(K. King, 1895)

We attended last evening the four hundred and twenty-second performance of Horridnoise’s great symphony (opus 8421), and after this number of hearings we repeat our words, written some weeks agon, according to the eminent composer all the praise in our power, finding only a little fault with him for the construction of the fiftieth movement.  As our previous writing was merely a notice of the work, preferring to hear it many times before entering upon an extended criticism, we give below a detailed description to our readers in the world, and also for the benefit of those of our subscribers in the moon who have been unable to visit us this season, owing to the exorbitant rates.  We are happy to inform the latter that Horridnoise proposes to treat them to a performance of his work, as soon as the large balloon necessary to carry the enormous instrument (the cornetetherwhistle) is finished….

The first twenty-six movements, occupying five days and eighty-three minutes in performance, give great evidence of the composer’s genius.  From the opening chords (in M flat major) the mind is at once directed toward the advent of that exquisite harmonic treatment of the theme that follows (in O minor), falling on the ear so evenly and gracefully that we regret that we have to part with it so soon.  That the composer has used the great Columbiad in the accented parts of the 31-263 measures, we have heard some complaints, but so firm and square is the rhythm (the object being to convey to the mind the gradual proximity of the obsolete to the vapory ether through which it is passing), that we are satisfied that the use of the instrument is allowable.  In a smaller hall the effect might be different, but in this great apartment, the floor of which is thirty-two miles long, the object in the composer’s mind explains itself.  The progress from the chord of the 24-9 in the eighteenth movement to the diminished chord of X flat major, is one of the finest effects we so far find.  The wail of the catometer, distantly heard through the heavy thud that emanates from the rock and wood instruments, the magnificent roll of the tubs and the final reversion to “the obsolete” movement of the first treatment, brings us to the twenty-seventh.  From thence to the fifty-seventh we are to prepare for ten days of enjoyment….

How exquisite are the opening bars – full and resplendid with rich instrumentation!  Horridnoise has taxed the powers of his little band of 5420 performers, but they are brave, have confidence in their leader, and never show lack of genuine enthusiasm.  Here we are now in the great crescendo passage of the thirty-seventh movement, with its magnificent instrumentation.  The crescendo is intended to illustrate the clashing of forces that would prostrate man if his latent powers did not come to the rescue.  We are listening to the wild, discordant strains from those angry-mouthed brass tubes 50 feet in diameter, blown by engines of 8,000,000 horse-power, while all the time the sound of the Machangawang – constantly increasing in volume – may be heard; now far off; now faster and faster; now breaking the force of the brass a trifle; again silenced, but now persistently advancing till the power to stop it is broken, and the crescendo increases and our ears are filled with a prolonged note from all the wild instruments, proclaiming triumphantly that they have conquered.  We do not wonder that the performers took a nap of half an hour after this effort.  Our own brain reeled from the effect of the crash, and we joined with most of the audience in a dose of valerian, kindly furnished by Horridnoise.

This, however, is but a hint of the effect produced further on in the composition.  From the thirty-seventh to the forty-fifth movement we are treated to a little theme for the great double-bass jewsharp, touchingly played by Herr Mashumslayer, with a background of twenty-four steam-worked pyaldryvas for an accompaniment, the treatment of which is in a broad style, bordering on the latest form of a short-hand music writing, the time of which is so quaint, and yet so novel and interesting, that it is soothing to the nerves, after the previous measures….

The opening chord of the 154th movement triumphantly proclaims the superiority of mind over matter, and bursts into a three-sided, well-poised strain in 9-40½ time, with a running passage of extreme beauty for the steam engine.  This melody is now the theme for the finale, and is worked up through eighty-nine different keys, with great delicacy of modulation, to the great climacteric point of the symphony.  The little band of musicians full well know what is expected of them, and one by one divest themselves of superfluous clothing.  Each makes for himself a space to work in, while each one securely clamps himself to his seat.  Horridnoise has taken the precaution to chain himself to his stand (he failed to fasten himself the first performance, and was in consequence blown from his position, so great was the crash), while the audience now sit breathless, each holding the other down as best he may, ready for the grand effect to come….

All is now smooth; the air is but just vibrating with one little note on a single violin.

But listen!

Horridnoise lifts his baton!

A wild note on the smackaree is heard!!!

Then two!!!!

Then two more!!!!!

Then a rumbling of 326 bass-viols, followed by a shriek of 740 steam-whistles!!!!!!

The theme is now increasing in tempo.  All eyes are on the conductor.  Suddenly a peal of thunder in 2-40 time is heard cracking and splitting over our heads.  Wilder pours the theme until, with a long stroke of the baton, the culminating point is reached in a chorus bursting forth from the whole band, fortissismissimo, while for a moment we are all at a loss to know whether we are ourselves or some one else; 19 tons of nitroglycerine, 38 tons of gunpowder, 240 Columbiads, 740 steam-whistles, and the combined forces have produced a chord of the diminished 999th, which they hold twenty-eight minutes.  Horridnoise turns fourteen somersaults, but his chain holds, and he clambers back to his stand to receive the thunders of applause that come from the audience after they themselves recover.

Mahler caricature

This bit of futurology extrapolates from a prominent trend in late nineteenth-century symphonic music: the continual effort to outdo what came before in terms of length, harmonic complexity, instrumental forces, loudness and philosophical depth. Though many authors in our collection made hopeful projections for the music-technological future, King sees the “progress” of his day leading to absurdity. Published the year Gustav Mahler’s Second Symphony premiered, King’s parody may have been prompted by the tendency toward orchestral gigantism in the music of composers such as Mahler and Richard Strauss. The trend toward ever bigger and grander symphonies exhausted itself, however, well before the year 1995 King imagined. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the “largest symphony” dates from 1927: Havergal Brian’s “Gothic” lasts a mere 110 minutes and requires only 55 brass, 31 woodwinds, 22 timpani, 5 choruses (including 1 children’s), and such additional instruments as organ, wind machine, thunder machine and rattling chains. There has been no sign yet of the cornetetherwhistle, Columbiad, catometer, Machangawang, double-bass jewsharp, pyaldryvas, or smackaree.
Text: K. King, “The Symphony in 1995,” The Etude (1895), 244
Image: Caricature of Mahler directing his First Symphony