Thursday, March 19, 2015

The 10 Best 19th Century Symphonies

This is a lot harder than my other two symphony lists, 20th century and 18th century. For one thing, the 19th century was really the apotheosis of the symphony, when it became everything. As Mahler said, "A symphony must be like the world. It must contain everything." There were an awful lot of symphonies written in the 19th century when it was, alongside opera, the most popular and prestigious musical form. 19th century symphonies are also formidably long, often an hour or more in length, so they take a lot more time to absorb. As I have with other periods, I will list them in chronological order:

1. Symphony No. 5 in C minor, op. 57 by Ludwig van Beethoven. Yes, this was completed and first performed in 1808 so it is indeed a 19th century composition. Probably the best example of an organically-integrated composition and hugely influentialChamber Orchestra of Europe, conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt:

2. Symphony No. 8 in B minor, D. 759, the "Unfinished", by Franz Schubert. This symphony prefigures so much of the eerie, uncanny effects explored in the 19th century that it is surprising that it was written in 1822. Also Harnoncourt:

3. Symphony No. 9 in D minor, op. 125 by Beethoven. The link goes to the first of several posts I did on this symphony previously. This symphony shaped the whole 19th century approach to the genre. It was the reason that Mahler, among others, included vocal soloists and choirs in some of his symphonies and the first movement in particular was so great an influence on Bruckner that all of his nine symphonies are inspired by it. Completed in 1824Daniel Barenboim, conductor
Royal Albert Hall, 27 July 2012:

4. Symphony No. 9 in C major, D. 944, the "Great C major" by Schubert was completed in 1826. This is the last great classical symphony and an astonishingly brilliant work, driven throughout by dancelike rhythms. Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, conductor:

5. Symphonie fantastique, op. 14 by Hector Berlioz, composed in 1830, really kicks off the Romantic symphony in one amazing burst of creativity. No previous symphony had made such thorough-going use of a cyclical theme, nor so forthrightly presented itself as a kind of fictionalized autobiography. Stéphane Denève conducting the Chicago Symphony:

6. Symphony No. 2 in C major, op. 61 by Robert Schumann was inspired by the Schubert Great C major. Composed in 1846. The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks), dir Leonard Bernstein:

7. Symphony No. 1 in C minor, op. 68 by Johannes Brahms. Though sketches for this work date from 1854, it was not actually completed until 1876! As the century wore on, the influence of Beethoven in particular weighed more and more heavily on composers like Brahms, who sought to revive the pure instrumental tradition of the classical symphony. For much of the mid-century the "symphonic poem" of Franz Liszt and others was the preferred form. I'm not talking about them here as they really are a different genre. But just as it might have been thought that the instrumental symphony had faded into obsolescence, Brahms reinvigorated it with this work. Wiener Philharmoniker, Leonard Bernstein:

8. Symphony No. 7 in E major by Anton Bruckner was finished in 1885. Inspired by Beethoven, but also under the heavy influence of Wagner, this is one of the most popular of Bruckner's nine symphonies. Lucerne Festival Orchestra conducted by Claudio Abbado:

9. Symphony No. 6 in B minor "Pathétique" by Pyotr Tchaikovsky was premiered in October 1893. His last symphony ends with a "dying away" (morendo) which was both an aesthetic innovation and a provocation to some to read this work as a farewell to life--Tchaikovsky died only nine days after conducting the premiere. Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra, Conductor - Vladimir Fedoseyev:

10. Symphony No. 9 in E minor, the "New World" by Antonín Dvořák was also composed in 1893, but premiered in December of that year, just after the Tchaikovsky. This is an enormously popular work, both at the premiere and to this day. Wiener Philharmoniker conducted by Herbert von Karajan:

Now I know what you are going to say: "what about Mahler?" Yes, indeed, and I would have picked the Symphonies nos. 5 and 9, but the thing is that they were both composed in the first decade of the 20th century. I know that some historians would like to "adjust" the period a bit so that it extends from 1815, the Battle of Waterloo, to 1914, the beginning of World War I, but frankly, what has that to do with the symphony? Don't answer that! But in order to placate Mahler lovers, let's end with a bonus symphony:

11. Symphony No. 3 by Gustav Mahler, completed in 1896. This is the longest symphony in the standard repertoire, clocking in at over an hour and a half. There are six movementsMariss Jansons
Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks:

As an extra bonus, let me put up one movement from the Symphony No. 5 by Mahler. The Adagietto, one of the loveliest pieces ever writtenVienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Leonard Bernstein:


Craig said...

A nice selection, especially considering all the good candidates.

I would bump Berlioz, Schumann, or Tchaikovsky to make room for Mahler 2: my favourite symphony!

But nobody could make me bump those Schubert symphonies off the list.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Craig. I will give the Mahler 2 another listen!

The Schubert symphonies really are amazing, aren't they? I would put them equal with any Beethoven, personally.

Shantanu said...

One symphony I would put on the same pedestal as any of these is the Jupiter. I think its not too different or lightweight as compared to these hefty compositions, and its amazingly fine, if not as romantic as them and being pretty much a classical symphony.

Ken Fasano said...

It is certainly easy to nit-pick which symphony should be #1, #2, etc. I would have preferred the Eroica over Beethoven's Fifth; the Tchaikovsky Pathetique HAS to be on the list; I might have preferred Mahler's Second, but then that's a personal preference, since that's the first Mahler I heard when I was a young teen. As for Brahms, I would put his fourth over the others; it seems to be an example of a nearly perfect symphony, in terms of its construction.

Bryan Townsend said...

The Jupiter, Mozart's last symphony, had a prominent place on my list of the best 18th century symphonies.

I think I will do a footnote to this post on the weekend, because I thought of an entire symphonic tradition that I would like to mention.

Anonymous said...

its an excellent list;i'm surprised by the schumann inclusion,i'd probably swap it with mahler 2.A list of 19th century symphonies is easy at the start because Beethoven,Bruckner,Schubert and Dvorak are automatic choices;it becomes really tough when you start considering other candidates for places left.


Bryan Townsend said...

Hi John,

Thanks! I think any list of 19th century symphonies will get some debate. I'm not a huge Schumann fan, but his symphonies seem to fill in a gap between Schubert and Beethoven and the later revival of Brahms et al. I'm sure getting a lot of votes for Mahler 2, so I may rethink that!

Marc Puckett said...

I looked about via the search engine and didn't find that you've written about Mahler's 2nd? It was the final concert of the OBF, this afternoon. I'd only 'listened' to it a couple of times before, online, more or less while doing other things. Great beautiful yards of musical fabric, but they seemed to be stitched together, somehow, some Wagner, some Orientalist touchs, I don't know, and the texts! God bless his heart. Will go out online and investigate.

Marc Puckett said...

Pft. I should have looked to the comments; I knew I'd read something about Mahler's 2nd here somewhere. :-)

Bryan Townsend said...

When it comes to Mahler, I am ambivalent. I used to be a huge Mahler fan thirty years ago, but lately I find I just can't listen to him. But there was such a groundswell of support for Mahler 2 that I need to give it a serious listen. Mind you, I haven't gotten to that yet!