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This collection of 18 essays by nearly as many different writers is divided into three main sections: Historical overview of the genre; Studies in symphonic analysis; and Performance, reception and genre. Some essays are far more analytical than others. In his chapter ‘Six great early symphonists’, Michael Spitzer will surprise many readers by coming up with Sammartini, Johann Stamitz, JC Bach, CPE Bach, Kraus and Boccherini. It’s easy to take the diversity and range of the modern symphony orchestra for granted.

‘The symphony and the classical orchestra’ may be a well-worn topic, but Richard Will’s chapter manages to cast fresh light on various aspects. It is good to be reminded that 18th-century audiences were thrilled with the actual sound of the symphony orchestra. It is, Will suggests, almost as though ‘symphonies were the vehicle for orchestras and not the other way around’. Later, he shows that the opening melody of the first Allegro from Mozart’s Symphony No 39 is ‘a virtual “tone-colour melody” … orchestral contrast could now define the very identity of the musical idea’.

In Chapter 9 Julian Horton observes that cyclical techniques are much less evident in Beethoven symphonies than in Mendelssohn, Schumann and Berlioz. In Chapter 11 Steven Vander Moortele discusses ‘two-dimensional’ symphonic forms, taking Schoenberg’s first chamber symphony as a landmark but also referring to Liszt, Strauss, Schreker, Krenek, Barber and others. In ‘Symphony/ antiphony: formal strategies in the twentieth-century symphony’, Daniel M Grimley examines five works by Sibelius, Stravinsky, Berio, Carter and, surprisingly, Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen. There are many such surprises in this excellent and wide-ranging book, in which the numerous other topics include Beethoven’s shadow, British symphonies (no mention of Alan Bush or Daniel Jones), programmatic symphonies, formal strategies in the 20th-century symphony, and the Austro-German symphony in early Soviet Russia.

Beautifully produced, this thoroughly stimulating survey is essential reading.

PHILIP BORG-WHEELER Read the full review on Agora Classica


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