Wiley’s Motorcycle Tour of the Symphonic Canon.
The foundation is Beethoven. Oh, yes, do dip into Mozart’s 38th ( “Prague” ), 40th, and 41st ( “Jupiter” ), but get off the bike at the Third of Beethoven, his Eroica, his tribute to the memory of a great man, Bonaparte, the Caesar of Modern Europe and the liberator-revealed-as-tyrant who lost the faith of his musical Virgil by laying siege to Vienna. Look, in the mind’s eye, at the structure of the thing. Listen for the deep and measureless sorrow in the funeral march. But then go on and revel in the Olympian power of his Fifth, especially in the recapitulation of the first movement and in the slow movement. Drink at least one slow movement of Beethoven per week, for the rest of your life. This will keep you young, and may remind you of the meaning of beauty, the passing of life, and the poetry of friendship, as it did Elgar in Enigma Variation No. 12. Anyways, the “Pastoral, his Sixth, is in a class all by itself, but do go on and make sure to hit the Seventh, especially its supremely plangent slow movement,. Wagner called the whole thing “the Apotheosis of the Dance.” The real apotheosis of the dance, however, comes in in the last movement of the Ninth, long after the brutal, withering assault of the opening sonata-allegro movement, when the march of Strife is blown away by the tide of the army of Love, and the orchestral erupts into a grand fugue on the heels of a tenor’s proclamation—a fugue unmatched in all of the works of Beethoven for its power, energy, and contrapuntal invention.
Schubert is the next stop. The Unfinished (No. 8) is the practically the only work of its sort played. It is really Beethovenian in power and scope, but touched with the earnest lyricism of which Schubert was such an immediate child. No. 9 (“The Great”) is a greater piece of architecture; if it lacks the immediate power of the Unfinished, it makes up for this in sheer invention, especially in the first movement.
Although he wrote precious few pure symphonies, I do recommend sampling Berlioz. He writes really programmatic works, especially the viola concerto/symphony/four-movement tone-poem after Byron’s “Harold in Italy.” There is always Symphonie Fantastique! Also see his grand opera, Les Troyens. As with Debussy, the symphonic opera would, for this Frenchman, be his largest canvas for the orchestral palate and such themes as it makes, with imagination, possible.
The true heir of Beethoven is really Wagner, but that’s complicated, and controversial. Wagner pushes symphonic development of themes to their apogees. He issues in the irreproducible experiment of Debussy, and in the dissolution of Western Music in the chaos of the Great War and what came of it.
The other heirs of Beethoven are Anton Bruckner and Johannes Brahms. Bruckner was a lonely old man who was always asking adolescent girls to marry him. He was also a devout Catholic organist with a profound grasp of symphonic architecture. His work is very powerful. Massive. Indomitable. Each symphony is 60+ min. long. He is very Wagnerian in tone, but very traditional in organization and dominated by the brass chorale.
Brahms is the neo-classical opponent of Bruckner. His symphonies are reserved, lucid, economical. They sound so familiar because, with Tschaikovsky, his style has become the canonical language of “classical music.” Brahms is the Shakespeare of the Austrian-German symphonic tradition, if you will. Listen to the First, in its journey from bitter despair to hopeful expectation over forty minutes. Listen to the second movement of the Second—one of the most endearing ever hit upon. Listen to the slow yearning call of the opening of the Fourth. For my money, the Fourth Symphony of Johannes Brahms is probably the finest document to come down to us from all of music. The nobility of the passagalia which is the finale is too much for human ears to bear.
Having struck out this far, I must conclude my initial pass by pointing out the last, next, and only great symphonists of our century: Mahler and Sibelius. Mahler is several universes of fire and ocean and burning desert sand. Sibelius is the single world of the North: dark, mysterious, brooding savage dreams, filled with an icy intensity such as could be born only of the artist possessed absolutely of the genius of the ethos of his race.
Mahler is really my god and my devil. (You may understand what I mean, if you recall your Lewis.) His symphonies are not all great, but there is a grand yearning in his works born of the fusion of the tragic vision of Wagner fused with the brass hymns of Bruckner. Mahler is the last romantic visionary in music, and the grandeur of his visions tops all others. His creations are longest, but also full of the most expansive architecture. Listen to the invention and the brooding power of the First. Listen to the way in which the grim funeral march which opens the Second resolves itself in the orgiastic choral climax of the finale. The Fifth travels from an even more shattering funeral march to a happy rondo, while the Seventh is largely optimistic, with a staggering sonata-allegro primo and a farcical finale. In the Sixth, however, we see mostly clearly the grand, tragic vision of the man: it is as if everything which Nietzsche said about Greek tragedy has come down from Solon’s tongue into purely emotive tones of exultant despair. The opening is a grim march, but against this he sets a delicate countersubject like the shadow of the eternal feminine. The slow movement is full of sublime suffering, if you will; simple, but of staggering depth. The finale is simply the most powerful expression of tragic grandeur ever written for orchestra—ever—period. I cannot describe it for you. You have to experience it for yourself. If it does, by some chance, beset your psyche with eros for something more of its infinite vision, dip into Das Leid von der Erde. It would have been his ninth, but became a symphonic song-cycle instead.
Sibelius is very different. He is the angel who is almost my fellow-heir. He is classicism, redivinus, but with a twist. He is the man who knows who he, what he loves, and where he is going. His symphonies are not naïve, but do not usually try to become more than the pure, organic expressions of classical sensibilies made form in a unique sound-world of dense orchestral textures and long pedal points. The greater half of his output was absolute, rather than really programmatic, even the tone-poems (of which Taipola is the last and grandest). The Seventh is his greatest, in which he telescopes traditional four-movement symphonic form into an incredible creation of tremendous range and invention. The Sixth is his purest creation, like a glass of clear water, transcendent in its simplicity, offered at a time when atonalism was sweeping the West. The Fifth is probably his most powerful work, especially in the finale, as exultation becomes almost objective, but the Fourth is really the one which you will want to listen to over and over again and wonder at—from the austere distant timbre of the first movement to the brooding, fragmentary slow movement, to the happy-go-lucky jingle of the finale.