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Symphony and Symphonic Poem

by Aubertine Woodward Moore

That adventurous spirit, Claudio Monteverde, who nearly three hundred years ago made himself responsible for the first feeble utterances of an orchestra that tried to say something for itself, divined the possibilities of expression in varying combinations of tone-quality and gave vigorous impulse to the germ of the symphony already existing in the formless instrumental preludes and interludes of his predecessors among opera-makers. His revelation of the charm that lies in exploring the resources of instrumentation led to ever increasing demands on the orchestra. The pre[Pg 248]lude developed into the operatic overture whose business it became to prepare the spectator for what followed. That music was capable of conveying an impression in her own tone-language was apparent, and in due time the symphony rose majestic from the forge of genius.

Prominent among the materials welded into it was the dance of obscure origin. As the vocal aria was the result of the simple folk-song combined with the intense craving of song's master molders for individual expression, so instrumental music striving to walk alone, without support from words, gained vital elements through the discovery that various phases of mental disposition might be indicated by alternating dance tunes differing in rhythm and movement, according to Nature's own law of contrasts. That unity of purpose was essential to the effectiveness of the diversity was instinctively discerned.

The touch of authority was given to this kind of music, during the last two decades of the seventeenth century, by Arcangelo Corelli[Pg 249] when he presented in the camera, or private apartment, of Cardinal Ottoboni's palace, in Rome, his idealized dance groups, thoroughly united by harmony of mood, yet affording a wholly new tone-picture of this mood in each of several movements. These compositions were usually written for the harpsichord and perhaps three instruments of the viol order, the master himself playing the leading melody on the violin. He called them sonatas from sonare, to sound, a name originally applied to any piece that was sounded by instruments, not sung by the human voice. They prefigured the solo sonata, the entire class of chamber music named from the place where they were performed, and the symphony which is a sonata for the orchestra. Absolute music was set once for all on the right path by them. They ushered in a new era of Art.

Purcell, in England, Domenico Scarlatti and Sammartini, in Italy, the Bachs, in Germany, and others continued to fashion the sonata form. It ceased to be a mere grouping of dances, the name suite being applied to that,[Pg 250] and struck out into independent excursions in the domain of fancy. The prevailing melody of its monophonic style proved suitable to furnish a subject for the most animated discussion. Three contrasting movements were adopted, comprising a summons to attention, an appeal to both intellect and emotions, and a lively reaction after excitement.

A German critic has jocosely remarked that the early writers meant the sonata to show first what they could do, second what they could feel, and third how glad they were to have finished. Time vastly increased its importance. Two subjects, a melody in the tonic, another usually in the dominant, came to set forth the exposition of the opening movement, leading to a free development, with various episodes, and an assured return to the original statement. The prevailing character being thus defined, the story readily unfolds, aided by related keys, in a slow movement and perhaps a minuet or scherzo, and gains its denouement in a stirring finale, written in the original key. Each movement has its own subjects, its individual devel[Pg 251]opment, with harmony of plan and idea for a bond of union.

The name symphony, from sinfonia, a consonance of sounds, applied originally to any selection played by a full band and later to instrumental overtures, was given by Joseph Haydn to the orchestral sonata form inaugurated by him. His thirty years of musical service to the house of Esterhazy, with an orchestra increasing from 16 to 24 pieces to experiment on, as the solo virtuoso experiments on piano or violin, brought him wholly under the spell of the instruments. Their individual characteristics afforded him continually new suggestions in regard to tone-coloring, and he rose often to audacity, for his time, in his harmonic devices. Grace and spirit, originality of invention, joyous abandon, a fancy controlled by a studious mind, a profusion of quaint humor and a proper division of light and shade, combine to give the dominant note to his music. His symphonies recall the fairy tale, with its sparkling "once upon a time," and yet like it are not without their mysterious shadows. In[Pg 252] everything he has written is felt that faculty of smiling amid grief and disappointment and pain that made Haydn, the Father of the Symphony, exclaim in his old age, "Life is a charming affair."

With Mozart, whose life-work began after, but ended before that of Haydn, influencing and being influenced by the latter, the symphony broadened in scope and grew richer in warmth of melodious expression, definiteness of plan and completeness of form. His profoundly poetic musical nature, with its high capacity for joy and sorrow and infinite longing, was reflected in all that he wrote. By means of a generous employment of free counterpoint, in other words a kind of polyphony in which the various voices use different melodies in harmonious combination, he gained a potent auxiliary in his cunning workmanship, and emphasized the folly of rejecting the contrapuntal experiences, of, for instance, a Sebastian Bach. Musical instruments, as well as musical materials, were his servants in developing the glowing fancies of his marvelously[Pg 253] constructive brain. The crowning glory of his graceful perfection of outline and detail is the noble spirit of serenity which illumines all its beauty.

Beethoven further advanced the technique of the symphony, and proved its power to "strike fire from the soul of man." Varying his themes while repeating them, adding spice to his episodes and working out his entire scheme with consummate skill, he was able to construct from a motive of a few notes a mighty epic tone-poem. He translated into superb orchestral pages the dreams of the human heart, the soul's longing for liberty and all the holiest aspirations of the inner being. He discussed in tones problems of man's life and destiny, ever displaying sublime faith that Fate, however cruel, is powerless to crush the spiritual being, the real individuality. His conflicts never fail to end in triumph. Well may it be said that the ultimate purpose of a symphony of Beethoven is to tell of those things from the deepest depths of which events are mere shadows, and that as high feeling de[Pg 254]mands lofty utterance his tonal forms are inevitably worthy of their contents.

Twenty-six years younger than Beethoven Schubert lived but a year after he had passed away and died in 1828, two years later than Weber, and felt the glow of the spirit of romanticism. From the perennial fount of song within his breast there streamed fresh melodious strains through his symphonies, the ninth and last of which, the C major, ranks him with the great symphonists. Intense poetic sentiment, dreamy yet strong musical individuality, romantic fulness of plan to embody in tones the passionate emotions of a storm and stress period, and much originality of orchestral treatment characterize the symphonies of Schumann. He rises to towering heights in some passages, but in his daring explorations through the tone-world he is often betrayed into a vagueness of form, largely traceable perhaps to lack of early technical discipline, as well as to lack of mental clarity. Ultra romanticism was foreign to the nature and repulsive to the tastes of the refined, elegant Mendels[Pg 255]sohn, yet in spite of himself its influence crept gently into his polished works. As a symphonist he displayed fertility in picturesque sonorities, facility in tracing the outlines and filling in the details of form, keen sense of balance of orchestral tone, thorough scientific knowledge of his materials, and, as some one has said, became all but a master in the highest sense. His overtures are unquestionably romantic, and as their histrionic and scenic titles indicate, partake of the nature of programme music.

This brings us to Hector Berlioz, the famous French symphonist, the exponent par excellence of programme music, that is, music intended to illustrate a special story. He lived from 1803 to 1869, and because of his audacity in using new and startling tonal effects was called the most flagrant musical heretic of the nineteenth century. He was the first to impress on the world the idea of music as a definite language. His recurrent themes, called "fixed ideas," prefigured Wagner's "leading motives." His skill in combining[Pg 256] instruments added new lustre to orchestration. The personal style he created for himself was the result of his studies of older masterpieces, above all those of Gluck which he knew by heart, and of his philosophic researches. His four famous symphonic works are: "Fantastic Symphony," "Grand Funeral and Triumphal Symphony," "Harold in Italy" and "Romeo and Juliet." In a preface to the first he thus explains his ideas: "The plan of a musical drama without words, requires to be explained beforehand. The programme (which is indispensable to the perfect comprehension of the work) ought therefore to be considered in the light of the spoken text of an opera, serving to lead up to the piece of music, and indicate the character and expression."

From programme music came the symphonic poem of which Franz Liszt was the creator. Although he found this culmination of the romantic ideal in the field of instrumental music in his maturer years, he displayed in it the full power of his genius. His great works in this line are a "Faust Symphony," "Les Préludes,"[Pg 257] "Orpheus," "Prometheus," "Mazeppa" and "Hamlet." Symphonic in form, although less restricted than the symphony, these works are designed to give tone-pictures of the subjects designated, or at least of the moods they awaken. "Mazeppa," for instance, is described as depicting in a wild movement, rising to frenzy, the death ride of the hero, a brief andante proclaims his collapse, the following march, introduced by trumpet fanfares and increasing to the noblest triumph, his elevation and coronation.

Camille Saint-Saëns, without doubt the most original and intellectual modern French composer, who at sixty-seven years of age is still in the midst of his activity, and who has made his own the spirit of the classic composers, owes to the symphonic poem a great part of his reputation, and has also written symphonies of great value. His orchestration is distinguished by its clarity, power and exquisite coloring. The orchestral music of Tschaikowsky, who died in 1893, symphonies and symphonic poems, are saturated with the glowing[Pg 258] Russian spirit, are intensely dramatic, sometimes rising to tempestuous bursts of passion that are only held in check by the composer's scholarly control of his materials. A strong national flavor is also felt in the work of Christian Sinding, the Norwegian, whose D minor symphony has been styled "a piece born of the gloomy romanticism of the North." Edward Grieg, known as the incarnation of the strong, vigorous, breezy spirit of the land of the midnight sun, has put some of his most characteristic work into symphonic poems and orchestral suites. The first composer to convey a message from the North in tones to the European world was Gade, the Dane, known as the Symphony Master of the North, who was born in 1817 and died in 1890.

It is impossible to mention in a brief essay all the great workers in symphonic forms. One Titanic spirit, Johannes Brahms, (1833-1897) who succeeded in striking the dominant note of musical sublimity amid modern unrest, is reserved for our final consideration. Of him Schumann said, "This John is a prophet[Pg 259]who will also write revelations," and he has revealed to those who can read that high art is the abiding-place of reason, that it is moreover compounded of profundity of feeling yoked with profundity of intellectual mastery. Dr. Riemann writes of him, "From Bach he inherited the depth, from Haydn, the humor, from Mozart, the charm, from Beethoven, the strength, from Schubert, the intimateness of his art. Truly a wonderfully gifted nature that was able to absorb such a fulness of great gifts and still not lose the best of gifts—the strong individuality which makes the master."

Wonderful is the power of instrumental music, absolute music without words, that may convey impressions, deep and lasting, no words could give. All hail to the memory of Johannes Brahms, who has reminded us of its true mission and delivered a message that will ring through the twentieth century.