Monday, August 30, 2010

Swedish Sea Squalls: Atterberg's 3rd "West Coast Pictures"

No musical landscape artist worth his salt leaves the subject of the ocean unpainted for too long. The orchestra is typically the preferred pallete, and for a perhaps unsurprising share of composers, the symphony the ideal canvas. Most famous is Vaughan Williams' First, though Debussy's 3-movement La Mer may supersede this if we grant the three movement cyclic work the status of symphony-in-all-but-name (SIABN). Less known sea-symphonies by generally familiar composers include Rubenstein's Second, Hanson's Seventh, and Afvén's Fourth. Trailing in their wake is a flotilla of others of geometrically increasing obscurity, if certainly not (blog rallying cry!) quality. (Nystroem? Gilson? Flagello?!)

Kurt Atterberg's Third Symphony, "Västkustbilder" (West Coast Pictures), stands out among the esoterica as a particularly unrestrained portrait of maritime scenes, and the Rasilainen conducted CPO recording does it full justice. Atterberg is the latest of Sweden's ample share of late Romantics (a little less than a generation younger than predecessors Peterson-Berger, Aflvén, and Stenhammar), composing music of swelling grandiosity well into the 1950s. Atterberg wrote nine symphonies in all (and #9 is choral, naturally), uneven in seriousness but consistently pleasurable and well-wrought. From the rare person who's heard all nine, the Third is frequently ranked as his finest foray into the genre. Indeed, Atterberg's compositional predilections -- loose forms, shades of Swedish folk music, sweeping melodies, and eager tone-painting -- meet in happy confluence in this oceanic essay.

Likely inspired by the scenery of Stockevik, a tiny town on the west shore of the island Skaftolandet, the symphony was written over the course of three years and completed in 1916. Like some other famous symphonies whose outward projection of unity belies a more cobbled compositional process (cough Berlioz), Atterberg's Third emerged from what was conceived of as a group of standalone tone poems concerning impressions of the sea. A fleeting hint of cyclical recall of the first movement's opening in the subsequent two does manage to pay lip-service to overall cohesion, but the logic across (and within) movements is clearly pictorial and cumulative rather than strictly "symphonic." Critics seemed enthused regardless, a German reviewer praising "West Coast Pictures" as "perhaps the best that has been composed up until now apart from Richard Strauss's orchestral works."

From their sibilant titles, each of the three movements is meant to evoke a different nautical scene, "Sun Smoke," "Storm," and "Summer Night." The "Sun Smoke" portrait features the gentle undulations of a modal figure (the scantily recurring cyclic motif) that steers the orchestra through tranquil waters. I hear glimmers of Debussy, and pre-glimmers of Puccini's Il Tabarro in this opening.

"Sun Smoke" Opening

The requisite "Storm" that follows is surprisingly tuneful for an orchestral gale, a battery of sturm+drang topics stitched onto generally four-square melodies. Despite its pictorial aptness (there is no shortage of wave-crashes!), I find this storm the symphony's relative weak link -- Atterberg's melodic tendencies get slightly in the way here, depriving the movement of the potential ferocity that his orchestrational imagination might have been otherwise capable of. (You have to wait to his wonderfully strange Ninth to hear Atterberg really synthesize his tuneful and destructive sides -- for a rendering of Ragnarök, appropriately!).

"Storm" Theme

Atterberg's Third turns out to be one of those symphonies that saves its best for the end, and then heaps it on in generous proportions. The "Summer Night" is the work's end-weighted glory, a movement as long as the first two combined and containing the most compelling material. It blithely forgets the tensions of preceding tempest; Atterberg's description of the movement implies that for the rest of the symphony, we've sailed into untroubled seas, a vision of the "peculiar peace of the inner fjord, while the sea roars outside but its raging can hardly be heard."

The 18 minutes of "Summer Night" consist of a succession of episodes, alternatively placid and ecstatic, in a extremely loose rondo form. A few minutes in comes what I feel to be the symphony's most impressive section, a theme of an albatross-like wingspan. This type of long-breathed melody soaring above an active but contrapuntally simple accompaniment is, for those who like their classical music juicy and romantic, one of Atterberg's most attractive specialties.

Albatross Theme

More melodic episodes drift in and out. A brief scherzo is embedded within the center of the movement (a strategy employed in his Second Symphony as well), serving to introduce a turn motif that figures into the coda, as well as picking up the tempo for the more blustery restatement of the albatross theme (it's undoubtedly high-tide now!). Moving into "Summer Night's" final pages, Atterberg deems even the gracious albatross theme too dark, building up the pieces of a broad new subject that will dominate the score's elated coda.

"Summer's Night" Finale Build-Up (a tad of Howard Shore in there, anyone?):

The sounding of all bells, whistles, and fanfares at conclusion leaves a taste of almost Tchaikovskian triumphalism behind -- though by this point, you're either so swept up by Atterberg's swooning extroversion, or have long since stopped listening, to be bothered by such relinquishment of symphonic decorum.

-Frank Lehman

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Fun with Scales: Furtwängler's Second Symphony

It’s Wilhelm Furtwängler-bashing season on the Internet. Around a week ago, Alex Ross nominated a disc of the German musician’s piano quintet as one of the worst recordings in history. Ross called it “an immensely earnest mishmash of Brahms, Franck, Bruckner, and Reger, full of unmemorable ideas developed at unrelenting length.” Pitting Furtwängler’s composing life against what most people love Furtwängler for (his performing), Ross offered up a clip of Furtwängler leading the Berlin Philharmonic in the Coriolan Overture — “in the interest of equal time.”

Wouldn’t it have been fairer to choose a few minutes of one of Furtwängler’s own pieces to balance out the supposedly awful piano quintet? Or was Wilhelm just that uninteresting as a composer? I’ll admit that until this month, whenever I heard Furtwängler’s name, I thought not of composing but rather about two other things: conducting and Nazi Germany.1 Much has been written about the German musician’s complex relationship with the Third Reich and his position as the regime’s favored orchestral leader. Though the debate about his politics rages on, Furtwängler’s status as one of the 20th century’s greatest conductors is firm and secure. But the maestro’s own music doesn’t get much respect.

It tends to be easy to beat up on composers who are actually more famous for their performing. It’s as if you can only be really good at one of the two activities, and once you choose conducting, you might as well not bother writing your own stuff.2 And there may be a few other factors working against our estimation of Furtwängler as a composer. For a guy with a shady political past, perhaps it’s easier to like him for the way he reproduces others’ music than for how he creates his own. Listening to Furtwängler’s own music might bring us uncomfortably close to a possible Nazi sympathizer. On the other hand, when we hear him only as a conductor, we’re kept at a safe distance, since we’re really just listening to Beethoven, Brahms, or Bruckner.

And Furtwängler’s music may be useless for music historians who want to demonstrate “progress” in music in the 20th century. As far as I know, he didn’t experiment with atonality, serialism, or electronics. If something sounds like it could have been written in the 19th century, then that’s already a big strike against talking about it as part of the mid-20th. In other words, it has to do something new or it’s not worth taking seriously.

So I felt a little rebellious when I decided to make his Symphony No. 2 (1944-5) one of our first 20th-century Unsung Symphonies. It could be his best-known work. Indeed, it has a flashy 2002 recording with Daniel Barenboim and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and I was able to find a score in Harvard’s music library. Someone out there thinks Furtwängler's music is worth hearing.

My own investigation of this hour-and-a-half long, four-movement behemoth for large orchestra suggests that Furtwängler could compose. What held this piece together for me was one simple tension, but one that went a long way — a tension between ascending and descending scalar motion. By the fifth measure, Furtwängler effectively introduces this tension, which drives the entire work. He begins with a mysterious, disjointed bassoon figure (joined by clarinets) against which the violins introduce the scale as the main musical tissue:

For one play on that idea, in a transitional section a bit later, note how Furtwängler gradually tears apart a smooth, five-note stepwise ascent. It starts in the oboe, then becomes an arpeggio in the flutes, and, finally, a fragmented, plucked passage in the violin:

Furtwängler does the reverse in the third movement, where a forceful drop in thirds in the strings is tightened into a stepwise descent in the clarinet, and then turns into a similar reach for the heavens in the violin. The horns and flutes also join in the fun. And because Furtwängler has conditioned us so well to listen for scales, the upward leap at the end of the ascending figure comes as a nice surprise:

As the fourth movement begins, bassoons firmly announce our central descent/ascent tension over a pedal in the double bass and cello, as if to say, in a primal way, that despite the jagged melody they played at the beginning the first movement, these instruments have finally come into line. When the trumpet completes its ascending line, the sonority it lands on is downright scary:

For my final example of Furtwängler’s play on the basic descending scale, I’d like to offer up some evidence that Furtwängler was more of a Mahlerian than he is sometimes given credit for. First, Furtwängler, midway through the fourth movement:

Compare to Mahler's Second Symphony, First Movement (Ricardo Chailly, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra):

Furtwängler's Second Symphony is chock full of this kind of manipulation of basic scalar motion. It’s certainly not the only thing going on here, but Furtwängler seems to have found a key to keeping listeners’ attention: hammer home something very simple, like an ascending or descending set of notes, and manipulate it in different ways. So next time you want to relax and listen to Bruckner's Seventh, check this one out instead.
— Matthew Mugmon

1. OK, sometimes I also think of the Lawn Wranglers.
2. See this Norman Lebrecht article, where Gustav Mahler, Pierre Boulez, and Leonard Bernstein are seen as the only famous conductors who could also compose. Even if that's true, I don't know that composing and conducting need to be pitted against each other like that. They seem like two tough activities that require a lot of expertise. It's also surprising when a great composer also turns out to be a superstar insurance agent or something.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Hey, Copernicus!: Górecki's Symphony No. 2

To most classical listeners, Polish composer Henryk Górecki (pronounced Gore-ett-ski) is known only as a symphonist. The phenomenal success (at least as far as classical records go) of his Third Symphony "Sorrowful Songs" in the early nineties probably disqualifies that from treatment here at Unsung Symphonies.1 However, the huge exposure of the Third seems to have out-shined his first two symphonic efforts right out of visibility. This is a shame, because a fuller appreciation of Górecki's skills as a composer is only possible once we yank our ears away from the passionate monotony of the well-known Third and concentrate on the less trendy stuff.

Perhaps in the future we'll look at the jagged essay in atonal effects that is the Symphony No. 1, but today I'm concentrating on his next foray, the Symphony No. 2 Kopernikowska ("Copernican"). The symphony was a commission by the Polish-American Kościuszko Foundation as a commemoration of the 500th birth-iversary of Poland's greatest astronomer, Nicolas Copernicus, dismantler of the centuries old geocentric model of the cosmos. Copernicus' heliocentric theory, of course, wasn't exactly warmly received by the Catholic Church, challenging as it did centuries-held dogma.

Now, you may have heard Górecki lumped in the category of "Holy/Spiritual/Sacred Minimalists," a vague descriptor he shares with Pärt and Tavener. We don't need to fuss about the accuracy of this category; suffice it to say Górecki's music tends to be extremely gradual, and extremely Christianity-oriented. And for the composer, Copernicus represents a problem. Relinquishing a geocentric view of the universe knocked humanity down a couple existential pegs. How then, would this extraordinarily devout composer approach the task of commemorating what Górecki described as, in some ways, "not an optimistic discovery"?

In this Second Symphony, Górecki cobbled together bits of several written passages, including two psalms and a line from Copernicus' own writings to serve as a choral text. In typical Górecki style, these words are drawn out over immense (galactic?!) spans of musical time. Here is the Latin and a translation.2

Deus, qui fecit caelum et terram. Qui fecit luminaria magna... Solem in potestatem diei. Lunam et stellas in potestatem noctis. Quid autem caelo pulcrius, nempe quod continet pulcra omnia?

(God, who created the heaven and the earth, who made the great lights, the sun for the power of day, the moon and stars for the power of night. What, indeed, is more beautiful than heaven, which truly contains all beautiful things?)

These words are set within two movements, the first screamingly dissonant, the second calm and reflective. The majority of the first movement's 17 minutes is actually purely orchestral. The opening doesn't suggest it will be a pretty affair:

Symphony No. 2 Mvt I. Beginning 

Gargantuan slabs of whole-tone dissonance grind up against each other, these chords set in an elliptical orbit around the melodic note E. Against this elemental harshness, a passage of relative calm (if not consonance) is introduced. Tell me this doesn't sound like another, equally cosmic sound-effect:

Symphony No. 2 Mvt I. Middle

Compare with Beam me Up! (both, as it turns out, rely on high, tightly packed clusters of whole-tone related pitches)

Returning from that final frontier, Górecki intensifies the orchestral stridency, recalling the dissonant sound slabs as well as swarms of chattering brass that wouldn't sound out of place accompanying the sentinels in The Matrix. At the end of the movement, the chorus enters the fray, chanting "Deus, qui fecit caelum et terram" to the tune banshee-wail from the beginning. If this is a vision of the cosmos, it is a downright cataclysmic one.

Thank heavens for the second movement. The hellish tone is immediately reversed, with luminous pentatonic (and increasingly diatonic, downright friendly) chords providing the ground over which a solo baritone steadily reaches higher in his range. He is joined by a female soprano (now it's beginning to sound like his Third Symphony a lot), and together they continue their ascent across several haunting mini-climaxes.

The most remarkable moment comes when when the full chorus enters for the last time (come to think of it, they only sang together for about a minute before this, talk about a boring job!). In radiant 4-part modal harmony, they sing the tune to a 13th century Polish antiphon "Laude digne prole," to set the words of Copernicus "What, indeed, is more beautiful than heaven...?" The idiom is new to the piece, unashamed in its archaism.

(I feel like it's a spoiler to post a clip of the final legs of the symphony, since so much of its effect owes to a long investment of time with the rest of the work. But hey, this is the internet, and we ain't got all day.)

Symphony No. 2 Mvt II. Choral Exit 

The symphony winds down with a very long (5 minute!) coda. You can hear the whole conclusion on youtube here. Essentially only two things happen. First, orchestral layers, and correspondingly volume, are continually added to a consonant cluster chord, swelling in luminosity like an indistinct nebula coalescing into a gleaming star. Then, that beacon collapses into a first inversion Ab-chord and slowly fades back into nothingness. 

1Unsung in the figurative sense of course. Górecki's Third is one long, unadorned song on Polish texts of mourning after another.

2 Thanks to Kassandra Conley for the translation.

3 No, but really, this kind of selective excerpting totally violates the spirit of a slow-burn piece like this, and I urge you to listen to the whole thing!

-Frank Lehman

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Master of the Infinite Series - Nørgård’s Second Symphony

Per Nørgård (1932-) has been Denmark’s leading modernist composer since the 1960s. His fertile musical imagination has led to the creation of seven symphonies over the course of fifty years, the most recent premiering as recently as 2006. Nørgård's music is rigorously constructed but surprisingly approachable, in some cases even ecstatically enjoyable. 

Among the deeds Nørgård (pronounced "Ner-gore") is known for is the planning of large scale compositions around the same principles that would eventually be formalized in the idea of the “fractal” was even coined. The key to his prescient anticipation of fractals is his use of a specific music-composition device that he (and he alone) invented. Since 1959, a great deal of Nørgård's music has been based on what he called the “infinite series.” (alternatively "infinity series"). His Second Symphony, a one movement work lasting about one half hour, is among his first and most rigorous applications of this tool. Here’s how it works:

Nørgård’s infinite series is actually an integer sequence produced by a relatively simple algorithm that “unpacks” a single musical interval. A single interval is all you need to generate an unstoppable Nørgård sequence. Say you want to begin a piece with the melody G - A. Let’s assume just white notes (diatonic) are in use. From this melody, Nørgård would extract an essential piece of info, the ascending +1 “go up by one” interval between G and A. Then, he composes out that interval, using its inverted form as instructions on what the next pitch shall be: go -1 away from G. Thus, the 3rd note in the sequence is 1 below G, or F. He does the same for A, only with the original interval, so that the 4th note in the series is +1 from A, or B. We’ve got a nice little tune, already fanning away from G! The instructions we’re following are essentially: take each new interval that appears in the sequence starting at the front, and go that far (in inversion) from the second to last note in sequence, and then go that far (uninverted) from the last note in the sequence.
Infinity Series Algorithm for Initial Interval +1 (white-note) step. Click to expand.
This diagram shows the process for two iterations, the first (+1 interval) and the second (+2), producing six notes from the original two. As you get further into the sequence, the new intervals get increasingly far away from the pitches they are “producing” at the other end. This is not a barrier to understanding, however; no one expects you to hear how specific notes are being chosen, because the effect is one of carefully tuned chaos – totally dependent on the initial condition (the +1 interval), seemingly random but thoroughly determined.1

Continue generating the melody,2 and you’ll begin seeing notes slightly further away from the starting point. But not by much – a fairly (statistically) tight grip around the starting range is always retained, and big leaps tend to be followed by leaps in the opposite direction. The resulting succession of pitches is what mathematicians call non-monotonic. No, they’re not referring to its lack of a clearly defined central pitch! Rather, it’s the tendency to avoid continuous motion in the same direction; the iterative process Nørgård uses produces unstable melodies, constantly flopping up and down, locally unpredictable but globally secure.

Pick any sample slice of this pitch sequence and it’ll likely look pretty similar to any other given slice. But in order to take advantage of the more rarefied property of self-similarity, these resemblances must show up on multiple levels. Cue Nørgård’s truly recursive compositional process in the Second Symphony.

The clearest fractal property at work in this piece is the use of a single G-to-A-flat based infinite series at several time-scales. The strict sequential orderings of pitches can be difficult to discern aurally, but you can easily tell that there are multiple orchestral strata doing different but related things. At measure 60, the orchestra splits into three streams. Woodwinds trade sprightly runs in constant eighth notes, buzzing in the vicinity of G. Brass operate at a more leisurely pace, generally 4x slower (half-notes), while the entire string section explores pyramidal figures at a *much* slower rate – roughly one change every 30 measures, or 1/120th the speed of the metronomic winds. Around halfway through the piece, these three main temporal roles suddenly begin alternating, shifting between players.

Sounds good in theory, but how does it all come out sounding? At times, Nørgård’s procedures produce truly dazzling passages. Here’s a clip (and, for the curious/masochistic, a score excerpt) of the initiation of the woodwind stream. The recording is from Segerstam's glittering performance with the Danish National Symphony orchestra.

Woodwind Stream:
[Score Example: Measure 60]

A great deal of the symphony sounds like this, with some stratum chugging away at their 8th-note pitch sequence while the rest of the orchestra slowly shifts in hue. Because pitch, as determined by the sequence, is usually so tightly wound around a certain range, our attention drifts to other matters, especially tone color, and Nørgård’s imagination for orchestral combinations is impressive. There are no catchy themes, but little shards of melodies do phase in and out of focus, and various ideas do come back. One is the throbbing unison pulses from brass at several form defining moments, celebrating the arrival at an important member of the infinite series with bizarre fanfare.

Brass Fanfare:

This is the kind of piece you can only write once, and Nørgård’s subsequent output, while equally ingenuous, tends to treat his infinite series less as the structuring principle as here, and more as a jumping off point. Which is not to say his Second Symphony isn’t successful. There is a hypnotic quality to this music quite unlike anything from the minimalists. And a sense of yawning expanse that pushes beyond much of the “sonorist” work from the 60s. Whether he beat chaos-theorists to the punch with his unpredictable, recursive music or not, Per Nørgård certainly created the bar and then raised it ridiculously high for anyone wishing to write a “fractal symphony.”
— Frank Lehman

1. This pretty extraordinary website has tons info on (and can play back!) any integer sequence you can dream up, including several from and inspired by Nørgård. For example the following functions specify the "infinite series" sequence beginning with 0-1: [pitch(starting place) = 0 ; pitch (2n places) = - pitch(n places ; pitch (2n + 1 places) = pitch(n places) + 1]

2. A “fun” exercise, if you’d like to try yourself. Check with the website above to see if you’re right, or consult Kullberg, “Beyond Infinity” in The Music of Per Nørgård in Fourteen Interpretive Essays.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Mark it 3, Walter: Piston's First Pulitzer Winner

Why not start this New England-based blog off with a local hero? A hero, at least, according to the Pulitzer Prize Board. In 1948, Maine-born Harvard professor Walter Piston (1894-1976) joined a small and distinguished group of composers — including Aaron Copland and Charles Ives — when he took home the Pulitzer for his Symphony No. 3, the subject of today's post. (Piston won again for his 7th, in 1961.) This Koussevitzky Music Foundation commission had its premiere on January 9, 1948, with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Seems like a good start, right?

Despite its auspicious first year, this piece doesn't seem to have held audiences over the last 60 years the same way as, say, Copland's Appalachian Spring, which nabbed the Pulitzer just three years earlier, in 1945. And given Piston's career at Harvard, maybe it's fitting that the only CD recording I could find of this work was by James Yannatos and the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra, made in 1999. (We also have a 1954 recording on vinyl by Howard Hanson and the Eastman-Rochester Symphony Orchestra.)

For now, let's skip straight to the feverish second movement, where Piston loves to pass jumpy, brief melodic and rhythmic figures from instrument to instrument. Detached articulation and frequent, unpredictable rests give much of this movement a prickly, spiky feel — but this all slows, and fades, to a middle section that is almost shockingly warm and welcoming, given what's come before. In fact, it's so nice, with its harp and bass clarinet accompaniments, that it almost doesn't fit. (The first and third movements also have some of these lyrical moments, but nothing quite stops the show like this.) The flute fires off the tune-bomb we've all been waiting at least 10 minutes for, and then some other instruments get a chance to play around with it before the flute returns. Have a listen:

2nd movement, leading into the lyrical episode:

The prickliness, though, takes over again. In the rousing fourth movement, the spiky staccatos from the second movement return, and overall, it's a bit more stately and, on the surface, resolute (and certainly more tonally grounded) than that other fast movement. But there's something missing. In his recent book The Great American Symphony, Nicholas Tawa calls this movement "carefree and frolicsome." I didn't find it to be that, exactly. I actually found it to be pretty unsettling. Piston really hits you over the head with the last chord. It's a bit too obvious and forced for me think of this movement as "carefree," and that may be the point. The relentless ending (with its abrupt final sonority, complete with clipped cymbal crash) might be meant to contrast with the much nobler close of the symphony's first movement. That movement's climax actually felt, to me, like the end of a complete journey, finishing as it does with a thrilling build in texture, an almost sudden purge of chromaticism to land on a solid C-major, and a nice final swell. The closure there seems a bit more earned. Compare the movement conclusions and tell me what you think satisfies you more as an ending:

End of 4th movement:

End of 1st movement:

Piston's Third was my real first foray into this composer's music, but I preferred those moments when he allowed a solo instrument to sing for more than a few seconds before letting it get washed away in a sea of competing sounds. It seems, though, that I could be falling into an old trap of Piston criticism. Some think that the price Piston paid for his highly skilled and learned compositional approach is that his music lacks good old-fashioned soul — he was a "craftsman" but, perhaps, not a true artist. A 1958 review of the Hanson recording of this symphony, published in Gramophone, sums up that view: "There is something altogether too rational about Piston's music, and, in the last resort, too little inspired." I don't agree with the dichotomy there — I think logical music can be profoundly moving — but as I explore more Piston, I wonder if my desire for more time with really catchy tunes means I'm just not Piston's target audience. Or maybe I'm listening to the wrong symphony. What do Pistonites out there think about Walter and this highly decorated work?
— Matthew Mugmon

Monday, August 9, 2010

The Symphony Abides

There are a lot of symphonies out there. And the big guys — Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Dvorak, Brahms, Mahler, Sibelius, and Shostakovich — weren’t the only ones cranking them out. Yet our experiences of the symphony in the concert hall and on recordings tend to arrive courtesy of the names above, with a dutiful smattering of a few others for variety now and then. As it turns out, there are many, many more. In our blog, Unsung Symphonies, we look at some of the most fascinating, challenging, and (let's be upfront about this) just plain weird music to come from 20th-century symphonists with decidedly non-household names (at least, as symphonists).

There is no single story to tell about the development of the symphony after 1900. In the 20th century, as the looming shadow of a certain composer of THE NINE began to retreat, we lost something of the clear thread that wound through our understanding of the 19th century’s treatment of the genre. (Say what you will about Beethovenian anxiety of influence — at least it was an ethos).

Instead, we found a huge explosion of new ideas and issues for composers to grapple with — atonality, electronics, non-Western musics, to name just a few. For some, the 20th century mandated symphonies be written as white hot responses to turbulent times. Others rejected this fire, preferring theirs to be cold glasses of water. Some overthrew the prescriptions handed down by generations before, compressing, expanding, rotating, twisting the very stuff of symphonic tissue into exciting, unfamiliar shapes and sounds. A few avoided the term “symphony” all together, but they don’t fool us!

The idea behind Unsung Symphonies is to highlight some symphonies that we don't know that well, or at all — and that we hope are new to you, too — in an effort to develop new narratives and make sense of the symphonic deluge of the last hundred or so years. Every week, we'll take on one symphony. As this blog develops, we may include timely themes, paired works, spotlights on national traditions, and interactive features. Who knows — maybe we'll even write a symphony.

At this early stage, for something to qualify as a “symphony,” it really only needs to have “symphony” (or its non-English equivalent) in the title (except when it doesn’t). We’re generally focusing on symphonies that were composed in the 20th century, but that won't prevent us from jumping back to Georges Onslow1 every once in a while. And by "unsung," we mean those that don't seem to sit atop the orchestral canon. We will try hard to avoid the tendency to describe things new to our ears entirely in terms of similarities to, or influence by, better known works or composers. And if you've heard of one symphony or know it well, that doesn't make it "unsung" — it just means you’d better help educate everyone in the comments. As we like to say, one listener’s Beethoven is another’s Rodion Konstantinovich Shchedrin. Conversely, if you don’t find your favorite obscurantist symphoniker featured in a post, fret not — we are open to suggestions and would be thrilled to discover new works from you, our reader (we’re looking at you, Axel Ejnar Hakon Børresen Society.)

Your symphonic reality tour guides are Matthew Mugmon and Frank Lehman.2 Both are Ph.D. students at Harvard working on their dissertations. Matt’s a Mahler guy, and his thesis looks at the transmission of ideas about Mahler’s music in France and the United States. Frank gives film music some much deserved theoretical attention in his thesis about tonality and transformation in Hollywood scores. Both are big into Seinfeld and The Big Lebowski, and they reserve the right to pepper their posts with references.

— Matt and Frank

1. "The French Beethoven."
2. Disclaimer: The last thing these guys are qualified to give a tour of is reality.