Notes 60.2 (2003) 440-442
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The Characteristic Symphony in the Age of Haydn and Beethoven. By Richard Will. (New Perspectives in Music History and Criticism.) New [End Page 440] York: Cambridge University Press, 2002. [xi, 329 p. ISBN 0-521-80201-6. $65.] Music examples, index of characteristic symphonies, bibliography, general index.
Thunderstorms, battles, hunts, and pastoral idylls—few students, scholars, and performers of eighteenth- and early- nineteenth-century central European orchestral music would fail to recognize these stock subjects for musical depiction. But could such instances of simple pictorialism provide musical contexts for rich and diverse explorations of morality, social change, the passage of time, artistic agency, and human identity? Richard Will's new study of the "characteristic symphony," a genre of orchestral music whose subject is specified by a short text, argues compellingly that this repertory participates in the significant social, political, religious, and aesthetic debates of the time.
While most readers will be familiar with the term "programmatic" for music with an accompanying text or otherwise specified representational content, "characteristic" is not a term generally associated with symphonies; one applies the term primarily to pieces of baroque keyboard music and nineteenth-century piano music that express a single mood or extramusical idea. Will, however, in a departure from his earlier work, has embraced "characteristic" over "programmatic" for eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century symphonies with representational ambitions for several clearly articulated reasons, chief among them the fact that one rarely encounters "Symphonie à programme" in music literature before the 1830s. Adding weight to the argument for using contemporary terminology is Will's observation that "characteristic" was the term used most frequently in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries for instrumental music with a textually specified subject; "painting," a loaded term considering the aesthetic debates raging over musical representation, was its only rival. But the most compelling reason for us to adopt "characteristic symphony" as best suited for this repertory lies in the root term "character," a synonym for affect in the eighteenth century. "Characteristic" thus suggests a "primacy of feeling," implying within the generic term itself the fundamental connection between specific settings and events and various human emotions.
Will's argument is centered around rich description and musical analysis of four main examples, each of which he uses to demonstrate not merely how characteristic symphonies translate setting, natural phenomena, and human events into sound but, more importantly, how the genre's uneasy situation between music and language generates opportunity for the communication of ideas. Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf's Les quatre ages du monde, the first of twelve symphonies on Ovid's Metamorphoses, Will reads as suggesting "the metamorphosis not just of Ovid's characters but of a whole social order" (p. 30). Each of the symphony's four movements depicts an age: (1) the Larghetto gavotte of the Golden Age, with its formal stability, luxuriant idyll, and implied physical movement, "offers paradise as aristocratic promenade" (p. 46); (2) the Silver Age, as dramatic tableau balancing motion and drive with symmetry and formal closure, "suggests that the society transformed by history still enjoys stability" (p. 59); (3) the "degradation of a social ideal" (p. 67) begins with the depiction of authoritarian aggression in the Bronze Age minuet; and (4) the agitated Iron Age finale, lacking clearly articulated musical ideas, periodic structures, and formal coherence, affirms humanity's self-destructive tendencies. Rather than political critique, which Will asserts would have been uncharacteristic of Dittersdorf, Les quatre ages du monde is an expression of anxiety and lament that the "legislated calm of the ancien régime" (p. 81) would likely not endure. Hearing in Haydn's Seven Last Words' seven slow movements and earthquake finale a musical analogy for the classical rhetoric of the "enlightened" sermon as well as an expression of traditional Catholicism's divine mystery, Will finds the work within the context of the religious reforms of eighteenth-century Austria, "captur[ing] both the reforming spirit of Joseph II and the resistance of Cardinal Migazzi" (p. 119). The generic mixture of Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony—containing formal elements...