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Kent Nagano on The Evolution of The Symphony

On May 14, Kent Nagano conducts the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal in the final concert of the 2011 Spring for Music festival. Here, Maestro Nagano explains the concept for that evening's program—The Evolution of the Symphony.

When we speak of a "symphony orchestra," a "symphony concert," or a work of "symphonic" dimension, we refer implicitly to a concept of the "symphony" which—at least since the time of Beethoven's significant creation of his nine symphonies—has become essential to our modern understanding of music.

In fact, around 1800, in conjunction with the concept and term "symphony," the meaning of music in multiple parts demanded by orchestral ensembles received a tremendous impetus. It found a representative status that corresponded to the new middle-class understanding of society and culture. In the symphony, the modern understanding of the world and of existence could be depicted as well as experienced from the position of the listener.

The history of the "symphony," along with that of opera, was an unprecedented success story—and still is today. But musical thought had absorbed the concept much, much earlier. Symphony is of ancient Greek origin, and denoted a very specific musical detail, namely the combination of two or more tones into a harmonious unity of sound. At the same time, the term also meant the interaction of musical instruments. It was Giovanni Gabrieli who, close to 1600—two centuries before Beethoven—called his collection of music for voices and instruments Symphoniae Sacrae. In so doing, he paved the way for instrumental music to achieve equality with vocal music and therefore its artistic importance.

"Symphony"—this splendid word contains in itself an entire profound dimension of European music history. It is not surprising, then, that we encounter it constantly, even in connection with musical phenomena that may not fit our usual ideas but still let us experience our music in all its historic depth.

—Kent Nagano

View extended program notes here.


May 11 Spring for Music: Dallas Symphony Orchestra
May 12 Spring for Music: Oregon Symphony Orchestra
May 13 Spring for Music: The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra
May 14 Spring for Music: Orchestre symphonique de Montréal  

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