Vocal and Choral Symphonies and Considerations on Text Representation in Music

Keywords: vocal symphonies, choral symphonies, the symphonic genre, expression in music, Mahler, Zemlinsky, Wagner, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Kandinsky, Adorno.


The article examines the genres
of the vocal and the choral symphony
in connection with the author’s vocal
symphony Finland for soprano, tenor
and orchestra set to Evgeny Baratynsky’s poem
with the same title. It also discusses
the issue of expression of the literary text
in vocal music, as viewed by a number
of influential 19th and 20th century
composers, music theorists and artists.
Among the greatest examples of the vocal
symphony are Gustav Mahler’s Das Lied
von der Erde and Alexander von Zemlinsky’s
Lyrische Symphonie. These works combine
in an organic way the features
of the symphony and the song cycle.
The genre of the choral symphony started
with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony
and includes such works as Mendelssohn’s
Second Symphony, Scriabin’s First
Symphony and Mahler’s Second, Third
and Eighth Symphonies. Both genres
exemplify composers’ attempts to combine
the most substantial genre of instrumental
music embodying the composers’
philosophical worldviews with that of vocal
music, which expresses the emotional content
of the literary texts set to music.
The issue of expressivity in music is further
elaborated in examinations of various
composers’ approaches to it. Wagner claimed
that the purpose of music was to express the
composers’ emotional experience and especially the literary texts set to music.
Stravinsky expressed the view that music
in its very essence is not meant to express
emotions. He called for an emotionally
detached approach to music and especially
to text settings in vocal music. Schoenberg
pointed towards a more introversive and
abstract approach to musical expression
and text setting in vocal music, renouncing
outward depiction for the sake of inner
expression. Similar attitudes to this position
were held by painter Wassily Kandinsky
and music theorist Theodor Adorno.
The author views Schoenberg’s approach
to be the most viable for 20th and early
21st century music.

The Art of Music