TV | ‘Symphony’: Music Appreciation for Middle England

Exploring the BBC 4 series in a critical light, Steph Power reviews the 4-part production Symphony.

BBC4, June 27 – July 18

BBC Television in collaboration with the Open University Music Department

The culture wonks at BBC television are so pleased with its award-winning 4-part series Symphony that they have repeated it twice now since its first airing in 2011, most recently on BBC4 at weekly intervals between June 27 and July 18 this year, timed to conclude with the start of the 2014 BBC Proms. No doubt the series will appear on DVD at some point. The broadcaster’s press blurb tells us that ‘Simon Russell Beale presents a radical reappraisal of the place of the symphony in the modern world and explores the surprising way in which it has shaped our history and identity.’ Alas, would that the first assertion were true and the second explored in greater depth, with less reliance on music-historical cliché.

Simon Russell Beale. Photo: BBC

At the close of the series’ final instalment, the focus is on Shostakovich’s 9th. Written in 1945, the work incensed the Soviet authorities with its sardonic, un-triumphalist character contrary to the great outpouring they are said to have expected at the end of World War II as a riposte to Beethoven’s monumental 9th Choral Symphony. There is ongoing speculation about Shostakovich’s two-fingered gesture and at whom it may have been aimed (if it was such a gesture, consciously aimed or otherwise). But it is hardly likely that, as suggested here, he intended the 9th to be a ‘goodbye’ to the ‘great symphonic tradition in Germany’ which had ‘come to an end’. There are many cultural assumptions embedded in this statement, which interprets music history along very particular lines.

Even so, German composers did continue to write symphonies after the war (Hans Werner Henze alone produced ten between 1947 and 2000). Moreover, Shostakovich himself wrote a further six symphonies, completing his 15th in 1971 and thereby refuting any supposed death of the symphony despite the series’ abrupt halt at 1945 with murky hints of ‘new forms’. So why might Symphony choose to ignore post-war and contemporary composers, despite the genre’s continuing importance today (Arvo Pärt, Philip Glass and Peter Maxwell Davies being just three, high-profile contemporary symphonic composers)? We might answer this by exploring some ways in which the series is a product of those very cultural assumptions contained within that statement about Shostakovich and the German symphonic tradition.


An initial perusal of Symphony reveals little investigation in any generic or formal sense; rather, we are taken on a journey through the symphonic canon of works from an imagined start to finish through biographical and historical surveys of the ‘great composers’ and some of the better-known ‘great masterpieces’ they composed. As cultural sightseers, we visit places of interest including museums preserving a totemised bric-a-brac of daily life alongside venerated autograph scores. We see many gravestones and hear many eulogies: conductors, musicologists, curators and living composers (although whether themselves symphonists we are never told), offer glowing descriptions of these past iconic figures and their music. We hear numerous symphonic extracts, performed as tantalising sound-bites in a dramatic, grand narrative charting the apparent progress of the symphony through the ages. Glimpses are shown of the workings of the orchestra. Yet more emphasis is placed on the role of the conductor as interpreter supreme. This is high gloss, ‘high culture’, stripped of nuance and meaningful critique; beautifully presented, but hollowed out for a passive, unquestioning audience.

This might seem harshly dismissive of what is, on one level, a fun and informative entertainment programme about an aspect of culture that many people unnecessarily find daunting. But the very blandness of Symphony arises from its particular ideology; a smoothly unchallenging approach to received music history, which in itself raises concerns about the place of classical music in wider contemporary culture. For, outside of this series, there is ongoing questioning as to why classical music has become a museum culture largely comprising ritualistic performances of familiar works from the past to ever-shrinking niche audiences of ever-increasing average age.* The series not only fails to address any of these issues, but is itself a product of the museum culture, pandering to an archetypically genteel classical music audience, and simply inviting others to join it through a kind of highbrow marketing. By constructing a narrative within the blinkered confines of post-imperial Home Counties values, Symphony merely succeeds in reinforcing cultural myths about symphonic music. Alas, in so doing, it confirms the reality that classical music today is simply – beyond a tiny minority interest and bar the occasional, fleeting exception (the annual BBC Proms being probably the most high-profile UK event) – no longer a part of serious cultural discourse or debate.

Myths of Genius and Transcendence

The cultural myth most central to the series and, indeed, to most thinking about classical music, is a continued acceptance of Romantic assumptions about ‘genius’ and the transcendence of art as expressed through the ‘work’. According to this view, the work itself becomes a cultural icon; it is lifted through the ‘vision’ of its creator from its localised, historical context to attain independent universality and timelessness. The composer himself becomes a god-like figure (this is a masculine ideal, which may help to explain why so few women have written, or been given the opportunity to write, symphonies), imbued with super-human intellect and artistic sensitivity; often a brooding, difficult personality at odds with society and certainly ahead of his time. It is the job of the listener to seek to understand the vision of the composer; not necessarily through the acquisition of technical, formalist knowledge (although this helps), but ultimately through a combination of emotional sympathy and spiritual aspiration.

These notions are inherited from a combination of post-Enlightenment thinking about the importance of creative freedom and emotional self-expression, with what amounts to a cult-like worship of Beethoven. Whilst they may be pertinent to many 19th century European composers therefore, they are anachronistic when applied to music written before (certainly mid) Beethoven and questionable as a contemporary cultural ideal. In the 19th century, such thinking was applied to the music of the time or very recent past, whereas today it exists largely as a form of rose-tinted nostalgia for ‘great composers’ and works from more distant eras. So it is not surprising that Symphony should avoid contemporary music; descriptions of ‘genius’ and ‘transcendence’ applied to living composers in quite this way – whilst tempting to use in the face of excellence – can begin to feel socially inappropriate when seen in a wider cultural context. In turn, such discomfort might risk the museum culture itself by throwing a more critical light on those very notions of genius, revealing them to be a particular ideology; a distinct set of values regarding not just ideas about ‘greatness’ – which, strangely, never quite gets defined – but relying on particular assumptions about the very nature of music and creativity.

Nonetheless, Symphony adopts Romantic values wholesale, even applying them to Mozart and Haydn to whom such concepts would have been entirely alien. Mozart, we are told in the first programme (tellingly named Genesis and Genius), was so in thrall to a symphonic ideal that he felt ‘inspired’ to ‘give something to the form’ through his last three symphonies. What he might have given beyond his ‘palate of emotional intensity’ is not, alas, made clear. Likewise, Haydn, whose life and music are described in terms of ‘epic journeys’, is said to have ‘taken the idea of what the symphony could be further and further down the path’. This assertion is based on his deepening self-expression, as symphonic music increasingly appealed to individual as well as to collective reception. Might such ‘expressiveness’ be what is meant by the ‘idea’ of the symphony? We are left with no way of knowing, let alone what it might mean to take the symphony down some path. It would have been intriguing to explore this in light of a later point, that Wagner was an essentially symphonic ‘composer of ideas’ (albeit almost exclusively composing opera or Gesmantkunstwerk). But this latter point is merely given as information, leaving us really none the wiser.

Indeed, little of substance is said about symphonic composing. We are told that the symphony is generally a work with four (or so) movements of contrasting character, and an allusion is made to the use of sonata form in opening movements as taking a motif on a ‘journey’. There are points made regarding orchestration, and some time is spent distinguishing absolute from programmatic music in the form of the symphonic poem. But throughout, the commentary is shallow and ultimately reliant on the audience having a fair degree of pre-knowledge; a newcomer to classical music would surely be lost among the superlatives. For all the featured composers are lavished with quasi-romantic phrases which, as well as being value-laden, actually tell us nothing about the composers’ work beyond its being in some way ‘great’. Music may be notoriously difficult to describe in words but this does not deter the Symphony team, who litter the commentary with effusive descriptions like so much verbal confetti. By the time we get to the ‘incredible visionary’ Charles Ives, the devotional tone is so pervasive that his being said to be ‘so ahead of his time, his music still isn’t known today’, amounts to more of the same dreary adulation.

The Myth of History as Progress

In the series’ march forward through the ages, we see another cultural myth central to Symphony’s narrative; that is the presentation of music history as progress. The history of the symphony is described as the relentless advance of Enlightenment ideals through Europe and beyond in a gathering crescendo of modernity from Haydn’s post-French Revolution London Symphonies to Shostakovich’s 9th at the end of World War II. As already noted, this amounts to the authoritative view of Western music history familiar to ‘educated’ listeners. However, not only does this narrative constitute a particular interpretation of history rather than being fact as presented here, but it also presupposes some deep contradictions; not least, in relation to the music itself. Every composer discussed is said to have been pushing the symphony ‘forward’, ‘turning the page of symphonic history’, and ‘breaking rules’ (although these ‘rules’ are never explained, let alone how they are broken). Certainly, each of the featured composers developed their own, profoundly individual voice and, of course, approaches to and methods of symphonic writing change over time according to myriad social and cultural factors. But the implication that history is therefore in some way causal or goal-directed entails huge ideological leaps.

In any case, there lies a problem in the towering figure of Beethoven, around whom both the series and received music history pivots (the second episode is the only one of the four to bear a single composer’s name, Beethoven and Beyond). If Beethoven is the ‘indisputable hero’ against whom all other composers are measured, what does it mean for later composers to be nonetheless ‘developing’ the symphony, ‘taking it forward’ ‘beyond’ Beethoven and becoming ‘great’ in their own right? Progress, it seems, is something to be strived for but which is, ultimately, unattainable. With this paradox, we arrive firmly at post-Enlightenment, Romantic ideals, but with the disturbing addendum that no composer has managed – or, by implication, ever will manage – to surpass Beethoven’s nine symphonies, as these continue to be held as the utopian pinnacle of Western symphonic achievement. It turns out that a strong belief underlying current mainstream music-history is actually a contradiction; for, on the one hand, Romantic ideals are still held to be supreme but, on the other, they have failed and, moreover, must fail. Musical ‘progress’ has not been, and cannot be, made, and the age of the ‘great’ composer is, therefore, dead. In light of this conundrum, it is perhaps not so surprising that a museum culture obsessed with the past should have taken hold regarding classical music.

More problematic is a question regarding Romantic ideas of the transcendent work: for how can a symphony be at once a timeless masterpiece and yet continually surpassed in greatness by later works by the same composer (a point made most vociferously in the series about the symphonies of Sibelius)?  Unless that is, some masterpieces are more masterful than others. These contradictions are, clearly, difficult to reconcile, but Symphony merely presents us with swathes of interpretation on the familiar yet ludicrous sliding-scale of genius; a system of indefinable value judgements based on arcane and culturally out-moded criteria. That late-Romantic composers such as Brahms were intimidated by Beethoven coming from behind with the ‘tramp of a giant’ is no reason for us today to continue to view music history, or to judge musical ‘greatness’, through that particular lens. Similarly, the fact that many composers after Beethoven (like Berlioz) idolised him, is no reason for contemporary discourse about classical music still to be dominated by the cult of personality as demonstrated, alas, by this very series.

The Twentieth Century Neglected

Nevertheless, it is instructive to note some personalities absent from the series’ narrative as this throws further light on Symphony’s cultural bias and returns us to its lack of exploration of recent and contemporary music. For, as well as ignoring post-war music entirely, the series avoids any mention of key modernists from the first half of the 20th century beyond a curt dismissal of the avant-garde. The contention in programme four, Revolution and Rebirth, is that composers writing in late-Romantic idioms such as Elgar and Vaughan Williams were ‘actually more important than the avant-garde because they were saying very important things about modernity to a large audience’. This opens an intriguing and potentially rich line of enquiry which, however, remains unexplored – as are the implied assumptions about value and modernity. Elgar and Vaughan Williams undoubtedly were – and remain – important, but not all modernists rejected the symphony by any means. Schoenberg and Webern, for instance, wrote chamber symphonies and a symphony respectively that were very much taken to be saying something important about modernity, which continues to reverberate today. But if audience size is the real arbiter of importance, it seems downright odd also to ignore Stravinsky, whose several symphonies placed issues of modernity (as well as specific aspects of modernism) before very large audiences, including via the gramophone, which technological advance the programme rightly deems important.

What cultural value-system might be lurking here to explain the total absence of these and other major 20th century composers (like Nielsen and Prokofiev) from Symphony? A look at the preceding, third episode, New Nations and New Worlds, might offer a clue. For here we discover that it is nationalism that supposedly propelled the symphony from Austria and Germany across late-Romantic Europe, forward into the 20th century and across the Atlantic to the USA. Before we examine this particular narrative more closely, it is worth noting that, whatever aims the many, contrasting avant-garde composers may have had, they were rarely nationalist in any Romantic sense. So it is, perhaps, unsurprising that they should be excluded from this series’ particular version of history regardless of their actual contribution as symphonic composers.

European Nationalism and German Decline

Looking more closely at the third episode and issues of nationalism, it is true that many Romantic composers sought to establish an individual style that also reflected the music of their birth country. Dvořák was one such, but it is questionable how far Sibelius continued to be nationalist beyond his youth as distinct from getting stuck with the label; indeed, in terms of his overall career, Sibelius might more accurately be described as a modernist, albeit not in any Central European sense. What is clear, however, is that ‘nationalist’ has long been a catch-all term to describe music (symphonic or otherwise) which incorporates features of indigenous folk or popular music. Music, that is, of any nation besides Austria or Germany. Because, in keeping with music-historical orthodoxy, the central pillar of the musical establishment as described in Symphony is assumed to be Austro-German (and, incidentally, ‘serious’ as distinct from ‘popular’). Indeed we are told with astonishing assurance that ‘German music was international’. What might this actually mean?

Similar to the phenomenon of individual composers being subject to comparison with Beethoven, in today’s symphonic cultural museum, past Austro-German ‘tradition’ is still taken to be the cultural norm against which other nations are viewed. The resulting double-standards are breath-taking. When Schubert or Brahms, say, are shown to utilise indigenous folk or popular music, their motivation is rarely described in terms of nationalist sentiment. But when Dvořák, Vaughan Williams, or even Copland in the USA do the same, the talk instantly focuses on ‘national identity’, representations of ‘native soil’ and ‘popularisation’. That such blatantly unbalanced cultural analysis should still be a feature of Western classical music thinking – post-modernism notwithstanding – is an irony that would surely not be lost on those avowed symphonic nationalists who attempted to establish their music in its own right, and to challenge the constant comparisons to hegemonic Austro-German ideals that they themselves suffered.

Let us return, then, in the light of these uncomfortable issues around nationalism, to the notion of symphonic decline from the fourth episode with which we began this survey of Symphony. If the ‘great symphonic tradition in Germany’ is held to have ‘come to an end’ around 1945, it appears we should take this to indicate the loss of some supposedly international cultural custodian. An awful lot of ‘keening’ is described in this final episode, from Shostakovich bassoons to Vaughan Williams bugles and Elgar oboes. The implication beyond the actual horrors of war is clear (as if this were not enough) in a larger sense of cultural decline absolutely at odds with the ‘rebirth’ of the title which, in any case, is never shown actually to materialise. Might this loss of German tradition and ensuing cultural downward slide reveal another underlying reason to end the series at 1945 as if the symphony itself stops there? One would hope not, as the implied reliance on Germanic culture to lead the way would be distasteful to say the least. Even within the series’ own dubious terms, further mileage could have been made of the Revolution and Rebirth title with a post-war shift of focus to the Soviet Bloc and refugees from there, if only to bring the narrative closer to the present day. For a clear and continued commitment to the symphony as a genre was palpable post-war in Communist countries such as Poland, to name just one example; there, following on from Karol Szymanowski, with Witold Lutosławski, Krzysztof Penderecki and Andrzej Panufnik.

A great deal more could – and probably should – be said about Symphony as the smooth jolliness of its tone is a cover for so much blithe parochialism. To say the series misses an opportunity is a huge understatement – and not only to discuss contemporary composers and works. For the prevailing museum, culture must be overcome if classical music is to regain relevance in wider contemporary life as a living art form. Indeed, a contemporary perspective of the symphony as a living genre could have been made a base from which to present a history; by all means including a review of orthodox notions of music history, but described as such and placed in a framework of critical exploration. The irony of setting so much store by historical interpretation of the unquestioning type we see in Symphony is that it ultimately falls foul of the very issue discussed in episode two with regard to wildly contrasting uses of Beethoven’s 9th (firstly in Nazi Germany, then later at the fall of the Berlin Wall and lastly as an honouring of victims of 9/11); and that is propaganda. There is no such thing as a ‘neutral’ history, and this is as true of music history as any other kind. This series demonstrates that how we view history tells us more about who we are in the present than the past times to which we refer. As such, beneath the glossy exterior, it paints a sadly impoverished picture of mainstream classical music culture and thinking today.

* Many commentators have contributed to the debate, but a particularly influential book in academic circles – that is, amongst the people who usually write the textbooks and therefore the history – has been Lydia Goehr’s The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works: An Essay in the Philosophy of Music published by OUP in 2007.