dream of writing something even .001% as good as the weakest work in this section (Schubert wrote his at the age of 16). Derivative is fine. These are still amazing.

Essential: Mahler, Shostakovich, Rachmaninov, Nielsen, and Schumann

The characteristic that each of the symphonies share in this, the highest category of my refined and obviously well-thought-out system, is a clearly defined sense of originality that not only sounds unique relative to its historical musical surroundings, but also contain elements that we now know to have been a major component of their subsequent symphonies. They likewise have in common the precocity of youth, save the Schumann (which was written at the ancient age of 31…oh God I’m old!), each having been written between the ages of 19 and 27. 

SchumannAll.jpg

Schumann’s debut still makes the list, though, because it’s such a departure from not only the traditional sound of symphonic music to that point, but also because it’s a departure for Schumann himself, who had largely composed piano and vocal music to that point. To begin your symphonic career with such a bold and brash statement as a unison brass line followed by the same line in full orchestral bloom takes balls, and in some ways that 15 seconds of music sums up Schumann’s entire musical reputation perfectly. 

Nielsen16.jpg Rachmaninov1.jpg

The mature symphonies of Nielsen and Rachmaninov are vastly different – Nielsen’s got progressively more interesting and Rachmaninov’s got progressively cheesier (not necessarily in a bad way!) – but their first symphonies are both remarkably well-organized and clear. Nielsen in particular crafted a work that is not only rich melodically, but also tonally – according to musicologist Robert Simpson it is possibly the first symphony to end in a key other than the one it started in. Rachmaninov’s first symphony took many years to come to light due to a legendarily terrible premiere performance that was poorly rehearsed and led by the probably-drunk Alexander Glazunov, one of music’s all-time alcoholics. It would be almost 50 years before it was heard again, a shame considering its inventive use of motivic relationships and its almost stereotypically Russian sound.

Mahler1.jpg Shostakovich1.jpg

Perhaps the MOST essential of all these debuts are those of Mahler and Shostakovich, not really much of a coincidence considering they are the two greatest symphonists of the 20th century. Both of their first symphonies are staggering in their sheer quality and originality. Shostakovich composed his when he was 19 and it is the assertive declaration of a young artist already in control of the structure and feel of a symphony. The lento-largo third movement is especially noteworthy, full of every ounce of the drama, pathos, and intensity that would become a hallmark of Shostakovich’s later slow movements. Mahler was a bit older when he completed his first symphony, putting the finishing touches on the original version at the age of 27 (with several subsequent revisions), but what emerged was a masterpiece of the absolute highest order. From the massively quiet 7-octave unison opening of the work through the triumphant and explosive finale, Mahler’s Symphony no. 1 demonstrates so much of what makes his music great.

The list of great symphonists is fairly long, and their collective output is the source of many hours of listening and study over the course of a lifetime. We tend to take for granted the genius of these works left for us by the masters of the form, particularly the works from the earlier portions of a composer’s career. But the truth is, at some point after Beethoven, the idea of dipping your toes into the waters of the symphony came with a dual-pronged set of feelings that were equal parts responsibility and “holy shit, how am I supposed to live up to this standard?” inadequacy. The writings of so many composers mention this phenomenon, particularly those in the Austro-German tradition; Johannes Brahms, as noted above, is the obvious archetype.

Having now examined music history for these initial forays into the realm of the symphony, we’ve noticed that the results are something of a mixed bag. Some composers were able to come out of the gate firing on all cylinders while others needed time to work out the kinks before developing their mastery in later pieces. The idea of a debut symphony is a bit of a misnomer in some cases, too. Some composers attempted a symphony in their youth or conservatory days and ultimately abandoned them, others modified an existing work into a symphony, and many of them were revised over the years as their composers took a fresh look at them later in their careers.

Choosing the outright winner

How do we decide which is the best? That’s a tough decision, obviously, and I’m not entirely sure that I agree with myself. A friend of mine is a huge Mozart fan and often cites the fact that he was writing music as a child as one of the reasons for her fandom. I always argue that the music he wrote as a child isn’t all that interesting and that it’s much better to write music that is actually good and interesting as a teenager or twentysomething than to write something cute and mindless when you’re 4. Doesn’t that same logic apply to twentysomethings versus grown men? 

It seems fairly clear that Brahms’s first symphony reigns musically supreme and it presumably shouldn’t matter how long it took to write. And yet I find myself returning to Mahler and Shostakovich because of just how much of their “sounds” crept in to these debut efforts and set the stage for a combined 22 symphonies, each of which remain in the repertoire to varying degrees. Perhaps these external considerations shouldn’t matter, but it’s hard to ignore the stunning combination of youth, musical quality, and connection to the mature style that both works have. The fact that Shostakovich completed his first symphony at the age of 19 and essentially left it alone boggles the mind, makes me look back on what I was doing when I was 19 and shake my head with equal parts pity and disdain, and places his debut atop this list.

Erik J Klackner


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