04 January 2018

A Brief and Fascinating Review of the Symphony

Tired and angry at yet another outrageously loud and inappropriate advert between movements of some extended work, a year or so ago I bit the bullet and signed up for Spotify Premium. Best money I’ve ever spent on myself.

The benefit of that arguably self-indulgent expense has been proven many times. In the past two months, though, I have been thankful for a couple of Spotify playlists in particular. Weekly and monthly playlists show up in the many “Genres & Moods” categories. I always look at what’s on offer in the Classical Category. (For a brief post on the 150 Psalms playlist, see my other blog.) In November I was intrigued to find “Symphonies: Where to Start.”

I assumed it would be a “greatest hits” playlist of cherry-picked movements from the usual suspects. Boy, was I wrong!

It turned out to be a carefully chosen historical survey of the symphony, beginning where standard music histories begin (Sammartini, Stamitz) and continuing up into the 21st century. Along the way, there are in fact “usual suspects” (Mozart 41, Beethoven 3, Berlioz Fantastique, to name just three). But I was delighted to hear music by composers I did not previously know. To hear symphonies I had only read about. To be surprised with symphonies by composers whom I do not associate with the form. Much of this is probably just my ignorance or incomplete education.

Over the course of three weeks, I heard all sixty of the proffered symphonies. Note, I do not say listened to, but heard. For a few I can say I sat still quietly and listened. Most of them simply played within earshot—albeit intentionally. Many of them quite loudly.

It was quite an education, with many delights, and a few challenges. I expect to use this list, and encourage students to explore it, for my music history class this semester. I don’t know how long these curated playlists are available on Spotify. But let me encourage this adventure on anyone even modestly interested in and drawn to the symphony.