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The Rise of the Concerto and the Fall of the Symphony in Britain

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Author Topic: The Rise of the Concerto and the Fall of the Symphony in Britain  (Read 1241 times)
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« on: November 19, 2012, 05:46:05 pm »

It is indeed also true as Jim remarks above that many composers wait until middle-age before embarking on writing symphonies. He instances composers like Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Brian and Bax as examples. That is certainly true. Composers like Frederick Delius, John Ireland, Herbert Howells never wrote a symphony at all. Bliss wrote one(the "Colour Symphony") and "Morning Heroes" which is a choral composition. Benjamin Britten wrote an early "Simple Symphony" and a "Sinfonia" but then chose to attach the term to a choral work(the "Spring Symphony") and a 'concerto'(The Cello Symphony). William Walton wrote one early symphony and then not another until he was almost 60. Tippett's first two symphonies were written in middle age but the 3rd and 4th did  not follow until he had reached the age of 65. Peter Maxwell Davies had written a very large amount of music before he came to the symphony (at which point symphonies seem to have poured forth in profusion!).

Frankly though, I doubt whether this is particularly likely now from contemporary composers in Britain. After all, Holloway is now 69 and Colin Matthews 66 Grin (Colin may feel that having one symphonist in the family-in the person of David-is enough Grin). There is no real British equivalent of the Finn Kalevi Aho who has now clocked up 15 of the species. O rto jump back a few decades-the Portuguese composer Joly Braga Santos, who had written four in his twenties.

It is NOT however a competition Smiley I do not, I assure you, judge a composer's merits on whether or not he has written symphonies. I happen to admire the form and to relish the opportunity to follow a composer's development through the course of a symphonic cycle. My favourite composers-in almost all cases-did write a substantial number of symphonies: Brahms, Bruckner, Sibelius, Nielsen, Vaughan Williams, Brian, Rubbra, Shostakovich, William Schuman, Simpson etc etc. But I equally love and admire the music of an essentially operatic composer like Wagner or a composer like Richard Strauss-who wrote two, essentally programmatic symphonies, but whose Four Last Songs for me represent the pinnacle of his genius.

Writing "a symphony" is-or should be-a challenging prospect for any composer and there are a large number of symphonies which do not measure up to the challenge. There ARE composers who wrote a large number of symphonies of very variable quality. In fact, it seems to me, the more symphonies a composer writes the more unlikely it is that a record company will have the resources to embark on a complete set(fortunate indeed are composers like Miaskovsky to have a passionate advocate in the late Svetlanov or Julius Rontgen Roll Eyes to have CPO prepared to take on the task or Aho similarly with BIS but, equally, unfortunate to be Niels Viggo Bentzon). Of course, if the composer happens to be a bit of "crank" it ultimately helps since "eccentric oddities" appear to attract fanatical devotion from certain music listeners-viz. Rued Langgaard. (Not, I hasten to add, is such devotion, necessarily, displaced......."eccentric cranks" with sad, hard-luck stories did, often though not invariably, write some inspired music Grin Grin).

However....I am now rambling Grin
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