Monday, April 23, 2007

Profligate Symphonists

One trend among composers who fancy writing Symphonies is to follow the Beethoven model and write a small number of substantial pieces. Subscribing to this particular edition of the masterpiece ethic often comes at some personal cost: the completion of each Symphony is another hour gone from a nine-hour clock, ticking away towards some certain end. Mahler, apparently suffering from anxiety over the number nine, still managed to write 10 or 11 symphonies, while the delightful Belgian composer Boudiwijn Buckinx has demonstrated a complete (and, now that I think of it, rather Belgian) exemption from Germanic symphonic anxiety by composing Nine Unfinished Symphonies. (For some reason, composers who choose to stop at four numbered symphonies have a more relaxed psyche, pace Brahms, Ives, or Lou Harrison, happily naming his Fourth the "Last".)

But there are a handful of composers who have no anxiety running well past Nr. 9, and seem to be untroubled by the masterpiece ethic. Hadyn is usually assigned the number of 106 Symphonies, the Bohemian Pokorny wrote at least 140. Nikolai Myaskovsky wrote 27 Symphonies. Havergal Brian wrote 32. Henry Cowell finished 20. Alan Hovhaness left the planet with 67 numbered Symphonies, and although several of them were definitely assigned the Symphony label with some large measure of license, being closer to concerti or other forms, or composed for unorthodox ensembles, Hovhaness more than adequately leaped over the cursed limit of nine. Another American, Rowan Taylor (1916-2005), may be the all-time champion with 265 (of which I've heard not a note). But the current champion is probably the Finnish composer Leif Segerstam who, as of April 10th, 2007, has produced 180 Symphonies (alongside 30 string quartets, 11 violin concerti, and 8 cello concerti).

The closer I get to shuffling off our mortal coil, the fact that I haven't managed a single example of a symphony starts to irritate at bit. Will I be one of those who leave no Symphonies behind? Or one of those -- like Cesar Franck who do it once, do it well, and never do it again, or like Hans Rott or Anton Webern, who did it once, and never got a second chance? (Remember the line spoken by Voltaire after a visit to a certain house of ill-repute: "Once a philosopher, twice a pervert"?) Or might I have a late surge and start churning out Symphonies with the speed of the prolific and greatly bearded Finn? At the moment, no one is knocking at my door, fatefully or otherwise, asking me to write a Symphony, but it's fun to imagine what I'd do if given the chance... let's just say that it will involve large amounts of water and a small supply of fireworks.

1 comment:

Ben.H said...

Don't forget that Havergal Brian wrote 26 of his 32 symphonies after his 72nd birthday, so there's always hope for a late spurt of creativity.

Of course, Nam June Paik cleared the hurdle by publishing 10 symphonies all at once. Unfortunately, he forgot to write his 3rd Symphony, so he hired Ken Friedman to write it for him.