In de periode 2013-2014 schreef Tom Service in The Guardian een reeks artikelen over bekende symfonieën. Voor de originele versie met plaatjes en filmpjes verwijs ik graag naar de site van The Guardian.


The symphony, and how it changed our world

Next week, Tom Service begins a weekly series about the symphony, exploring through the greatest 50 how it tells the story of music and also our own place in the world

Starting next week, I will be telling the story of how orchestral music's most famous form has shaped musical history by curating a non-chronological, entirely personal (and therefore doubtlessly controversial!) canon of the 50 symphonies that I think are responsible for telling us most about how the form has changed the musical world, and the world outside the concert hall too.

Over the year, I hope what will come over is the sense that the development of a supposedly abstract musical structure isn't simply about compositional invention or experimentation, but about how we hear ourselves and our place in the world: from the courtly entertainment of the early Rococo symphony to the world-changing idealism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Brahms, Bruckner, and Mahler; from a social order bounded by conventions and their transgressions in the 18th century, as in the music of Haydn and Mozart, to a more recent age of creative freedoms and limitless possibilities, the symphonies by Berio (yes, that's what his Sinfonia actually is!), Peter Maxwell Davies, Oliver Knussen, or Per Nørgård.

But before all that comes the most basic question of defining my terms: what is a symphony? It's usually how we refer to the multi-movement form that evolved in the early 18th century in central Europe (from the Baroque suite and the operatic overture) as a self-contained work of purely instrumental music, and which went on to become the single most prestigious expression of musical architecture in the late 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, the highpoint of many composers' ambition and achievement.

But it's much, much more than that. A symphony isn't just a structure, a musical formula, or a set of containers - three or four movements of contrasting speeds and characters - that composers merely had to fill in to qualify as "symphonic" writers. The symphony is really a way of thinking about what music actually is, what it's really for.

Because if you accept the idea that instrumental music is capable of "saying" anything at all, then it's in the symphony that that power is released most grandly, most extravagantly, and most directly. The symphony is the ultimate embodiment of the idealist notion of music being the "highest of the arts", a place beyond words or representative images in which transcendent feelings were given pure, unadulterated expression. As we'll find out, the crucible of those ideas is the way Beethoven's symphonies have been thought about and performed: such music as the Third (the "Eroica"), the Fifth, or the Ninth - even if that piece was the first symphony to use a choir, and a text.

But the problem with thinking of the symphony as idealistic transcendence is that you lose sight of how it communicates and who it communicates to. A symphony is always public: in terms of who it's written for, in the ever-changing and ever-expanding orchestral forces that composers have been able to call on, and who hears it, from private aristocratic gatherings at the end of the 18th century, bourgeois entertainments in the 19th, to today's huge auditoriums. The story of the symphony from Haydn's genre-defining pieces that were composed for his handful of musicians at the court in Esterhazy to Mahler's symphonies, with their forces of hundreds is a drama that's as much social as it is musical. It's about who paid the composer and the musicians, about what the symphony was heard to represent, and about what role composers were supposed to fulfil in society.

It's often said that the story of the symphony is bounded by historical time, and that we're now living in a post-symphonic age. That's because a symphonic frame of mind, with its associations of order and coherence doesn't fit with our more fractured and fractious sensibilities. What I hope you might hear in exploring the 50 symphonies over the next 12 months is rather the opposite: the extremities, disturbances, and strangenesses at the heart of the symphonies of the 18th and 19th centuries, and the urge to create some kind of order from chaos in the works of the later 20th and 21st.

Other threads I hope we'll pick up along the way: the paradox of pieces that aren't called symphonies but which really are "symphonic" in the musical language they speak - Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde is only the most obvious example. And then there's astonishing range of ways of playing the canonic symphonies of Mozart, Brahms, Bruckner, Mahler - and everyone else! - that we can all now instantly hear at our fingermousetips. That's a phenomenon that amounts to much more than Wilhelm Furtwängler taking longer over a Beethoven slow movement in the 1940s than John Eliot Gardiner in the 1990s. The difference is actually a revelation of two completely different views of what the "same" piece of music means. That's a process of renewal that continues any time these great pieces are properly, intelligently, passionately played - which means that Beethoven's 5th Symphony, for example, isn't a fixed work so much as a palimpsest of musical histories that only gets richer and richer each time it's played, heard, and thought about.

The symphony, then, ain't over yet. And talking of Beethoven's 5th, that's a very good place to start next week… see you then.

Symphony guide: Dvořák's 9th 'From the New World'

Dvořák’s final symphony, with its famous Largo, is one of classical music’s best loved works. Tom Service separates its facts from its fictions

‘Leave out that nonsense about my using Indian and American motifs – it is a lie!’: Dvořák on his 9th symphony.

Dvorak’s New World Symphony: as legend has it, the sound of a music that heralded a new dawn for American music, the product of the then-New-York-based composer’s own statement “in the Negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music”.

This E Minor Symphony was the first that Dvořák completed in his two-and-a-half year stay in the US. He was brought over by a wealthy patron of the arts to set up a music conservatory, the forerunner of today’s Juilliard School. And the fact that Dvořák was influenced by the spirituals and songs that he heard from one of his most important pupils, Harry T. Burleigh, is not in doubt. But apart from a strong allusion to Swing Low, Sweet Chariot in the second main melody of the first movement (compare them yourself!), it’s astonishing that Dvořák’s own clear statement to the New York Herald at the time of the symphony’s premiere – at Carnegie Hall with the New York Philharmonic on 16 December 1893 – was not properly attended to. “It is merely the spirit of Negro and Indian melodies which I have tried to reproduce in my new symphony. I have not actually used any of the melodies”. Later, in 1900, he said in a letter: “leave out that nonsense about my using Indian and American motifs – it is a lie!” and again, “It was my intention only to write in the spirit of these national American melodies”. That “lie” went so far as imagining that the soulful cor anglais melody in the slow movement (which may have associations of different kind of folk spirit for anyone of my vintage, of a kid on a bicycle struggling up a cobbled street with batch of wholemeal loaves in a prelapsarian vision of the country-bumpkin-far-west – that Hovis ad, basically!) was itself an authentic “American melody”: in fact, the words of “Goin’ Home” were added to the tune years later by another of Dvořák’s pupils.

So how many of these American melodies had he actually heard? As this account at antonin-dvorak.cz shows, Dvořák’s only possible encounters with Indian as opposed to “Negro” melodies up to the time he wrote the E minor symphony would actually have come in Prague in 1879, when a group of Iroquois Indians came to display their dancing, songs, and equestrian war-tricks to the Czechs, and it’s likely Dvořák saw notated examples of the tunes they sang made by a friend of his. Otherwise, he could perhaps have seen Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show in New York – but that’s all. The symphony is also often heard as a pre-Copland evocation of America’s wide-open spaces, but Dvořák only made his first trip away from the metropolis to the vastnesses of the America’s inland after he had completed the piece (although he did add the title, “From the New World”, when the symphony was being copied out while he was on holiday in Spillville, Iowa, with its large community of Czech immigrants, where he wrote the “American” string quartet and his E flat major String Quintet).

So does that mean that all of those supposedly direct connections between Dvořák’s symphony and American identity are mostly fiction, the result of critics and audiences hearing what they want to hear in a new piece of music, rather than what it actually is? In a sense, yes, but there is a deeper connection between the tunes of the piece and a broader community of folk melodies, tunes that come from Celtic, European, as well as indigenous American forms. In imbibing “the spirit” of the spirituals and melodies that he really did hear, from Harry T. Burleigh and others, Dvořák created tunes that are capable of resonating with any folk traditions that use the pentatonic (five-note) scale, or which employ the flat seventh as opposed to the leading note of the scale, as most jazz scales do; technical reasons why the New World Symphony can legitimately be heard as an evocation of some kind of musical otherness, of voices and “spirits” from outside the conventions of the late 19th century European symphony.

And yet that’s exactly what this piece is. It is a late-romantic European symphony, just one that happened to be composed in, and influenced by, Dvořák’s experience in the US. Some critics realised that at the time: the composer Victor Herbert, asked if he thought the piece would catalyse a new American school of composition, replied, “Yes, if the composers are Dr. Dvořák”. Not exactly a thriving future for “American” music, then.

With its community of themes that appear throughout the symphony (in one brilliant place in the finale, Dvořák seamlessly combines tunes from the slow movement, the scherzo third movement, and the finale), Dvořák extends principles that he knew from Beethoven, Brahms, and Schumann. But as well as the traditional ways of hearing Dvořák’s 9th – either as an American evocation or a late-romantic triumph of thematic cycles and integration – there are others, too. The music plays with memory, both in the way that melodies from the first movement, say, return in every successive movement, but also with a larger idea of reminiscence, nostalgia, and something darker. That slow movement (which starts with those surreal, sublime brass chords, music that returns with visionary power, in a completely different, dramatic context near the end of the finale) isn’t as simple as an unforgettable tune and a series of contrasting rustic episodes. For me, that music sounds more and more like a lament, a keening.

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If Dvořák really was remembering Harry T. Burleigh’s voice (and you can hear him here!) – the cor anglais was a closer musical analogue for the human voice than the clarinet that Dvořák originally planned to play the tune – then the music is a token of the spirituals he heard him sing, with their own reflections of hope achieved through terrible adversity; it also could be a tribute to Dvořák’s far-away homeland, or even to the lands of the American Indians that Dvořák knew were taken from them. Today, precisely because of its redolent, immediate power, I think that melody is an emblem of a lost pastoral innocence that becomes and ever-more impossible dream. I feel the same ambivalence at the very end of the symphony, when the music wrenches itself from an epically slowed-down minor-key version of the main tune of the finale to a blaze of major-key glory: somehow it’s that abyss of darkness before the dawn that seems to haunt my memory after the symphony has finished.

Five key recordings

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Karel Ancerl/Czech Philharmonic Orchestra: dynamic, vivid, earthy, lyrical, unpredictable.

Charles Mackerras/Prague Symphony Orchestra: a lifetime of experience in this repertoire shines through Mackerras’s live performance.

Claudio Abbado/Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra: Abbado and the Berlin Phil make the New World genuinely “new”, in simultaneous joyfulness and profundity.

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Rafael Kubelik/Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra: sensational playing from an earlier generation of Berlin Phil players; sensational and unique imagination from Kubelik.

Marin Alsop/Baltimore Symphony Orchestra: one of the most insightful, intelligent, and impassioned of recent recordings.

•Roger Norrington conducts the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra in Dvořák’s New World Symphony at the Proms on 3 September.

Symphony guide: Beethoven's Ninth ('Choral')

Nicholas Cook puts it well: “Of all the works in the mainstream repertory of Western music, the Ninth Symphony seems the most like a construction of mirrors, reflecting and refracting the values, hopes, and fears of those who seek to understand and explain it … From its first performance [in Vienna in 1824] up to the present day, the Ninth Symphony has inspired diametrically opposed interpretations”. Those interpretations include those earlier listeners and commentators who heard and saw in it evidence that Beethoven had lost it compositionally speaking; that the piece, with its incomprehensible scale, nearly impossible technical demands, and above all its crazily utopian humanist idealism in the choral setting of Friedrich Schiller’s Ode to Joy in its last movement, amounted to madness. On the other side, Hector Berlioz thought it the “culmination of its author’s genius”.

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The Ninth Symphony is arguably the single piece that inspired the methodology of musical analysis, a discipline of forensic musicological close-reading of the score that tried to prove just how unified and coherent a conception this symphony truly is underneath its chaotically diverse surface. It’s been held up as the central work of Western classical music both by those who imagine it as the ne plus ultra of symphonic, technical, and compositional imagination and mastery, and by those who want to say that classical music can embrace the world outside the concert hall as well as within it, and that the piece is a sounding bell of social change, of emotional hope, and even of political reform.

But those reflections and refractions on and of the Ninth Symphony must also encompass the ways in which the piece has been used as a manipulative ear-worm by less-than-savoury regimes. The Ode to Joy tune - which Beethoven composed as a motto for the whole world to take to its heart, to become a national anthem of humanity itself, something much bigger in its impact even than the anthems of nation states that had emerged by the early 19th century - has been adopted as a the motto of dictatorships as well as democracies. As Beethoven’s most recent biographer Jan Swafford says, “how one viewed the Ninth … depended on what kind of Elysium one had in mind, whether all people should be brothers or that all nonbrothers should be exterminated”. (Esteban Buch’s book, Beethoven’s Ninth – A Political History has more on this particular side of the symphony’s history.) Today, the Ode to Joy is the anthem of the European Union and the sound of Hogmanay and New Year celebrations everywhere from Germany to Japan, and it’s an annual fixture at the Proms, traditionally on the penultimate night of the season, as it is this year. Some feel that Beethoven was simply too successful in writing a tune that really could be sung by all humanity, and that its vision of universal (or nearly – I’ll come on to that!) brotherhood is kitsch at best, or politically dangerous at worst. Conductor Gustav Leonhardt, talking about the finale, said simply: “That ‘Ode to Joy’, talk about vulgarity! And the text! Completely puerile!”

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Detail of the viola part of the opening of Beethoven’s 9th (choral) symphony. Photograph: Eitan Simanor / Alamy/Alamy

So the question is: given that the Ninth Symphony belongs to the whole world, and is now the sum total of all of these imaginings over the last 190 years, and its myriad performances and interpretations, what actually is it? There are many valiant attempts out there to show how the piece ties the room together, to tame its disturbing discontinuities and diversities by hearing it as a steady revelation of the Ode to Joy theme. That defining tune is indeed consistently prefigured in all three of the previous movements, and you can hear the finale as the logical end-point of this process. Beethoven even makes that journey absolutely explicit at the start of the finale, as the cellos and basses in their recitative-like outbursts reject music from the previous three movements as unfit for the grander purpose of the finale (a process clinched by the bass solo, who sings Beethoven’s own words: “O Friends, not these sounds!”); that destiny is revealed in the tune that steals in and takes over the orchestra, and it’s fulfilled once the soloists and the choir stand up to sing Schiller’s words to the Ode to Joy theme.

That musical trajectory is paralleled by the symphony’s emotional narrative, starting with the burial of the old heroic ideal, as Jan Swafford suggests, in the first movement. Remember the Eroica Symphony: well, the first movement of the Ninth represents the interment of the great-man military heroism that the earlier symphony celebrates: the funeral march at the end of the Ninth’s first movement puts the nail in the coffin of the Napoleonic dream, which had curdled so devastatingly and produced the political repressions that Beethoven was living and working under when he was writing the Ninth Symphony in the early 1820s. Then comes the ironic bucolic energy of the scherzo, and the Arcadian vision of the slow movement, Beethoven’s most opulently lyrical music, an idyll that dreams of a new kind of heroism towards the end of its rapturous pastoral, as those brass fanfares suddenly appear amid harmonic premonitions of the most visionary music of the finale. That final movement itself is then an enactment of a victory for humanity, as individuals come together in joy and love: a community of choir, vocal soloists, and musicians that isn’t led by great men or even by God, but rather is built on the bonds between “brothers” of Schiller’s poem, as this new, true heroism of humanity creates its own destiny and fashions the world in which Beethoven wanted to live. That world symbolically includes geographical and ethnic diversities just as it encompasses the secular and sacred, in the Turkish music that interrupts the finale and with which the whole symphony noisily, joyously, overwhelmingly ends; as well as its virtuosic counterpoint, its sensuous polyphony and its cantata-like – but terrifyingly challenging - choral writing.

Yet it’s precisely because of the power of Beethoven’s fulfilment of this symphonic, dramatic, and social vision (dimensions that Beethoven is working on simultaneously and symbiotically in this piece) that it asks so many questions that resound, unresolved, after any performance. One is about the text; even if you don’t have to go as far as Gustav Leonhardt, you have to recognise that not everyone is actually included in this Utopian brotherhood. That’s implicit in Schiller’s lines: “Yea, if any hold in keeping / Only one heart all his own / Let him join us, or else weeping / Steal from out our midst, unknown”. As Theodor Adorno puts it, “Inherent in the bad collective is the image of the solitary, and joy desires to see him weep … In such a company, what is to become of old maids, not to speak of the souls of the dead?” Beethoven sets Schiller’s loneliness-punishing lines, in the middle of the exposition of the Ode to Joy theme, with a strange diminuendo, sung by the soloists and then the choir, a moment of doubt amid a foment of affirmation. A detail perhaps, but a reminder that even this universal Utopian society has its darknesses, its excluded citizens. The irony is that Beethoven himself, while dreaming in his music of that joyful and loving connection with other human beings, searched for but only rarely found those connections in his own life: his music became what he could not.

There there’s the “fart” in the finale. Not my word, but conductor Roger Norrington’s description of the intervention of the contrabassoon, two bassoons, and bass drum, in the wrong key, in a new speed, and in what you soon realise is the wrong beat of the bar, a bathetic moment that comes just after the choir have invoked a vision of God with some of the powerfully revelatory music of the symphony. This musical petard hoists an accompaniment to a drunken soldier’s – sung by a helium-swallowing tenor, of course! – hymn to “conquering heroism”, as Beethoven savagely sends up the old ideals of great-man-militarism, with Janissary, Turkish-band music borrowed and wildly exaggerated from Mozart’s most popular opera during his lifetime, The Abduction from the Seraglio. And from exactly the opposite extreme, there’s the music that comes shortly after this pissed private’s paean of praise (alliteration – the lowest form of poetry, apologies!), the sublime setting of the last verse of Schiller’s poem, a vision of the embrace of “you millions”, the “kiss of the whole world”, and a creator “dwelling beyond the canopy of stars”. In music that sounds shockingly slow and spare after the hell-for-leather double fugue and triumphalist version of the Ode to Joy tune we’ve just heard, Beethoven has trombones, low strings, and male voices intone the starkest of “embraces”. This isn’t about spiritual or sensual comfort, but something much stranger and deeper. The composer Jörg Widmann even describes this music as creating a “horrible” soundworld, in music that seems to directly contradict the salving sentiment of the words. Instead, this passage of the finale sounds out humanity’s awe at the coldness and vastness of the cosmos, putting us listeners in touch with our microscopic futility as individuals and even as collective humanity faced with the depths of creation. What happens next – just after Beethoven creates a celestial soundscape on a vertiginously anticipatory dominant 9th chord that shimmers and pulses with strange tremolos and registers, the choir contemplating that “father beyond the stars” – is that the music is ripped back to earth for the start of the symphony’s astonishingly jubilant coda, and the Ode to Joy theme leaps around in a triple-time explosion.

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But that climactic juxtaposition between the cosmos and earthy celebration is only among the most extreme of the dozens of contrasts that define the finale in particular, and the symphony as a whole. Think of the opening image of musical plasma out of which the melodies of the first movement creep and crash into being, or later in the opening movement, the most dissonant-sounding first-inversion major-key chord in orchestral music – the D major return of the first theme, which Jan Swafford aptly describes as the sound of the hero “sowing ruin” in the symphony’s structure. (For Susan McClary, in a 1987 article, this moment symbolised instead the “throttling murderous rage of a rapist incapable of attaining release”, another of those diverse interpretations the Ninth has inspired.) There are the disruptive, out-of-phase timpani strokes that puncture the scherzo, next to which the rustic drones of the trio section are shockingly stable and good-humoured. On its own terms, the music of the Adagio molto e cantabile slow movement is serenely lyrical, but in the context of the symphony as a whole, it’s music of extreme dramatic contrast, an oasis magicked out of the chaos around it.

All of these increasingly severe jump-cuts as the symphony goes on might well be in service of Beethoven’s compositional credo, that “even when I am composing instrumental music my custom is always to keep the whole in view” (which is decidedly not the same as a striving for a single-minded compositional unity). Yet that “whole” remains riddled with questions, about who we are as a society, about what the purpose of our lives should be – and what the limits of the symphony might be. Or rather, the Ninth Symphony is a realisation of the limitless possibilities of the symphony, to reflect who we are, a sounding board for vastly different ideas and ideologies about music, the world, and our place in it. That’s why Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is arguably the central artwork of Western music: it is as much of a challenge now as it was in 1824 to its listeners, to performers, and to every composer who has written a symphony since. But it’s not because this piece is a monolithic monument of certainty; instead, it’s because its gigantic, irrefutable musical power is a wellspring of endless renewal and possibility. Rather like the whole story of the symphony, you might say...

Five key recordings

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Wilhelm Furtwängler/Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra: maybe the most terrifying music-making that I know; a performance for Hitler’s birthday in 1942 that seethes with a daemonic intensity. The end sounds more like a scream of pain rather than a shout of joy.

Roger Norrington/London Classical Players: still incendiary and iconoclastic after more than two decades; thrills with the paradoxical shock of the new, as the Ninth was revealed to the world on period instruments for the first time.

John Eliot Gardiner/Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique: Proof of the range of possibilities of historically informed performance practice: Gardiner’s recording, made just a few years after Norrington’s, is if anything wilder and freer.

Leonard Bernstein/orchestra from all over the world!: the performance that Bernstein conducted with players from Germany, France, Britain, Russia, and America on Christmas Day 1989 at the Brandenburg Gate to mark the fall of the Berlin Wall – a searing “Ode to Freedom” (“Freiheit” replaced “Freude”, joy, for this performance).

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Riccardo Chailly/Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra: a recent, and brilliant, performance that pairs Chailly’s patina-stripping creativity with the Gewandhaus’s magnificent orchestral tradition. The result is catalytically imaginative – and you can hear this combination at the Proms this week.

Riccardo Chailly conducts Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra at the Proms on Friday 12th September.

Symphony guide: Tchaikovsky's Sixth ('Pathetique')

Forget, first of all, its mis-translated moniker. Tchaikovsky’s final symphony might be about death, but it’s the piece he termed ‘the best thing I have composed’ and is a confident and supremely energetic work

Portrait of Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) - his Sixth Symphony changed at a stroke what a symphony could be.

Let’s get this clear: Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony is not a musical suicide note, it’s not a piece written by a composer who was dying, it’s not the product of a musician who was terminally depressed about either his compositional powers or his personal life, and it’s not the work of a man who could go no further, musically speaking. It shouldn’t even be called the Pathétique, strictly speaking, with its associations of a particularly aestheticised kind of melancholy. Tchaikovsky himself, having supposedly approved his brother’s Russian word Патетическая (“Patetitčeskaja”) for the work (a better translation of which is “passionate” in English), and having decided against calling the piece “A Programme Symphony”, sent his publisher the instructions that it was simply his Sixth Symphony in B Minor, dedicated to his nephew Bob Davydov. That’s how the piece appeared when Tchaikovsky himself conducted the premiere in St Petersburg on 28 October 1893. It was only in its first posthumous performance, three weeks later, that it was called the “Pathétique”, a moniker that has stuck ever since.

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Instead, the Sixth Symphony is a vindication of Tchaikovsky’s powers as a composer. It is the piece that he described many times in letters as “the best thing I ever composed or shall compose”, a work whose existence proved to him that he had found a way out of a symphonic impasse, which represented a return to the heights of his achievement as a composer – away from what he thought of as the numbing, written-by-numbers populism of his ballet The Nutcracker or the trivial “pancakes” of the piano pieces he was also writing in 1893 – and brought a deep, personal satisfaction that he hadn’t felt in years. Having recently sent the score of the Sixth Symphony to his publisher, his brother remembered “I had not seen him so bright for a long time past”.

And yet the Sixth Symphony is about death. It’s the fulfilment and tranfiguration of a programme that Tchaikovsky had sketched for a Symphony in E Flat Major that he discarded in 1892 (whose first movement he reworked as his Third Piano Concerto). “The ultimate essence … of the symphony is Life. First part – all impulse, passion, confidence, thirst for activity. Must be short (the finale death – result of collapse). Second part love: third disappointments; fourth ends dying away (also short).” While that isn’t a precise description of what became the Sixth Symphony, in the broadest sense of a symphony whose final image is of musical, emotional, and physical collapse – as it is in the Sixth’s Adagio lamentoso fourth movement – there is a clear connection. It’s also the closest we have to a revelation of the programme behind the Sixth Symphony, which Tchaikovsky told his beloved nephew Bob was there in the music, but which would remain a secret.

But frankly, there’s no need for the divulging of anything more programmatically specific. That this is a piece about a struggle between the life-force and an inevitable descent to an exhausted physical and emotional demise is obvious to anyone who has heard it and lived through it. This symphony finally faces the fate that stalks Tchaikovsky’s Fourth and Fifth symphonies (the motto themes of both symphonies stand for the destiny of their symphonic heroes) but which their frenetic, bombastic concluding movements attempt to dodge. In the Sixth, Tchaikovsky meets that inexorable descent head-on, and in so doing he creates a new shape for the symphony, in one of the most audacious and boldest compositional moves of the 19th century. That slow, lamenting finale turns the entire symphonic paradigm on its head, and changes at a stroke the possibility of what a symphony could be: instead of ending in grand public joy, the Sixth Symphony closes with private, intimate, personal pain.

Which might have some saying: Exactly! That’s why this symphony is a reflection of Tchaikovsky’s autobiography! He must have been depressed/suicidal/about to become the victim of an anti-homosexual secret court (one of the more recent and most ludicrous theories behind Tchaikovsky’s death on 5 November 1893, nine days after he had premiered the Sixth Symphony) to have composed this! And there’s more: the Russian Orthodox Requiem chant even makes a blatant appearance in one of the most dramatic coups-de-théâtre in the first movement! You see? He knew he was dying!

To which the only possible rejoinder is: I’m afraid that’s nonsense. To take some examples from elsewhere in musical history: many of Rachmaninov’s pieces are haunted by the Dies Irae plainchant, that symbolic intonation of impending fate, and yet even after writing a piece called The Isle of the Dead, he kept on living; Berlioz’s music too is full of intimations of mortality, but he kept going for decades after dreaming of his own execution in his Fantastic Symphony; Beethoven didn’t expire after just after he faced the limits of human mortality in the Missa Solemnis; and even Mahler remained alive just after he had just crossed the border into silence at the end of his Ninth Symphony. In fact, if every composer, author, painter, or poet had died after making their greatest works about death, none of them would have been around for very long. It is pure, tragic coincidence that Tchaikovsky should die of cholera a few days after conducting the Sixth Symphony at the age of just 53 – a piece, to reiterate, that he actually composed in good mental and physical health – but that’s all it is. We do this symphony a terrible injustice if we only see and hear it through the murky prism of myth, story, and half-truth that now swirls around accounts of what happened in the composer’s final days.

So yes, this symphony is about a battle between a stubborn life-energy and an ultimately stronger force of oblivion that ends up in a terrifying exhaustion, but what makes the piece so powerful is that it’s about all of us, not just Tchaikovsky. And that’s because of how Tchaikovsky makes the musical and symphonic drama of the piece work. So when you’re listening to the performances below, hear instead how the cry of pain that is the climax of the first movement is a musical premonition of the inexorably descending scales of the last movement, and how the second movement makes its five-in-a-bar dance simultaneously sound like a crippled waltz and a memory of a genuinely sensual joy. Listen to how the March of the third movement creates a seething superficial motion that doesn’t actually go anywhere, musically speaking, and whose final bars create one of the greatest, most thrilling, but most empty of victories in musical history, at the end of which audiences often clap helplessly, thinking they have arrived at the conventionally noisy end of a symphonic journey. But then we’re confronted with the devastating lament of the real finale, that Adagio lamentoso, which begins with a composite melody that is shattered among the whole string section (no single instrumental group plays the tune you actually hear, an amazing, pre-modernist idea), and which ends with those low, tolling heartbeats in the double-basses that at last expire into silence.

That silence was its own kind of victory for Tchaikovsky. He knew this piece marked a new high-watermark in his confidence as a composer, and that he had re-invented the symphony on his own terms, and for so many composers who came after him. Mahler, Shostakovich, Sibelius, and many others could not have composed the symphonies they did without the example of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth. It’s just a terrible fluke of fate that this was his last symphony, and not the beginning of what could have been his most exciting creative period as a composer.

Five key recordings

Evgeny Mravinsky/Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra: perhaps the most unflinchingly intense recording ever made of this symphony.

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Mikhail Pletnev/Russian National Orchestra: Pletnev’s interpretative imagination blazingly illuminates Tchaikovsky’s unique symphonic structure.

Valery Gergiev/Kirov Orchestra: one of the most white-hot of Gergiev’s recordings - and therefore, one of the most white-hot recordings, ever!

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Andris Nelsons/City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra: the pick of recent recordings, with Nelsons’s in-the-moment brilliance and the CBSO’s collective virtuosity.

Paul Kletzki/Philharmonia Orchestra: apologies for the sentimentality, since it’s hard to get hold of now, but this is the - I think! - fantastically emotionally raw recording I grew up with, and which still defines the piece for me – it might for you, too.

Myung-Whun Chung conducts Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony with the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra on 27 August at the Proms.

Symphony guide: Hector Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique

The most innovative symphony of the 19th century was born from diabolical passions

Delirious desire … Berlioz’s passion for Irish actor Harriet Smithson inspired the Symphonie Fantastique. Photograph: Universal Images Group/Getty Images

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Something a little different this week: our symphony is Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, a piece that lays legitimate claim to adjectives such as “revolutionary”, “radical” and “unprecedented” perhaps as much as, or even more than any other piece in this series so far. This jaw-dropping work was made by a 26-year-old composer who had already become a famous, indeed notorious, figure in Parisian musical life. But Hector Berlioz also happened to be one of the most brilliant writers on music; and in his letters he reveals the genesis of this diabolically and passionately inspired work.

The following is a collection of vivid fragments from Berlioz’s own words, and some contemporary commentators, which chart Berlioz’s state of mind just before he was writing the piece, his musical ambitions, his personal hopes and dreams, and the reality of putting on this uniquely challenging symphony. (A performance planned and rehearsed in May 1830 was cancelled, so its premiere had to wait until December.) A couple of ideas to bear in mind when you’re reading these blazing bits of Berlioziana: this music is simultaneously the most subjective symphony ever composed, in writing out Berlioz’s hallucinogenically morbid fantasies and unrequited love for the actress Harriet Smithson (whom he married thanks to a later performance of the Symphonie, but at the time of its composition was only an object of far-off longing and terrible desire). Yet it’s also one of the most objective, since Berlioz is capable of analysing his emotions with all the cold-hearted dispassion of a scientist observing life forms through a microscope, as his biographer David Cairns puts it. I’m indebted to Cairns’s still-essential biography, and to Michael Rose’s brilliant Berlioz Remembered for the following extracts:

11 January 1829. The composer, writing to a friend about his hopes for Harriet – and for the new musical discoveries that are inseparable from his feelings for her:

“Oh if only I did not suffer so much! … So many musical ideas are seething within me … Now that I have broken the chains of routine, I see an immense territory stretching before me, which academic rules forbade me to enter. Now that I have heard that awe-inspiring giant Beethoven, I realise what point the art of music has reached; it’s a question of taking it up at that point and carrying it further – no, not further, that’s impossible, he attained the limits of art, but as far in another direction. There are new things, many new things to be done, I feel it with an immense energy, and I shall do it, have no doubt, if I live. Oh, must my entire destiny be engulfed by this overpowering passion? … If on the other hand it turned out well, everything I’ve suffered would enhance my musical ideas. I would work non-stop … my powers would be tripled, a whole new world of music would spring fully armed from my brain or rather from my heart, to conquer that which is most precious for an artist, the approval of those capable of appreciating him.

Time lies before me, and I am still living; with life and time great events may come to pass.”

Three weeks later:

“For some time I have had a descriptive symphony … in my brain. When I have released it, I mean to stagger the musical world.”

19 February, to his father (he still hasn’t started work on the piece):

“I wish I could … calm the feverish excitement which so often torments me; but I shall never find it, it comes from the way I am made. In addition, the habit I have got into of constantly observing myself means that no sensation escapes me, and reflection doubles it – I see myself in a mirror. Often I experience the most extraordinary impressions, of which nothing can give an idea; nervous exaltation is no doubt the cause, but the effect is like that of opium [which Berlioz, in all probability, knew directly!].

Well, this imaginary world is still part of me, and has grown by the addition of all the new impressions that I experience as my life goes on; it’s become a real malady. Sometimes I can scarcely endure this mental or physical pain (I can’t separate the two) … I see that wide horizon and the sun, and I suffer so much, so much, that if I did not take a grip of myself, I should shout and roll on the ground. I have found only one way of completely satisfying this immense appetite for emotion, and this is music.”

A fortnight later, to the pianist and composer Ferdinand Hiller:

“Can you tell me what it is, this capacity for emotion, this force of suffering that is wearing me out? … Oh my friend, I am indeed wretched – inexpressibly! … Today it is a year since I saw HER for the last time … Unhappy woman, how I loved you! I shudder as I write it – how I love you!”

And yet, six weeks after that letter, he has exposed and expunged his passion in writing the first version of the symphony: those weeks must have been an extraordinary torrent and torment of activity for Berlioz. He tells another close friend, Humbert Ferrand, what the symphony is about:

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“I conceive an artist, gifted with a lively imagination, who … sees for the first time a woman who realises the ideal of beauty and fascination that his heart has so long invoked, and falls madly in love with her. By a strange quirk, the image of the loved one never appears before his mind’s eye with its corresponding musical idea, in which he finds a quality of grace and nobility similar to that which he attributes to the beloved object. [This is the symphony’s idée fixe, the melody that appears in all five movements.]

After countless agitations, he imagines that there is some hope, he believes himself loved. One day, in the country, he hears in the distance two shepherds playing a ranz des vaches to one another; their rustic dialogue plunges him into a delightful daydream. [This is the ‘Scene in the country’, which we now know as the third movement; at this stage, Berlioz had his hero go to the country before ‘The Ball’, which we now know as the second movement.] The melody [of the beloved] reappears for a moment across the themes of the adagio.

He goes to a ball [now the second movement]. The tumult of the dance fails to distract him; his idée fixe haunts him still, and the cherished melody sets his heart beating during a brilliant waltz.

In a fit of despair he poisons himself with opium [the fourth movement, the March to the Scaffold]; but instead of killing him, the narcotic induces a horrific vision, in which he believes he has murdered the loved one, has been condemned to death, and witnesses his own execution. March to the scaffold; immense procession of headsmen, soldiers and populace. At the end the melody reappears once again, like a last reminder of love, interrupted by the death stroke.

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The next moment [and the fifth movement, the Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath] he is surrounded by a hideous throng of demons and sorcerers, gathered to celebrate Sabbath night … At last the melody arrives. Till then it had appeared only in a graceful guise, but now it has become a vulgar tavern tune, trivial and base; the beloved object has come to the sabbath to take part in her victim’s funeral. She is nothing but a courtesan, fit to figure in the orgy. The ceremony begins; the bells toll, the whole hellish cohort prostrates itself; a chorus chants the plainsong sequence of the dead [the Dies irae plainchant], two other choruses repeat it in a burlesque parody. Finally, the sabbath round-dance whirls. At its violent climax it mingles with the Dies irae, and the vision ends.”

Friedrich Zelter, composer and Mendelssohn’s teacher, presents one side of the critical opinion of Berlioz’s work: he’s talking about Berlioz’s Huit scènes de Faust, which the composer had sent to Goethe, and Goethe passed to Zelter for his assessment.

“There are some people who can only make their presence felt and call attention to their activities by means of noisy puffing, coughing, croaking, and spitting. One such appears to be Herr Hector Berlioz. The smell of sulphur surrounding Mephistopheles attracts him, so he must needs sneeze and snort till all the instruments of the orchestra leap around in a perfect frenzy – only not a hair stirs on Faust’s head … I shall certainly find an opportunity when I am teaching to make use of this poisonous abscess, this abortion born of horrible incest.”

Zelter’s opinion of the Symphonie Fantastique is not recorded, but the composers and musical luminaries in the audience for the first performance of the piece, when it finally happened on 5 December – including Meyerbeer, Spontini and the 19-year-old Franz Liszt – were entranced. As was this anonymous reviewer.

“I accept that this symphony is of an almost inconceivable strangeness, and that the schoolmasters will no doubt pronounce an anathema on these profanations of the ‘truly beautiful’. But for anyone who isn’t too concerned about the rules I believe that M. Berlioz, if he carries on in the way he has begun, will one day be worthy to take his place beside Beethoven.”

There could be no higher praise for Berlioz; the wild alchemical mixture of Faustian diabolism, his extension and expansion of Beethovenian sonic possibility, the unflinching, opiate extremity of his musical imagination, and the essential catalyst of his incomparably intense emotional life, made – and still make – the Symphonie Fantastique an experience that turns all of us into its exalted, executed and eviscerated hero.

Andrew Davis conducts the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique at the BBC Proms on Tuesday 19 August.

Five fantastics

These performances are as wild and diverse as Berlioz’s symphony. Plunge into them for their joy and their dangerous, diabolical intensity!

Marc Minkowski/Les Musiciens du Louvre

John Eliot Gardiner/Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique

Colin Davis/Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra

Mariss Jansons/Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra

Charles Munch/Boston Symphony Orchestra

Symphony guide: Vaughan Williams's A Pastoral Symphony

The word “pastoral” disguises the true intentions of Vaughan Williams’s third symphony, which confronted the horrors of the first world war

Ralph Vaughan Williams … Vindicating his personal vision. Photograph: Bettmann/Corbis

 “It’s really wartime music – a great deal of it incubated when I used to go up night after night in the ambulance wagon at Ecoivres and we went up a steep hill and there was wonderful Corot-like landscape in the sunset. It’s not really lambkins frisking at all, as most people take for granted.”

Ralph Vaughan Williams was talking about one of his most controversial and misunderstood pieces, A Pastoral Symphony, his third, which he completed in 1922. It’s easy to see where the confusion comes from: here is that master of nostalgic evocation calling a piece “pastoral”, immediately asking audiences to hear it – you’d have thought – as the acme of all things quaintly, gently rustic, the sound of an imagined idyll of English landscape turned into sound.

So perhaps the symphony’s mixed reception is partly Vaughan Williams’s own fault: had he originally called it simply Symphony No 3, he wouldn’t have planted that pastoral seed in the minds of his listeners and his critics. Constant Lambert said that its four movements – nearly all of them slow, lyrical, and strange – have a “particular type of grey, reflective, English-landscape mood [that] outweighed the exigencies of symphonic form”.

But it’s not just Vaughan Williams’s testimony that should make us realise that the landscape of A Pastoral Symphony isn’t some Arcadian part of Surrey – if it is about landscape at all, it’s rather the blasted terrain of the fields of horror of the first world war. In fact, throughout this symphony there’s a disturbing doubleness, in which images and ideas that are usually thought to provide consolation instead suggest emotional instability and ambiguity. The pastoral title is, I think, almost ironic, since what Vaughan Williams is doing in this piece is turning the idea on its head, so that instead of being a source of comfort, this pastoral is instead a confrontation with loss, with lament, with death. And it’s also a genuinely adventurous attempt to write a kind of symphony that no-one had attempted so completely before, the secret of which lies in another interpretation of Lambert’s idea that the piece rethinks those “exigencies of symphonic form”.

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More on that later, but first, let’s hear the Pastoral as critique of the pastoral. The most obvious wartime memorial in the piece is the trumpet cadenza in the second movement, a dream of a Last Post-like fanfare that drifts into the music’s consciousness. In the frame of a pastoral, this military reminiscence is already seemingly out of place, and in fact there’s a specific memory that Vaughan Williams is invoking. In that “Corot-like landscape” that he saw during the war: “A bugler used to practise and this sound became part of that evening landscape and is the genesis of the long trumpet cadenza in the second movement of the symphony”. You would have thought this obvious reference would have alerted the symphony’s early listeners to the real location of this music, in the wake of the First World War, but that’s only the clearest of many ways in which the idea of the pastoral is subverted.

More generally, there’s the continual elusiveness of the music, something you hear from the start of the first movement. Vaughan Williams’s harmonic idiom in this symphony is continually slipping from one tonal centre to another, from one “mode” to another (different divisions of the scale), so that, for all the music’s superficially quiescent surface, there’s an unsettling feeling to the way the symphony moves. There are melodies and motives you’ll certainly recognise and hold in your brain when you’re listening to the piece, and there’s a network of connections between the main ideas in the piece that stretches across all four movements. Yet moment by moment, Vaughan Williams makes the ground slide beneath your ears, so to speak: and it’s not just the harmony, it’s the music’s hauntingly subtle orchestration, too, in which instrumental timbres seem to melt into one another.

Even the third movement, which functions as a kind of scherzo in the symphony, manages to throw you off balance with its lopsided dance rhythms, and especially the weightless music of Mendelssohn-like gossamer that ends the movement, suspending you in the ether rather than placing down on the earth. But the final movement is the quintessence of the symphony, with yet more slow, subtly tortured music framed by two solos from a wordless soprano, marked “distant” in the score, and often performed offstage. As Daniel Grimley shows in a brilliant essay on A Pastoral Symphony, this solo line moves from “relative stability to complete harmonic ambiguity”. And yet, the effect in performance is singularly devastating. After the symphony has wrenched itself to its most insistent and loudest climax, the music’s return to this lamenting song for the soprano is all the more moving. It is the sound of absence somehow made present, music that echoes with the lives lost in those French fields, and it’s the distillation of a pastoral symphony that’s really an anti-pastoral.

Which finally bring us back to Constant Lambert: in situating his symphony in this mode of slow, reflective concentration, Vaughan Williams risked forfeiting this piece’s “symphonic” credentials. Yet in its “critique and reimagining of the pastoral”, as Grimley has it, Vaughan Williams not only vindicated his personal vision, and the pain of his wartime experiences, but achieved a new idea of the symphony, too.

Five key recordings

  • Adrian Boult/London Philharmonic Orchestra
  • André Previn/London Symphony Orchestra
  • Roger Norrington/London Philharmonic Orchestra
  • Bernard Haitink/London Philharmonic Orchestra
  • Vernon Handley/Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra

Andrew Manze conducts Vaughan Williams’s A Pastoral Symphony at the BBC Proms on Sunday 17 August with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.

Symphony guide: Beethoven's Third ('Eroica')

The story of the dedication of Beethoven’s Third is the stuff of symphonic legend. Whatever the truth, the victory at the end of the piece doesn’t just stand for Napoleon, or Beethoven, but for the possibilities of the symphony itself

Imagine if events hadn’t intervened, and Beethoven had stuck to his original plan, and his Third Symphony had been called the “Bonaparte”. Imagine the reams of interpretation and analysis that would have gone into aligning the piece with the Napoleonic project, its humanist ideals and its all-too-human historical realisation. Yet that is what Beethoven wanted the piece we know now as the Eroica symphony to be: this piece, during its composition and at its completion in 1804, and even when he was negotiating its publication, was a piece for and about Napoleon. Beethoven designed the piece as a memorial to the heroic achievements of a ruler who he hoped would go on to inspire Europe to a humanist, libertarian, egalitarian revolution. That’s why the piece, you could say, describes Napoleon’s heroic struggles (the huge first movement), then narrates the sorrow of his death in grand public style (the funeral march slow movement), and, with the open-air energy and teeming imagination of the scherzo and finale, demonstrates how his legacy and spirit were to have lived on in the world.

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Beethoven by Andy Warhol. Photograph: Andy Warhol Foundation/Corbis

Instead, the story of how the piece’s original dedication to Bonaparte was defaced by Beethoven is the stuff of symphonic legend, based on Ferdinand Ries’s memory of what happened when he told the composer that Napoleon had styled himself Emperor in May 1804. With that Napoleon became, for Beethoven - as Ries reports the composer saying - “a tyrant”, who “will think himself superior to all men”. (In fact, it’s even more complicated than that, since Beethoven the apparently great revolutionary was also willing to change the symphony’s dedication in order not to jeopardise the fee due from a royal patron.) Yet that scrawling out of Napoleon’s name doesn’t change the specificity of Beethoven’s inspiration in writing this symphony, the longest and largest-scale he had ever been composed, and the profound human, philosophical, and political motivations behind the musical innovations of this jaw-dropping piece.

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And it’s those novelties that usually inspire the panegyrics with which the Eroica is often described: the shattering dissonances and rhythmic dislocations of the first movement, the expressive grandeur and terror of the funeral march, the ludicrously challenging horn writing of the scherzo, the gigantic expressive range – from comic to tragic to lyrical to heroic – in the fourth movement, a set of variations that in one fell swoop reinvent the symphonic finale in a way that arguably only the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth comes close to.

And yet, these musical revolutions are not so - well, revolutionary as they might at first seem. In this piece as much as anything he composed, Beethoven didn’t want to compromise his music’s communicative power. For his music to sound its message of change, to inspire audiences to consider a new world-view just as they are also asked to participate in a new scale of symphonic drama, Beethoven needed to make sure he was taking his listeners with him. Which is why this vastly complex piece is also completely clear in its structure and in its extreme states of expressive character.

Think about the first movement: yes, its scale of thought and ambition are unprecedented when you consider the whole structure, but on the level of its themes and their working out, Beethoven’s music is built on simple, graspable ideas: those two E flat major thunderbolts with which the symphony opens (Beethoven’s initial thought was actually to start with a dissonance, as he had done at the start of his First Symphony), and the undulating arpeggio in the cellos that starts out so serenely but which soon introduces a foreign note, a C sharp, the grit in the oyster that signals this movement’s emotional and harmonic ambition. The most radical moments are shocking when heard in isolation, like the grinding harmonic clash at the centre of the movement which seems to bring the music to a shrieking, shuddering impasse; or the enormity of the movement’s coda, turned by Beethoven into another opportunity to develop and explore his themes rather than simply to tie the room together with a handful of clichéd closing gestures. And there’s also a moment that made Hector Berlioz – otherwise Ludwig van’s greatest admirer – splutter with indignation that “if that was really what Beethoven wanted … it must be admitted that this whim is an absurdity”; the passage when the horn seems to announce the return to the main theme a few bars early. It is what Beethoven “really wanted”, but Berlioz’s comments remind us just how weird it actually is.

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Yet when you hear a performance such as Frans Brüggen’s with the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century, or Otto Klemperer’s with the Philharmonia (strange bedfellows, you might think – one a period instrument guru, the other a big-band maestro of the old-school - but both create a mighty, granite-hewn first movement) it’s not so much the individual moments that take your breath away, but the cumulative momentum that builds from the first bar to the last. That’s the real revolution in the first movement of the Eroica symphony, and the fact that this implacable musical force should have been inspired by the representation of a great man’s works only makes it more remarkable: this movement is the definitive symphonic alchemy of musical structure and poetic meaning.

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As is the rest of the symphony. One thought to guide you through the next three movements from the funeral march to the explosion of joy in the final bars: this music is simultaneously rigorously symphonic yet novel in its cavalcade of dramatic and expressive characters. The achievement of the Eroica is not that Beethoven “unifies” all of this diversity, but rather that he creates and unleashes a symphonic energy in this piece that both frames and releases this elemental human drama. It’s that mysterious momentum that is the true “heroism” of this symphony, so that the victory at the very end of the piece doesn’t just stand for Napoleon, or Beethoven, but for the possibilities of the symphony itself, which is revealed as a carrier of new weight and meaning as never before in its history. What started out as a (pre-) memorial to a great man and his humanist ideals turns into an essential embodiment of symphonic life-force.

Five key recordings

Roger Norrington/London Classical Players: this performance still breathes the air and energy of a performance practice revolution in action.

Nikolaus Harnoncourt/Chamber Orchestra of Europe: less iconoclastic than Norrington’s period instruments, Harnoncourt’s recording still thrills with discovery, as he takes the lessons of the historically informed movement to the modern instruments of the COE players.

Otto Klemperer/Philharmonia Orchestra: an interpretation that locks you into a mighty symphonic momentum from the first chord to the final coda.

Frans Brüggen/Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century: period instruments maybe, but Brüggen’s performance has a gigantic structural and emotional power.

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Arturo Toscanini/NBC Symphony Orchestra (1939): not just the uncompromising Toscanini of implacable energy, there’s a flexibility and lyricism here that makes the music flow as well as foment a symphonic revolution.

Mark Elder conducts Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony at the BBC Proms on 9 August with the Hallé Orchestra.

Symphony guide: Mahler's Ninth

It's usual to interpret Mahler's last completed symphony as a prefiguring of his death. But different conductors make the work mean very different things

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Gustav Mahler's Ninth Symphony … a matter of life or death? Photograph: Imagno/Getty Images

Let’s begin at the end. The final page of the last, cataclysmically slow movement of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony is one of the most famously death-haunted places in orchestral music, a moment in which the music slowly, achingly, bridges the existential gap between sound and silence, presence and absence, life and death. The very last bar is even marked, pianississimo, with a long pause – “ersterbend” (dying), as if its message wasn’t already clear enough.

As musical ideas that have dominated this movement, the whole symphony, and even other works by Mahler, dissolve into the ether – becoming slower, quieter, emptier, and more stunningly, breathtakingly etiolated and gossamer-thin in sound and substance – it all amounts to convincing evidence to support Leonard Bernstein’s view, shared by many of his conductor colleagues and listeners, too, that this music stands for a whole suite of deaths. There's Mahler’s own, since this is his last completed symphony, after he had witnessed the death of his daughter and when he knew that his life would be cut short by his heart condition. There's the death of tonality, which – in the musical context of 1910, this piece emblematically signals. It even heralds the death throes of the figure of the artist as hero in European culture.

The rest of the symphony, according to another Bernsteinian point of view, prefigues the jackboots of the world wars. And when you listen to Bernstein, or Claudio Abbado, or Herbert von Karajan, or the majority of contemporary interpreters of the Ninth Symphony, you are given no choice but to go on a journey through the veil to a glimpse of some other realm beyond worldly experience. I’ve described the end of Abbado’s performance with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, and the minutes of silence that follows it in this live recording, as one of the most revelatory, transformative experiences of my musical life. And I’m confident it will be for you as well when you watch the performance.

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Yet there is another way of thinking about this music, and there’s another way of conducting it, hearing it, and experiencing it. It turns on whether you think of this piece as a hymn to the end of all things, or instead, as an ultimately affirmative love-song to life and to mortality. (It can be both at the same time, of course, but bear with me.) The reason that performance is so important in this piece is that a conductor’s view of the music, especially that final, slow movement, can take the symphony in different directions. Bruno Walter, a close friend of Mahler’s who conducted the Ninth’s posthumous premiere in 1912, performed and recorded the piece with Vienna Philharmonic in 1938. His finale takes just over 18 minutes, whereas Bernstein with the Israel Philharmonic takes half an hour. (It’s pure speculation, but Walter may have conducted the piece even more swiftly in 1912, since his interpretations tended to get slower in his later musical life.) That goes beyond a mere difference of tempo, it makes the piece a radically different musical and emotional entity. Listen to the very opening of both performances to hear what I mean: Walter’s almost vibrato-less violins make a single phrase out of that ascent to the turn figure that will dominate the whole movement, in a breath that you could sing. But Bernstein and his players wring a feverish intensity from every note, and they turn that opening idea into a catalogue of trauma instead of a single musical statement – and so it goes on, throughout the movement.

The finale is only the most extreme example of a tendency you can hear throughout the symphony. Seemingly, there’s much more evidence to support the hymn-to-death approach: the halting rhythm you hear right at the start of the symphony in the horn, which becomes a massively disturbing dark fanfare in the rest of the huge first movement, has been interpreted as a transliteration of Mahler’s faltering heartbeat, the rustic-grotesque of the scherzo is a sort of surreal, Brueghel-esque dark pastoral, and the third movement, the Rondo-Burleske, spits out its contrapuntal ferocity with sardonic energy, in what could be Mahler’s “screw-you guys” to those who said he couldn’t write polyphony (in fact this whole symphony sounds out Mahler’s most subtle polyphony of motive, theme and harmony, in ways that really do prefigure Schoenberg's and Webern’s music of the late 19-teens).

But consider this: the sighing idea that you hear in the second violins at the start of the symphony, two notes and an interval (F sharp-E) that are at the heart of the opening movement and the whole symphony’s melodic material, is connected to something rather surprising: a waltz by Johann Strauss that Mahler certainly knew, called Enjoy Life. Mahler makes the thematic link explicit later on in the movement, and clearest of all in its closing bars (listen to this excellent summary of the connections made by this YouTube user) and he does so with tenderness rather than irony. The trauma of the climaxes in this unprecedented first movement is not in doubt, but what’s at stake is what they mean: are they the sounds of a catastrophe that’s about to happen? Or are they the result of a life-force straining every fibre of its being to resist the inevitable, and to relish instead the fragility of life’s pleasures? There is the same dichotomy at play in the scherzo, in which you can interpret the tensions between playfulness and warped, hobbled dance-rhythms as a struggle to hold on to an elusive, simple joyfulness. And in the Rondo-Burleske, in the middle of the storm of counterpoint, there are epiphanies of stillness and visionary escape, as the solo trumpet calls out a melodic figure that will go on to define the next, final movement.

All that means there’s another way of thinking about the finale: it’s music that tries not to depict a musical or philosophical death, but instead, does everything it can to hold on to existence. On that last page, there’s a quote from the fourth of Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder, accompanying the words “the day is beautiful”. Again, it’s an image of hanging on to the beauties of life even in the face of death, rather than a morbid fascination with what lies beyond.

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Yet whatever decisions conductors make about Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, it’s up to us listeners to make of the piece what we want. And what’s thrilling about this music, and the performances below, is that it can be more than one thing simultaneously. One final thought, maybe the most obvious of all: far from going gently into a sort of pre-deathly contemplation, Mahler was full of plans, action, and music in the years when he was writing the Ninth Symphony. He was taking up his post at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, writing Das Lied von der Erde, preparing for the premiere of the Eighth Symphony, and writing, but not completing, what would truly be his last symphony, the Tenth. That’s another danger of thinking about that last page of the Ninth Symphony as the end of Mahler’s compositional life. It’s not: for Mahler, and maybe for us, it should be an insight into life – albeit a life transformed after the intensity of what you’ll have been through after listening to any complete performance of his symphony – rather than a leaving of it.

Five key recordings

1. Bruno Walter/Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra: From 1938, this recording lives and breathes a Mahlerian performance practice that we can now only distantly recreate. It’s essential listening.

2. Leonard Bernstein/Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra: One of the most highly-charged of Bernstein’s Mahler performances, and his only appearance with Karajan’s Berliners – the electricity of the encounter thrills and disturbs through every note.

3. Claudio Abbado/Lucerne Festival Orchestra: A performance that both travels to another realm of experience, but is also full of an irresistible worldly love, of lyricism, of earthiness, of energy.

4. Jonathan Nott/Bamberg Symphony Orchestra: It’s conducted and played with fastidious and immaculate attention to detail, but Nott’s performance also reaches the heights of Mahlerian emotion and extremity.

5. Roger Norrington/Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra: This won’t be to everyone’s tastes, but it’s an important and radical vision of this symphony, stripped not just of vibrato, but any emotional histrionics. And Norrington’s tempos and timings are closer to Walter’s than anyone else’s – but still not quite as quick …

• Donald Runnicles conducts Mahler's Ninth Symphony at the BBC Proms on 4 August with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.

Symphony guide: Beethoven's Sixth ('Pastoral')

Beethoven's Pastoral is no musical cul-de-sac, writes Tom Service. It's a radical work, and in its final movement is music more purely spine-tingling and life-enhancingly joyful than almost anywhere else in his output

This week, Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, his Sixth. Well, it does what it says on the tin, doesn’t it? A sentimental romp through the Viennese countryside, a programmatic sideline to the central sweep of Beethoven’s development, a gentle counterpart to the fire and brimstone of the Fifth Symphony and the bacchanal of the Seventh.

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But that’s only because history, and music history in particular, likes its battles to be epic, its progress to be heroic, and its most important leaps of imagination to be noisy, radical, and aggressive. It’s as if the Fifth Symphony is the “real” Beethoven – Beethoven as all-conquering hero – whereas the Pastoral is a sort of musical and biographical cul-de-sac. And whatever its veracity, the image of Beethoven the nature-loving hippy has proved a much less enticing idea for historians to appropriate than Beethoven storming the gates of revolution in a blaze of C major glory, as he does at the end of the Fifth.

Yet Beethoven wrote this F major Symphony in tandem with the Fifth. It was premiered at the same, over-ambitious concert in December 1808, and as the symphonic yin to the Fifth’s yang, the Sixth Symphony is just as “radical” as the Fifth – in some ways, more so. I think both pieces are experiments in symphonic extremity, because both are pushing completely different musical boundaries to their limits, and beyond. The realisation that Beethoven was composing both symphonies at the same time is simultaneously baffling and astounding – and it’s proof that there ain’t just one Beethoven. On one hand, there’s the scowling man-of-the-people fomenting musical revolution and purging his inner demons through proto-minimalist compression and white-hot energy (that’s the Fifth, by the way!), and on the other, there’s the composer content to luxuriate in an early kind of musique concrète by transcribing birdsong into a symphony, who has time to allow his imagination to flow and fly, apparently unfettered by the constraints of formal convention or symphonic concision (that’s the Pastoral). They’re both wildly different, but they’re still only two sides of the nine-sided coin that is Beethoven’s symphonies.

But in lieu of (m)any other metaphors to riff on, I want to show how Beethoven creates a new kind of symphonic rhetoric in the Pastoral, a universe in which lulling repetition rather than teleological development is what defines the structure, on the small and large-scales, and in which the patterns, continuities, and disturbances of the natural world that Beethoven knew (above all in music’s most violent storm, up to this point of world history, in the Pastoral’s fourth movement!) are transmuted into the discourse of a five-movement symphony.

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Take the central section of the first movement, for example, a passage that’s dominated by a single rhythm – the one you’ve originally heard in the second bar of the piece. It’s like looking at a landscape that changes slowly with the lengthening of the shadows and the deepening of the light, in which time is virtually suspended. That’s a remarkable reversal of symphonic polarity: this place in the first movement of a big symphony is supposed to be full of driving drama and incident, not static contemplation. (Compare this central section with the hell-for-leather momentum of the similar place in the Fifth Symphony). That’s nothing, though, next to the slow movement, the Scene by the Brook (the movements’ titles are all Beethoven’s own), in which Beethoven starts to spin what becomes a nearly continuous stream of semiquavers over a hypnotically repetitious harmonic background and collection of melodic motives in the woodwind and strings – until, that is, the stream reaches a still pool, and a chorus of birds attract our attention, as wanderers through Beethoven’s symphonic stream-scape. The Scherzo’s dances would and could jollily repeat into the infinite were it not for the Storm, which interrupts these “Merry Dances of the Countryfolk”, and cuts across the rest of the symphony both dramatically and temporally. It’s a shocking slice of verticality across the horizontal languorousness of the rest of the symphony. Storms, by their very nature, are protean, non-repeating, violent explosions, and that’s what Beethoven’s music is like too, with some wild rhythmic and textural effects: the churning of four against five in the double-basses and cellos, and electric currents of piccolo, timpani, and trombone. Just as suddenly as it has arrived, this lacerating music subsides, and gives way, without a break, to the most deliriously repeat-laden music in the symphony in the final “Shepherd’s Song: Thankful Feelings after the Storm”.

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And it’s in this movement where Beethoven achieves something more purely spine-tingling and life-enhancingly joyful than almost anywhere else in his output. It’s this place, the climax of the whole movement, and the symphony. This music is also a consummation of the symphony’s spirals of time and pattern: this is the last in the sequence of ever-more intense unfurlings of the movement’s main melodic idea, and Beethoven takes both extremes of orchestral register – high and low – to their utmost extreme, and then resolves a magnificently aching dissonance through a long, slow, descent in pitch, dynamic, and emotional intensity. It’s a moment that works expressively because of its sheer intensity, but which also is the apex of the symphony’s ever-intensifying interplay of cycles and repetitions. There’s more: this passage in the fifth movement rhymes with a similar one in the first movement: the climax of the opening movement is also the resolution of a similar (but not identical) dissonance through a stepwise melodic descent, and it occurs at a similar place in the structure, just before the coda. It’s as if all of these small-scale cycles of repetition are enclosed by an even bigger orbit of time. Orbits and time-flows … “Pastoral”? This music is “cosmic”, too! Now that’s radical.

Five key recordings

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Bayerisches Staatsorchester/Kleiber: turns the “Pastoral” into the “Visceral” – the final movement isn’t so much a hymn as an earthy, elemental dance.

Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique/John Eliot Gardiner: a recording that thrills with the extremes of Beethoven’s vision of the natural world. Is there a more orchestra-shattering Storm on record?

Staatskapelle Dresden/Colin Davis: Davis’s approach lets Beethoven’s music sing, sonorously, deeply – and slowly!

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Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra/Chailly’s modern-orchestra but historically-informed recording is one of the most vivid recent recordings.

Claudio Abbado/Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra: Abbado’s live recording from Rome is lyrically, almost improvisationally irresistible, but it’s also structurally brilliantly achieved.

Symphony guide: Mahler's 6th

In the first of 10 symphony guides to coincide with performances at this year's Proms, Tom Service looks at the triumphs, tragedies and controversies of Mahler's Sixth Symphony.

Mahler’s A-minor Sixth Symphony is a mythical piece. Mahler may or may not have subtitled it “Tragic” at some stage of its composition, and it could, possibly, contain music that consecrates and depicts his wife Alma. It may be “the first nihilist work in the history of music”, as conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler described it. Conductor and friend of Mahler’s Bruno Walter found the piece too expressively dark for him to conduct, since it “ends in hopelessness and the dark night of the soul”. Most significantly, it’s a work you are always told is dangerously, prophetically autobiographical, above all in its final fourth movement, that half-hour-long hallucinogenic, emotional nightmare-scape. When he revised the piece in 1906, Mahler deleted the third of the movement’s hammer-blows – a literal thumping of a gigantic box with a wooden sledge-hammer, as you can see in the Vienna Philharmonic's performance! – supposedly because he was trying to avoid a three-fold jinx of fate. His revisions were futile – the next year in 1907, Mahler had to cope with the death of his daughter, the end of his relationship with the Vienna State Opera, and the diagnosis of the fatal heart condition that would kill him four years later.

Most notoriously of all, this work – we are always told – is the symphony that its composer couldn’t make up his mind in which order to place the movements, whether the scherzo or slow movement should come second. The piece was initially published in one order, but first performed, with Mahler himself conducting, in another. The result has been confusion and consternation for conductors and for listeners about the meaning, structure, and function of the Sixth.

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So let’s deal with these crazy facts first. There ought to be no confusion about the order of the movements (read Jeffrey Gantz’s excellent digest of these issues here), since Mahler never conducted the piece in any order apart from Andante-Scherzo; he felt so strongly about it that, despite having originally conceived the inner movements the other way round, he asked his publisher to insert an erratum into every copy of the first edition, making sure that the symphony would always be played with the slow movement second. Mahler must have felt incredibly strongly since in changing a published score, he was incurring extra costs and risking a critical backlash. The confusion comes only posthumously: Alma Mahler sent conductor Wilhelm Mengelberg a telegram in 1919 suggesting the piece should be played Scherzo-Andante. And then there’s Erwin Ratz’s seemingly unfounded decision to reverse Mahler’s final order in his critical edition of 1963, ever since which conductors and record companies have taken this version as gospel, even though it directly goes against the only Sixth Symphony that Mahler ever knew, conducted, or heard in his lifetime. And the hammer-blows? Again, the idea that these hammer-blows actually represent real or imagined “blows of fate” – as well as being ludicrously superstitious – contradicts the coherent and convincing musical reasons Mahler had for deleting the third thump. (Again, Gantz is a good guide – and again conductors have gone against Mahler’s revisions, reinstating the third blow, thanks in part to another posthumous editorial cock-up).

But whatever the “facts”, these issues won’t go away, since they’re all part of how the piece has been played, interpreted, and heard over the decades – and I’m not going to suggest that any performance of the Sixth that changes Mahler’s order is inherently “wrong”, just that conductors and scholars need to have good reasons for their decisions (like the music-analytic ones put forward, for example, by David Matthews and Norman del Mar).

Ironically, with all of this freight of interpretative controversy, there’s no other symphony in Mahler’s canon like the Sixth that is so much about a direct negotiation with, rather than an obliteration or sublimation of, the conventions of symphonic form. Yes, it’s conceived on a gigantic scale, but this piece is the first four-movement, purely instrumental symphony that Mahler had composed since his First (and even that piece started life as a five-movement quasi-tone-poem). Take the first movement, for example: an Allegro energico that opens with the grim tread of an A-minor march, which is contrasted with a magnificently lyrical second main idea (the supposed “Alma-theme”); the first section is even marked to be repeated, just like in classical symphonies, and the trajectory of this movement ends in the symphony’s most joyous single moment of major-key victory. (That’s the problem with Walter’s and Furtwängler’s descriptions of the Sixth Symphony, and even the “Tragic” epithet: if you hear the piece thinking only of the implacable darkness with which it ends, you miss the true drama, which is that a completely different emotional outcome is possible until the final few minutes. Everything is at stake right until the end of this music, and it’s the fact that this symphony consistently strives for a victory that it doesn’t ultimately win that makes it so emotionally devastating; in that sense, this symphony is the exact opposite of “nihilistic”.)

Yet this piece – like all of the symphonies in this series – is, at every point, challenging conventions even while it fulfils them. And in this piece, it’s how Mahler maintains an abstract musical momentum over the whole structure, even while, moment by moment, his music lurches from the emotional abyss to the mountaintop, and in some passages, can even contain music that sounds like it’s happening outside the frame of the rest of the piece. That’s literally true in the cowbells at the still centre of the first movement; a vision of a world of unsullied nature brought into the concert hall, a prelapsarian pastoralism Mahler then wrenches back into the symphonic present tense of the desperate struggle of the rest of the movement. The cowbells return in the slow movement as part of its relatively tranquil respite; and in the finale, too, where they represent an elusive hope of emotional stability the music will try and fail to achieve. In the scherzo, there’s a grotesque play of music that’s both child-like and “Altväterisch” (“old-fashioned”), but it’s in the finale in which the alchemy of the musical micro- and macro-structures is most vivid, and in which all of the major moments of this huge movement’s architecture are experienced as a twist of the symphonic knife in your very being. Or they should be, if conductor and orchestra are doing their job (as they are in the five performances below!). Those hammer-blows aren’t mere sound and fury; both strokes mark the music’s failed attempts to create a stable, victorious climax, instead of which the music curdles into angst on both occasions just after the percussionist has brought down their hammer. These are the sounds and the physical realisations – as you watch the player lift the hammer above their head and bring it down on the conductor’s cue - of the nail in the coffin of the fate of the symphony’s hero, whoever that is.

That’s another problem with conventional ways of thinking about this piece. If you conceive of it as autobiographical, then its journey to the final extinguishing of all hope in its final bars, and the last, shocking appearance of the fatalistic rhythm that has dominated both the first movement and the finale, is limited in its power: it depicts a figure who is someone apart from us – Mahler himself, or some other symphonic super-ego. Instead, I think the piece should feel as if it’s us in the audience who are the heroes and heroines who are not just depicted but implicated in the symphony’s drama. And paradoxically, this symphony has a cathartic and even life-affirming power, precisely because it confronts us with the limits of musical and symphonic existence, and creates sonic extremities that are still, more than a century on, unique to this score. They are evident above all in the dream-like soundscapes of the opening of the finale, music that returns throughout the fourth movement; each time intensified, as each rotation of the symphonic wheel only brings the music closer to its ultimate oblivion. And that’s perhaps the greatest irony of all, that this most outwardly coherent of Mahler’s symphonies, with its four instrumental movements, should prove the most surreal, sonically imaginative and emotionally disturbing of them all.

Five key recordings

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Ivan Fischer/Budapest Festival Orchestra: a performance of clarity, coherence, and musical focus, whose emotional impact comes from its objective revelation of Mahler’s symphonic structure.

Claudio Abbado/Lucerne Festival Orchestra: one of the central achievements of the partnership between Abbado and his Lucerne players, making Mahler’s piece an unforgettable existential journey.

Klaus Tennstedt/London Philharmonic Orchestra: playing and conducting pitched at the very edge of Mahler’s symphonic abyss.

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Leonard Bernstein/Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra: an alchemy of orchestral virtuosity, expressive intensity, and interpretative imagination.

Jascha Horenstein/Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra: Horenstein’s live performance is one of the grittiest and grandest of this symphony ever recorded.

• Valery Gergiev conducts Mahler’s Sixth Symphony with the World Orchestra for Peace at the Proms on Sunday 20 July. Details: bbc.co.uk/proms

Symphony guide: Liszt's Faust Symphony

Liszt's Faust Symphony blows the bogus symphonic vs programme music debate out of the water

A notional “symphonic principle” has implicitly underscored much of the discussion of the pieces in this series thus far. The idea of symphonic “integrity” (another word that needs to be in quotation marks!) is often contrasted in music-historical writing with its orchestral antipode in the 19th century, “programme music” - music that sets out to tell an “extra-musical” narrative, such as attempting to describe a work from literature, or a natural phenomenon, or a painterly image in sound; as if the former were the one true faith of music history, and the latter were a somehow less “pure” (quotation marks again, sorry) form of music.

Now, I hope I’ve demonstrate that those boundaries are much more fluid than that simple-minded distinction suggests, and that symphonies that are supposed bulwarks of “purity” or “integrity” are as porous to meanings, interpretations, and story-telling – often more so! – than orchestral pieces that really do set out to tell a story, whether a pre-existing one, such as Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony, or a new narrative, say Strauss’s Sinfonia Domestica. And more than that, I hope this series, above anything else it might do, has demonstrated how the “symphonic principle” is always about telling stories and doing cultural work; and that any symphony – even the most apparently abstract – is never, ever, about just pushing notes around a piece of paper in a hermetically sealed cultural vacuum, but is an active engagement with the world of the composer who wrote it, the time and place it was written in, the way it’s been received, and the range of its interpretations.

All of which is a monumental upbeat to this week’s symphony: Liszt’s Faust Symphony. This even more monumental work – it’s about 75 minutes long - was inspired by Goethe’s Faust, and each of the three movements is an epic depiction and conjuring of one of the characters from the defining work of German romanticism: Faust, Gretchen, and Mephistopheles. In each movement you will hear a crystallisation of the particular character. The first music to be played in the Faust movement sounds out an existential ennui in a searchingly chromatic melody, a tune – and it really is a tune! – that includes all 12 pitches of the chromatic scale, a melody written in 1854, nearly 70 years before Schoenberg’s serialism. Faust’s music moves through nostalgia and heroism in the enormous, half-hour-long drama of this movement. Gretchen’s music in the almost equally long second movement is pastoral, dream-like, and diaphanous; and then in the third tableau, Mephisto’s is a warped, Satanic, but thrilling corruption and distortion of Faust’s music. And all that sound and fury comes before the most remarkable passage in the symphony, music that presages Wagner’s music of the Ring Cycle and Parsifal, and without which there would be a gaping hole at the heart of 19th century music: the Chorus Mysticus that Liszt added to the piece in 1857, for a choir of male voices and a solo tenor who sings words from end of the second part of Faust, Goethe’s invocation of and paean to the Eternal Feminine.

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Liszt – older than Wagner by just two years, his future father-in-law, the greatest piano virtuoso of all time, yet still in thrall to Wagner’s musical magnetism - played this piece and his Dante Symphony to him in 1856. Wagner was obviously so inspired by what he heard that he nicked whole ideas from it - its thematic material, harmonic flexibility, and orchestrational sensuality - in everything from Die Walküre to Tristan und Isolde, from Siegfried to Parsifal. And if you're minded, you can hear pre-echoes of Bruckner’s harmonic language in the Faust Symphony, as well as Mahler’s emotional intensity, and even of the expressionist angst of the turn of the century as well. Liszt’s Faust is a genuinely prophetic piece.

But there’s a bigger issue at stake in Liszt’s symphony, which returns us to the programme music vs symphonic music debate. For Liszt, his orchestral music – including his tone-poems as well his symphonies on Faust and Dante – wasn’t an attempt to do something “extra-musical”, in the sense of relying on outside sources - stories or images or plays - for its expressive concentration. Instead, they are proof of what Liszt felt the true power of music could be: that it could do something much more elemental than simply represent or stand metaphorically for ideas or emotions – it could actually embody them as experiences. Music, for Liszt, possessed a magical power that could transcend other art-forms by becoming the sublime, otherworldly, and transcendent encounters that painting or literature could only symbolise. Which all means that the Faust Symphony’s daemonic power is definitively, inherently intra-musical as opposed to “extra-musical” - and it expands the definition and reach of the symphony at the same time. It’s an essential piece for this series, in other words!

Five key recordings

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Boston Symphony Orchestra/Leonard Bernstein: Bernstein’s performance doesn’t just wear Faust’s heart on his sleeve; he proves the power of the piece as programme-transcending masterpiece.

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Thomas Beecham: Beecham did more than any conductor to make the Faust Symphony part of the repertoire again, after decades of absence: his uniquely compelling advocacy tells you why it worked!

BBC Philharmonic Orchestra/Gianandrea Noseda: Noseda plays the original version, without the chorus, which leaves the final transcendent moments to the orchestra alone - it will sound truncated to anyone who is used to the chorus, but Noseda makes as good a case as possible for Liszt's initial intentions.

Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Georg Solti: Solti’s performance is full of clarity and colour – and diabolical violence, too, when the last movement requires it.

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Daniel Barenboim: not just a master of Liszt’s piano music, Barenboim makes the case for Liszt, symphonist, in a performance that never indulges in the big moments, but creates real dramatic momentum.

Symphony guide: Schubert's Ninth ('the Great')

Schubert's ninth symphony quotes Beethoven's own ninth. An homage - ironic or not - or his own statement of grand symphonic intent? Tom Service unpicks Schubert's great, and final, symphony

Here’s the thing about Schubert. Far from the chubby little mushroom (“Schwammerl” was his mates’ nickname for him) that history has largely turned him into, Schubert was a person of huge creative ambition, who knew what was at stake for him in early 1820s Vienna. With a looming sense of his own mortality, especially after his devastating bout of syphilis in 1822 (an experience that may have been the catalyst for the other of his symphonies in this series, the Unfinished), Schubert’s feeling of the necessity of doing the things he had to as a composer, and doing them right now, was one of the driving forces of his virtually ceaseless creativity all the way up to his death, at the age of 31 in 1728.

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And that meant, for Schubert, coming to terms with the achievement of the most famous composer in the world, a neighbour of his in his home city, Ludwig van Beethoven. In a few short years, Schubert (27 years younger than Beethoven) had to pay homage to Beethoven’s gigantic influence, but also – crucially – he had to have the courage to realise that what he could do as a composer was radically different from what Beethoven could, and then have the gumption to go ahead and do it.

Which is why, in the finale of Schubert’s Ninth Symphony, the “Great” C Major, there’s a quotation from the most infamous contemporary symphony, Beethoven’s Ninth. Schubert wrote his own ninth symphony in 1825, a year after Beethoven’s had its premiere, which the younger composer also attended. And on one hand, with this quotation from the Ode to Joy theme from Beethoven’s epic finale he was explicitly acknowledging his debt to him, but he was also daring to compete with Beethoven’s signature reputation as a symphonist.

And yet it’s not that simple. Schubert’s quotation comes at the middle point of his finale - one of the wildest rhythmical rides in symphonic literature - and it appears out of the blue. Instead of telegraphing this moment, or preparing us for a big musical reveal, Schubert slips this tune, pianissimo, in the clarinets and woodwind; there’s another pianissimo tremor in the strings, also based on the Ode to Joy tune; and all of that, it turns out, is a dream-like upbeat before Schubert concentrates on the main drama of the movement.

And that drama has nothing to do with Beethoven’s symphony, or even much to do with Beethoven’s symphonism – which makes the quote more ironic than forelock-tugging. What I think Schubert is doing in this piece is showing that his own brand of tonal dramaturgy, one that so often produced lyrical reflection and a-temporal meditation, and was equally capable of creating and sustaining large-scale symphonic momentum. In one sense, the Great C Major Symphony is less extreme than its aborted predecessor, the “Unfinished” B Minor Symphony, since the expressive world of the C major piece is less raw and uncompromising. But it’s also more ambitious because its completed symphonic journey is a self-conscious mark in the music-historical sand. (Even if it’s one that took decades to come to public life - it only got its posthumous premiere in 1839, thanks to the efforts of Felix Mendelssohn and Robert Schumann, whose review coined the notorious phrase, “heavenly length”, a tag that has stuck to this piece and to Schubert’s late music in general.)

I want to pick out some structural details for you, whether you might be coming to the symphony for the first time, think that the piece is dauntingly long, or are someone who has encountered the cliché that Schubert’s symphony is all about endless repetition and not much dynamic progression. Consider the following: the way the second theme in the first movement starts off in E minor rather the G major you should rightly expect; and the way Schubert ties the room together in the first movement’s coda, introducing the theme of the slow introduction to clinch the music’s architectural momentum. The A minor slow movement does just as strange things with key-centres as the first movement, making sideways moves by thirds instead of conventional fifths – forget the jargon, the point is the emotional effect this produces when you hear the music: shifting by thirds creates a different kind of musical movement: it’s more like walking into a new room, to be surprised and even shocked at how different it is to where you were before, rather than progressing through a slowly- but logically-changing landscape. (There’s another great example of that in the transition in the scherzo movement to its trio section, where Schubert repeats a single note to the point where it’s removed from its harmonic context, allowing him to slip into a totally different key, from C major to A major as if by magic.)

The slow movement climaxes with a passage of terrifying contrapuntal severity and massive, inconsolable dissonance, an experience that taints the return of the innocent little tune you heard at the start. Then come the scherzo and the finale, two of the most rhythmically relentless pieces in the orchestral repertoire. In the finale, listen out for the 22 repetitions of the same obstinate harmony in the woodwinds and brass for a moment of genuine orchestral weirdness; and thrill, right at the end of the piece, when the violins at last fulfil the destiny of one of the tunes they’ve been playing, over and over again, by celebrating its cadence into C major. Schubert never completed another symphony, but it would take musical culture until late into the 19th century to digest and understand what he had really achieved in this one-of-a-kind piece.

Five key recordings

Günter Wand/Berliner Philharmoniker: there’s a thrilling electricity in this live recording, both lyrical and inextinguishable.

Roger Norrington/Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra: breathless, for some, revelatory for others, Norrington makes the C major symphony a scruff-of-the-neck experience.

Jonathan Nott/Bamberg Symphony Orchestra: among the best recent recordings, I think: Nott’s apparent interpretative restraint reveals the unadulterated power of the piece.

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Wilhelm Furtwängler/Berliner Philharmoniker: A typically Furtwänglerian balance of unstoppable momentum and expressive intensity, from 1953.

Claudio Abbado/Chamber Orchestra of Europe: …mind you, by completely different means, Abbado achieves the same thing!

Symphony guide: Bruckner's 6th

Bruckner's "saucy" sixth is the symphony that disproves those lazy received opinions about his music

“He wrote the same symphony nine times.” "His one-dimensional orchestration is all thanks to his training as an organist.” They're "cathedrals of sound.” "They sound like Schenkerian middlegrounds” … and other such clichés. (Full marks if you got the last one, by the way, but I promise that’s what some musical analysts, especially those disciples of Heinrich Schenker, think of the symphonies. What it means in essence is that Bruckner’s symphonies move like great undigested wodges of harmony rather than being fully finished in proper compositional finery: it’s saying they’re great symphonic lumps, basically, calling to mind Brahms’s hoary old gag that Bruckner’s symphonies sound like “symphonic boa-constrictors”.

So this week, a Bruckner symphony – the sixth - that disproves these lazy received opinions about his music (he wrote 11 symphonies, in any case, not nine: check out numbers “0” and “00” – seriously, the “Doppelnullte” or Study Symphony in F Minor !), and which proves, I think, that his symphonic concerns weren’t always - and I don’t think they ever were – about constructing neo-medieval sonic edifices of mystical contemplation, but rather about connecting the earth with the cosmos, the human with the spiritual, the saucy with the sublime. Saucy? Well, yes, that’s one translation of how Bruckner himself described the Sixth: “Die Sechste ist die keckste”. And the “sauce” of the Sixth Symphony is its dynamism, its astonishing rhythmic invention and subtlety, and the unique orchestral colours in the Bruckner canon. So instead of focusing on its monumentalism or the largest scale of its macro-tonal adventure, I want instead, by focusing on a handful of moments, to try and show how strange and subtle this symphony is.

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And let’s start, obviously, with third movement, the scherzo. The sound this music makes is unlike any of Bruckner’s other scherzo movements; not just because of its slower tempo than most of the other comparable movements, but because of its atmosphere of feverish harmonic ambiguity and almost grotesque contrasts of texture: the unsettling trudge in the cellos and the basses that you feel wants to resolve but which never properly does (at least, not until the end of the main scherzo section); those scratchy staccatos in the violas and second violins; the glinting filament of the high unison line in the woodwind; and those searching arpeggios in the first violins, which seem to dream of a harmonic stability that the rest of the orchestral texture stubbornly refuses to satisfy – and all that in the first 10 bars! But this passage – and the rest of the mysterious progress of the rest of the scherzo - symbolises the distinctive soundworld of this symphony, especially its employment of so many simultaneous musical strata. It’s the diametric opposite of a musical monolith, but rather a multifaceted, multi-layered - multi-“sauced” – symphonic experience, whose kaleidoscopic orchestration is a crucial part of how its essential drama is communicated: richer, by far, than anything a supposed “organist of the orchestra” could come up with.

And talking of musical strata, of co-existing lines of musical material, above all material with different rhythmic profiles, listen to this passage from the first movement, the climax of the music’s singing second theme. That theme starts out pitting rhythmic groups of two against three, and three against four, but it gets more complicated than that. As Julian Horton has revealed in a brilliant essay on Bruckner’s orchestration, there are six layers of rhythmic stratification simultaneously happening at this moment, creating a teeming and even grating polyphony of different kinds of time against one another. In one half-bar unit (two crotchets), you’re hearing rhythmic divisions of nine against three against two against one. (Although in reality it’s even more complex that those ratios, since the second violins split their “three” into two[quavers] + three[quavers] +one [triplet crotchet]… Still with me? Never fear: read Horton’s whole article if you can!). That sort of thinking – and that sort of sound – blows out of the water the idea that Bruckner was writing pieces that were rough-hewn or unfinished. That passage rivals Brahms’s Rite-of-Spring moment in his Fourth Symphony for rhythmic sophistication; whereas that’s an uncommon moment in Brahms’s symphony, it’s part of the warp and weft of Bruckner’s entire symphony.

Another cliché-destroying moment is the very opening of the symphony. No timeless mist of string tremolando here, no self-confident theme of simple-minded arpeggios rising out of the gloom, but instead, a rhythmic itch in the violins (itself a compound of divisions of the crotchet into four and then three…), and a profoundly harmonically unstable melody – or better, melodic fragment – in the cellos and basses, a dark cousin of the horn tune at the opening of Bruckner’s 4th Symphony. This is music whose instabilities and collisions catalyse the rest of the movement, and the whole of the rest of the symphony. Again: instead of the monolithic or the monumental, this is a symphony made from its drama and its dynamism.

I said I wouldn’t harp on the sixth symphony’s macro-structure, but a couple of its most thrilling moments are made because of the bigger structural energies that are at stake. One is the way the main tune returns in the first movement, something Bruckner makes you think has already happened by this point – but in fact we’re in the wrong key, and not just a bit “wrong”, but we’re catastrophically far away from home, from where we should be, the key of A major/minor. In fact, Bruckner has spectacularly taken the rug from under your ears by reprising the melody first in E flat major/minor, the furthest end of the tonal spectrum from A. Yet that’s where, miraculously, he drives the music 14 bars later, when the timpani join in, the dynamic level goes up from fortissimo to forte-fortissimo, and A major/minor is triumphantly reclaimed. It’s a spine-tingling moment of perfectly timed musical drama, I think, a passage whose effect is achieved only thanks to Bruckner’s astonishing sense of symphonic theatre. Yet more music that doesn’t belong in a cathedral.

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The Adagio that comes second is one of Bruckner’s most heart-breaking slow movements. It includes a repeated melody I’ve always thought of as a funeral march. And making a connection across the symphony, one of the finale’s tunes is a hyperactive transformation of the unforgettable, lamenting oboe line you hear at the start of the Adagio. But best and perhaps most cliché-beating of all is the sense at the end of the finale that all of the threads – and all of those grinding symphonic strata – have not in fact been tied together. Yes, Bruckner brings back the melody from the first movement, and there’s a brief and noisy coda, but the emotional sense of this truncated apotheosis of the symphony is of questions that are left unanswered, of a symphonic drama that is left ambivalently open rather than cosmically closed.

That has troubled some Brucknerian commentators, who want to imagine that every Bruckner symphony ought to be a closed universe of musical and expressive experience. But why should that be the case? Instead of a sign of symphonic inadequacy, that emotional ambiguity is proof that the sixth achieves something completely different from the rest of Bruckner’s other symphonies, and it’s why I think its febrile drama resonates so profoundly after you’ve heard the whole piece. You’ll want to return again and again to this symphony and its stupendous - yet “saucy” - drama.

Five key recordings

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Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra/Roger Norrington: Norrington’s no-vibrato crusade pay dividends, I think, in the slow movement, connecting the work with the earlier polyphony that Bruckner knew so well.

Staatskapelle Dresden/Eugen Jochum: Jochum doesn’t take anything for granted in a performance of searing imagination.

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New Philharmonia Orchestra/Otto Klemperer: Klemperer's structural authority places the sixth firmly in the tradition of Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Schubert.

London Symphony Orchestra/Colin Davis: the closely-miked sound of this LSO Live recording amplifies the sense of feverish energy in Davis’s performance.

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Wilhelm Furtwängler [movements 2-4 only]: Sadly the first movement of this performance wasn’t preserved for posterity – but the rest

Symphony guide: Mozart's 41st ('Jupiter')

Mozart's 41st symphony - the last he composed - is full of postmodernism, palimpsests, and pure exhilaration

 “You’re a little dull/ My dear Pompeo/The ways of the world/Go study them”. The words of the aria, “Un bacio di mano” (“A kiss on the hand”), composed as an insert for Pasquale Anfossi’s opera Le gelosie fortunate by Mozart in 1788, to words probably by Lorenzo da Ponte. And what, pray, has that got to do with Mozart’s C Major Symphony K551, known since the early 19th century as the “Jupiter”? Well, rather a lot, actually: the music that accompanies those words in the aria also makes a cheeky and unexpected appearance just before the end of the first section of the first movement. This is a self-quotation that’s completely unnecessary according to the tonal and harmonic drama of the symphony so far. Mozart has got himself into the right key, he’s done all the hard work of modulating from C major to G major, and he’s already written one of the most memorable first sections to a symphony that anyone had conceived up to this point, the summer of 1788. So why risk interpolating yet another tune into the concatenation of ideas that he’s already given his listeners, and asked his orchestra to dramatise; and a melody, what’s more, that comes from a different expressive world, the low comedy of opera buffa as opposed to high-minded symphonic discussion? Mozart puts the whole structure of this movement on the line, seemingly for the sake of a compositional joke. It’s a piece of postmodernism avant la lettre, and the kind of thing that Beethoven, for all his iconoclasm, hardly risked in the same way in his symphonies.

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This musical intervention is usually passed over in the way the symphony is performed and heard today. It’s as if this music has become too familiar, so we don’t often hear what I think the Jupiter symphony is really about. For me, this C major symphony is written at the furthest edges of the possible for Mozart, in terms of seeing just how many different expressive and compositional contrasts he can cram into a single symphony. And he’s not doing that for the sake of reconciling these opposites or to create a greater unity (the kind of thing that we like to imagine Mozart was up to, because we prefer to think of him as a romantic idealist rather than an 18th century humanist). Rather, I think he’s trying to achieve a complexity of emotional experience and richness of invention that is poised – sometimes on this side, sometimes on the other! – of a musical cliff-edge of coherence. A bit like the mixed metaphors of that sentence; what I mean is that this is a symphony of extremes, something that’s symbolised in the juxtaposition of the martial and the plangent in the two ideas you hear in the symphony’s very first four bars (Nikolaus Harnoncourt dramatises that initial collision best of all in his recording.)

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But back to that interpolatory opera buffa melody: listen to what René Jacobs does in his performance with the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, slowing the music right down to force you to be conscious of how weird this moment actually is, before speeding up to the “correct” tempo. In fact, Jacobs is only restoring the tune to the speed you would hear the melody at when it’s sung as an aria, making us aware that something from another world has landed in the world of the symphony. And Mozart’s secret is only revealed after you’ve heard the repeat of the first section. In the central part of the movement, this innocent little tune is exposed to all of the contrapuntal experience Mozart can muster, so instead of opera buffa, the tune is forced into a crucible of highfalutin compositional mastery and chromatic intensity. It’s a fulfilment of the prophecy of the words that originally accompany this music in Anfossi’s opera (they’re initially a warning about the fickleness of beautiful women, a trope of 18th century operatic stories); an exhortation to “study” and to be immersed in the “ways of the world”. It’s an intertextual gag of the highest musical and dramatic subtlety.

And that kind of compositional and expressive high-wire act is what defines this symphony, all the way through. There isn’t time or space here to wax lyrical about the expanded song-form of the slow movement - among the most achingly sensual pieces of instrumental music that Mozart ever wrote, and certainly the most precipitously emotionally ambiguous slow movement in his symphonies; or to expound upon how the chromatic descent of the opening tune of the Menuetto is a transformation of an idea you’ve heard in the first movement (the second main melody of the Allegro vivace, since you ask), or how the trio section is an artfully artless prefiguration of the main motif of the finale.

However, I do have to tell you about that final movement. Famously, this Molto Allegro fuses sonata form with fugue; that’s to say, it fuses the high-watermark of late 18th century practice in instrumental music with the most prestigious, and most compositionally involved, form of counterpoint in earlier music: the fugues of the Baroque, like those by Bach and Handel, that Mozart knew and loved. But that’s not, in itself, an original idea – and neither is the four-note melodic tag (C-D-F-E) that is catalyst for this explosion of contrapuntal mastery. Mozart borrowed his supposed symphonic innovation from the Haydn brothers, Joseph (the famous one) and Michael (less famous, but equally influential on Mozart). We know that Mozart wanted to hear the latest fugues from Michael’s symphonies, which were written in Salzburg, and he asked his father to send them to him. That means he would have known the finale of Michael’s 28th Symphony, with its obsessive fugato, also in C major; probably the fugue that crowns his 34th, in E flat major; and quite possibly another fugue-finale from his 39th symphony, also in C major, composed just a few months before Mozart’s. The similarities between Michael’s 29th and 39th, and Mozart’s 41st are sometimes startling, as you can hear. Even more shocking, have a listen to this, the final movement of Joseph’s 13th Symphony, written in 1764. There’s the very same four-note idea used as the basis of a contrapuntal work-out of a symphonic finale. There ain’t nothing so old – or so new – as a fugato-style finale.

And that four-note motif has a history, and not just in Mozart’s own music (you can hear it most clearly in the Credo of his Missa Brevis K192, and in his 1st and 33rd Symphonies) and that of his contemporaries. In fact, it goes back to a 13th-century hymn attributed to Thomas of Aquinas, Pange Lingua, which Josquin des Prez used as the basis for probably his last Mass setting in 1515. Since then, the four-note melody at the start of the third line of the original hymn (which Josquin employs as a contrapuntal catalyst in his Kyrie) has turned up throughout musical history, especially as a fugal inspiration. That includes its use by Johannes Fux, the 17th and 18th century composer and theorist, in his famous textbook of musical polyphony Gradus ad Parnassum (which Mozart knew, and used in his own teaching of his English pupil, Thomas Attwood).

Which all means that Mozart’s composition of the finale of the Jupiter Symphony is a palimpsest on music history as well as his own. As a musical achievement, its most obvious predecessor is really the fugal finale of his G major String Quartet K387, but this symphonic finale trumps even that piece in its scale and ambition. If the story of that operatic tune first movement is to turn instinctive emotion into contrapuntal experience, the finale does exactly the reverse, transmuting the most complex arts of compositional craft into pure, exhilarating feeling. Its models in Michael and Joseph Haydn are unquestionable, but Mozart simultaneously pays homage to them – and transcends them. Now that’s what I call real originality.

Five key recordings

Freiburg Baroque Orchestra/René Jacobs: music-making that restores the shock of the new to Mozart’s symphony. Quite right, too.

Chamber Orchestra of Europe/Nikolaus Harnoncourt: Harnoncourt is scarcely less imaginative than Jacobs, and finds details in the part-writing of the finale that no-one else reveals.

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Thomas Beecham: OK, so Beecham doesn’t do the repeats, as he should do, but the warmth and subtlety of his Mozart are second to none.

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Scottish Chamber Orchestra/Charles Mackerras: unfailingly satisfying symphonic logic from Mackerras and the SCO.

Staatskapelle Berlin/Richard Strauss: irresistible wildness (the speed, and the variation of tempo, in the finale!) and lucidity in Strauss’s 1926 performance, and some astonishing playing.

Symphony guide: Janáček's Sinfonietta

With its military bands, dazzling fanfares, and cinematic jump-cuts, Janáček's Sinfonietta is a unique symphonic proposition, sounding as new now as it did at its premiere in 1926.

title, surely: Janáček’s Sinfonietta is precisely that; an orchestral divertissement and an occasional entertainment rather than an actual “symphony”. If you think that a piece that begins and ends with a phalanx of military fanfares, performed by an additional ensemble of 13 brass players - including nine trumpets – can’t possibly be taken seriously as one of the 20th century’s most compelling symphonies, then look away now. But I’m here to make the case for Janâček’s work (one of his final masterpieces, premiered in 1926, two years before his death) as the product of a unique approach to symphonic form, for the 1920s – or indeed for any other time.

Some background before we get to the music. The Sinfonietta is among the only orchestral pieces – and it’s certainly the best of an admittedly small field – to have been composed for a “gymnastic festival”, a movement called “Sokol” that celebrated youth, sport and independent nationhood. That self-confident nationalism, of which Janâček was a lifelong proponent, is symbolised by the work’s dedication, to the “Czechoslovak Armed Forces”, and with music that he said embodied the ideals of “contemporary free man, his spiritual beauty and joy, his strength, courage and determination to fight for victory”. It might seem an uncomfortably bellicose sentiment today, but that spirit of earthy independence is a crucial part of the musical fabric of the Sinfonietta, not least in those fanfares that open the work and crown its five-movement progress 20 minutes later. This is music that Janâček wanted ideally to be played by a military band like the one he'd heard a few years prior to the composition of Sinfonietta, and whose music he wrote down in the composing notebook he took everywhere with him. If you had to perform the Sinfonietta without a military ensemble, Janâček said (as it almost always is in concert halls these days), make sure the brass players sound as rough, brash, and bright as an army band. (And given what happens when you ask a massed group of trumpeters to give it laldy, they usually do!...)

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There’s another layer of association in this music, since the titles of the individual movement refer to places in Brno, the city where he grew up. (Watch Janâček’s fellow Brno-ian, conductor Jakob Hruša, here on how he hears the movements of Sinfonietta relative to the places they’re inspired by: the Castle, the Queen’s Monastery, Brno’s bustling street life and its town hall.) But in a similar alchemy to the way Janâček’s operas work, it’s the way that he manages to turn these profoundly local and personal ideas and inspirations into something universal – or at least, something that communicates as vividly to us now as it did back in 1926 in its first performance in Prague – that makes the piece so immediately powerful.

And that’s because of the way Janâček’s music moves and works in time. Yes, the fanfares are unmistakable and irresistible when you hear them for the first or the 500th time, but Janâček’s musical thinking is working on multiple layers simultaneously. On one hand, the jump-cuts and juxtapositions of Janâček’s music, the way he repeats little cells of music and then without warning moves to a new idea, means that you experience a continuous sense of surprise and suspense when you hear this piece. That kind of cinematic editing and shuffling of musical time seems to be the opposite of the conventional symphonic principle, substituting a logic of surreal colours, unpredictable textures and even less predictable timing for the development, argument, and discourse of proper symphonic behaviour. But Janâček’s music is doing something else, too, since the thematic material you hear throughout the piece is connected through a subtle web of musical family relationships, with many of the tunes closely related to the opening fanfare idea, so that its return at the end of the whole work seems not just like a glorious, riotous coda to the Sinfonietta, but the conclusion of a mysteriously compelling - and yes, "symphonic" - process.

Yet it’s the surprises I think you will remember the most if you haven’t heard this Sinfonietta before, such as the manic trombone solo in the middle of the third movement, or the wild interjections of the cellos and basses near the start of the fourth movement, which angrily dismiss yet another tattoo from a solo trumpet, or the sensual melancholy that starts the final section, with a fragment of melody in the flutes answered by a sighing consolation in the strings. And if you’ve heard the piece in the concert hall, you can’t forget the sheer, blazing thrill of that coruscating brass sound at the very end of the work. But don’t just take my word for it, ask Haruki Murakami, who used the Sinfonietta as the musical leitmotif of his novel 1Q84, after which sales of the piece shot up in Japan. Told you this piece transformed the local into the universal.

Five key recordings

All of these performances are variously dazzling and revealing; magnificent as they are, they should be upbeats for where the Sinfonietta is at its best, in live performance.

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Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Mackerras

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Rattle

Bamberg Symphony Orchestra/Nott

London Symphony Orchestra/Abbado

Czech Philharmonic Orchestra/Belohlavek

Symphony guide: Brahms's Fourth

This symphony might a reliable and over-familiar staple on concert programmes, but listen to it with fresh ears. It contains some of the darkest and deepest music in the 19th century

The very first people to hear or see any part of Brahms’s Fourth Symphony in 1885 had some surprisingly heretical things to say about the piece. Brahms and a friend played through the symphony on the piano to a group of his closest confidants, critics and collaborators, but the reaction was one of those devastatingly uncomfortable silences. Eduard Hanslick, Brahms’s critical champion, broke the uneasy atmosphere after the first movement with the unforgettable comment, “I feel I’ve just been beaten up by two terribly intelligent people”. As Brahms’s biographer Jan Swafford reveals, another friend, the writer Max Kalbeck, turned up at Brahms’s apartment the next day to recommend that the composer should not release the piece to the public in its current form. Instead, he suggested, he should keep the finale as a stand-alone piece, and replace both the slow movement and the scherzo. Riven by self-doubt, Brahms was unsure that he would allow the piece to have any life beyond its premiere in Meiningen that October. Only the work’s positive reception there, and the gradual, grudging change in his friends’ attitude to the piece at its Viennese premiere, convinced Brahms that the Fourth Symphony could survive.

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That less-than-straightforward gestation seems hard to believe nowadays, when Brahms's Fourth Symphony is trotted out on concert programmes as a sure-fire way to put bums on seats, with its comfortingly familiar melodies and melancholy, its promise of satisfying symphonic coherence, and its apparently easy appeal to musicians, conductors and audiences. But I think those early commentators were on to something – not in terms of the work’s failure to live up to the promise of its three symphonic predecessors, but in the sense of the uncompromising intellectual complexity and refinement of this music, and its expressive implacability and even tragedy. You hear that above all in the final movement, the passacaglia, which ends with one of the bleakest minor-key cadences in symphonic music.

This is a symphony that ought to leave you intellectually battered and emotionally bruised rather than superficially consoled. So what’s bizarre is the idea that Brahms’s Fourth Symphony represents a nice night out at your local concert hall. This music is some of the darkest and deepest in the 19th century. What you’re hearing in it is an E minor nail in the coffin of the possibility of a symphonic happy ending. Jan Swafford goes even further, calling the piece “a funeral song for [Brahms’s] heritage, for a world at peace, for an Austro-German middle class that honored and understood music like no other culture, for the sweet Vienna he knew, for his own lost loves”; it’s a work that “narrates a progression from a troubling twilight to a dark night: fin de siècle”, instead of the “darkness to light” trajectories of so many minor-key 19th century symphonies, which end in a major key – think of Beethoven’s Fifth and Ninth, or all of Bruckner’s completed minor-key symphonies. And for the musicologist Reinhold Brinkmann, “The chorales in [Brahms’s] First and Third Symphonies resound with ‘hope,’ directly and positively ... With its negative ending, the Fourth Symphony denies this hope; it is the composed revocation of it.”

What’s astonishing about Brahms’s achievement in the Fourth Symphony is that this ferocity and concentration of expression is achieved not through a heightened emotional rhetoric, but through a relentless focus on supposedly “abstract” musical details. I’ll explain those quotation marks later, but to get a sense of the all-pervasive nature of Brahms’s musical thinking in this piece, you only have to hear - or re-hear - the very opening of the piece. That melody – criminally over-familiar to many of our ears today! – is built from a series of descending and ascending thirds, a favourite Brahmsian device, and a decidedly systematic approach to building a musical melody that he nonetheless turns into one of the most immediately attractive moments in his symphonic output. But it’s the construction that counts here, because that chain of thirds allows Brahms to outline the principal tonal areas of the symphony: there is an unusual emphasis in the melody on the flat-submediant of the E minor scale (C major), which is the home key of the third movement, it’s one of the tonal pivots of the slow movement, and it’s important in the finale too. But this melody also functions as a kind of generative DNA for the first movement’s - and the whole symphony’s - motivic drama. What I mean by that is the continuous meshing, churning and changing of musical ideas that Brahms creates, so that each line of music in the orchestral score functions as a cog in a symphonic machine. Arnold Schoenberg thought of this sort of compositional process – in which everything you hear can be understood as a transformation of a series of musical motives - as evidence of “Brahms the Progressive” (as he dubbed him in a famous essay): Brahms’s motivic manipulation is a kind of precursor of Schoenberg’s “composition with 12 tones”, his serialism. But for others, this technique is an all-too obvious sign of Brahms’s conscious cleverness. That’s what Hanslick meant about being beaten up by two intelligent people, and it’s precisely the idea that Thomas Adès sends up in his piece, Brahms, for baritone and orchestra, setting a poem by Alfred Brendel.

In Adès’s piece, those chains of thirds from the start of the Fourth Symphony descend into a kind of musical oblivion, obliterated by their own logic. But in a way, that’s exactly that Brahms himself does in the Fourth Symphony. Brahms takes his techniques to compositional extremes. So much so that, as the composer and conductor Gunther Schuller points out in his book The Compleat Conductor, there are passages in the first movement that create “a multi-layered structure of such complexity that I dare say there is nothing like it even in the Rite of Spring; one has to turn to Ives’s Fourth Symphony to find a parallel” – he means this place of teeming rhythmic and polyphonic intensity – and later, Schuller identifies “one of the more complex and motivically convoluted passages in all music”, in the first movement’s central section. Brahms’s music demands this kind of forensic attention to detail to reveal its full riches, but in the symphony as a whole, the brilliance of the piece is to carry you through its structure, whatever of its motivic felicities you consciously appreciate when you’re listening. What you can’t escape is that the expressive intensity that you hear in the Fourth Symphony is a direct result of the density of its compositional thinking. Listen to the way the second movement sounds its lonely modal introduction before relaxing into a chromatically inflected E major; or hear how the scherzo’s galumphing energy also continues the symphony’s motivic journey: at the climax of this most extrovert movement in Brahms’s symphonic canon, the widely and wildly-spaced notes prefigure the main melody of the finale.

The finale. Brahms’s symphonic passacaglia is when I can explain the meaning of those “abstract” quotation marks. This is one of the most tightly constructed movements ever composed, with 30 variations (and a concluding coda) on the melody you hear blazed out at the beginning in the brass and woodwind; that melody is part of the texture of every single succeeding variation, as the passacaglia form demands. But although it’s made from the highest watermark of musical arcana and compositional virtuosity, all that supposed “abstractness” means that the piece is actually an explosion of expressive meanings. The main melody is an expansion of a chaconne tune from Bach’s cantata 150 (a “chaconne”, like the one in Bach’s D Minor Partita for solo violin, is a similar form to a passacaglia), and Brahms’s use of a baroque method of construction is his homage to an era of musical history that this piece simultaneously honours and draws to a tragic conclusion. For me, the finale has the ineluctable power of a Greek drama: it’s a dark prophecy that’s fulfilled in that shattering final cadence. The journey from Brahms’s First Symphony to his Fourth is from optimism to pessimism, from the possibility of reshaping the world to a resignation at its essential melancholy. By 1885, in his early 50s but already somehow an old man, that was a historical trajectory that Brahms felt to be his own as well. Yet like all tragedies, the Fourth Symphony has a cathartic power – which is one explanation, at least, for the popularity of this despairing, troubling and astonishing symphony.

Five key recordings

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Kleiber: one of the most remarkable recordings, of all time, ever – listen and be gripped from first note to last.

Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique/ Gardiner: mind you, John Eliot Gardiner’s approach is just as powerful, from another world of insight and imagination on period instruments.

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/von Karajan: Brahms was – and is! – the Berliner’s composer; Karajan’s recording shows you why.

Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra/Chailly: Chailly’s approach fuses the Leipzigers' unique playing traditions with the lessons of recent scholarship; the result is white-hot imagination.

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Berlin Philharmonic/Furtwängler: Furtwängler’s is one of the great revelations of interpretation as an act of re-creation – Brahms’s symphony is re-made in front of your ears.

Symphony guide: Mozart's 29th

There are many specifically musical reasons why this apparently unselfconscious piece ought to be part of this series on its own terms, but my reason for including Mozart’s A Major Symphony, K201 in the series is a simple one. This was the first piece of music that I ever heard in an orchestral concert, and it was an experience that had the immediacy of an epiphany, a revelation of a new world of feeling and being. Not that I thought any of that consciously when I heard it played by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Richard Hickox, in the early 1980s; but this music symbolises, for me, the potential power of the musical experience and the start of a never-ending journey of discovery.

This symphony might have changed my own musical history, but I'm not going to argue that it changed musical history from the moment it was first written, in Salzburg in early 1774 by the 18-year-old Mozart. It’s music that crystallises the young man’s emerging compositional self-confidence, and that shows him spreading his wings in symphonic music just as he had already started to do in the opera house and in his chamber music. It’s a work that sums up everything he had heard and learnt about symphonic form up to this point in his life (the influence of JC Bach was still crucial for him, whose music he had first heard as a child in London) but which is much more than the sum of those influences, and is something that only Mozart could have written. For not-quite-but-almost the first time, this is Mozart’s individual symphonic voice that you hear loudly and clearly.

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Or rather, softly and sensually. The first movement opens with the opposite of the grand rhetorical flourish that the vast majority of contemporary symphonies (including Mozart’s own) start with. The first thing you hear is a soft, descending octave in the first violins, the simplest of musical ideas, and a stepwise progression up the first four steps of the A major scale – along with a little chromatic agitation - over some serenely, almost ecclesiastically sonorous polyphony in the lower strings. This theme is then repeated, loudly, and with the addition of a canon: two beats later, the violas and cellos have the same theme as the violins, but at the third and fifth of the chord rather than the tonic - which means there’s a greater harmonic and contrapuntal richness than when we first heard the melody. In the space of 30 seconds or so, Mozart has used an enormous arsenal of sophisticated compositional techniques to create a miniature symphonic drama.

And that’s just the first theme. What’s wonderful about this symphony is how much Mozart is clearly enjoying himself, in the extra melody he composes at the end of the first section of the first movement, a joyous little tune that symbolises the sheer invention of this symphony; in the contrapuntal conversation between the violas and the cellos and basses in the movement’s central section; and in the cheekily inventive coda, with its chromaticism and, again, its counterpoint, this time in an outrageously fulsome four parts.

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It’s worth remembering at this point that Mozart, like all talented 18-year-olds, would not have been thinking of himself as anything less than the fully-formed article as a composer. This wasn’t a transitional work for him, or a piece that heralded his maturity – all that’s mere historical hindsight. Aged 18 he was already an astonishingly experienced composer, writing the most expressive and adventurous instrumental music he had ever composed. That sense of confidence radiates through the slow movement, a languidly beautiful pastoral piece in D major, coloured by the soft-focus glow of muted strings, which creates a nocturnal world of expressive and even erotic pleasure. There are hints, too, of mysterious shadows in the moonlight, in the low-register trills in the violins in the middle of the movement, and the splinters of high-register interruption, also in the violins, just after the main melody has been reclaimed.

All that, and a brilliant, undance-ably imaginative Menuetto third movement, and a finale of unstoppably dazzling energy, which, played at the right tempo – it’s marked “Allegro con spirito”, after all – ought to have a tempestuous and sometimes rustic wildness, climaxing in another breathtaking little coda, which begins with a thrilling unison statement of the theme, and includes some raucous horn-calls and a rocketing string line before the final chords. Actually, you know what, I’ve changed my mind: this piece really is a symphonic and historic epiphany, whether you’re seven years old or 107! Enjoy.

Two key recordings

I’ve only chosen two performances here, from extreme ends of orchestral performance practice: the first, by Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic (the first three movements only, bizarrely, are on YouTube) was the single most played tape of my childhood, and I still think the performance stands out for its warmth, sensuality, and character (one tiny example: listen to the way those Berlin Phil second violins and violas luxuriate in the richness of the polyphony right at the start! - they don’t make ‘em like that any more, more’s the pity). See what you think; and then, from the other end of the spectrum, there’s Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music, playing the symphony with all the repeats, as I now realise it should be - and with tremendous insight and energy, too. The whole thing is on YouTube, with a scrolling full score, here.

Symphony guide: Franck's D minor

César Franck's only symphony has all but disappeared from our concert halls. That's a great shame, says Tom Service. This is a remarkable and radical work.

When was the last time you heard César Franck's Symphony in D Minor on an orchestral programme? I'm prepared to be proved wrong, but it's my hunch that it's been many years since Franck's only symphony (probably the only work by a Belgian that will appear in this series, although I'm braced for a further riposte about the great Belgian symphonists as well!) has been performed recently your favourite orchestra, in the UK at least.

This neglect would have come as a major surprise for audiences, orchestras, and conductors even a generation ago, when Franck's work was one of the fixtures of the symphonic canon, a piece that every conductor, from Furtwängler to Karajan, from Klemperer to Bernstein, had to prove themselves in, and which audiences loved to hear. What's happened? Why has Franck's last major work fallen so sharply out of fashion? A piece that is arguably the summation of his life in music, a piece that attempts an ambitious fusion of French and German musical traditions at a time when to do so was politically and aesthetically controversial - anything that smacked of rapprochement with German sensibilities was seen as unpatriotic in the wake of the Franco-Prussian war.

The currently fashionable criticism of the 1888 work is summed up by its early detractors such as Charles Gounod, who called it "incompetence pushed to dogmatic lengths", and Maurice Ravel, who criticised the work's stodgy orchestration. Charles Lamoreux rejected it for performance in his concert series, the most important in Paris, and so the premiere had to be given by students of the Conservatoire where Franck was professor. Factionalism and feuding defined the reaction to that 1889 performance: Franck's pupils, Vincent D'Indy among them, were in raptures, while others censured the symphony because it "outraged the formalist rules and habits of the stricter professionals and amateurs".

The problem nowadays is that we can't, or don't, hear the implicit radicalism of Franck's symphony, instead imagining that the work is the acme of late-19th century lugubriousness; a symphony that's worthily crafted and finely wrought, but expressively inert; the equivalent in sound of a mediocre lump of Gothic revival architecture.

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But listen to the piece (which apparently outraged his irredeemably conservative wife, who railed against its morally compromising sensuality and passion!) without those preconceptions. I think you'll discover in Franck's music a convincing answer to how the streams of French imagination and clarity might be aligned with a German, post-Wagnerian harmonic language. The result, alongside Saint-Saëns's Organ Symphony, is French music's most significant late-19th century symphony.

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And yet Franck's symphony starts with a veiled - or actually pretty obvious - homage to German music, to Beethoven's last quartet. Franck's opening theme is a rewrite of the questioning phrase to which Beethoven appended the words, "Muss es sein?" ("Must it be?") in the last movement of his final string quartet. Franck's theme, marvellously mobile in its modulatory potential, sets out, in its slow tempo, much of the material that the whole huge first movement will be based on. Transposed into an Allegro, you hear the same motto idea of the very opening, before the slow music is repeated in a new key. After its stormy beginning, the allegro proper climaxes in two radiant themes, both in F major, the first gently lyrical, and the second radiantly joyous. It's a feature of this symphony that while Franck is an inveterate modulator - his harmonies often shift like quicksand, something you hear particularly in the central development section of this movement, which starts with a startling move from F major to B major, achieved in just a few bars - his tunes are remarkably stable, like this joyous melody that's the reward for all that symphonic sound and fury. The lugubrious intensity of that slow introduction isn't easily forgotten, however, and it returns to catalyse the reprise of the movement's main themes, and after another appearance of that radiant tune, the movement ends with a vision of the slow motto theme, now in a major key.

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But we're not through yet: the central movement of the symphony is a hybrid of slow movement and scherzo, which starts with a gentle thrumming of pizzicato strings and harp before another of Franck's best tunes, this time for cor anglais. (This caused a bit of a stushie at the premiere, when some wag, criticising Franck for his colouristic adventure, apparently asked whether Haydn and Beethoven had ever used a cor anglais in their symphonies - forgetting that Haydn's 22nd symphony has prominent parts for two cor anglais.) This is a melody whose chord progressions sound to my ears like an unconscious memory of the ancient hymn Veni, Veni, Emmanuel, which Franck, one of the world's greatest ever organists and improvisers, would have known. (It's also, incidentally, a melody that subconsciously influenced Thomas Adès in the second movement of his Asyla.) Through metrical magic, turning slow music into fast and back again, Franck elegantly elides scherzoid music with this haunting tune, just another candidate in this symphony for an irrepressibly infectious ear-worm.

But the memory of even that cor anglais tune is erased by the melody Franck gives us at the start of the finale, an outpouring of genuine joyousness that dynamises the whole piece. Franck uses this tune as the start of a process that subtly reviews the progress of the entire symphony, since melodies from the previous movements return throughout the fabric of this Allegro non troppo. As Franck said, "The finale takes up all the themes again, as in [Beethoven's] Ninth. They do not return as quotations, however; I have elaborated them and given them the role of new elements". He's right, too; and those transformations mean that the journey to the final coronation of the finale's main melody isn't simply about creating a piece that will work as a barnstorming symphonic finale, it's also about both clinching and transcending the melodies and drama of the preceding two movements, making the final coda a blaze of D major an authentic prize of a magnificently compelling symphonic struggle. And one that I want to hear in the concert hall more often!

Five key recordings

Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Pierre Monteux: with only the most subtle moments of interpretative intervention, Monteux lets Franck's symphony speak as its composer wanted it to; as he told one of his students, as "nothing but pure music".

Montréal Symphony Orchestra/Charles Dutoit: Dutoit's performance, recorded in immaculate sound, makes Franck's music dazzle and shimmer.

Boston Symphony Orchestra/Charles Munch: Munch's driving tempos and innate feeling for Franck's symphonic drama make this one of the most satisfying performances available.

Hilversum Radio Philharmonic Orchestra/Leopold Stokowski: ... and Stokowski's is one of the weirdest. His comparatively slow tempos and the way he pulls the pulse around give another view of the piece that you'll either feel reveals new sides to this score - or distorts its fundamental drama.

Symphony guide: Johann Christian Bach's Sixth

JC Bach's symphonies aren't just important because of their influence on the young Mozart. They're signature works of the 18th century – and his G minor symphony, Op 6 no 6, is arguably the darkest and most dramatic he composed

We think of the symphony in the 20th and 21st centuries as the apogee of radicalism and experimentation in the form, as composers strove to create new kinds of thinking and feeling after it was thought to have exhausted itself (not true! – as you’ll know if you’ve been following this series so far). But to experience a true sense of adventure, novelty and symphonic discovery, you have to cast yourself back to the mid-18th century, and an era in which this self-sustaining species of public instrumental music was still forming itself in the minds of composers and the ears of listeners.

And that’s where this week’s symphony, Johann Christian Bach’s G minor work, Op 6 No 6, comes in. Composed in the 1760s (definitely before 1769), it was almost certainly on the programmes of the concerts that Bach and fellow composer and impresario Carl Friedrich Abel put on in their series of prophetic and fashionable concerts at Carlisle House in London’s Soho, then St James, and finally at the bespoke concert room they had built at Hanover Square. JC Bach – the “London” Bach: Johann Christian had moved to Britain in 1762, initially to write operas for the King’s theatre, and was music master to Queen Charlotte, but subsequently focused on concertos and symphonies – arguably did more to cultivate an appetite and an audience for instrumental music than anyone else of his time. Consisting mostly of Bach’s own music, the performances became essential events in Georgian London’s social and cultural calendar, even inspiring this paean from a contemporary:

Where Carlisle house attracts the light and gay

And countless tapers emulate the day,

There youth and beauty chase the hours along,

And aid time’s flight by revelry and song;


Then worn with pleasure, forth the revellers stray,

And hail with languid looks the new-born day: –

They seek their homes; – there, weary with ennui,

Joyless and dull, is all they hear and see;

Spiritless and void, of every charm bereft,

Unlike that scene of magic they have left,

They childe the lingering hours that move so slow,

Till the night comes, when they again can go

And mingle in the enchantments of Soho.

Plus ça change … but in the 18th century, alchemical delight was reached through symphonies rather than through anything more – well, chemical. And one of the pieces that would certainly have conjured a “scene of magic”, albeit a turbulent sorcery rather than anything more comforting, was the G minor symphony, Op 6 No 6. In three minor-key movements – including, in its central Andante, piu tosto adagio, one of the longest symphonic movements JC Bach ever wrote – this work reveals Bach’s major symphonic innovations as well as creating an explosive burst of the sturm und drang (“storm and stress”) passions that were the dark side of the 18th century’s sense and sensibility.

Bach’s music was designed to appeal to its audiences. His tunes, his simple harmonies and his innovative use of orchestral colour were all supposed to enliven, entertain and elevate his listeners when they first heard his new pieces. But that deliberate attempt to make instrumental music an embodiment of instantaneous feeling and passion instead of the intellectual rigour and contrapuntal complexity of an earlier era – above all, that of Bach’s father, Johann Sebastian, and in London the imposing legacy of Handel – was much more sophisticated than posterity would give him credit for. After his death, Bach’s music was scarcely heard in the 19th century, yet in his day JC was among the most famous composers in Europe. But somebody who did realise how Johann Christian was opening up new possibilities for the expressive potential of instrumental music was Mozart, who heard Bach’s music when he came to London in 1764 at the age of 8. Mozart arranged Bach’s music, he played at the keyboard with him – and the young man's own music was transformed by the encounter. Mozart later memorialised JC Bach in the slow movement of his A major piano concerto, K414, produced just after he had heard the news of Bach's death in 1782, basing the piece on one of the elder composer's overtures. “What a loss to the musical world!” he wrote. It was JC Bach, much more than Haydn, who was the most important influence on the young Mozart’s style and ideas about the form.

In JC Bach’s G minor symphony, there are moments when you feel you’re hearing premonitions of Mozart – most clearly in the atmosphere of headlong intensity in the first movement, which Mozart seems to recreate and remember in his own G minor symphony, K183, from 1773; there’s a specific musical connection between the way one of Bach’s melodic ideas emerges (a rocking semitone in the strings) and what he does with it in the central and most stormy section of the movement, and what Mozart does with a similar idea in his visionary C major symphony, K338. There’s even a connection between the slow movement’s opening C minor tune and Wolfgang’s C minor piano concerto, K491, whose first three notes are exactly the same.

But better to forget what you know – or what you think you know – and instead try to experience JC Bach’s symphony as those listeners in Soho must have done. Brace yourselves for the compressed edge-of-the-seat drama of its first movement, the unsettlingly emotional slow movement (with a final appoggiatura, a harmonic sigh that wounds its final cadence, mimicking the very end of the St Matthew Passion by JC’s father), and the minor-key rocket of the finale, propelled by horn-calls and explosions in the upper strings. The whole piece ends with a disturbing musical question-mark, a dramatic and sudden descrescendo from forte to piano. Bach doesn’t resolve the tensions in this G minor symphony, as later composers might have felt they had to; instead, he leaves the tempest he has just unleashed fizzing electrically in the air and in your imagination.

Best of all, you can hear this symphony in two differently but equally exciting performances by the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin and Concerto Köln – interpretations that thrust JC Bach’s music thrillingly into the present tense.

Symphony guide: Brahms's First

This week, a first. Johannes Brahms’s First Symphony, in C minor. But if there’s one thing I want you to try and to do with this piece, it’s to hear it without the clichés of its supposed associated historical accretions: the fact that it took Brahms 14 years to complete the piece because he felt the weight of Beethoven so much on his shoulders; or the fact that the big tune in the finale sounds a wee bit like the one in Beethoven’s 9th ("any ass can see that", Brahms said); or even that its instantly acknowledged symphonic success after its premiere in 1876 meant that it was dubbed "Beethoven’s 10th". I think we should reclaim Brahms’s First on its own terms, not because it continues what Beethoven might have done with the symphony had he somehow lived another few decades, but because the piece presents a completely different idea of what the symphony could be. Whatever the modesty of Brahms’s own assessment of his music, his First Symphony is a magnificently immodest achievement, a piece that takes history on, in both sense of the phrase – and wins.

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So, a few moments that will try to make the case: firstly, the very opening, the slow introduction before the tortuous Allegro gets going. To find music that sounds anything like this, the models are not Beethoven or even Schumann, but Bach, and possibly even earlier repertoires of German music. Brahms composes a richly chromatic counterpoint at the start of his symphony, music that’s rhythmically and expressively connected to the opening of Bach’s Matthew Passion. If Brahms was worried about Beethoven, he shows it by bypassing entirely the latter’s ideas of clearly identifiable thematic cells and continual, dynamic, dialectical development. Instead, this introduction is defined by music that’s a polyphony of different musical ideas all happening simultaneously. Listen to the opening again, and hear how Brahms counterpoints that rising line in the violins and cellos with the descending, lamenting musical line in the woodwinds and violas. The texture isn’t reducible to a single musical thought, a "theme" or a "melody", but is defined rather by a network of interrelated musical lines churning away at the same time.

If that sounds a wee bit complex, that’s because it is! Brahms was attempting to make a symphony that works in musical space as well as time, one that has all the internal consistency and multi-dimensional splendour of a Bach fugue but also has the dynamism and energy of a large-scale orchestral work. No wonder it took him a few years: Brahms was reforging the symphonic project for the late 19th century. And he does it: listen to the way the main tune of the Allegro, the main part of the first movement, is reclaimed about two-thirds of the way through: it’s another pitting of simultaneously rising and descending lines against each other, along with a thrillingly emphatic bass line, a moment that clinches both the music’s contrapuntal consistency and its symphonic power.

Brahms’s compositional high-wire act of that polyphonic work-out in the first movement is sidestepped by the slow movement and the Allegretto e grazioso that come second and third in the symphony. But there’s a covert radicalism going on here too: again, directly contradicting Beethoven’s example in all of his symphonies (apart from the 8th), Brahms does not even try to compose a wildly energetic scherzo, but rather the genteel and subtle character piece of his Allegretto; the slow movement in turn is the opposite of Beethoven’s visionary symphonic songs, but an intimately lyrical study crowned by the florid outpouring of a solo violin.

Brahms has turned the symphony inward, in both musical and emotional senses. He is resolutely focused on the inner workings of his musical material rather an overt expressive programme – let alone an attempt to change the world, as Beethoven’s Ninth wants to do – and for all its public grandeur as a large-scale symphony, this music sounds as if it’s addressed to us as individuals rather than speaking to our collective humanity.

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Yet Brahms’s finale changes all of that. This movement is his solution to what he saw as the 19th century's symphonic problem - the tendency for the pieces to be weighted towards their opening allegros, to have worked out all their major structural tensions by the end of the first movement. Brahms’s fourth movement is different: everything is at stake here. It’s the longest part of the symphony, and from the outset, its drama is set out on a bigger stage than the previous three movements. Brahms puts us in the middle of sublime, terrifying, and minor-key nature at the start of the finale in a swirling, impressionistic Adagio. But the mists clear and from the heights, a horn-call (transcribed by Brahms from the alphorns of Switzerland) sounds in resplendent C major – a premonition of the trajectory of the whole movement. But to get there, we need a big tune, and the most assertively dynamic drama of the whole symphony - which is exactly what Brahms provides with that melody - the one his first listeners kept comparing to Beethoven. There’s a moment of exquisite tension and release when the horn call returns, now harmonised by an achingly dissonant chord, then salved when the music melts into a major key. And at the very end of the symphony, there’s the most overtly, heroically triumphant music that Brahms ever composed for an orchestra. But what makes it moving rather than bombastic is the sense that this is a hard-won musical and personal victory for its composer. On one hand, this music crowns the work’s dramatic trajectory, but it also celebrates Brahms’s own vanquishing of his symphonic demons. And if we’ve only the ears to hear it, we’ll hear how completely he created something subtly, multi-dimensionally new.

Five key recordings

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Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Daniel Barenboim a live concert from Oxford’s Sheldonian Theatre that made me feel the music could go no other way when I heard it.

Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique/John Eliot Gardiner: mind you, Gardiner’s performance, from the other end of the musical universe, makes me feel the same…

Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra/Riccardo Chailly: Chailly’s is a patina-stripping performance of simultaneous tradition and radicalism.

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NBC Symphony Orchestra/Arturo Toscanini: Toscanini finds an intense, compelling, if sometimes claustrophobic power in this late recording.

The Gunther Schuller Orchestra/Gunther Schuller: a leftfield choice, you might think? Schuller’s performance attempts to prove the points about interpretation he makes in his book The Compleat Conductor. Listen out for revelations such as the return to the main theme in the first movement: no messing about with tempo or exaggerations of articulation, just plain, simple, and devastating. symphonic power.

Symphony guide: Saint-Saëns's Third (the Organ symphony)

Don't consign Saint-Saëns's organ symphony to the orchestral glue-factory for knackered thoroughbreds. This was a cutting-edge - and gloriously tuneful - work.

"I gave everything to it I was able to give. What I have here accomplished, I will never achieve again." Thus spake Camille Saint-Saëns about his C minor Symphony, "avec orgue" (with organ), the third and last of his symphonies, and one of the crowning glories of his prodigious life in music. This week, I make a plea that we take the Organ Symphony seriously as one of the late 19th century's most significant and technically sophisticated orchestral works. And also of course that we enjoy its remarkable concatenation of tunes, colours, and kaleidoscopic thematic invention that have made the symphony so popular ever since its premiere in London's St James's Hall in 1886, when Saint-Saëns himself conducted the orchestra of the Royal Philharmonic Society, who had commissioned the piece.

It's all too easy to think of the Organ Symphony as a perennial symphonic pot-boiler, one of those knackered ex-thoroughbred warhorses of the repertoire whose every appearance on concert programmes is another stage in its consignment to the orchestral glue-factory. It doesn't help that the Big Tune of the last movement is one of the most used and abused motifs of classical music history, in everything from Disney's Babe movies to it being adopted as the national anthem of the micro-nation of Atlantium, a postage-stamp-sized potential principality in Eastern Australia. Its over-familiarity means it's hard to recognise the real achievement of this symphony which fused what were genuinely cutting-edge innovations with Saint-Saëns's inherently classical, conventional (with a small "c") instincts. So forget what you might think you know about this symphony, and prepare to re-hear the rafinesse, joie de vivre, and technical coup-d'orchestre of arguably Saint-Saëns's greatest single composition.

First off, what we're dealing with here is something almost without precedent in 19th century symphonic practice: a piece cast in two movements. OK, the work also encloses the archetypes of a classic four-movement pattern within its two halves, but in the first half Saint-Saëns elides the end of the C minor Allegro moderato with the slow movement that follows, a Poco Adagio in a thrillingly unconventional D flat major, a startling semitonal shift away from the home key. And, in the second half, he changes gear from the scherzo-like music that opens this section to the massive, shocking intervention of the introduction to the chorale-like Big Tune itself at the start of the final movement.

Saint-Saëns further reconfigured the basic outlines of the 19th century's symphonic masterplan with his use of keyboards as part of the orchestral panoply. And he didn't just use an organ - which makes its quietly dramatic entrance at the start of the slow movement - but a piano as well, which needs two players to get to grips with the virtuosic figuration Saint-Saëns composed for it: listen to the glittering carillon of sound these four pianistic hands conjure around the main theme of the finale, one of the most satisfying moments in the whole symphony. But as well as the by turns gigantic and intimate soundworlds Saint-Saëns makes his orchestra produce (compare the organ's first entry to the thrilling, bombastic sonic coronation it gives to the symphony's final bars), you need to listen out for the way the whole piece prepares and prefigures that (in)famous melody, and what Saint-Saëns then does with it.

That's how the piece achieves its real ambition, which is to employ the progressive ideas of thematic transformation that Liszt had pioneered earlier in the century (the piece was subsequently dedicated to Liszt, who died a couple of months after the premiere), and makes them work not as part of a programmatic narrative, but as the engine of an abstract, symphonic discourse. The strings' tremulous and ominous figuration at the start of the allegro, after the symphony's short, mysterious introduction (itself full of symphonic premonitions, only realised much later in the piece), becomes a teasing ear-worm the first time you hear it. Expressively speaking, in terms of how Saint-Saëns dramatises and orchestrates them, they're at the opposite end of the expressive spectrum, and in different modalities too, but if you compare the outline of this tune to the Grande Mélodie, you can't fail to spot the connection.

There's more symbiosis between the scherzo's main melody and the crowning chorale. The scherzo section is a kind of gigantic upbeat to the finale - fragments of its melody are disguised, transformed, and finally revealed. The slow movement's Poco adagio does, crucially, introduce the gentle, lowering presence of the organ as a key character in the work's drama, and it also acts as a moment of visionary repose in the middle of the sounds and furies around it.

There's something else, too. In the finale's coda, after a showily effective fugue - Saint-Saëns manages to do something in the symphony that it would take Sibelius to top. He warps time and space - the Theme of Themes is sped up so much that time seems to slow down. Capped by the organ's thunderous bass-line - playing notes that the human ear can only just "hear", but which you should feel in the hall as more like primordial vibrations - the effect is both a masterstroke of time-melting symphonism, and an irresistibly joyous coda to the technical glories of this piece.

I have the image, at the end of the symphony, of the concert hall being miraculously lifted off the ground and held aloft by the combined efforts of all those pipes and all that air; all that counterpoint and all that time-stretching speeding up and slowing down; all that scraping and blowing, and all those keyboards. The whole work is a magnificent and fantastical symphonic machine that's an apotheosis of the orchestral technology of the late 19th century. In other words: the Organ Symphony is the definitive steampunk symphony.

Five key recordings

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All stentorian yet sensual performances of Saint-Saëns's masterpiece; I've always had a soft spot for Myung-Whun Chung's elegantly earth-shaking performance, but find out which you prefer!

Orchestre de l'Opéra Bastille/Myung-Whun Chung

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Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Daniel Barenboim

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/James Levine

Philadelphia Orchestra/Eugene Ormandy

Boston Symphony Orchestra/Charles Munch

Symphony guide: Beethoven's Eighth

It's one of the shortest, weirdest, but most compelling symphonies of the 19th century.

One of the most important things about Beethoven's Eighth Symphony is that it puts a definitive kibosh on the idea of a symbiotic relationship between a composer's biography and their music. In the summer of 1812 when Beethoven was obsessively working on this piece, he wrote the most infamous letter of his life, to his mysterious "Immortal Beloved". The pain-wracked and heartbreaking sentimentality of that letter, with its doomed love and self-pitying prostrations, finds absolutely no corollary in the fabric of the Eighth Symphony, which is the most ebulliently experimental symphony that Beethoven composed – and therefore, quite possibly the most ebulliently experimental symphony in the canon. (More proof needed? I give you the Heiligenstadt Testament, that despairing document in which Beethoven realises the full magnitude of his hearing loss, written around the time of his thrillingly self-confident Second Symphony.)

First performed in public at a concert in 1814 in Vienna that also included the Seventh Symphony and Wellington's Victory (that work of tub-thumping jingoism that caused Beethoven to tell one of his detractors "what I shit is better than anything you could ever think up") the F major Eighth Symphony didn't generate the kind of applause that would signify "universal delight", and "did not create a furore", according to a contemporary account. Frankly, I'm surprised that the public's reaction wasn't total bewilderment - a more than comprehensible response to one of the shortest, weirdest, but most compelling symphonies of the 19th century.

What's brilliant about the Eighth's relatively small (time) scale is that it allows Beethoven to be more structurally radical than he could dare to be on the larger canvasses of his other symphonies. In the Eighth Symphony, there are holes that are left open after the final chord, questions that remain unanswered, loose ends that are deliberately not tied up. Most obviously, the Eighth Symphony has no slow movement (Beethoven did sketch one, but he abandoned it), but instead there's an impish Allegretto scherzando that comes second, a four-minute (or less) piece that was thought to be a homage to Johann Maelzel's metronome, but which is now recognised for what it is: an unprecedented intermezzo in place of an adagio. Except it isn't an "intermezzo" in the sense of being "incidental" to the music's argument, because this piece embodies the central and paradoxical substance of this symphony: this short movement, in its rhythmic obsessions, like the repeated staccato chords in the woodwind, or the demi-semiquaver chirrups of the first theme, and the bass-line that answers it; in its extremes of dynamic, often putting a fortissimo right next to a pianissimo, its hocketing textures of interlocking orchestral lines, and its warped musical mechanisms, sounds more like a proto-Stravinskian orchestral scherzo than an early romantic orchestral movement.

And that's the paradox of this symphony. It makes you think you're listening to a light-hearted witticism, but Beethoven is in reality reforming the symphony right in front of your ears. If you hear the second movement as a musical joke, you're missing the point. Beethoven is trying to make a symphony in which textural, rhythmic, orchestral and harmonic invention take the place of the expressive intensity; so much so, that the piece can do without a conventional slow movement. That's a gigantic leap of musical imagination and compositional technique, and it means that the rest of the symphony is similarly reoriented towards this goal, so that Beethoven – in this piece perhaps more relentlessly than in any other of his symphonies – is focused on specifically musical questions that create and obey their own logic rather than any pre-existing models or forms. In that sense alone this symphony is "Haydnesque", an adjective often applied to it, but usually in a way that manages to patronise both Haydn and Beethoven, as if Haydn was only capable of comic symphonic entertainment, and as if the Eighth Symphony was somehow a lesser thing than the supposed titans that surround it – which it decidedly isn't.

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The first movement begins with a gesture of closure. The first two bars of the piece ought to be the end of a symphonic argument, not its beginning, and in fact the first movement ends with the very same music, now in its proper place. Continuing this inversion of common practice, the first movement soon finds weird keys, strange silences, and odd sounds – this solo bassoon, for example, or this ambiguous pianissimo. But it's the central section and the reprise of the first theme that should knock your symphonic socks off: over a strangely foreboding ticking mechanism in the violas – an alternating octave you've just heard at the end of the first section – Beethoven inexorably screws up the harmonic tension through a halting, uncertain sequence of variations on the first bar of the symphony, separated by gigantic walls of orchestral sound. That contrast catalyses a thrilling section of orchestral counterpoint, propelled by the tortuous transformation the cellos and basses visit on the main theme; Beethoven generates massive harmonic and rhythmic friction here which is at last released in a triple fff (forte-fortissimo!) restatement of the first theme in the bassoons, cellos, and basses. It's a moment when Beethoven gets rightly carried away with what he's done: that triple forte in the rest of the orchestra is so loud that it tends to obscure the tune in the bass line.
Charles Mackerras found an excellent solution in his performance; Colin Davis and Hans Pfitzner (Pfitzner with a theatrical change of tempo) get the balance better than anyone else in my list of recordings.

The third movement is Beethoven's only symphonic minuet: a stately antipode to the Allegretto second movement, people often say, but that's again only if you choose not to hear what Beethoven's doing under the surface of the music. The piece is called only "Tempo di menuetto" - in the "time of a minuet" rather than a real courtly dance, suggesting that Beethoven is playing with instead of inhabiting the genre of the minuet. He luxuriates in a different soundworld from the rest of the symphony – sensuous and lyrical rather than crystalline – and plays with your sense of pulse and metre.

The finale starts with an existential itch: a pianissimo aggravation in the violins that sounds like a scurrying upbeat to a tune that never comes. Instead, after subsiding to piano-pianissimo, there's an orchestral onslaught, built over those alternating octaves again, which you'll hear throughout this movement, marking time but fragmenting orchestral space, especially when the timpani have them with the bassoons. Beethoven starts his second theme in A flat major, he atomises his itching idea into its constituent elements and disperses it over the orchestra; he manages to wrench the music from F sharp minor and B minor back to F major in an astonishing sleight of ear. He creates a Klangfarbenmelodie, a melody of changing orchestral colour, a century before Schoenberg and Webern had the idea, he makes silence, dramatic pauses, integral to symphonic discourse in a way the symphony had never done before, and he creates a barnstorming coda that seems out of proportion to the rest of the movement, which makes you ask: what on earth just happened? Instead of resolution, the Eighth's fundamental musical questioning goes on long after the piece has finished. And it's quite possible it doesn't have an answer – and just as well, too: keep on listening, and keep on asking those questions!

Five key recordings

Orchestra Révolutionnaire et Romantique/John Eliot Gardiner: the shock of the new in Gardiner's thrilling performance.

Chamber Orchestra of Europe/Nikolaus Harnoncourt: once radical, Harnoncourt's performance now seems to steer a middle ground between early music energy and modern instrument sumptuousness.

Staatskapelle Dresden/Colin Davis: don't let the luxuriance of the Staatskapelle sound deceive you – this is as insightful and illuminating performance as they come.

Vienna Philharmonic/Christian Thielemann: Listen to Thielemann's "adventurous conservatism", as Joachim Kaiser puts it, in this imaginative and sometimes interventionist performance.

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Hans Pfitzner: the performance - from the early 1930s - that made Colin Davis want to become a conductor, and more than a fascinating historical document, a revelation of an Eighth from another world.

Symphony guide: Mozart's 31st ('Paris')

'I hope that even these idiots will find something in it to like', wrote the young composer of his Parisian audience. Calculated to please, Mozart's brilliantly wrought and supremely confident symphony is still delighting audiences nearly 250 years later.

Paris, spring 1778. The 22-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is in the city with his mother. A performance of his Sinfonia Concertante has been - he claimed - sabotaged by an Italian composer, Giuseppe Cambini, and so to make amends, the director of the public concerts series Concert Spirituel, Joseph Legros, asks Mozart to write a new symphony. It's a chance for the young composer to make his mark as a newly mature musician with a public to whom he last performed as an infant prodigy on his family's lengthy tour of Europe's courts, when he and his sister were paraded in front of Europe's aristocrats

Father Leopold isn't with his son this time, having stayed at home in Salzburg to appease their employer, Count Colloredo. In Paris, Mozart's mother is very sick, and she will die shortly after the premiere of this new symphony, his 31st, still known as the "Paris".

This D major symphony, K297, is a unique document in Mozart's symphonic canon not just for what the three-movement work does musically, but for what it tells us about how Mozart played with his audience's expectations and reactions, how he consciously manipulated them to achieve the biggest possible effect on Paris's most prestigious stage for instrumental music.

He had no great opinion of Frenchman. He played through his new symphony in private to two friends before the premiere, and wrote to his father: "They both liked it very much. I too am very pleased with it. But whether other people will like it I do not know … I can vouch for the few intelligent French people who may be there; as for the stupid ones – I see no great harm if they don't like it. But I hope that even these idiots will find something in it to like; and I've taken care not to overlook the premier coup d'archet [A fancy term that simply means all the instruments playing together at the start of a symphony, one of the contemporary fashions of the Concert Spirituel.] … What a fuss these boors make of this! What the devil! – I can't see any difference – they all begin together – just as they do elsewhere. It's a joke."

And indeed, the opening movement of the Paris symphony is one of the grandest, most thrilling sounds Mozart ever made from an orchestra. He revelled in the fact that he could use clarinets for the first time in a symphony, having heard the new instrument for the first time in Mannheim, where he had toured before coming to Paris; there are horns, trumpets, and timpani, and a full compliment of woodwind – flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons, the biggest orchestra Mozart had used in a symphonic context. The very opening is almost a parody of that coup d'archet, a unison, forte D in the first two bars that releases its tension in an orchestral firework of an excitably ascending scale in semiquavers in the third bar, and the whole movement is magnificently, swaggeringly confident.

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In the first performance on 18 June (after a dress rehearsal that appalled Mozart with the (s)crappiness of the orchestra - "I've never heard worse playing in my life!" - and which made him unsure whether even to turn up for the concert) the Allegro impressed the public with more than its idiot- and crowd-pleasing opening. He wrote to Leopold, "In the middle of the opening Allegro there was a passage that I knew people would like; the whole audience was carried away by it, and there was tremendous applause. But I knew when I wrote it what sort of an effect it would make, and so I introduced it again at the end, with the result that it was encored." Now, that's fascinating testimony for what it reveals about this Parisian audience, who weren't only clapping between the movements to try and get them encored, but within them, as well. There's debate about exactly which passage Mozart means – Nikolaus Harnoncourt reckons it could be the beautifully scored few bars here, with a pizzicato bass line underpinning a subtly changing harmony in the strings and sustaining chords in the woodwinds, Mozart scholar Stanley Sadie thought it could be this place, from a little later in the movement, with its chromatic lyricism; I reckon it could have been this forcibly impressive music, which rejoices in all the glorious noise Mozart can make from his luxurious orchestral forces.

In fact, the whole symphony is a kind of negotiation and collaboration with ways of listening. The Andante exists in two versions, after Legros complained that the first one had too many ideas in it, so Mozart wrote another for when the symphony was repeated on 15 August. No-one's sure which is the first and which the second, but it seems likely the more elaborate movement in 6/8 is the original, and it's this that's usually played: you can listen to the alternate version, in 3/4 time, here.

The finale proves the point most of all. Here's Mozart again: "They liked the Andante, too, but most of all the final Allegro. I'd heard that all final Allegros, like all opening Allegros begin here with all the instruments playing together, generally in unison [another blessed coup d'archet, in other words], and so I began mine with just the 2 violin, piano for the first eight bars – immediately followed by a forte; the audience (as I expected) said 'Shh!' at the piano – then came the forte. The moment they heard the forte, they started to clap. I was so happy that as soon as the symphony was over I went off to the Palais Royal and had a large ice, said the rosary, as I'd vowed to do, and then went home." More audience intervention as part of the symphony's power, and even, its composition: Mozart says he "expected" the audience to say "Shh!". Mozart is also playing with rhythm as well as dynamic at the start of this movement: the first violins are syncopated above the burble of the seconds, which means that the forte seems to come in a beat early when you first hear it. That only amplifies the pleasure of surprise of this music, something Mozart absolutely calculated to achieve.

But the finale is also a miniature masterpiece because of how it layers some brilliantly worked counterpoint underneath the surface of its public spectacle. Mozart composes a fantastic fugato in the central section of the movement, music that must have tested the togetherness of the Parisian orchestra, and which would have gone over the heads of the "idiots" in his French audience. A contemporary review, almost certainly of the Paris symphony, remarked, "the composer obtained the commendation of lovers of the kind of music that interests the mind without touching the heart." That sort of thing would become a critical commonplace in contemporary accounts of Mozart's music - that it simply contained too many ideas, too much variety, too much content. No matter. Mozart had skillfully managed to win over the idiots and the savants of his Parisian audience, and written his grandest work of instrumental music so far.

Five key recordings

All of them grandly, virtuosically, and occasionally stentorian-ly magnificent!

Nikolaus Harnoncourt/Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra

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Christopher Hogwood/Academy of Ancient Music

Charles Mackerras/Scottish Chamber Orchestra

Karl Böhm/Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra

Daniel Barenb

Symphony guide: Tchaikovsky's First

Tchaikovsky's first symphony remodelled the form into a truly Russian style, staking out territory that his five other symphonies continued to explore

Russia in the 1860s - the land without the symphony. Well, actually that's not quite true: Anton Rubinstein had written three, but, based in the language of Mendelssohn and Schumann, they propounded a backward-looking solution to the problem of finding what a Russian symphony might be. Thanks to the "Five", the loose group of composers (Mussorgsky, Borodin, Cui, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Balakirev), Russian musical culture was also trying to define itself as something distinctive rather than derivative, but by the mid-1860s, a truly Russian symphony was still proving elusive.

Bypassing what his elders were up to, the prodigiously gifted 20-something Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, just appointed to a job at the Moscow Conservatory, saw a chance to compose his First Symphony and provide what Russian musical culture desperately needed. And, given the ambition of what he was attempting, it's no surprise that the piece caused him a lot of personal pain – it was the single work that gave him more anguish than any other, according to his brother Modest – and that it proved controversial to both factions of the Russian music scene. His conservative, formalist teachers, including Rubinstein, refused to endorse or perform what they saw of the symphony when it was a work-in-progress, and the progessives weren't well-disposed to Tchaikovsky's ambitions either: Cui had written a devastatingly negative review of Tchaikovky's graduation piece.

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That dichotomy between classical conformity – which Rubinstein demanded of symphonic music – and some other kind of still-to-be-discovered Russianness defines the scope of what Tchaikovsky is trying to make happen in his First Symphony. To say it's a musically tall order is putting it mildly. Tchaikovsky was throwing his hat into the most public, prestigious, but risky musical arena you could imagine, competing not just with his fractious, polemicised peers but with the greats of the German symphonic canon. His mental and physical health suffered so much during the composition of the piece that the 26-year-old thought he might not survive.

With these multiple pressures, and with the outside masters he felt he had to please and appease as well as his own pride and ambition, it's miraculous that this G minor symphony was completed at all. And the fact that in parts of this piece, Tchaikovsky does more than simply pull off a symphonic-stylistic balancing act but manages to find a melodic and structural confidence that's completely his own, was proof that this 26-year-od symphonic tyro was already on a path to a music that was distinctively his own, yet definitively Russian.

Listen to the opening of the piece, and you're already in a symphonic world that a German composer simply couldn't have conceived. There's the sheer melancholic beauty of the melody in the flute and bassoon, but there's also what Tchaikovsky does with it, or rather doesn't do with it. As with both of the main tunes in this movement, Tchaikovsky wants to give his melodies - closed, circular objects rather than Beethovenian cells of symphonic possibility - their full expression, and at the same time create a sense of musical momentum. Tchaikovsky's subtitle for the whole symphony, "Winter Daydreams", and for this movement, "Daydreams on a winter journey", suggest that he wants to let himself off the symphonic hook, as if he's signalling to his listeners that this piece is as much a tone-poem as a symphony. But the first movement doesn't need that excuse: listen to the way he conjures the return to the first tune after the storm and drama of the central section: there's a breathtaking pause for the whole orchestra, and the cellos and basses are reduced to a shocked palpitation in a harmonic limbo, before the horns steal in with an extraordinarily chromatic meditation which gradually wrenches the music back to the home key, G minor. There's real structural invention in the coda, too, returning the piece to the piano-pianissimo "reverie" with which it opened.

Tchaikovsky calls his slow movement "Land of gloom, land of mists", but this piece is in really a land of endless melody, of continual and seductive song, in which Tchaikovsky reveals that he can make a large-scale structure from a pure outpouring of the once-heard, never-forgotten tunes that he composed more brilliantly than any other symphonist of his time - or any other. The paradox is that this new kind of slow movement, something only Tchaikovsky could sustain, took more confidence and more compositional boldness to conceive than any of the other movements that are reliant on pre-existing models. The scherzo is a masterful Russian reimagining of a Mendelssohnian flightiness, and then there's the finale. For Tchaikovsky scholar David Brown, after its folksong-inspired slow introduction, this fourth movement descends into a "rhythmic stodginess" in its obsession with noisy fugal counterpoint – Tchaikovsky proving a point to Rubinstein that he knew all the tricks in the academic book – and ends with a "very noisy, and overblown" coda.

But I think Tchaikovsky deserves that irresistibly over-the-top conclusion: his First Symphony is one of the most important markers in the symphonic story in the 19th century, the piece in which a new type of symphony – absolutely Tchaikovsky's own, and Russia's too – is not just glimpsed, but claimed, staking out the territory his next five symphonies continued to explore. And as well as all that historical significance, it's also one of the most irresistibly attractive first symphonies ever written.

Five key recordings

New Philharmonia Orchestra/Riccardo Muti: Muti's fleet-footed elegance doesn't dwell on the dreaminess of Tchaikovsky's reverie.

Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Claudio Abbado: Abbado strikes a typical balance between lyrical sumptuousness and structural power.

Russia National Orchestra/Mikhail Pletnev: Pletnev and his orchestra create the dreamiest, almost impressionistic hibernal gloom.

London Symphony Orchestra/Valery Gergiev Gergiev's is an opulent but occasionally, and appropriately, wild performance of Tchaikovsky's symphonic breakthrough.

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Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Bernard Haitink Haitink's approach is the opposite of the interpretative interventionist: but letting the music speak on its own terms just proves just how thrillingly symphonically satisfying this piece can be.

Symphony guide: Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms

New sounds, forms and shapes define the Symphony of Psalms, a profoundly unironic expression of Stravinsky's unique approach to the psalms, the symphony and even his faith

Igor Stravinsky, symphonist. Not exactly the first thing that comes to mind, and yet Stravinsky wrote five pieces that include "symphony" or "symphonies" in the title. Four are masterpieces (Symphonies of Wind Instruments, the Symphony of Psalms, Symphony in C and Symphony in Three Movements), and one – the early Symphony in E Flat Major he wrote as a student – is a piece of juvenilia but is still scandalously neglected in the concert hall. If you don't know it, listen to it here – top tunes; clear, brazen orchestration; and some firebrandish over-ambition, it's all there; and is proof of how much Stravinsky owed to his teacher and mentor, Rimsky-Korsakov.

But this week's piece is one of those later works of Stravinsky's that does strange things with the symphonic form. The Symphony of Psalms is, for me, one of the most deeply moving and genuinely spiritual pieces Stravinsky ever wrote, but to understand why, we need to examine, and quite possibly overturn, some conventional ideas about the music Stravinsky was writing at this period of his life.

The Symphony of Psalms was a commission to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1930. The orchestra wanted something symphonic, and Stravinsky's publisher wanted something popular. Stravinsky gave them both – but not in the way either party could possibly have envisaged. "I took the word, not in the publisher's meaning of 'adapting to the understanding of the people', but in the sense of 'something universally admired'," he said. That's how Stravinsky thought of the Psalms he sets in each of the Symphony's three movements, and especially Psalm 150 in the final movement, which is by far the longest of the three, with its vision of a world celebrating God through music.

Stravinsky had apparently already had the idea of composing a piece that would include the psalms in an orchestral context, but he didn't want to follow in anyone's footsteps. "I even chose Psalm 150 in part for its popularity, though another and equally compelling reason was my eagerness to counter the many composers who had abused these magisterial verses as pegs for their own lyrico-sentimental 'feelings'. The Psalms are poems of exaltation, but also of anger and judgement, and even of curses." The two earlier movements set texts of human penitence , sinfulness and longed-for salvation: the sinner's cry to be heard in the first movement, the "new song" forged after the Lord has hauled the psalmist "out of a horrible pit, out of the miry clay" in the second.

The secret of this 23-minute work's symphonism is its relationship between chorus and orchestra. Stravinsky composed for them so that "the two elements are on an equal footing, neither outweighing the other". He said he wanted "to create an organic whole without conforming to the various models adopted by [symphonic] custom, but still retaining the periodic order by which the symphony is distinguished from the suite."

The music of this period of Stravinsky's life is called neo-classical, which suggests an often ironic or coldly knowing refraction of past forms and manners through the prism of Stravinsky's way of hearing, seeing and imagining. But that's the idea I think you need to chuck out when you're listening to the Symphony of Psalms. There are references to previous styles and modes of musical discourse in the piece – especially the double fugue of the second movement, with a dense contrapuntal texture in the choir and the orchestra and a first melody that flirts with a memory of the main subject of Bach's Musical Offering – and there are moments that resonate with Stravinsky's recent music, such as his opera-oratorio Oedipus Rex. But it's the new sounds, forms and shapes of the Symphony of Psalms that define the piece as a profoundly unironic, essentially sincere expression of Stravinsky's unique approach to the psalms, the symphony and even his faith (he was an observant Orthodox believer at this time in his life).

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The first noise the Symphony makes crystallises the sharp directness of its soundworld: an E minor chord played by the orchestra of two pianos, harp, woodwind, brass and low strings (there's no room for violins or violas in this symphony, those conventional carriers of symphonic line and melody – the choir, in a sense, takes their place). There's an octatonic skirl in the oboe and bassoon (a way of splitting the 12 notes of the chromatic scale into alternating intervals of semitone and tone), and the symphony is propelled into life.

The choir's first entry sounds like a stern lament with the altos' severe yet keening line before the whole choir cries out in desperation. The whole of this short movement is laceratingly unsentimental, but there's a vivid emotional power to its final, major-key cadence, as the choral voices long for their non-existence, a time when they will "be no more".

It's music that offers the opposite of easy spiritual comfort, and the second movement is no different. After a long instrumental exposition of the orchestra's fugue ("altogether too obvious, too regular and too long", Stravinsky felt, later in his life), there are moments of depictive as well as structural power in the choir's music: the way the voices build their lines on top of one another when the words talk of "setting my feet upon a rock", and above all, the massive and shocking fortissimo of the "new song" the psalmist wants the Lord to put in their mouth. Again, it's the unflinching power of Stravinsky's setting that's so striking: it may not be "lyrico-sentimental" but it is, definitively, expressive – to use a word Stravinsky didn't like much.

The setting of Psalm 150 in the finale is the most original movement in the symphony. It's a contrast between two kinds of time, and two wildly differentiated sorts of music: the slow, circling sighs and breathtaking evocation of static, infinite timelessness that you hear at the start of the movement, and fast, violent shock of the music that comes next. There's an animal ferocity in this faster music: Stravinsky's vision of praising God takes in desperation and even savagery.

One section of this music is also inspired by a specific image Stravinsky had, "a vision of Elijah's chariot climbing the heavens. Never before had I written anything quite so literal as the triplets for horn and piano to suggest the horses and chariot." And it's the contrast between the two kinds of music that defines this final movement, and makes its coda – which returns to and extends the slow music you've heard at the start and briefly, shockingly, in the middle of the movement – so moving.

Moving? Absolutely. This final music of the Symphony of Psalms, as Stravinsky creates repeating cycles of different metre and phrase, gives us a glimpse of a kind of musical eternity in the choir's praise of the Lord. And it's precisely in that alchemical combination of the music's objective, hieratic construction and its clarity and directness that its expressivity lies. Stravinsky famously said music was "powerless to express anything at all", but that's only one side of his aesthetics. In his series of lectures at Harvard, he suggested that the real nature of his music was to do with sublimated, "Dionysiac" feeling in combination with "Apollonian" order. "What is important for the lucid ordering of the work – for its crystallisation – is that all the Dionysiac elements which set the imagination of the artist in motion and make the life-sap rise must be properly subjugated before they intoxicate us, and must finally be made to submit to the law: Apollo demands it." Contained by the Apollonian clockwork of the cycles of time and the new-fangled symphonic discourse of this final movement, Dionysus – paradoxically – dances, prays, and curses all the more vividly and powerfully.

Five key recordings

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Columbia Symphony Orchestra/Igor Stravinsky: Stravinsky's own recording gives the lie to the idea that this music is cool, arch, or ironic: this is a raw, visceral performance.

London Symphony Orchestra/John Eliot Gardiner: Gardiner's laser-like lucidity reveals the explosive power of Stravinsky's Psalms.

Berliner Philharmoniker/Pierre Boulez: Boulez approaches the Symphony as an Apollonian expression rather than Dionysiac dance.

Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra/Riccardo Chailly: a rigorously unsentimental performance that sears with energy.

London Symphony Orchestra/Leonard Bernstein Bernstein takes longer over the Symphony than anybody else in this list, but long-breathed love never curdles into mawkishness.

Symphony guide: Schubert's Unfinished

Only two movements were completed, but Schubert's eighth symphony stands as one of the greatest, and strangest, of the genre, writes Tom Service

When Schubert began writing his symphony in B minor in the autumn of 1822, the 25-year-old Viennese composer was charting new musical terrain. His first six symphonies - he cut his teeth on the genre as a teenager in a series of miraculously joyful pieces from 1813 to 1818 - were four years and a compositional epoch ago; two subsequent attempts at symphonies wouldn't get beyond the sketch stage. The most recent masterpieces in the genre were Beethoven's 7th and 8th, premiered in 1813 and 1814 in Vienna. By 1822, Schubert was ready to attempt in the symphony what he already done in his songs and had started to glimpse in his piano sonatas and chamber music. Instead of trying to take Beethoven on at his own game of dynamism, dialectic, and confrontation, Schubert found in the music he completed for this B minor symphony a way of shaping time and tonality that no other symphonic composer up to this point had managed. In terms of the history of the symphony, this music is unprecedented. To borrow Nikolaus Harnoncourt's phrase (who was originally talking about the draft of the finale of Bruckner's unfinished Ninth Symphony), what Schubert finished of this B minor symphony has all the strangeness, surprise, and shock of a "stone from the moon".

What we know today as Schubert's Unfinished Symphony is the two movements: an Allegro moderato and Andante con moto. And while there are many musical reasons for its extraordinary power, there may be some biographical factors, too. The syphilis that would kill him six years later had its first serious effects on Schubert's health in 1822, and while it's an affront to his achievement in this symphony (or, say, the A minor piano sonata written at the start of 1823, whose expressive world and musical rawness are, if anything, even bleaker) to limit the music to an interpretation that ties it too closely to the biography, there's a fearlessness and directness about this symphony that may come from Schubert's experience of a world of darkness and pain he had not previously encountered.

The music sounds its strangeness from the very beginning. Instead of the self-confident theme, statement, or energy that classical and early romantic symphonies should start with, this symphony opens with a ghost, with music that sounds like a revenant of a dream. A pianissimo shadow in the cellos and basses functions as an eight-bar introduction to another musical spectre, the first theme proper of the symphony, an embodiment of melancholy in the oboe and clarinet over a nervous shimmer of semiquavers in the strings. Schubert's orchestration signals a different spiritual dimension to this music as well: trombones, last used in a major symphony to triumphant effect in Beethoven's 5th, connote something different here. Used throughout both movements, they hark back to their earlier symbolism of the numinous and the uncanny (for example as in Mozart's Don Giovanni, in which they are associated with the Commendatore's ghost).

In place of a highly wrought transition to the major-key second theme, there's a musical cross-fade after the orchestra's climactic B minor chord, a harmonic sleight of hand in a few seconds of music as the horns and bassoons magic the music to G major. Schubert unveils another pianissimo theme in the cellos and then violins whose apparent major-key serenity, over a gently syncopated accompaniment - like a supernatural accordion - is really a tonal and emotional illusion. In mid-flow, just before you think the music's going to comfortably cadence again, Schubert pulls the rug out from under your ears - so to speak. There's a breathtaking pause, and then a plunge into a scalding minor-key fortissimo chord. The rest of the first section stabilises the music's trajectory into G major. But that tranquility doesn't last for long, as Schubert composes another revelatory few bars that lead back into the spectral opening - if the conductor observes Schubert's repeat sign - as he or she should do - or on into the works' central section.

This central section confronts the ghost of the very start of the symphony head on. This is the Unfinished Symphony's chilling heart of darkness: the theme in the cellos and basses is brought from out of the shadows to be revealed with a devastating glare. Apart from some haunting reminiscences of the accompaniment of the serene second theme - now sounding all the more disturbing in this precarious context - the whole of the middle of the movement is based on that opening music. Schubert conjures some extraordinary textures: the tremolo and slow chromatic ascent in the low strings that creates heartbreaking dissonance; the repetition of a sequence of ever-more intense phrases that builds up to a full, fortissimo encounter with the symphony's musical apparition, which in turn catalyses music of menacing energy and contrapuntal ferocity - before the movement returns to the oboe and clarinet theme we heard earlier. The reprise of both minor and major-key themes finds new strangenesses in the way Schubert subtly alters what we've heard, as if the music were infected by the darkness we have experienced. The end of the movement is no less remarkable: that ghostly theme returns, but Schubert manages to wrest the music towards a B minor resolution instead of another existential exploration of its musical and emotional possibilities.

The second movement, in E major, is also in three beats to the bar, and many conductors take a similar if not identical tempo in both movements, which amplifies the strange sense of unity across both pieces. There are specific thematic and gestural connections between them (compare the first cadence in the Andante in the bassoons with music you've recently heard at the end of the first movement), and on a larger scale, the movements are almost like negative images of each other: you've got a minor key first theme in the Allegro, but major-key opening melody in the Andante; a major key second theme in the first movement, and a minor key second melody in the second (keeping up?... good!). What's more, the second movement's minor-key theme floats above exactly the same gently throbbing rhythmic accompaniment that the first movement's second theme does - and the calm of the Andante's opening melody is yet another illusion, as it melts into weird keys and chromaticisms along the way. And in a piece full of sleights of ear, the slow movement has some of the symphony's most discombobulating transitions. Marked with three ppps to emphasise the weirdness of what's going on, the first violins twice tease the music into new harmonic realms with just five unaccompanied notes - a stroke of uniquely Schubertian genius - just after you think you've got back to the right key; once, into A flat major, and then into what's really F-flat major but is actually, enharmonically speaking, the home key of E major, just before the end of the movement… Told you this was illusive music!

Why didn't Schubert write more of the symphony, apart from 20 orchestrated bars of a fragment of the scherzo? (You can hear the fragment in Jonathan Nott's recording; Charles Mackerras gives you Brian Newbould's completion of the whole movement and a speculative finale, the Entr'acte that Schubert wrote for the play Rosamunde.) The reasons can only be guesswork: whether they're psychological, connected to the period of illness he went through; musical, in the sense of not feeling he could compose another two movements that would satisfactorily complement the new symphonic dramaturgy of the two completed ones; or simply practical, that having put the piece to one side, he wanted to get on with new projects rather than return to older music? Whatever the reason, it all conspired to mean that the Unfinished Symphony wasn't premiered until 1865 in Vienna - when it would still have sounded ahead of its time. Schubert's C major symphony, known as the Great, which he would complete in 1826, takes a different, more extrovert approach to the symphonic project; only Bruckner could be said to follow or continue the Unfinished's true legacy. "Unfinished" it may be in a strictly four-movement structural sense, but this B minor symphony is a complete, essential, and mysterious symphonic experience.

Five key recordings

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Chamber Orchestra of Europe/Claudio Abbado: Abbado's Unfinished is miraculously satisfying; some revelatory playing from the COE.

Berlin Philharmonic/Günter Wand: Wand's live performance breathes a lifetime of experience of this repertoire.

Bamberg Symphony Orchestra/Jonathan Nott: Nott's is a emotionally and musically extreme - and in the first movement, daringly slow - view of this piece.

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Carlos Kleiber: Kleiber's recording sings in a single symphonic arc from beginning to end.

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Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment/Charles Mackerras: on period instruments, Mackerras's version also lets you hear speculative completions and realisations of the B minor's symphony's scherzo and finale.

Symphony guide: Dvořák's Eighth

Dvořák's musical energy showed a way for the late 19th century symphony to be both profound and immediate in its joyful communicative power

So much of the symphonic thinking of the late 19th century is bound up with doing so many things at the same time, through densities of structure and motive, of harmony and counterpoint, that some of the most obvious yet hardest things to achieve in music can get forgotten in a complex symphonic maelstrom of ideas and technicalities. I'm talking about the art of writing tunes: not just any old tunes, either, but composing a whole symphony that teems with tunes that appeal straight to the musical pleasure zones of any listener, but which can also carry and create a whole symphonic edifice.

Which is all an upbeat to this week's symphony, Antonin Dvořák's Eighth. I'm not going to cast Dvořák as some earthy Bohemian in touch with his roots in a way that those bunged-up Germans and Austro-Germanophiles could never be: the Eighth, composed in 1889, would be impossible for Dvořák to have imagined without Beethoven and Brahms as models and catalysts. Yet Dvořák does have a gift that neither of his symphonic predecessors had in the same way, which is that he could compose a seemingly unending torrent of indelible melodies, and he could cast them in crystal-clear orchestration. What's more, in the Eighth Symphony he found a way simultaneously to serve his melodic over-endowment while also creating a kind of symphonic discourse that was definitively his own.

But as well as all of its felicities, this symphony is also, frankly, a popular and even populist pageant of a piece that disguises the brilliance of its construction because its expressive effects are so completely, thrillingly direct, from the miraculous, melancholic waltz of the third movement to the self-assured tune that propels the finale. But you can't have one without the other, immediacy without architecture: Dvořák's is an art that conceals art, and which appeals on many different levels precisely and paradoxically because this symphony's initial impact is so powerful, because Dvořák has distilled his melodic gifts to their symphonic essence.

I'm making this more tortuous than the experience of listening to this perhaps most joyful of all late 19th century symphonies (but you can't have true joy without a sense of darkness, which this piece also contains). So let's begin, with a symphony in G major, as it says on the tin, that actually starts in an achingly expressive G minor with a tune in the cellos, and music that's supposed to be an Allegro con brio ("with movement"), but which sounds in all the world like an andante. A bird-like, arpeggiated tune in the flute signals the movement's true tempo and tonality, but there's still the feeling of an introduction about this section of the symphony, as if Dvořák's just warming us all up for what's to come. You could describe this as an unprecedented elision of time, tonality, and structure in Dvořák's music – which it is! - but the effect it has on you is of unforced naturalness. All of that music comes before a palpitating, perfectly judged crescendo gives way to the main theme of the movement in the strings. Well, I say "main theme": there are a lot of them in this first movement! Instead of Dvořák pulling his melodic material together in some pseudo-'organic' coherence, it's rather that he gives all his tunes space to breathe while also ensuring that they have some resemblances to each other so as to keep them in your ears and brain. That's true on a much bigger scale as well: for example, the main tune of the variations in the finale is based on the same rising arpeggio as the flute's bird-song, which also relates to the first tune you hear in the third movement, and it's expressively comparable to some of the chirruping woodwind music in the slow movement.

The first movement has its most thrilling and adventurous moment at the stormy climax of its central section, which also functions as a kind of bridge to what was the second subject area of the exposition. Ah, those labels – second subject, exposition – how useless they are (as ever) in describing the experience of listening to this piece! The first movement is really in two parts, because you hear what you think is a return to the opening music just over a third of the way through the movement, and then the rest of the Allegro is really an improvisation on those themes, and it ends in a marvellously brusque coda.

I hear the slow movement – in C minor, but it also contains a lot of triumphant, fanfare-festooned music in a major key – as a kind of ironic homage to the C minor funeral march from Beethoven's Eroica Symphony. Some of the melodies and gestures of Dvořák's symphony are similar to Beethoven's, but Dvořák transforms the oppressive tragedy of his Beethovenian model into something much more optimistic. The fanfares in the brass might also derive from those strange militaristic irruptions in the slow movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, but Dvořák's' heartfelt, and hard-won joyfulness by the end of the Adagio is his own achievement. Hard-won? For sure: listen to the chromatic darkness Dvořák creates at the centre of the movement, just when you think the music has found its positivity and major-key solidity; the way the cellos and basses subside into a new and dangerous tonal region, called out by the horns and woodwind – the most chilling image of doubt in the whole symphony.

The Allegretto third movement is pure melancholic deliciousness, and the finale, starting with that bracing trumpet fanfare (as Dvořák's Czech countryman, conductor Rafael Kubelik, has pointed out, trumpets in Bohemia are calls to the dance, not to war) pricks the potential pomposity of the cello theme you hear next with raucous brass writing. Here, it's as if an East-European brass band have suddenly taken over the orchestra – and contains, for me, the symphony's most thrilling moment: the major-key breakthrough of the trumpet call, now accompanied by the whole orchestra, after a violently visceral minor-key episode. After a magnificently lyrical come-down after all this excitement, the very end of the symphony is pure, unalloyed joy, as the music threatens to run away with itself – so much so, it trips up, and ends on the wrong beat of the bar.

Dvořák's musical energy didn't just transfuse new life into his own music, it showed a way for the late 19th century symphony to be profound in its musical implications as well as brilliant and immediate in its communicative power, without all that Teutonic introversion and angst. It's 35 minutes (or so) of life-enhancing joy.

Five key recordings

Rafael Kubelik/Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra: Kubelik's is a benchmark Eighth: expressive, exciting, and irresistible.

Charles Mackerras/Philharmonia Orchestra: Not the quickest Eighth on record, but it's somehow among the most vitally energised.

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Herbert von Karajan/Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra: Karajan's is an opulently muscular performance, with an especially sumptuous slow movement, and an outrageous, orgiastic finale.

Charles Munch/Boston Symphony Orchestra: Munch revels in the crispness, clarity, and communicative power of Dvorak's symphony.

Bruno Walter/New York Philharmonic Orchestra: my favourite performance of the Eighth: lithe, flexible – and

Symphony guide: Dvořák's Eighth

Dvořák's musical energy showed a way for the late 19th century symphony to be both profound and immediate in its joyful communicative power

So much of the symphonic thinking of the late 19th century is bound up with doing so many things at the same time, through densities of structure and motive, of harmony and counterpoint, that some of the most obvious yet hardest things to achieve in music can get forgotten in a complex symphonic maelstrom of ideas and technicalities. I'm talking about the art of writing tunes: not just any old tunes, either, but composing a whole symphony that teems with tunes that appeal straight to the musical pleasure zones of any listener, but which can also carry and create a whole symphonic edifice.

Which is all an upbeat to this week's symphony, Antonin Dvořák's Eighth. I'm not going to cast Dvořák as some earthy Bohemian in touch with his roots in a way that those bunged-up Germans and Austro-Germanophiles could never be: the Eighth, composed in 1889, would be impossible for Dvořák to have imagined without Beethoven and Brahms as models and catalysts. Yet Dvořák does have a gift that neither of his symphonic predecessors had in the same way, which is that he could compose a seemingly unending torrent of indelible melodies, and he could cast them in crystal-clear orchestration. What's more, in the Eighth Symphony he found a way simultaneously to serve his melodic over-endowment while also creating a kind of symphonic discourse that was definitively his own.

But as well as all of its felicities, this symphony is also, frankly, a popular and even populist pageant of a piece that disguises the brilliance of its construction because its expressive effects are so completely, thrillingly direct, from the miraculous, melancholic waltz of the third movement to the self-assured tune that propels the finale. But you can't have one without the other, immediacy without architecture: Dvořák's is an art that conceals art, and which appeals on many different levels precisely and paradoxically because this symphony's initial impact is so powerful, because Dvořák has distilled his melodic gifts to their symphonic essence.

I'm making this more tortuous than the experience of listening to this perhaps most joyful of all late 19th century symphonies (but you can't have true joy without a sense of darkness, which this piece also contains). So let's begin, with a symphony in G major, as it says on the tin, that actually starts in an achingly expressive G minor with a tune in the cellos, and music that's supposed to be an Allegro con brio ("with movement"), but which sounds in all the world like an andante. A bird-like, arpeggiated tune in the flute signals the movement's true tempo and tonality, but there's still the feeling of an introduction about this section of the symphony, as if Dvořák's just warming us all up for what's to come. You could describe this as an unprecedented elision of time, tonality, and structure in Dvořák's music – which it is! - but the effect it has on you is of unforced naturalness. All of that music comes before a palpitating, perfectly judged crescendo gives way to the main theme of the movement in the strings. Well, I say "main theme": there are a lot of them in this first movement! Instead of Dvořák pulling his melodic material together in some pseudo-'organic' coherence, it's rather that he gives all his tunes space to breathe while also ensuring that they have some resemblances to each other so as to keep them in your ears and brain. That's true on a much bigger scale as well: for example, the main tune of the variations in the finale is based on the same rising arpeggio as the flute's bird-song, which also relates to the first tune you hear in the third movement, and it's expressively comparable to some of the chirruping woodwind music in the slow movement.

The first movement has its most thrilling and adventurous moment at the stormy climax of its central section, which also functions as a kind of bridge to what was the second subject area of the exposition. Ah, those labels – second subject, exposition – how useless they are (as ever) in describing the experience of listening to this piece! The first movement is really in two parts, because you hear what you think is a return to the opening music just over a third of the way through the movement, and then the rest of the Allegro is really an improvisation on those themes, and it ends in a marvellously brusque coda.

I hear the slow movement – in C minor, but it also contains a lot of triumphant, fanfare-festooned music in a major key – as a kind of ironic homage to the C minor funeral march from Beethoven's Eroica Symphony. Some of the melodies and gestures of Dvořák's symphony are similar to Beethoven's, but Dvořák transforms the oppressive tragedy of his Beethovenian model into something much more optimistic. The fanfares in the brass might also derive from those strange militaristic irruptions in the slow movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, but Dvořák's' heartfelt, and hard-won joyfulness by the end of the Adagio is his own achievement. Hard-won? For sure: listen to the chromatic darkness Dvořák creates at the centre of the movement, just when you think the music has found its positivity and major-key solidity; the way the cellos and basses subside into a new and dangerous tonal region, called out by the horns and woodwind – the most chilling image of doubt in the whole symphony.

The Allegretto third movement is pure melancholic deliciousness, and the finale, starting with that bracing trumpet fanfare (as Dvořák's Czech countryman, conductor Rafael Kubelik, has pointed out, trumpets in Bohemia are calls to the dance, not to war) pricks the potential pomposity of the cello theme you hear next with raucous brass writing. Here, it's as if an East-European brass band have suddenly taken over the orchestra – and contains, for me, the symphony's most thrilling moment: the major-key breakthrough of the trumpet call, now accompanied by the whole orchestra, after a violently visceral minor-key episode. After a magnificently lyrical come-down after all this excitement, the very end of the symphony is pure, unalloyed joy, as the music threatens to run away with itself – so much so, it trips up, and ends on the wrong beat of the bar.

Dvořák's musical energy didn't just transfuse new life into his own music, it showed a way for the late 19th century symphony to be profound in its musical implications as well as brilliant and immediate in its communicative power, without all that Teutonic introversion and angst. It's 35 minutes (or so) of life-enhancing joy.

Five key recordings

Rafael Kubelik/Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra: Kubelik's is a benchmark Eighth: expressive, exciting, and irresistible.

Charles Mackerras/Philharmonia Orchestra: Not the quickest Eighth on record, but it's somehow among the most vitally energised.

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Herbert von Karajan/Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra: Karajan's is an opulently muscular performance, with an especially sumptuous slow movement, and an outrageous, orgiastic finale.

Charles Munch/Boston Symphony Orchestra: Munch revels in the crispness, clarity, and communicative power of Dvorak's symphony.

Bruno Walter/New York Philharmonic Orchestra: my favourite performance of the Eighth: lithe, flexible – and fast!

Symphony guide: Bruckner's Eighth

A contemporary critic slated its 'nightmarish hangover style', but Bruckner's last completed symphony contains music of sheer, breathtaking magnificence

Anton Bruckner's Eighth Symphony is the last he would complete. He never lived to finish his Ninth (although he came agonisingly close to completing the finale, music that's still shamefully little heard in concert halls), so the Eighth is the summation of his symphonic journey. And what a summit the Eighth is! Bruckner himself said when he finished the work's gigantic, revelatory finale: "Hallelujah!… The Finale is the most significant movement of my life." Themes from all of the work's huge movements sound together at the end of the symphony, a moment that burns with what Robert Simpsons calls a "blazing calm". It's the end point of a 75-minute (well, up to 100-minute, if you're conductor Sergiu Celibidache…) symphonic journey, and it's one of the most existentially thrilling experiences a symphony has ever created. Bruckner's achievement is to make you feel, when you get there, that the whole experience of the piece is contained and transfigured in this crowning coming-together of symphonic space and time, and that the work's sublime darknesses - like the terrifying abysses of dissonance in the first movement, the kind of music that conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler described as Bruckner's "battle of demons" - and its equally transcendent light, like the climax of the slow movement, are simultaneously vindicated and vanquished by the sheer, breathtaking magnificence of this music, the last symphonic coda that Bruckner would ever compose.

But Bruckner's journey to the work's first performance, by the Vienna Philharmonic in 1892, was as tortuous as the music is (sometimes) serene. He finished a first version of the piece in 1887, and sent it to the conductor Hermann Levi, "my artistic father", who had already conducted the seventh symphony with huge success in Munich. Levi rejected the piece, saying it was basically unperformable; Bruckner was wounded, but returned to the piece to effectively recompose it over the next few years. And instead of the weak-minded naif who never got over people's criticism - as Bruckner is sometimes described - his revision amounts to a much deeper act of recomposition than simply answering Levi's concerns. The first movement ended in 1887 with a major-key triumph; in 1892, the audience heard instead music that winds down in minor-key desolation with a repeated, exhausted, death-rattle of a sigh in the violas. Bruckner himself wrote about this desperate moment, the only time in his life that he composed a symphonic first movement that didn't end with a fanfare of fortissimo power: "this is how it is when one is on his deathbed, and opposite hangs a clock, which, while his life comes to its end, beats on ever steadily: tick, tock, tick, tock". The other movements were also subtly but profoundly recalibrated; the effect is an intensification and sharpening of focus of Bruckner's musical ideas.

So all should have been set for the greatest night of his life at the premiere. And while the Musikverein was full of the great and good, including Johannes Brahms, Hugo Wolf and Johann Strauss, and with Bruckner's partisan supporters out in force, the naysayers were there as well. Brahms thought of Bruckner's works as "symphonic boa-constrictors", and the critic Eduard Hanslick - who left before the symphony's finale - wrote grudgingly, "In each of the four movements, especially the first and third, some interesting passages, flashes of genius, shine through - if only the rest of it was not there! It is not impossible that the future belongs to this nightmarish hangover style - a future we therefore do not envy!" Just as well he didn't stay till the end, Bruckner thought; he would only have become "even angrier".

Today, Bruckner's Eighth should still be controversial. This is a piece that is attempting something so extraordinary that if you're not prepared to encounter its expressive demons, or to be shocked and awed by the places Bruckner's imagination takes you, then you're missing out on the essential experience of the symphony. If you think of Bruckner only as a creator of symphonic cathedrals of mindful - or mindless, according to taste - spiritual contemplation, who wields huge chunks of musical material around like an orchestral stone mason with implacable, monumental perfection, then you won't hear the profoundly disturbing drama of what he's really up to. That unsettling darkness is sounded right at the start of this symphony. Instead of setting out on a journey in which the outcome is certain, in which everything is its rightful place in the symphonic, tonal, and structural universe, Bruckner builds his grandest symphonic edifice on musical quicksand. The Eighth starts with an unstable tremor of a semitone in the violas, cellos, and basses, which turns into a snaking, searching, chromatic collection of fragments. It's not so much a theme as a series of atomic musical explorations, and all of them in the wrong key. This is a symphony 'in' C minor, and yet in the early stages of the first movement, that home key is confirmed more by how much Bruckner avoids it instead of how much he inhabits it. You can describe the progress of this whole opening movement in terms of sonata forms and second and third themes and the other trainspotting jargon of the symphonic rulebook, but that scarcely relates to the experience of living inside this music, which is what you will feel happens when you hear it. One special moment to listen out for: the cataclysm at the centre of the movement that results in one of the emptiest, most desolate musical landscapes Bruckner, or anyone else, ever conceived: a single flute that somehow survives the onslaught to play a remnant of the orchestral tutti over tolling, funereal tattoos in the trumpets and chromatic sighs in the basses.

All of this intensity invites a search for meaning. Bruckner's music is open to our imaginations, and he even suggested possible interpretations himself for the symphony. In a letter to the conductor Felix Weingartner, he said that the scherzo, which comes second in this symphony (the first time Bruckner places the scherzo before the slow movement in a symphony) is a portrait of the figure of "German Michael", a bucolic rustic from German folk tradition. The somnolent, radiant, harp-haloed trio section of the scherzo depicts Michael dreaming, Bruckner says.

The opening of the finale is inspired by the Cossacks, as the Russians had recently visited the Austrian Emperor, to whom the Eighth is dedicated; this movement also features 'the death march and then (brass) transfiguration. Bruckner doesn't talk about the slow movement, but the adagio, the third movement, is the huge, generous heart of the symphony; a consoling, palpitating dream in D flat major whose opening is the closest Bruckner ever came to an evocation of the erotic; yet that bodily experience is transfigured into a blindingly radiant climax that seems to speak for the universe rather than mere individual figures.

Or maybe that's just me: you will make up your own mind, because the power of this piece can't be limited by any single interpretation, whether that's Bruckner's words, or the vision a particular conductor has of this symphony. But as you listen to that awe-inspiring but intimate, visionary but coherent finale - whose drama again can't be explicated by the crude pigeonholes of musical rules and regulations; instead, its "form" is phenomenological, something you just have to experience - I think you should hear the darkness as much as the "blazing calm" of the coda. It's in its acceptance of doubt, darkness, and despair that this symphony achieves its real glory. Bruckner's Eighth is an act of enormous empathetic consolation because it's unafraid to confront and to recognise sublime terror and darkness as well as light, Just like him when he wrote the piece, you need to feel engaged in that "battle of demons" when you're listening. Enjoy - if that's the right word!

Five key recordings

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Herbert von Karajan/Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra: radiant and glorious, but opulently terrifying too.

Wilhelm Furtwängler/Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra: protean, ever-changing, symphonic molten lava. Bruckner as daemonic inspiration instead of cosmic consolation.

Staatskapelle Dresden/Eugen Jochum: Jochum's idiosyncratic interpretation, with a remorselessly swift first movement, gives a unique shape to his performance.

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Munich Philharmonic Orchestra/Sergiu Celibidache: on the face of it, Celibidache's glacial speeds are borderline bonkers - the slow movement alone lasts more than 35 minutes! But is there a performance that makes you feel space and time are dissolving into each other in the coda of the finale as much as this one? Stick with it and see what you reckon.

Georg Tintnter/National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland (1887 version): Tintner makes the case for the original conception of the Eighth: not so much another version as another symphony.

Symphony guide: Rachmaninov's 3rd

There's a lot more to the way Rachmaninov's third and final symphony works than the simple attractiveness of its tunes

Sergei Rachmaninov's Third Symphony is, you might think, a piece of out-and-out nostalgia, an over-ripe romantic relic that belonged to another era even at the time of its first performance in Rachmaninov's adopted America in 1936, when Leopold Stokowski conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra. It's music that broods over memories of lost homeland and a distant past in melodies of melancholy indulgence and a structure of decadent tunefulness. What could this unashamedly romantic composer, a "six-and-a-half foot scowl", as Stravinsky described Rachmaninov, have to say about the symphony, deep into the tumultuous decades of the 20th century?

Well: rather a lot as it turns out. Rachmaninov's previous two symphonies had both marked him, but in different ways. The First was conducted in 1897 by a quite possibly drunk Glazunov and condemned by César Cui as leaving an "evil impression". Its total failure threw its composer into a crisis of confidence. The Second, conversely, was a huge success in 1908, a success which may have left the composer feeling uneasy about approaching the form again. (There is also a so-called "Youth Symphony" that pre-dates the First, but a magnificently tuneful single-movement is all that survives of it.)


Composing the Third in exile in the mid-1930s (it was written in Lucerne where Rachmaninov had a villa built for him and his family), Rachmaninov conceived a subtly radical structure in which a long first movement precedes a central part that cleverly combines slow movement and scherzo - a compositional coup of architectural imagination and colouristic brilliance - and a final movement whose outward energy and confidence may not be all that it seems.

The symphony opens with a haunting chant that will serve as the work's motto; this distant prayer, played quietly on a strangely unsettling combination of stopped horns, cellos and clarinets, is swept away by a full-orchestral exclamation before the main, minor-key melody of the first movement begins - a halting, almost apologetic theme that murmurs over a sighing string figure. Now, I'm not going to argue that Rachmaninov is attempting is some radical implosion of symphonic form in the guise of late-romantic emotionalism – although actually that's not so far off the mark - but there's much more to the way this music works than the simple attractiveness of its tunes. There's a limpid clarity to Rachmaninov's scoring that gives the work a unique expressive atmosphere, even in its comparatively rare moments of histrionic outburst, like the start of the finale. That's most obvious in the central movement, especially in the scherzo section, which is a hidden world of gossamer sounds of celesta, harp, and high woodwind.

And it's in its constant sense of surprise that this symphony really does do something that only Rachmaninov at this stage of his life and career could pull off. The Third Symphony finds a melancholic modernity, or rather, it finds a way of making melancholy modern. Instead of wallowing in his magnificent melodism, Rachmaninov consistently undermines your expectations of wafty romantic fullness. You can hear that in the violas' nagging rhythm at the start of the middle section of the first movement, which takes the wind out of the apparently self-confident climax we've just heard. Or there's the astonishing, almost expressionist noises the orchestra makes at the height of this development section, and the way Rachmaninov delays the return to the main tune of the movement with a heart-rending yet austerely exposed melody in the flutes and violins. There's a spine-chilling shimmer in the lower strings, another disembodied chant in the horns, and the first melody appears again, with an emotion that is the absolute opposite of what this moment in a symphony is supposed to feel like. Instead of a familiar, comforting return to normality, this melody sounds even less sure of itself that it did when we first heard it. There are some weird rattles in the percussion section and the strings, playing with the wood of their bow instead of the hair, and then the second theme comes back. The movement briefly finds a moment of major-key happiness, but Rachmaninov again wipes the smile off the music's face and it ends with another version of the murmuring motto we heard at the start.

Something even stranger happens in the central movement, as the transition between the slow music and the faster scherzo is prefigured by a disturbing tremor in the strings. The finale, however, seems at last to resume proper symphonic service, with the excited ebullience of its opening (actually a transformation of the very first orchestral outburst you heard in the opening movement). But I'm not so sure: it's not just that the symphony ends with another iteration of the symphony's motto theme, that emotionally ambiguous chant, this time screamed out by the whole orchestra, it's that the whole movement is shot through with strange stops and starts, glimpses of other worlds of dissonance and heightened colour that lie just under the surface and that are not resolved or forgotten by the end of the piece.

That's a modern, even modernist, idea, to be able to speak on multiple expressive levels simultaneously, to say one thing and mean another. Told you Rachmaninov had something important to contribute to the symphony!

Three key recordings

Philadelphia Orchestra/Sergei Rachmaninov: Rachmaninov's own recording is the most compelling I have heard of his last symphony (even with a two-bar cut Rachmaninov makes in the first movement), because - unlike many other conductors on record - he does what the score tells him to, in terms of how fast the music goes, how it's phrased, and how it works. But there's also an extraordinary imagination, flair, and flexibility. Listen to the way the second tune in the first movement is deliciously, achingly extended, so that a 4/4 bar becomes almost a 5/4 unit; the colouristic fantasy he finds in the scherzo; the way the excitement of the finale is held in check until the final coda.

Svetlanov/Orchestre Symphonique d'etat de la federation de Russie: Svetlanov's slow speeds in the first movement turn the Third Symphony into a melancholy, even gloomy, outpouring of emotion. It's at the other expressive extreme from Rachmaninov's own recording, but his fellow Russian makes a convincing case for his expressively intense interpretation.

St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra/Jansons: Jansons' is a good, no-nonsense approach to Rachmaninov's complex structure; a performance pitched between the lugubrious lyr

Symphony guide: Mahler's First

The Austrian composer's first symphony meshed the imagination and narrative of the symphonic poem with the architectural cohesion of earlier models. His crazily ambitious project changed the genre for ever.

It's one of the most spellbinding moments of symphonic inspiration in the 19th century: the opening of Gustav Mahler's First Symphony. It's not a theme, an idea, a melody, or a rhythm, but a state of being: a seven-octave-spread A, played as quietly and ethereally as possible by the strings, a shimmer of sonority that sounds out the whole compass of the orchestra. It's the symphony as space as much as time, and whatever its familiarity to us 21st century sophisticates, when we hear this music, we should try and recreate some of the sense of wonder that audiences at the piece's premiere in Budapest in 1889 must have felt, when Mahler - not yet 30 - conducted the symphony.

That's only the first of the stunning symphonic shocks of the new in this symphony. And while it's possible to trace an ancestry of this ultra-spacious opening through the inchoate rustlings that start many of Bruckner's symphonies, which Mahler knew well (he had transcribed Bruckner's 3rd for two pianos as a teenager), back to the primeval beginnings of Beethoven's 9th, the stasis and quietness of Mahler's 1st takes those models into another dimension. You can't possibly know it at this stage of the piece, but this is going to also be the most earthy symphony yet written, with a slow movement that incorporates street bands, klezmer inflections, and the tune known as "Frère Jacques", and whose final movement will rail against the cosmos with symphonic music's most terrifying expressionist outburst, and which, at the end of its drama, will find a sheer musical joy that's both a transcendence of the bodily and the spiritual, in the most uninhibited, tumultuous noise the orchestra had yet made.

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Back in 1889, the piece had five movements instead of the four you hear in concert halls today, and it also had a narrative of sorts, implicit in the title - Titan - Mahler gave his piece. He wrote out some of the meanings of his "Titan: a Tone Poem in the Form of a Symphony" at a later performance in 1893: the first movement represents "the waking of Nature after a long winter"; there originally followed the movement - "Blumine" - that he subsequently withdrew from the symphony; the Scherzo meanwhile was "The wind in my sails". Mahler says that the slow movement, with its opening double-bass solo (probably, although not definitively, the whole double-bass section rather than a single player) with the Frère Jacques tune, is a satiric cartoon of "The Hunter's Funeral" turned into musical life, a vision of a hunter's coffin drawn by animals; the finale he calls "Dall'Inferno" - From Hell, "the sudden explosion of despair coming from a deeply wounded heart".

By 1896, however, Mahler was calling the piece merely "Symphony in D Major". The change of thinking is typical for Mahler, who rejected most of the programmes he devised for his other early symphonies. But it's not because the "so-called Titan" no longer suggested all of those programmatic images, but rather that Mahler didn't want to limit the music's range of possible meanings, which are wilder, more cosmic, and more profound than any single programmatic formulation could suggest. It's also because, as Mahler must have realised, this piece contains and represents the world of nature, a world of human satire, of personal emotional trauma turned into universal experience, but it achieves all of that through the nuts and bolts of the precision of its notes (even if they were notes that Mahler was tinkering with all his life; even after the last time he performed this symphony, in New York in 1909, Mahler was making changes to the orchestration).

Composer George Benjamin told me about his favourite note in the symphony - the tuba's low F in the first movement - but there are plenty of others! There's the way the symphony's final victory is prefigured in the music you hear in the fast section of the first movement, the achingly moving slow music at the centre of the finale that balances the terrifying cry into the abyss the movement opens with, the way Mahler paces the final climax, storming the orchestral heavens with an apotheosis of D major.

Mahler's First laid down the gauntlet for a new kind of symphony that would fuse the imagination and narrative of the symphonic poem with the architectural cohesion of earlier models. And more: in meshing them together, and by incorporating everything from the sounds of the world around him, in nature and on the street, to his latest poetic and philosophical obsessions, Mahler wanted his symphonic journey to encompass the whole world. It's the most crazily ambitious symphonic project in the genre's history - and it starts here.

Five key recordings

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Claudio Abbado/Lucerne Festival Orchestra: cosmically revelatory, cosmically joyful. Magic; my favourite of these Firsts.

Leonard Bernstein/Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra: Bernstein on magnificently expressive yet symphonically disciplined form.

Ivan Fischer/Budapest Festival Orchestra: one of the finest recent recordings, illuminating both the sensuality and structure of Mahler's symphony.

Bernard Haitink/Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra: as ever, Haitink lets the notes do the talking; the architecture of the piece is sumptuously revealed.

Roger Norrington/Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra: no vibrato, as Norrington thinks it should

Symphony guide: Schumann's 2nd

In which Schumann reinvented his own compositional language and created an alternative way of thinking about the symphony – despite the onset of the syphilis that was eventually to kill him

Here's the thing. If you were writing a symphony in the 1830s or 1840s, you were faced with a pretty mighty challenge. Beethoven's symphonies were still being digested by a variously admiring, comprehending and baffled world, but there was something monstrous about the gauntlet the ninth symphony had thrown down. Who could go further? How could you take the ninth's structural grandiosity and metaphysical, choral power to greater heights than those Ludwig had already scaled? The truth is, you couldn't: not Mendelssohn, not Berlioz, not Spohr, not even Schubert (whose own ninth symphony was brought to the public for the first time by Schumann and Mendelssohn in 1839) attempted anything like the ninth. What you had to do was to find a different approach to the symphony, a way of renewing the form without having to emulate Beethoven's cosmic crankiness.

By the mid 1840s, Robert Schumann, in his 30s, was on the cusp of a new kind of composition. He already had significant symphonic experience: there was the miraculously sunny B flat major work he had written in just four days, the "Spring" Symphony; a D minor piece trying out an experimental structure that elided each movement into the next, a piece that would later become known as his 4th symphony; and there was another ambitious symphonic hybrid in his Overture, Scherzo, and Finale. There was also an early and incomplete symphony in G minor, now known as the "Zwickau".

But the inspirations for what would (rather erroneously) become known as Schumann's second symphony, composed over 1845 and 1846, sidestepped symphonic grandiosity. Instead, Schumann found in Bach's counterpoint the bracing intellectual challenge he felt he needed after years living on his compositional instincts. But as well as paying homage to Bach and to Beethoven (the Ludwig of songs, not the imposing symphonist), the C major second symphony is also rooted in the crisis in Schumann's personal life. He had started to feel the first effects of the syphilitic infection that would eventually kill him; he wrote that his illness – hearing problems, depression, dizziness, rheumatism – is inscribed in the fabric of the piece. "I would say that my resistant spirit had a visible influence on it and it is through that that I sought to fight my condition. The first movement is full of this combativeness, is very moody and rebellious in character."

Yet what you hear at the start of the symphony seems superficially serene: a quiet, long-breathed fanfare in the brass, an endlessly meandering string line, like a far-off vision of prayer at some mist-shrouded gothic cathedral. As the conductor Kenneth Woods says, there's a combination here of a Bachian choral prelude and a possible quotation from Haydn (that simple fanfare is a version of the music Haydn uses at the start of his last symphony, number 104; but if it's a conscious reference, Schumann replaces Haydn's assurance with shadows, ambiguities, and doubts). The moodiness or rebelliousness comes from the way Schumann's chromatic lines undermine the certainty of the fanfare idea, and that's just the first of the churning conflicts that this opening movement sets up. Schumann melts the boundary from the introduction into the main allegro through a masterly transition that pulls the rug from under you, and he makes the whole first movement rhythmically and harmonically unstable, so the tunes you hear on the surface are being continually buffeted by strange undercurrents and disturbances.

Yet despite Schumann's protestations, this isn't a piece that mawkishly wears its heart on its sleeve. Instead, if there is a relationship between his physical state and the music of the symphony, it's in the work's feverish concentration of ideas, and its polyphony of styles. The way they are fused together amounts to a symphonic solution that's definitively Schumann's own. After the skittish, unsettled start to the second, scherzo movement, one of the contrasting trios creates another Bach-like texture, a chorale that disappears like a dream before the chromatic whirlwind engulfs it. The slow movement is the most contemporary – in its aching, restrained emotion – and ancient of the symphony, given that the main melody is based on a work of Bach's that Schumann had recently been studying, the Musical Offering.

But it's the finale that's the most original shape. After a helter-skelter march – Kenneth Woods again points out another possible reference here, this time to Mozart's opera The Magic Flute – much of the music is based on transformations of the tunes you heard in the slow movement. However, Schumann saves a new melody until nearly half-way through the movement. When it first appears in the strings, it sings of calm serenity in the middle of the joyous sound and fury you've heard so far. This tune is yet another allusion, to Beethoven's song-cycle An die ferne Geliebte, music that originally set the words "Take them then, these songs". Schumann's symphony is a gift of a new kind of symphonic song for the mid 19th century.

Schumann said that he had started to feel better by the time he wrote the finale, but the whole of the second symphony bears witness to an astonishing creative vigour and strength that Schumann found at one of the most difficult times of his life. He didn't just reinvent his own compositional language, he created an alternative way of thinking about the symphony – and produced one of the richest, most compelling pieces he would ever write.

Five key recordings

1. John Eliot Gardiner/Orchestra Révolutionnaire et Romantique: the blazing colours and ferocious imagination of Schumann's symphony revealed with fiery passion from Gardiner.

2. David Zinman/Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich: a recording that marries the lessons of the period instrument movement with the lyricism and warmth of the Tonhalle's native sound – a winner.

3. Herbert von Karajan/Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra: not just lush and plush, Karajan's never-ending musical lines delve into the complexities of Schumann's world.

4. Claudio Abbado/Orchestra Mozart: Abbado's first recording of a Schumann symphony – and well worth the wait; he conjures lean, insightful, but sensuous music-making from Orchestra Mozart.

5. Wolfgang Sawallisch/Staatskapelle Dresden: one of the classics of the Gramophone, from Sawallisch's complete survey, which did more to put Schumann centre-stage in the repertoire than other recording.

Symphony guide: Haydn's 6th

The first of Haydn's Esterhazy symphonies, in Le Matin nothing is taken for granted, and its musical structure is full of startling moments

How else should the most productive period of symphonic composition in the 18th century - indeed of all time - begin but with a sunrise? The sixth symphony is the first that Joseph Haydn wrote for the court at Esterhazy, where he was employed from 1761, and where his nearly thirty-year working relationship with Prince Nikolaus Esterhazy would change symphonic history. The relative isolation of Esterhazy "forced me to become original", as Haydn later put it, and pretty well every Esterhazy symphony he wrote (and there are around 70 or them, from Haydn's complete symphonic tally of 104 - officially, or 106 if you're being more precise), shows how he created a completely new repertory for his court musicians.

A bust of Haydn at his birthplace in Rohrau, near Vienna, Austria. Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian/David Levene

In "Le Matin" (not Haydn's moniker) you can hear how he hit the ground running. Not yet 30, Haydn had already mastered instrumental music in the central decades of the 18th century, a time in which everything was in flux: how you shaped a piece, what you called it, how your harmony was going to function, and what it all meant. Outwardly, Le Matin looks like it establishes a template of the four-movement design that would dominate symphonic thinking, but what's thrilling about this piece is that you never feel that he's just filling out a form for the sake of it. Nothing is taken for granted, right from that six-bar sunrise of a slow introduction that heralds the allegro. It's a miniature piece of tone-painting magic, that sunrise, as it glows from pianissimo to fortissimo, from the smallest of sounds and scales to a grand public statement. No surprise that it subsequently inspired its "Le Matin" nickname (Haydn's next two symphonies were also given titles, "Le Midi" and "Le Soir", making a neat symphonic triptych for the times of day).

There are some startling moments in the music's structure: the way the horn preempts the return of the main tune before the rest of the orchestra gets there in the first movement (exactly the same gag Beethoven would use, incidentally, in his Eroica Symphony, when the horns seem to come in a few bars early before the recapitulation of the opening movement; Haydn was the daddy of this kind of thing nearly 50 years earlier), the dream-like adagio at the start and end of the second movement; or the playfully but also painfully acidulous dissonance Haydn creates a couple of times in the finale, a moment of deliberately deliciously delayed resolution.

But what's most remarkable about this piece, and symphonies 7 and 8 as well, is how Haydn makes the discourse of the whole symphony a continual interplay of soloists playing within the ensemble. You might expect a flute, oboe or violin solo, but the duet for double-bass and bassoon soloists in the trio of the third movement is a joyously startling surprise, as is the frantic cello obbligato in the finale, which also features yelping horn calls and some virtuosic writing for the solo violinist – which could have been Haydn himself in Esterhazy.

This symphony is a compositional tour-de-force, in fusing all those solo voices into a bigger symphonic design, and creating an ideal dialogue between chamber music playfulness and the biggest canvas Haydn could compose on at the time (even if his orchestra probably numbered only 15 players or so), and in heralding the sheer musical inventiveness and astonishing rate of production of Haydn's next decades. But besides all that, it's also proof of Haydn's sensitivity and generosity, in writing a piece that would show off to the Prince the quality of his players, which would entertain them, their patron - and, as it turns out, posterity.

Five key recordings

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Freiburg Baroque Orchestra: thrilling imagination and virtuosity, my Matin of Matins!

Academy of Ancient Music/Christopher Hogwood: Haydn's orchestral colours and structure in ideal balance.

The English Concert/Trevor Pinnock: some impish energy in Pinnock's period instrument performance.

La Petite Bande/Sigiswald Kuijken: Kuijken is out on a limb with his slow tempo in the finale and his fast speeds in the slow movement.

Philharmonia Hungarica/Antal Dorati: modern instruments and vivid characterisation from Dorati's comp

Symphony guide: Mozart's 38th - 'Prague'

In the third in his symphony series, Tom Service goes back to 1786 Prague and Mozart's 38th symphony, in which you can hear the composer straining at the limits of what his orchestra, and the form, can do.

Riotous creativity... Mozart, who wrote the Prague symphony aged 30. Photograph: De Agostini/Getty Images

The 30-year-old Mozart hadn't written a symphony for three years when he started composing a new piece for Prague at the end of 1786, the Bohemian city where The Marriage of Figaro was going down much more of a storm than it had in Vienna.

Since the Linz Symphony of 1783, Mozart had pushed himself as a composer and musician in all possible directions: he had incarnated pretty well his own genre of the piano concerto and had already brought it to astonishing heights; as an opera composer, he was embarked on those epoch-making collaborations with Lorenzo da Ponte, starting with Figaro; and in the six string quartets he dedicated to Haydn, published the year before, he challenged himself - and his listeners and performers - to attain a new kind of chamber-music consciousness. All that, and he had begun seriously to investigate earlier Baroque repertoires.

In the Prague, you hear the effect of all these expanding musical horizons on Mozart's idea of what a symphony could be. This is really the first of Mozart's symphonies - and he had written at least 36 before (no. 37 is a misnomer) - in which Mozart transforms the social and entertainment functions of a piece of grand orchestral music into signifiers of a different kind of discourse. In virtually every bar of this piece, you hear him straining at the limits of what his invention, his orchestra, and the symphony can do.

Some crazy facts before we get down to the counterpoint. The Prague has three movements rather than the by then conventional four; Mozart does without the minuet because of the scale of this symphony's first movement and the andante; the tune at the start of the finale is a quote from The Marriage of Figaro, exploding the little duet between Susanna and Cherubino in Act II into a dazzling presto that's by turns coquettish and muscularly dissonant; the slow movement is the most operatically lyrical and emotionally varied he had yet composed in a symphony; and the first movement starts with the most expressively extreme slow introduction to a symphony in the history of the genre.

And it's that opening movement, above all its main allegro, that is the Prague's most endlessly fascinating phenomenon. That's to do with a combination of it structure, its size, and its contrapuntal complexity. This is the longest single symphony movement of the 18th century. In fact, if you perform it observing Mozart's repeat-marks (not just the first half, as conventionally the case, but the second as well) it's longer – longer! – in performance than the supposedly genre-smashingly massive opening movement of Beethoven's Eroica Symphony. But it also attempts something that the Eroica, even, does not. In its teeming concatenation of motives that you hear at the start of the allegro (a patchwork assemblage of ideas that makes a nonsense of the conventional analytical parsing into "first theme" and "second theme", incidentally, if you're following a sonata/symphonic-form rule-book) the Prague sets out Mozart's biggest compositional challenge as a symphonist so far. His task is to give coherence to this superabundance of invention. And, thankfully, he doesn't quite manage it.

What I mean is that in trying to tame his riotous creativity, he creates a tumult of symphonic imagination that transcends mere coherence or comprehensibility. In the second section, the orchestra embarks on the most multi-layered polyphonic texture a symphony had yet been asked to sustain. Mozart brings together the motives he has exposed in the symphony so far, and combines them in a contrapuntal crucible that's one of the most thrilling things you can hear an orchestra play. And play again: there's a reason Mozart asks the second half of the movement to be repeated – you need at least another time around the block to make sense of what's going on. In fact, a lifetime of listening won't exhaust its richnesses. That's my experience, at least. In these performances, it might be yours, too.

Five key performances

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René Jacobs/Freiburg Baroque Orchestra: take-nothing-for-granted, ear-opening imagination from Jacobs and the Freiburgers.

Charles Mackerras/Scottish Chamber Orchestra: a performance of relentless energy and Mozartian momentum.

Claudio Abbado/Orchestra Mozart: transparent textures and revelatory counterpoint in Abbado's recent recording.

Karl Böhm/Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra: old school? Definitely and defiantly - Böhm eschews the repeats in the first movement, but this is music-making on a big scale.

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Thomas Beecham/Royal Philharmonic Orchestra: thought Beecham and Mozart were all about gentility and charm? Wrong! There's a frenetic, teeming, mania in this performance.

Symphony guide: Beethoven's 5th

In the first in his new series Tom Service looks at the most famous, and influential, symphonic work of them all

Da-Da-Da-DUM... the opening bars of Beethoven's 5th symphony.

And so, it begins. Beethoven's Fifth Symphony sounds its hammer blows of fate; or perhaps those four notes are a transcription of the song of a Viennese yellow-hammer; or a symbol of war-time victory; or a transformation of a Cherubini choral song. Those first notes of Beethoven's symphony have been heard, interpreted, and explained as all those things and more. It's the single most famous symphonic trajectory of expressive minor-key darkness to coruscating major-key light.

They're notes that are so familiar that we don't even hear them properly today. Quite possibly the only life-forms who now really hear the ambiguities in the opening of Beethoven's 1808 symphony are infants or extra-terrestrials. What I mean is that this symphony doesn't begin in C minor - the key it says it's in on the title page. In fact, it's not until the four-note rhythm is played a third time that we really know we're in C minor, rather than what could be E flat major. You see, if you hum the first four pitches of the piece – da-da-da-DUM; da-da-da-DUM, you could still conceivably be listening to a symphony in a major key, if you were next to sing the note of your first "DUM" and harmonise it with a major chord… Apologies if this is getting a bit da-da-ist, or quite possibly dum-dum-ist, but the point is that this is only the first way that music we take for granted – the single most forceful, electrifying, and recognisable opening to a symphony – is actually much more complex and multi-layered than we realise.

The power, concentration and white-hot compression of Beethoven's music is staggering. The first movement creates its tumultuous organic chemistry of interrelationships from the atomic particles of the notes it started with; in different guises, the four-note rhythmic idea permeates the rest of the symphony as well; then comes the elaborate variations of the slow movement, and its teeming effulgence of string writing that is a lyrical, long-breathed structural counterpoint to the first movement's explosive fragments. The scherzo is one of Beethoven's most obvious borrowings from Mozart: he quotes and subtly transforms the opening of the finale of Mozart's 40th Symphony to create his own theme; and out of this world of shadows the horns blare out another version of the 3+1 rhythmic idea, this time reduced to a single pitch. The transition from the scherzo to the finale is one of the dramatic masterstrokes of orchestral music. From an entropic mist of desolate memories of the scherzo's opening theme, underscored by the timpani's ominous heartbeat, the violins' arpeggios climb until they reach a tremolo, a crescendo and a blaze of unadulterated C major glory - and the start of the finale, with its trombones, piccolo, and contrabassoon, all held in reserve by Beethoven until this climactic movement.

Thanks to the less-than-ideal conditions of its first performance in December 1808, it took time for the Fifth to become the symphony of symphonies that embodied all of the power and possibilities of instrumental music, the template for a journey from tragedy to triumph that would become a musical and dramatic blueprint for all subsequent symphonic composers.

Beethoven's contemporary ETA Hoffmann wrote in 1813 that the Fifth incarnated the romantic axiom that orchestral music, untethered to words or other worldly concepts, could glimpse "the realm of the infinite". This symphony, Hoffman wrote, "sets in motion the machinery of awe, of fear, of terror, of pain, and awakens that infinite yearning which is the essence of romanticism". And that became a whole way of thinking about this symphony and many others, as "pure" or abstract music. But that means you lose sight of what the symphony is trying to do. And what we're at last realising, more than two centuries on, is that the Fifth inhabits the "realm of the infinite" not because it escapes meaning or significance, but because it's saturated by intra- and extra-musical meanings. Read the father of artificial intelligence, Marvin Minsky, on what and how the first few bars of the Fifth Symphony communicate in our brains. From the other side of the debate, John Eliot Gardiner hears - and conducts - the piece as a gloss on the hopes, dreams, and tunes of the French revolution, identifying one of the themes in the finale as related to a melody by Rouget de l'Isle, the composer of the Marseillaise.

The Fifth is still a contested space, in terms of how it's played, how it's thought of, and even in terms of its text (another other things, a debate rages to this day about whether the repeat of the scherzo should be observed or not). Its familiarity is a sign not of its exhaustion, but of its endless potential for renewal. All we have to do is keep thinking, keep listening, and keep alive the possibility to be stunned by this symphony, whether you hear it as a metaphysical progress (listen to Wilhelm Furtwängler) or a blood-and-thunder protest (John Eliot Gardiner). Simultaneously, miraculously, it's all that - and more.

Beethoven . . . a journey from darkness to light. Photograph: © Archivo Iconografico, S.A./CORBIS

Five key performances

1910: The first recording of a complete symphony, and one of the most fascinating - Friedrich Kark's visceral performance with the Odeon Symphony Orchestra.

1952: Arturo Toscanini's taut, no-nonsense Carnegie Hall performance with the NBC Symphony.

1954: Beethoven, visionary: Wilhelm Furtwängler's protean performance with the Berlin Philharmonic.

1974: Carlos Kleiber's inspirational, shattering performance with the Vienna Philharmonic.

2012: John Eliot Gardiner's incendiary, revolutionary take on the piece with his Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique.