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Unravelling the mysteries of the symphony

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Steve Bowbrick Steve Bowbrick | 09:49 UK Time, Monday, 24 October 2011

Picture shows the BBC SO - Sidonie Goossens and Jeanne Chevreau on the harps.

Editor's note: producer Steven Rajam introduces Radio's 3's new, six-part guide to everything symphonic (starting Wednesday November 9th), presented by Sue Perkins and Tom Service - and needs you to supply the questions.

It's difficult to think of any other genre in classical music that's entered the public's consciousness like the symphony. People of all ages and backgrounds, people who've never bought a classical CD or gone to a concert in their lives, have some idea of what a 'symphony' is... and (I reckon) could probably hum you the opening of Beethoven's Fifth.

It's that universality that I love - and the fact that once you delve deeper, past those famous symphonic excerpts - the Ode To Joy, Mahler's Adagietto, the opening of Mozart 40 (all regularly fed into the popular imagination in countless films and television shows) - there's an ocean of eclectic discovery there, all under the 'symphony' moniker.

Whoever you are, whatever your musical tastes: you might connect with the sparkling, unadorned brilliance of Haydn, Mozart and Stamitz; the drama and intensity of Romantic symphonists, from Beethoven to Bruckner; the yarn-spinning, picture-painting symphonies of Berlioz, Liszt and Richard Strauss; the open vistas and raw, repressed emotion in Sibelius, Shostakovich and Schnittke.

Symphonies were probably my first contact point with classical music as a kid - and I'm really chuffed to have the opportunity to produce a celebration of perhaps classical music's most hallowed genre as part of the BBC's Symphony season. But how do you feed all of that appeal, all that variety, all of four centuries of brilliant musical composition - into six twenty minute episodes?

I'm very pleased to have at my disposal two of the most engaging and witty music broadcasters in the business: in one corner, the comedienne (and no mean conductor herself) Sue Perkins; in the other, Radio 3's Music Matters guru, Tom Service.

Our aim is to create a series that's accessible to anyone who's curious about anything symphonic - to unravel the mysteries and blow away some of the myths of this venerable musical form. We want your questions - anything, whether simple, complicated, maddening or strange, that you've ever wondered about symphonies(and were perhaps too afraid to ask).

To give you an idea, an entirely unscientific, impromptu Q+A (my friends in the pub) came up with:

  • Why does a symphony comes in movements...and is it 'wrong' to listen to just one? And at a concert, why do people stare when you clap in between them?
  • Why symphonies have such a big reputation as the 'pinnacle' of classical music? Can you be a truly great composer without writing a symphony?
  • Are people still writing symphonies, and are they still relevant today?

But even if you know your Haydn from your Hovhaness, your Bruckner from your Berio, we hope there'll be plenty to surprise, delight and engage you. Sue and Tom will be discussing, debating and debunking some of the thorniest symphonic queries - with a host of musical excerpts from the 17th century to the present day.

So: get those questions in! You can email r3symphonyqt@bbc.co.uk, via the Radio 3 Facebook page - or via Twitter at @bbcradio3 - use the hashtag #r3symphonyqt to join in.

We kick off on Wednesday November 9th, in the interval of Live in Concert - hope you enjoy it!

Steven Rajam is producer of Symphony Question Time

  • Listen to Symphony Question Time in the intervals of Radio 3 Live In Concert, beginning on Wednesday 9th November at 20.20 and then on 17th, 18th, 21st, 26th and 30th November.
  • The picture shows a symphony from another era: Sidonie Goossens and Jeanne Chevreau, members of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, on the harps, in 1939.


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