In the long decade of 1839-1851 we meet symphonies of many names-—dramatic symphonies,,characteristic symphonies,program symphonies,poetic symphonies, oriental symphonies, symphony-cantatas, symphonic odes, concert dramas, hunting symphonies, historical symphonies, concert ballades, choral symphonies, and others, a fair number of which are hybrid types using choral forces to combine purely musical elements with subject matter that is extra-musical. I have chosen to call this type of symphony the dramatic symphony not simply because Berlioz gave that name to his Roméo et Juliette but because "dramatic symphony" suggests the active nature of the music—a style in which the ultimate goal is not determined solely by musical considerations but by those and by concurrent drama. . . .
September 15, 2012
The Dramatic Symphony: Issues and Explorations from Berlioz to Liszt
is a far-reaching study of examples and master composers of a conflicted but mighty medium. Laudon illuminates basic controversies at the beginning with a defining of terminology of dramatic compositions which includes a holistic circle model, including the categories of pure (absolute), programmatic (dramatic) and/or characteristic. The following chapter deals with beginning dramatic symphonies composed by Berlioz, Schubert, Reber, Kittel, Spohr, and Mendelssohn, in the season of 1839-40. This includes much fine analysis of the first dramatic symphony, Berlioz' Romeo et Juliette
, as well as a fine retracing and display of the history of music critical thought regarding the dramatic symphony. A set of three basic concepts seem to be agreed upon: First, the symphony should display "a grandeur and an elevation of thought" in its use of orchestral components and action. Second, the symphony should include both action and interaction rather than stasis, described as "a kind of musical epic," often accompanied by a written guide or printed program. Third, it should be unified, based upon what Wagner called the "pillars of the dramatic edifice."
Further detailed analysis of the 7th Symphony of Schubert (rediscovered at this time and presented by Mendelssohn), and the other previously listed composers of 1839-40 follow in the succeeding chapter, “Other Fruits of the Season.”
Further chapters trace the meteoric rise and development of the new expressive art form through other later works of Mendelssohn, Schumann, Douay, Berlioz, the French composer Felicien David, Franck, Scudo, Marx, and Wagner, and finally Lacombe, Weckerlin, Kastner, and Reyer. The final chapter, "Toward New Paths," closes in 1854, with the final paragraph summarizing the culmination of the effects of the dramatic symphony of symphonic poem on the evolution of the modern orchestra: "Thus, season by season, French musicians and some Germans... attempted to write symphonies united to drama, works they thought might rival Beethoven's mighty accomplishments. They composed and performed a variety of works that have been identified historically in this study as 'dramatic symphonies.' In the process they arrived at the 'modern orchestra.' Their efforts - heavily criticised by German scholars clinging to the traditional pure symphony - led eventually not so much to a new symphony as to a new style: the style of program music and symphonic poems that became accepted in the concerts of the period from 1850-1900 (p. 135)."
In addition to an extensive bibliography, The Dramatic Symphony contains some interesting material in appendices on musical parody in the public press, with several detailed engravings from the time, parodying performances of the dramatic symphony and other related elements. Appendix B, titled “Cruelty and Flight,” deals with the devastating effects of revolution on musicians and composers of the time. A number of black and white engravings are sprinkled throughout the book, adding intrigue and historical authenticity to the portrayal of this exciting era.
The Dramatic Symphony is Number 12 in the Franz Liszt Studies Series published by Pendragon, edited by Michael Saffle.
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