The BBC has rightly been praised for its ambitious four-part Symphony series, broadcast in November. It was unabashed in its traditionalism, and sincere in its commitment to telling an old story in a new way. In a sense, it took on a lot of the virtues of the symphony itself: it was long, detailed, and asked a lot of its audience in terms of concentration and patience.
Also like many a classical symphony, however, the finale was something of a disappointment. Episode 4, which focused on the twentieth century, lost its sense of focus and failed to convince me quite why the symphony really is of relevance to the twenty-first century. Focusing predominantly on Shostakovich, with just a spot of Ives and Copland thrown in, this was an eminently quirky take on twentieth-century music which seemed to want to do the impossible and stick to some sort of twentieth-century symphonic ‘mainstream’. No such mainstream, though, really exists.
To the ambiguous, ironic tones of Shostakovich’s Ninth Symphony, presenter Simon Russell Beale concluded the series with the observation that:
‘The symphony has become for music what Shakespeare is to literature: a cultural monument that is continually redeveloped through new interpretations. It still has the power to enchant, challenge, and move me, and in the twenty-first century a larger and wider audience than ever before.’
The comparison of an entire type of music to the single figure of Shakespeare is maybe not quite as daft as it seems. Symphonies generally do have the same sort of augustness and canonicity as Shakespeare, and are likewise continually subjected to reinterpretation by contemporary performers. The comparison breaks down, of course, when you remember that the symphony isn’t actually literally dead. Unlike with Shakespeare, there are still people writing symphonies – Peter Maxwell Davies, Philip Glass, Hans Werner Henze. And yes, those three are all quite old, but they’re certainly younger than, um, Shakespeare. The difference is that Shakespeare is dead in fact; the symphony is only dead culturally.
It’s a little perverse, then, to accept the basic inherent deadness of the symphony – as Russell Beale’s Shakespeare comparison clearly does – while simultaneously stressing its developing relevance today. Surely a better, clearer claim for the form’s cultural import would emphasise the fact that new symphonies are still being written?
But it’s understandable why the series didn’t take this approach. This wasn’t the story of symphonies; it was the story of symphonic tradition. And that absolutely is dead today. The series went Haydn-Mozart-Beethoven-Berlioz-Brahms-Mahler/Sibelius-Shostakovich, with the occasional extra thrown in for fun, and it stopped squarely there. And, equally inevitably, Beethoven was given pride of place, as king of symphonies both pure (the Fifth) and programmatic (the Sixth), and as both founder and embodiment of the romantic myth of composer as hero. It is, after all, basically Beethoven whose symphonic tradition it actually is.
One principal element of the Beethovenian symphonic tradition is an incredible sense of discomfort with the question of what abstract music is about. This came through strongly in Symphony. Straight after telling us that Beethoven presented his Fifth Symphony ‘as pure music, [with] no clue to its significance or meaning’, Russell Beale gave us a potted biography of Beethoven’s impoverished upbringing and labelled this symphony as ‘The story of a soul struggling against implacable fate and emerging incandescently victorious’. Comprehensively undermining the claim that the symphony doesn’t point towards ‘significance or meaning’, the implication is clear: if we don’t know what a piece of music is about, we should probably interpret it biographically.
The idea of the ‘pure’ symphony, then, is a weirdly tainted one. If the symphony in question doesn’t have any explicit verbal inspiration, then recourse to some story about the composer’s life is all but inevitable. We do this with Mahler too (the Sixth and the Ninth are prime offenders here), and we are alarmingly insistent on it with Shostakovich. Yes, the story of his oppression under Stalin’s rule is gripping, but to interpret his music solely in the light of this story is reductive and unfair to his actual compositional talent. In short, we’re not good at coping with abstraction – however insistent we are on elevating music’s ‘purity’. And it may be this weird enganglement between a desire for transcendence and wordlessness on the one hand and a deep love of stories on the other which resulted in the complete disintegration of symphonic tradition in the twentieth century.
What’s frustrating is that, despite out actual failure to parse the symphony as a properly unverbal form of expression, it is nonetheless this musical type which has established itself as the classical musical ideal. Where is the BBC series on the concerto, or the overture, or the nonet? It is uniquely the symphony that has become culturally elevated to this degree, and this is largely because of its ostensible concern for abstraction and ‘purity’.
And I think it’s essentially this which I found annoying watching Symphony. It wasn’t a bad programme by any means. But I felt that the symphony was being taken – as it often is – to be the ultimate symbol of classical music generally, the highest, purest classical form. If we subscribe to this belief, though, it follows pretty quickly that the best of classical music is firmly confined to the past. Pushing so hard to expand the cultural reach of mainstream symphonic tradition is ultimately a deeply conservative thing to do. Celebrating the past is all very well, but if anyone wants to look forward in classical music, they will have to look beyond the symphony.