Why I don’t really get what’s going on in tone poems (or other stuff…)
While I wouldn’t say I am a serious traditionalist (things like Scriabin’s one-movement sonatas or Sibelius’s single movement seventh symphony don’t bother me), there are some distinct advantages for a listener to sticking to something resembling a familiar form. It serves almost as a map, an outline, a way to know at least roughly what should be going on at what point in the story.
That being said, unless we’re dealing with something as obvious as Beethoven’s fifth or a very traditional first movement, I probably won’t pick up entirely on the sonata-allegro form and recognize modulation and the exact points of exposition, development and recapitulation. So if it’s something super complicated or difficult to grasp, like Shostakovich 4, it doesn’t matter much, because I won’t pick up on it. It may be really difficult to grasp the general structure of that movement, but on a larger scale, if we have what I expect in a four-movement (or three, or even one with the right sections) piece, I know there’s a faster section, a slower section, and sometimes even still a waltz or scherzo or minuet before the conclusion, and this is satisfying.
Is this the ONLY format a symphony could ever have taken? Could there not have been a standard six-movement form with two slow movements and a burlesque and a Klezmer music section in it? Probably. But it didn’t happen that way, and we are now used to the symphony in the form that it currently has based on centuries-old traditions.
Novels are familiar. It’s a big story, a longish book, and we are familiar with stories through oral tradition. There are different characters, and different stories, but they all have some kind of tension, perhaps a fight between good and bad, and a resolution.
However, in a collection of short stories, (for example, one of my absolute favorite things, Salinger’s Nine Stories) the direct relation between the individual sections may not be as obvious, or may intentionally be in contrast to one another with no related elements or specific progression, the emotion then in this case being in the collection or juxtaposition of what seem to be unrelated elements. I imagine this may be what Schumann felt (in a negative way) about Chopin’s second piano sonata when he commented about Chopin stringing together four of “his most unruly children.”
While most everyone is familiar with the idea of storytelling because of its oral traditions and a basic narrative, not everyone will be familiar with the “traditions” or structure of a standard symphony. So, for that reason, if you’re a brand new listener to classical music, pick the one that works for you.
Are you more comfortable with a symphonic poem or other ‘story’ where the plot may be tied more to a ballet or drama (again, Strauss and his Don Juan or Don Quixote or Eine Alpensinfonie or one of those if you’re familiar with that story. There’s also always Stravinsky. But for me, in general, unless I’m reading a play-by-play, those are hard to follow because I’m just not familiar enough with those stories. They certainly work enough as absolute music, but if that’s not the intent, then I feel I haven’t come to understand the piece as it should be understood. Hence, I’ve ignored many of them, only having given them a few listens here or there.
But you decide.