This Sunday Elder Music column was launched in December of 2008. By May of the following year, one commenter, Peter Tibbles, had added so much knowledge and value to my poor attempts at musical presentations that I asked him to take over the column. He's been here each week ever since delighting us with his astonishing grasp of just about everything musical, his humor and sense of fun. You can read Peter's bio here and find links to all his columns here.
I hope you’re up for some hard core music, because that’s what you’re getting today.
Joseph Haydn is considered the father of the symphony. I don't know who the mother was. I doubt it was Mrs. Haydn as they didn't get on at all well. It could have been Luigia Polzelli with whom old Jo got on very well indeed (nudge nudge wink wink).
The symphony was around before Jo's time but it was a teeny weeny little thing, a bit like the original mammals that were about the size of a mouse and scurried around under dinosaurs' feet.
After the great extinction of 65 million years ago they grew to become zebras and wombats and whales and us. We know who the whale is in the context of symphonies, don't we Gustav?
Enough of this stretching a metaphor to its breaking point, let’s get to the music.
I’ll start with one of the mouse-like symphonies. WILLIAM BOYCE was considered at the time to be the finest English musical talent of the 18th century.
Perhaps that should be native born talent as he had the misfortune to overlap somewhat with Mr. Handel. He also overlapped at either ends of his life with Bach, Haydn and Mozart, so no wonder he's been relegated to the back shelves in our music stores (if he even manages to get in there in the first place).
Will wrote eight symphonies, all of which fit on a single CD, so he's my mouse for the day. Here is his complete Symphony No. 1. It’s shorter than the single movements of everyone else today.
This naturally brings us to JOSEPH HAYDN. Although he didn't invent the symphony, he made it his own. He wrote more than a hundred of them, any one of which is a worthy contender for inclusion.
A number of his symphonies had really good names, mostly attached to them after Jo had kicked the bucket. Some of those are The Surprise (94), The Clock (101), Drumroll (103), The Bear (82), The Hen (83), Philosopher (22), Palindrome (47), The Schoolmaster (55) and so on.
No 45, The Farewell, is interesting. I originally had that as the musical track, but I decided to include it in my column devoted to Haydn. You can read about it there.
So, another named symphony, No 31, Hornsignal, the second movement. This one sounds to me rather like a string quartet (something for which Papa Jo was world champion) with a French horn thrown in for good measure.
WOLFGANG MOZART took what Haydn had done and ran with it, but not very far. His last several are considered his masterpieces in this category.
The last three he wrote, numbers 39, 40 and 41 all deserve inclusion. Number 41 has gained a name over the years, the Jupiter. However, I'm very partial to number 40, and that’s the one we have today – the first movement of his Symphony No.40 in G minor K.550.
LUDWIG BEETHOVEN raised the stakes even further; probably so high that no one else could match him although many tried. A few came close.
All but the first couple of his could be included today. Number 5 especially, that's one you all know (da da da dum). I'd like to do number 9, his masterpiece, but it's a bit long. Number 7 is worth listening to, as is number 3.
Number 6 is my favorite, it's different from the others and is usually referred to as The Pastoral and it shows Ludwig at his most mellow. I wanted to use one of the middle movements but he decided to run them all in together so that was out.
So, I've gone for the one that seems to be the least performed (apart from the first two) and that is number 8: the Symphony No.8 in F, Op.93. The second movement.
FRANZ SCHUBERT learnt a lot from Beethoven. Mozart and Haydn too.
He certainly knew Ludwig, but Wolfie died too early for them to have met. Papa Jo died when Franz was 12 so they may have met but probably not. It doesn’t matter in the scheme of things.
I would have liked to include number 9, generally known as “The Great”. Alas, that not only describes the quality of the music, but the length of the work as well.
There are a couple in the middle, 5 and 6, that are worth a listen (well, they all are really). I’ve chosen the first movement of Symphony No. 5 in B flat major, D. 485.
Continuing into the middle of the 19th century brings us to FELIX MENDELSSOHN.
Felix went on an extended tour of Europe from 1829 to 1831. This inspired him to write music about places he had been – his Symphony No 3, called the “Scottish symphony” and The Hebrides Overture, also from that country. Italy also inspired him to write a symphony, not too surprisingly called “The Italian”. That was Symphony No 4 in A Major Op 90.
Felix conducted the premier performance of this one in London. He wasn’t satisfied with it and kept tinkering with it throughout his life such that it wasn’t published until after he died. He didn’t touch the first movement, as he was happy with that. Here it is.
PYOTR TCHAIKOVSKY is generally relegated to the reserves bench by the classical buffs, although that seems to be changing a bit lately.
He’s considered a bit lightweight, possibly because his music is so popular with those who may not go to concerts regularly. I must admit to ambivalence about a lot of his works, but I really like his symphonies, especially number 5.
This is up there with the rest of the compositions today. It's the second movement of the Symphony no 5 Op. 64 in E minor that we have today.
While we're on the subject of Russians, someone who’s not generally considered in this category, especially given the heavyweights we’ve already played, is ALEXANDER BORODIN.
Alex is mostly known for the couple of string quartets, the second in particular that gave rise to the music that was usurped and used in the musical Kismet. His opera Prince Igor also added more music to that.
Alex’s main gig was Professor of Chemistry and he was also a doctor and a surgeon, and he championed women’s entry into university to study such things decades before that was generally so.
He was an accomplished pianist and a composer of considerable facility. That he only did in his spare time. His compositions are noted for their charm and wonderful melodies. He’s not taken very seriously because of that, however, I disagree with the critics because I like him very much. That’s why he’s here today.
A lot of composers left unfinished symphonies; Schubert is the most famous of those who did so. He wasn’t alone; Mahler’s number 10 has been “finished” by several people over the years.
Likewise, Alex only completed the first two movements of his Symphony No.3 in A minor. This is the first movement.
Speaking of heavyweights, here's the world heavyweight champ. I know that a lot of people think that GUSTAV MAHLER is boring. I used to be one of them.
The first time I encountered him was back in the early seventies when there was the Melbourne equivalent of the Prom Concerts at the Melbourne Town Hall. We sat on the floor (because we couldn't afford the seats). We were urged to bring cushions along, which we did, but it still wasn't enough.
It was one of his long symphonies; okay they're all pretty long, but it was one of the really long ones, and I said at the time that that was the last time I'd bother with him. I’ve changed my mind over the years when I heard them in a more comfortable setting.
I am now a fan, particularly the fourth, which is quite un-Mahler like and rather dismissed by hard-core Mahler fans. In that symphony, taking a leaf out of Beethoven's book, old Gus made the fourth movement a vocal one – not choral like Ludwig, a single soprano (and an orchestra as well, of course).
It's not the only one where Gus introduced vocals, but it's what we have today. The fourth movement of Symphony No.4 in G. The wonderful Renée Fleming is the singer.