How to listen to a Symphony

It might be said that a symphony is a living, breathing thing, expansive in its composition, made up of many parts, multi-faceted, imbued with meaning and certainly not meant to be easily accessible upon first hearing. On the contrary, the richness and intricacies of a symphony can only truly be rewarded upon multiple hearings.

In this article, I’m going to try and offer some examples of a starting library of sorts for those who are looking to begin their journey of understanding around the magical world of symphonic output.

First of all, what is a symphony? Well, in the broadest terms, it’s a large-scale musical composition for orchestra, traditionally in 4 movements (although there are of course, exceptions to the rule.)

Some symphonies contain vocal parts (for example, Beethoven’s 9th) whilst some composers produced a staggering number (Haydn produced 104 of them.)

They can aurally reproduce on a grand scale everything from the multifaceted hopes, dreams and fears of nations through different epochs to private grief and tragedy.

For revolutionary fervour, check out Beethoven’s Eroica. For wistful homesickness, check out Dvorak’s 9th Symphony (From the New World.) If it’s triumph over adversity you’re looking for, Beethoven’s 5th is the flag bearer. If you want to hear the ultimate sound of defiance in the most difficult circumstances imaginable, then it has to be Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony (his 7th.) Here is essay on that particular work:-

Here are a selection of selected movements from different symphonies which represent a reasonable starting point from which to dip a metaphorical toe in the water: –

This is the slow movement from Haydn’s Surprise Symphony (his 94th, believe it or not!) The movement is built upon a very simple melody and sequence which is punctuated by “the surprise” itself – a sudden and loud orchestral crescendo, a cheeky device deployed by the composer to ensure that the audience had not fallen into a deep slumber!

Edward Elgar was one of the greatest orchestrators who ever lived – his ability to have arranged his complex scores and to give different sections of the orchestra a unique combination of sound and colour is rightly renowned. This is the slow movement from his 1st Symphony and is truly beautiful, delicate music with a yearning quality throughout. Elgar’s writing for the strings is lush and silk-like, whilst his utilisation of the woodwind instruments gives them a uniquely haunted, melancholy sound. The writing for the harp only adds to this celestial landscape.

The opening movement of Dvorak’s New World Symphony is tentative and cautious in the key of E minor. The composer poured his heart into this remarkable work – it tells the story of the warm (indeed rapturous) welcome he received in America which contrasted with the homesickness he felt for his native Bohemia.

Packed with folk tones, negro spirituals and native American musical influences, this symphony stands as a kind of aural record of the composer’s experiences and emotions during the years 1892-1895.

The composer at the time of writing stated: – “I am convinced that the future music of this country must be founded on what are called Negro melodies. These can be the foundation of a serious and original school of composition, to be developed in the United States. These beautiful and varied themes are the product of the soil. They are the folk songs of America and your composers must turn to them.“

The sprightly, energetic Presto is the 3rd movement from Beethoven’s 7th Symphony, one which  more than most others is renowned for its rhythmical creativity.

The accents and dynamics which Beethoven places throughout his scores are by no means accidental, and the best interpretations (such as this example) are those which pay close attention to them as they are the recordings which surely most closely resemble what he was trying to say.

Possibly the most famous opening notes of any symphony in the world, ever. Subtitled as the “Fate” symphony, this is Beethoven’s monumental 5th.

Written in the composer’s favourite key (C minor) the symphony charts that very human journey from utter despair to absolute triumph, the sheer will to win crushing everything in its path – and what a journey it is.

The opening movement of Mendelssohn’s sunny Italian symphony is next. Written during the composer’s tour of Europe between 1829 and 1831, the work vividly reflects the colour and atmosphere of Italy and incorporates various dances and processions which Mendelssohn witnessed during his highly enjoyable time in that country.

Shostakovich’s most popular symphony (his 5th) which was subtitled A Soviet Artist’s Practical and Creative Response to Just Criticism accurately portrays the intense pressure he was under, living in a totalitarian regime under constant fear of death.

Maintaining his own unique style of quirky dissonance and chromaticism, the composer nevertheless painstakingly tried to create a work which was accessible and comprehensible whilst having to walk the tightrope set in front of him by the Soviet authorities.

A oft-heard story revolves around the supposed meaning of the final triumphalist march which brings the symphony to a close – was tavarish Shostakovich dutifully glorifying his betters and the communist ideal or was he surreptitiously suggesting that the timpani signified the authorities “beating” the proletariats, forcing them to comply, obey and smile along. Maybe it was both.

Regardless of Shostakovich’s true intentions, this example (and all of the others) stand as testimony to the extraordinary power of the symphony – how it can influence our thinking, how it can reach out and speak to us beyond the grave, across the ages.

If you are new to classical music, symphonies are not necessarily the easiest starting point, but do persevere – the rewards are there and they are plentiful.