The Classical Music Lover’s Companion to Orchestral Music

By Robert Philip

Yale University Press £35

Review by Keith Bruce

IT is fairly safe to assert that Robert Philip’s mighty new tome, just shy of 1000 pages all told, may spark as many arguments as it settles. There are obvious difficulties of definition in the title for a start. “Classical music” is a vexed term, over which broadcaster Tom Service mused for an entire programme on BBC Radio 3 recently. “Orchestral” is similarly problematic: where chamber music stops and orchestral music begins is a very blurred line, and not only in the early music sphere. Philip also restricts himself to work composed for the concert hall. Except when he doesn’t of course. But generally that excludes all opera and work composed for the stage, although the fact that, for example, Stravinsky’s dance music – from The Firebird to The Rite of Spring – is most often heard in the concert hall, means that it is in, as it needs to be.

And then there is the time frame that Philip has set himself: two and a half centuries from 1700 to 1950. That rule is a bit flexible to and, as the author acknowledges in his introduction, while an argument can be made for beginning with Corelli, his end date can only be arbitrary. Even within those parameters, however, his selection is personal. “I have had to leave out many fine composers and works,” he acknowledges, but that will not be enough for fans of those he has omitted. For myself, the complete absence of Kurt Weill, who was dead in April of 1950 and whose Symphony No.2 was premiered in 1934, is pretty much inexcusable.

In the case of Dmitri Shostakovich, the mid-twentieth century cut-off date means that the last symphony Philip allows himself to consider is the Tenth, although it was almost certainly completed after 1950, and certainly not played until after the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953. But either way, No.10 ends up looking like an odd place to stop, two-thirds of the way through the fascinating narrative of the composer’s symphonic output.

Enough of what this book is not, though. Just as all criticism is necessarily subjective, the selection here reflects the author’s own taste and his judgement of what is important. There is, blessedly, no restrictive tabulated format to his writing. The composers are arranged alphabetically, from Bach (just the most famous one of the family) to Webern, and within that the works are usually grouped in what might be thought of as their familiar concert order – Overtures, then Concertos, followed by Symphonies in the case of Beethoven for example (not that Ludwig was any great advocate of that pattern himself). If Philip has a lot to say about a particular work, he gives himself the space to say it, but word-count is not necessarily an indication of his assessment of worth, by comparison with an entry that might be many paragraphs briefer. The Rite of Spring, half an hour long, merits seven pages, while Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, over twice as long, gets four and a half.

Resident in Edinburgh, Robert Philip has a long association with the Open University and his last book for Yale University Press, Performing Music in the Age of Recording, reflected that academic background in its study of how the job of being a musician (and composer), and the experience of listening to music, has been altered by the advent of performances being captured for posterity. Its successor is aimed much more at the general reader – the “music lover” of the title – and as such deserves to find its way under the Christmas tree in the musically-interested households this year. Much more readable than many a concert programme note, Philip strikes a nice balance between narrating the history of pieces, including biographical details of the composer, and describing exactly what it is that the orchestra is doing during a performance. Something like the Suites Edvard Grieg created from his incidental music for Peer Gynt – so memorably re-ordered recently by Thomas Sondergard conducting the RSNO – will include a short description of the action the music was designed to accompany before a sentence like this: “The dance is scored for muted violins with the rest of the strings mostly pizzicato, and with the occasional delicate touch of a triangle.”

Philip never talks down to his reader, and assumes a reasonable knowledge of musical terms, but can evocatively embrace a much wider vocabulary of reference. Here he is on the finale of Mozart’s much loved Symphony No.40:

“It is like a mathematical mosaic. But the emotional effect is far from orderly. The pattern is like a prison, not a source of comfort, and when the music succeeds in breaking out into a furious tutti, it seems inevitable: scales and arpeggios rush out unceasingly, as if trying to get as far as possible from the constrictions of the opening theme.”

That sort of writing seems designed to entice anyone to listen to the composition under examination with new ears, even when it is already very familiar, and it is probably for the old war horses of the orchestral repertoire that this book is most valuable. Although it sometimes seems otherwise, the catalogue of works that feature in orchestral seasons is in a constant state of flux, so the omission of a work like the Britten Violin Concerto here seems a little dated, given that it is now much more often played than was once the case. And the absence of Dvorak’s Symphonic Poems would have been odd in an earlier era as well as the current one. But even if you find yourself looking for background to a work that Philip has not included on occasion, this is nonetheless a very wise and useful companion that music lovers old and new will want to keep close at hand.