Beethoven in 1804, / Detail of a portrait by W. J. Mähler
Beethoven’s odd numbered symphonies have the reputation of being stormy and dramatic, while the even numbered symphonies seem more gentle and easy-going. For that reason, perhaps, the even numbered ones are less popular. Symphony no. 6, Pastoral, is easily the best known and most performed of the even numbered symphonies.
Beethoven worked on his Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth symphonies, among other major works, between 1806 and 1808. The latter two are the first of Beethoven’s symphonies with trombone parts.
Many symphonies and chamber works are known by nicknames that, more often than not, the composer never thought of. Beethoven himself supplied names for the Third Symphony (Eroica) and the Sixth (Pastoral Symphony, or Recollections of Country Life).
Ordinarily, we know symphonies as symphony number whatever in whatever key. If we know them by a nickname, such as “Bear” or “Jupiter,” the composer seldom supplied it. Hector Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique broke all kinds of molds. For one thing, it is the first of four of his symphonies, but not a one bears a number, and only two have the word “symphony” in the title at all. How did he become such a bull in a china shop? Continue reading →
Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy / lithograph by Friedrich Jentzen for Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung 39 (1837), after a painting by Theodor Hildebrandt via Wikimedia Commons
Very often, when a symphony acquires a nickname, the composer has nothing to do with it. Think Mozart’s Jupiter or Tchaikovsky’s Little Russian, for example. On the other hand, Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy composed Lobgesang (Song of Praise), and it became known as his Symphony no. 2 only after his death. He himself called it a symphony-cantata.
Lobgesang was among Mendelssohn’s most popular works during his lifetime. Although hardly neglected today, it remains one of his less-known major works. The duet “Ich harrete des Herrn” (I Waited for the Lord) for two sopranos and chorus, however, became a well-known standalone piece frequently performed by many church choirs.
After his death, his reputation plunged. Wagner’s screed “Judaism in Music,” with its assumption that Jews were incapable of true artistic understanding, led the attack. Mendelssohn was born Jewish, and it didn’t matter to antisemites that he was a devout Christian and proud German. Many critics, antisemitic and otherwise, saw Lobgesang only as a pale imitation of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
Understanding Lobgesang, then, requires understanding of Mendelssohn as a religious person and what models he had in mind as he conceived the work. Continue reading →
Interior of the Gewandhaus concert hall, 1845, location of the premiere of the Great C Major Symphony / Illustrirte Zeitung, 19. April 1845, p. 253
Franz Schubert started at least ten symphonies and completed seven of them. The last completed symphony is known as the Great C Major Symphony to distinguish it from the shorter Sixth Symphony, also in C Major. It has been variously numbered 7, 8, and 9.
None of his symphonies were known in his lifetime. Why? Did the Viennese musical establishment callously neglect the young composer?
Generations of critics leveled that charge. But it seems that Schubert’s own insecurities kept him from even trying to gain an audience for his symphonies until very close to his death. Continue reading →
Statue of Antonín Dvořák in front of Rudolfinum in Prague, Czech Republic / Wikimedia Commons
Brahms is generally considered Beethoven’s chief successor as a symphonist, but a good case can be made for Antonin Dvořák. Most of Beethoven’s followers seemed to regard his middle period as a boundary beyond which they would not go. Dvořák’s Symphony no. 8 in G major, like most of Beethoven’s, charts new structural ground.
Dvořák’s music had an odd relationship with the Brahms wing of German music. Critics such as Edouard Hanslick held it in high esteem. But they believed that German composers represented the pinnacle of musical genius. Being Czech and not German, Dvořák only counted as a second-class citizen of their musical world. Continue reading →
A bust of Johannes Brahms in the palace gardens in Detmold. Brahms lived and worked in this small town for a couple of years. / Bernd Sieker via Flickr
Johannes Brahms was 43 when his First Symphony came out. By that age, Beethoven had already composed eight of them. Most important symphonists produced their first symphony sometime in their 20s or earlier. Sibelius, Bruckner, and Vaughn Williams wrote theirs in their 30s.
Why did Brahms take so long to produce a symphony?
As he explained it, “You can’t have any idea what it’s like always to hear such a giant marching behind you.” He referred to Beethoven, but all 19th-century composers had Beethoven marching behind them. It appears that Brahms’ friend Robert Schumann laid a special burden on him. Continue reading →