The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Pulitzer Prize-winning American composer Kevin Puts answers on NPR the question: “Why write symphonies today?” | August 10, 2013

By Jacob Stockinger

Is the novel dead yet?

Well, some say yes and some say no. I suppose it depends on what you are looking for.

Lots and lots of novels continue to be written and published, and to sell big.

But then again, one can argue, the novel just doesn’t seem to have the cultural power or sway, or the same serious reader appeal, that it once held in the 19th and 20th centuries.

So can one ask the same thing about the symphony?

Why should one compose today in a musical form or genre that can seem so outdated, according to some who critics who point out that it dates back to at least Franz Joseph Haydn in the 18th century with roots going back even further back than that.

The American composer Kevin Puts (below, in a photo by Andrew Shapter), defends writing symphonies, even as he is doing so. Puts, you may recall, won a Pulitzer Prize in 2012 for his opera “Silent Night,” about the Christmas Truce on the front lines and in the trenches during World War I.


By the way, Kevin Puts’ own 2001 postmodern orchestral piece “Inspiring Beethoven,” which is based on the famous Allegretto movement of Beethoven’s Symphony no. 7 (below, in a YouTube video with intriguing schematic graphics and over 5 million hits)  was performed by the Madison Symphony Orchestra two seasons ago. (You can hear “Inspiring Beethoven” performed in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

Beethoven big

Anyway, Kevin Puts tackles the question of the relevance of the symphony – and the concerto, for that matter — head on in an essay he did for NPR’s terrific blog “Deceptive Cadence.”

The Ear finds his case compelling and shares his defense of the symphony. Maybe you will too.

Here is a link to Puts’ essay, which has a lot of specific modern composer names and examples of modern symphonies as well as links:

What do you think? Is the symphony or concerto outdated or dead?

Do you have a favorite modern or contemporary symphony?

What is your favorite symphony of all time?

The Ear  wants to hear.

But in the mean time, please excuse me.

I have to get back to working on the pre-deceased novel I am writing.

Maybe I’ll listen to a symphony while I am writing it.


  1. If one is writing music for the orchestra, it need not be called a symphony. If one is writing music for an orchestra and a soloist, THAT probably should be called a concerto.
    Thus the symphony is “deader” than the concerto. A symphony ought to have the formal characteristics of the genre. If a piece lacks these formal associations, it is a tone-poem, a suite, an “overture”, or any number of other genre labels.
    A concerto is, at its essence, orchestral music with a soloist. There is never any doubt as to what this music will offer, as we can see the Soloist standing or sitting in front of the group, ready to play their prominent part and role.
    A Symphony is WAY more deceptive in its presentation and manifestation. It ought to have at least two, and preferably three movements. It ought to have some contrasts of mood, tempo, and even length. Music for orchestra that is a single movement, without some structural points of delineated change, can be very nice or very wonderful music, but I would hesitate to call it a symphony.
    Kevin Puts’ piece “Inspiring Beethoven” was lackluster. It sounded like an accompaniment to a melody that never materialized. I find this trait to be one of the more omnipresent criticisms that I have of contemporary music. Ned Rorem’s music always has a melodic focus. We do not expect a minimalist piece to have a conventional tune. Schoenberg and Bartok’s melodies are at the far edge of what most listeners can perceive as a tune or motif.
    I attended the MSO performance of the Puts. Why it was given that title is also rather a mystery to me. Inspired BY Beethoven, or Inspiring Kevin Puts, but why Inspiring Beethoven. Oh, well…

    Comment by Michael BB — August 10, 2013 @ 7:12 am

    • Dear Michael,
      As usual, you make good and thoughtful and arguable points.
      I take the title as a pun that means means especially a piece of music that is by Beethoven and that inspires someone — whether listener or composer.
      I didn’t hear it so can’t judge.
      It seems typically postmodern in its combination of what is original and what is derivative.

      Comment by welltemperedear — August 10, 2013 @ 12:07 pm

      • Oh I see, a title that reminds the listener that Beethoven is Inspiring. I get that.
        As for originality and derivative elements, I do not believe in originality for the VAST majority of arts practitioners. Everything we do that is not wildly off the track is derivative. One simply has to choose what to use as a source.
        If one was truly original, one’s materials would be soundly rejected by just about everyone, as has happened to originals throughout history. Harry Partch, for example. Also, it takes true and obsessive genius to obtain originality in Art, and so very few of us really have that quality. Art schools of every sort rely on the fact that this little secret is usually kept well-hidden, so that students will continue to flock in, in hopes that their “genius” will be revealed.
        In practice and fact, geniuses neither learn much in school nor teach there. I am a very smart person, but I am no genius. Even my ex-wife, who is 1 IQ point below the Official Genius Level, shied away from using her powers for Art, having been trained in the futility of such a move by her art school teachers in NYC, at no small cost, I might add.
        Post-modern, what a concept… I think that ALL current musics, pop, rock, jazz, classical, have the same problem. Listeners do NOT usually want to really hear what you want to really play or write. Thus, one has to get on some style platform and display the current fad of the year or decade.
        Melody will never stop being appealing. Music with a discernible pulse will always attract an audience. Music that keeps at least one familiar element can vary the other two with much more freedom and still keep the audience’s attention.
        I try and do these things in my own compositions. None of them are really original, and some are meant to be directly derivative of a specific composer or piece.
        Never be afraid to use a strong model, because you can never really write like someone else to begin with, and having strong models was one of the key elements missing from my composition education.
        Enough for now, hey, I had to google “discernible” I forgot the “i” !

        Comment by Michael BB — August 10, 2013 @ 1:07 pm

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