The symphony is dead. Long live the symphony.
Last night I had the local classical radio station on in the car, and they started playing Brahms’s Second Symphony. Brahms is not my ¡FaVoRiTe! symphonist, and the Second isn’t my ¡FaVoRiTe! Brahms symphony, and yet. . . And yet. . .
I love this form. I love the experience of listening to a symphony. Live. On recording. I love talking about them, reading about them, thinking about them. I love studying scores of them, and, as a composer, from time to time I repress the urge to write one. Or at least to start writing one. I happen to think—and I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who does—that the symphony is one of the ¡gReAt IdEaS oF hUmAnKiNd!, in the way that Peter Watson places the invention of opera between chapters called “Capitalism, Humanism, Individualism” and “The Mental Horizon of Christopher Columbus.” <1> And so hearing Brahms Second at the end of a long day was my own little piece of heaven.
For the last entry two entries I’ve been listening to “island music”: the first, steel band music from Trinidad; the second, works by Tania León that are profoundly informed by Cuban culture. This week I encountered two symphonies that were new for me: Spanish composer Tomás Marco’s Symphony No. 4 “Espacio Quebrado” and Symphony No. 5 “Modelos de Universo.” But the one I found most fascinating is also “island music,” in a sense.
Marco’s Fifth Symphony has seven movements, each of which is named after one of the seven main Canary Islands: I. Achinech (Tenerife), II. Ferro (Hierro), III. Avaria (La Palma), IV. Maxorata (Fuerteventura), V. Tyteroygatra (Lanzarote), VI. Amilgua (Gomera), VII. Tamarán (Gran Canaria). (As an aside, I’ll admit that one of the reasons I was drawn to the piece is because in the last few years I’ve read a fair amount about the connection between San Antonio and the Canary Islands.)
Things get a bit more complicated here. In extensive program notes, Marco (b. 1942) explains that the symphony was commissioned by the Festival of the Canaries and that he wanted, therefore, to create an homage to the islands, which he claims to know “inside out (better than the natives, I expect),” as a kind of testament “to their progressive destruction.” Despite the titling of movements, though, the composer had “no desire to commit the tactlessness of appropriating Canarian folklore. . .an easy, opportunist way out, as well as being a sort of profanity, that would have harmed both the folklore and the symphony itself.”
Instead, Marco wanted to create a “universal work for the Canaries that would carry their name across the wide world every time it was performed.” <2> (This makes me think of the Dalai Lama approving the recording and distribution of Tibetan Buddhist rituals with the idea that every time one pressed play, the prayer was renewed, like a disembodied prayer wheel.) And how does a composer make a symphony universal, other than by omitting any direct reference to music and folklore of the Canary Isalnds? Marco attempts this by tying his work to others in the symphonic tradition. He references the famous opening motive from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and the opening of Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra repeatedly. Arguably, that’s a different kind of opportunism; at the very least, it’s the ¡MoSt ObViOuS wAy! of involving an audience in a conversation about the music, through the music.
Marco also explains that there are “hidden references to various well-known Fifth Symphonies” elsewhere, especially in the transitions. But three other “non-Fifth” symphonies occur to me as models of Marco’s symphonic universe. One is Mahler’s Third, a six-movement work with titles that most often point to the natural world as inspiration. Another is Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Sinfonie (1948), with which Marco’s Fifth Symphony shares an unorthodox number of movements, many featuring titles that point to a personal cache of complicated referents. A third is Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia (1969), the symphony after symphonies have died, which famously uses the scherzo from Mahler’s Second (1894) as a “vessel” into which many text and musical quotations are poured.
Berio’s scherzo movement, with its apparently self-defeating environment of hyper-quotation, might seem the most apt comparison, especially when Marco writes something like, “Once creative innocence has been irrevocably lost, one has no choice but to be ironic about one’s own creation.” In other words, it’s difficult to hear Also sprach, especially after 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Beethoven’s Fifth and not roll your eyes. But when ironic experience is repeated so often, it loses its ironic edge, becomes instead simply an environment. That environment is a palimpsest, endlessly written over, just as Marco’s movement titles have traditional island names and parenthetical “colonized” names, just as the symphony as a genre is a model that is written over again and again. What is left is a place of depth, a place where unfathomable things have happened and are recovered only partially, through a veil of imperfect memory, Marco Polo repeatedly trying to describe the glories of Venice for a mesmerized Kublai Khan in Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities.
Ultimately, in his Fifth Symphony Marco claims to have given the listener “seven formal models,” inspired by various theories of the universe, “translated into seven abstract and exclusively music movements,” the “techniques of construction” for which the composer does “not want to tire the reader by describing.” No matter. On the island of symphonies, there’s enough to hear without all that.
<1> Peter Watson, Ideas: A History of Thought and Invention, from Fire to Freud (HarperCollins, 2005).
<2> Tomás Marco, Sinfonia No. 5 “Modelos de Universo ‘88/89”; Sinfonia No. 4 “Espacio Quebrado ’87,” liner notes by Harry Halbreich with program notes by Tomás Marco Indigéna, aurophon AU 31812, 1991, compact disc.