Note: This is the twelfth and final part of my personal tour of the greatest symphonies in classical music. In this portion, I examine symphonies that are designated by name or title rather than by number, as is the case with all the previous symphonies considered. Click on the keyword “Classical Music” at the end of this post to see all parts of this tour and other posts on this significant genre of art.
Ludwig van Beethoven was clearly a revolutionary composer but the true break between traditional classical composition and genuinely romantic music came with Hector Berlioz. With Berlioz structure was subservient to fancy; convention was secondary to enrapturing the audience with stirring effect. The Symphonie Fantastique (1830) was Berlioz’s first major work for orchestra. It remains one of the greatest symphonies ever conceived. It is a symphony accompanied by a specific program. Berlioz submitted a detailed description to his audience on what each movement of the work was supposed to represent. Berlioz apparently offered the symphony as a sign of his love for Harriet Smithson, who is symbolized by a recurrent theme (among several themes) throughout the work.
This Great work among unnumbered symphonies consists of five movements, the first of which is a beautiful 15-minute reverie for orchestra. Great passionate swells of music are isolated by melodic strings which establish and then revisit the primary theme. There are periodic switches from the surging force of the violas, cellos, and basses and the tenderness contained in the flutes and clarinets and bassoons. The violins close the movement with a statement of reverence.
The second movement is a stately waltz featuring a wonderful intermission by flute and oboe before returning to the dance orchestration. The third movement is the highlight of the symphony for me. It is pastoral and tranquil for the most part, with lovely melodies building to a loud climax of full orchestration. This is followed by a new theme stated by solo clarinet, picked up by the strings and winds and transformed thereby before we finish with an English horn restating the original theme, supported by percussion.
The fourth movement is an extraordinary march and presents multiple themes that are all brought together in full thundering orchestration at the end. The finale opens with foreboding, dramatic undertones before changing into a sort of grotesque macabre circus-like ramble. The middle section of this movement is perhaps the most famous part of the work. Berlioz finishes in a frenzy that had no musical precedent in the classical repertoire up to his time. A truly revolutionary symphony in music history.
While not as innovative as Berlioz’s Great unnumbered symphony, Cesar Franck’s Symphony in D Minor (1888) is a masterwork in its own right. Its greatness is perhaps all the more remarkable because it was the only symphony Franck composed. The 17-minute first movement opens rather majestically. Three themes are introduced and examined, one mysterious, another full of longing and the third one hopeful. They are mixed and mingled throughout the course of the movement to contrasting effect.
The second movement opens with plucked strings supporting various solo instruments. Again we are offered a richness of varying melodies and much romantic serenity which is representative of Frank’s other splendid compositions including his brilliant Violin Sonata, which is the best ever written in my opinion. The 10-minute third movement offers a famous phrasing that can best be described as joyful and optimistic. A very satisfying musical experience.
Peter Tchaikovsky composed a Great symphony entitled Manfred (1885). Like the Berlioz work, this music was conceived as a specific program. Tchaikovsky wrote the description “a symphony in four pictures” directly on the score. The symphony is intended as a musical representation of the epic poem by Lord Bryon. The 16-minute opening establishes the fundamental melodies that recur throughout the symphony. The woodwinds are featured, significantly supported by often poignant strings. The second movement lasts 9-minutes and is a series of lively attempts to capture natural sounds and scenes of the majestic Alps. The third movement is beautiful and classically pastoral; so serene and accessible with sweet strings and gentle melodies featuring a wonderful piece for oboe at one point through the slowly wandering 12-minute course. An impressive 19-minute finale is loud and often raucous composition with the entire orchestra fully engaged including a great section for pipe organ until the symphony ends rather quietly, depicting the death of Manfred and the end to his suffering.
Franz Liszt was probably Europe’s premier virtuoso pianist during the 19th century, with the exception of Frederic Chopin, of course. His many works for piano are extraordinary. His two piano concertos are also noteworthy, particularly the first. Liszt’s A Faust Symphony (1857) is gigantic, lasting some 74 minutes with equal time and attention given to each of its three mighty movements. Once again we are presented with a symphonic program, this time Johann von Goethe’s famous tragic play. But rather than focus on the story, each movement focuses on the primary characters of the play: Faust, Gretchen, and Mephistopheles. The first movement is rich with passion and frustration and desire. The middle movement is more tender and reflective, really my favorite one in the symphony, often beautiful, at times sensual, often powerful, at times silent. The finale starts out as a thrill ride until it takes themes from the first two movements and merges them into an orchestrated fury until a tenor and male chorus singing words from Goethe about women and love brings the program to a truly triumphant climax. The orchestration of Faust shows a sophistication that is comparable to Gustav Mahler and is, therefore, superlative.
Speaking of Mahler, it is fitting to end this tour of all full-orchestrated symphonies with another mention to Mahler, the greatest of all symphonists, whose Great First began this tour. His song-cycle The Song of the Earth (1909), is widely-considered a direct extension of Mahler as a symphonist. It was composed between his 8th and 9th symphonies. He purposefully subtitled the work "A Symphony," so he saw it as such himself. It features a series of symphonic songs with vocal accompaniment, lyrics taken from Chinese poems by Li-Tai-Po which were just becoming known at that time in Europe.
Mahler opens with sweeping, passionate strings raging as few but Mahler can make them do. Soon, “The Drinking Song of the Sorrow of the Earth” is being sung by strong tenor. It has several complex symphonic elements and is richly written for all aspects orchestra. The second of the symphony’s six movements or songs begins with heart-rending slowly-paced beauty featuring an outstanding solo oboe opening with the soprano part coming later and introducing the tenor. The third (lasting only 2:45 minutes) and the fourth songs are refreshingly light, airy and free. The fifth is comical, sweet, and just plain fun, though it only lasts 4 and a half minutes.
But it is with the final large-scale 35-minute song “The Fairwell” after Mong-Kao-Yen & Wang-Wei that Mahler reaches and sustains the level of excellence in his other symphonies and makes it comparable to them. The dramatic opening, featuring strummed deep basses and solo parts for various winds and horns. The interplay between the vocal parts and the orchestra parts is a wonder to behold. Mahler leaves you so peacefully and serenely on a gentle loving flow of music that fades calmly away in the end rather than building to a climax. Mahler seems to say relax, be at peace fellow travelers.