The question is posed by James MacMillan in the new issue of Standpoint magazine. He provides a list to show the symphonic impulse is still alive and well, still the benchmark of creative ambition:
Hans Werner Henze wrote ten. Alfred Schnittke also wrote ten, and so far Peter Maxwell Davies has also written ten. Michael Tippett wrote four. It was obviously a viable form and concept for these titans of modern music. But there are many others who would never have given the question a second thought — Boulez, Birtwistle, Lachenmann. Is it just the more “conservative” composers of our time who are interested in the symphony? No doubt there will be strident voices from the avant-garde hard-line who would maintain just that. But what makes Maxwell Davies conservative? Perhaps this leads to the impossibility of defining the word and idea. Can anything be a symphony now? Galina Ustvolskaya’s Fifth Symphony is about ten minutes long, scored for only five players and involves an actor reciting the Lord’s Prayer in Russian. Her Fourth Symphony is for voice, piano, trumpet and tam-tam and lasts only six minutes. Concepts of musical conservatism and radicalism have a tendency to wax and wane in our own time, so who knows how the self-proclaimed radicals of our age will be viewed decades hence?
But is it? Read the full essay here.