Who said they don't write symphonies anymore?
Let's say you're attending your first orchestral concert. I know, it's been years since that was true for you, but it still happens for others, so please play along. OK then, you take your seat in Symphony Hall (Springfield or Boston, doesn't matter) or inside the shed at Tanglewood, open your program, and see that a symphony will be on today's concert. You've heard of symphonies, of course. You can probably even sing the first eight notes of "Beet-ho-ven's Fifth! Beet-ho-ven's Fifth!" But you don't really know what a symphony is, or how it works. So, what exactly are you in for?
The most honest answer, of course, is "it could be almost anything," That answer goes not just for the symphony, but also for the concerto, a sonata or any other classical genre. Nonetheless, I think we can arrive at a pretty safe default description of what's coming up in today's symphony. You're likely to hear a work for a large orchestra, with strings, woodwinds, brass and percussion. There probably won't be a solo instrumentalist out front, the presence of which would have made the work not a symphony but a concerto. Probably no singers either, though there are notable and glorious exceptions.
The work will be of major length, from a half-hour to an hour or more of music. But it probably won't be continuous; more likely, it will be broken up into "movements," the classical music equivalent of of tracks on an album. I'll leave the highly contentious issue of whether you're permitted to applaud between movements for a later blog entry. For now, let's just say that the music will start and stop a few times, dividing the work into (usually) four discrete movements that may or may not have anything to do musically with each other, but which are meant to add up to a complete, integral artistic statement. Back in the day, these movements were often heard separately, even with other stuff in-between. In our supposedly more advanced Very Serious Concert Culture, we don't do that anymore, so get comfortable.
By and large, in most symphonies, each of the four movements will more-or-less play its customary role. Is that enough equivocation for you? That's classical music! Anyway, the first movement is likely to be the longest and most dramatic, usually in a medium-to-bright tempo (never mind those Italian tempo descriptions for now), and with lots of contrast, conflict, and mulling-over of musical ideas. The second movement will usually be the slowest and most songful, the third the shortest, fastest, and most dance-like. Not infrequently, it's the other way around, with the dance movement second and the song movement third. The finale (fourth movement) can fulfill a number of functions, ranging from rousing, applause-begetting wrap-up to apotheosis or even symphonic apocalypse, depending on how seriously the composer took himself.
This general model holds pretty well from the late 18th-century symphonies of Haydn and Mozart, to the mainstream symphonists of the early-to-mid twentieth century. Does it still hold? Not so much. While plenty of amazing music is still being written for orchestra, abstract (i.e., non-descriptive) multi-movement symphonic composition of the kind I just described has been on the wane for a while now. Few composers write pieces called "Symphony No. __" anymore, preferring colorful titles like "Asyla," "Aura" or "Harmonielehre." The concerto (i.e., piece for solo instrument and orchestra) is in somewhat better shape, mostly because there are still star soloists who want new works to show them off. But decades after the deaths of such stalwarts as Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Howard Hanson, William Schuman, et al., is anyone still writing good old-fashioned symphonies anymore?
We've got one such composer for you this week on WFCR. 71-year old Adolphus Hailstork studied from, among others, his fellow Rochester, NY native David Diamond, the composer of yesterday's "Great American Symphony" on WFCR, and like Diamond, attended the classes at Fontainebleau of the celebrated French pedagogue Nadia Boulanger. Hailstork went on to a distinguished academic career himself, currently serving as Professor of Music and Eminent Scholar at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. Hailstork came fairly late to symphonic composition, composing his first symphony for a summer festival in New Jersey in 1987. Like Sergei Prokofiev in his "Classical Symphony," Hailstork made his symphonic debut with a classically-proportioned symphony along the lines of Haydn, just 20 minutes long and for smallish orchestra. His two succeeding symphonies, however, are full in scoring and proportion, rich in melody, distinctive in rhythm, unflagging in interest and satisfying in totality. Together with the briefer first, they make Hailstork the most distinguished new symphonist "in the tradition" that I've heard in some time. They "obey" symphonic rules to the letter, but use them to make three compelling, original artistic statements. So maybe there's life in the old form yet! And for the next three afternoons starting on Tuesday, Walter Carroll will present Adolphus Hailstork's Three Symphonies on WFCR. Please tune in; I think you'll really enjoy what you hear.