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Musical landscapes: the symphony after 1900

Updated Wednesday, 16th November 2011

Fiona Richards looks at the symphony around the world during the first half of the 20th Century

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In 1945 Stravinsky completed his Symphony in Three Movements as an American citizen. Sibelius was still toying with an Eighth (to remain uncompleted) symphony in Finland, a short distance away from his compatriot Uuno Klami, who was busy experimenting with his Second. Copland was working on his Third, and Australian composer Arthur Benjamin was in Canada finishing his only Symphony.

Dmitri Shostakovich Creative commons image Icon Work found at / CC BY-SA 3.0 under Creative-Commons license Dmitri Shostakovich in 1942 Meanwhile, in Russia Shostakovich incurred the wrath of Stalin with his Ninth. Intended to be an epic celebration of Russian victory on the Eastern Front, the composer instead wrote a joyous, witty symphony that was then banned in 1948 for its supposed frivolity and ‘formalism’.Anyone studying with The Open University can log in to listen to the entire recording.

So what had happened to the symphony since 1900?

The great symphonies in the Austro-Hungarian tradition reached their culmination in the works of Mahler (who was also highly renowned as a conductor of opera in Vienna).

His symphonies explore the colours of the orchestra with extraordinary detail and subtlety.

The Eighth, described at the time by the composer as ‘the greatest work I have yet composed’, is on a vast scale, complete with solo voices, choir and an enormous orchestra, adhering to his belief that a symphony must be ‘like the world. It must embrace everything’.

But the word ‘symphony’ in these forty-five years can be rather ambiguous. Richard Strauss’s immense Sinfonia Domestica and Alpine Symphony are tone poems, Debussy’s La Mer is subtitled ‘symphonic sketches’ and Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler is a symphony based on the opera he hadn’t yet finished.

Honegger wrote a Symphonie ‘Liturgique’, Stravinsky a Symphony of Psalms and Britten a Sinfonia da Requiem. There are sinfoniettas, symphonies concertantes and the Chamber Symphonies of Schoenberg.

On the one hand the symphony continued to grow, with marathon works and increasing numbers of instruments in the orchestra.

But it also got smaller, and there are works scored just for string orchestra (Britten’s Simple Symphony) or wind ensemble (Milhaud’s Symphonie de chambre no. 5). Some composers stuck with tradition, or were ‘Neoclassical’ in looking back to the eighteenth century (Prokofiev’s ‘Classical’ Symphony).

Others experimented freely. Many symphonies are bound to nation and location—from Chávez in Mexico to Hart in Melbourne.

Two World Wars influenced the direction and content of the symphony in practical, emotional and political terms: in Denmark Nielsen’s Fourth, ‘The Inextinguishable’, was written during World War I, and like many of the works of this period brings the conflict into the music, here with duelling timpani on opposite sides of the orchestra.

One of the greatest symphonists of the twentieth century, Shostakovich wrote fifteen works stretching across a forty-five year period from 1926 to 1971. Some of them carry a subtitle (No. 2 is ‘To October’), and all are profoundly bound to the places and politics of soviet Russia. No. 7 was dedicated to a city, each of its movements representing a programmatic idea associated with the 1941 siege of Leningrad.

In America the symphony was flourishing. Ives, a part-time composer and insurance worker, and habitual reviser of his own music, wrote several, including A Symphony: New England Holidays, which consists of four musical sketches of holidays such as Thanksgiving, an unfinished Universe Symphony, and four numbered examples.

The middle two of these draw extensively on American melodies—hymns, fiddle tunes, college songs and folk songs. You don’t need to know all the tunes to appreciate the works, but it’s fun trying to spot them.

Vaughan Williams Creative commons image Icon Work found at / CC BY-SA 3.0 under Creative-Commons license A 1919 portrait of Vaughan Williams by William Rothenstein Copland took up the mantle of American symphonist: the Third Symphony uses his earlier Fanfare for the Common Man as the main theme of the fourth movement, drawing on the philosophy of Alfred Sieglitz that the American artist should reflect the ideals of American democracy. The rolling plains of rural America are reflected in Copland’s distinctive wide open harmonies and textures.

In Finland Sibelius took as inspiration sweeping expanses of forests, lakes and northern skies. The Kalevala—a work of epic poetry created from ancient Finnish and Karelian folklore—played a big role in the development of Finnish national identity, and lies at the heart of his music. Sibelius visited the symphonic genre afresh seven times in all, each successive work different from the one before, culminating in the Seventh, which compresses all the essences of a four-movement work into a continuous single movement.

There is an abundance of great English symphonies in the first half of the twentieth century: by Elgar, Bax, Walton and one by Moeran, this strongly influenced by the landscapes of Norfolk and the Irish coast at Kenmare. Bax, who described himself as a ‘brazen Romantic’, met Sibelius in 1932, and himself wrote seven symphonies between 1921 and 1939. Though none has a subtitle, they’re imbued with the same Celtic spirit as his orchestral tone poems.

The most prolific of these English composers is Vaughan Williams, whose nine symphonies each have very different hallmarks: the first three alone include a choral Sea Symphony with texts by Walt Whitman, the characterful London Symphony and the contemplative Pastoral Symphony, which draws on the composer’s personal experiences as a volunteer with the Royal Army Medical Corps in the Great War. A London Symphony, whose second movement the composer described as ‘Bloomsbury Square on a November afternoon’, weaves the sounds of the city—Westminster chimes, the jingle of the Edwardian hansom cab and street cries—into a unique symphonic evocation of London.

Happily for the listener many of these composers conducted their own symphonies, and you can still hear these performances: Britten, Copland, Elgar, Stravinsky and Vaughan Williams are all among those whose recordings survive.

You can also see a timeline of the major symphonic works between 1900-1945.

Locations of the symphony composers

Use the map below to explore the locations where 30 of the major symphony composers of the first half of the twentieth century did their notable work. Zoom in on the green arrows to see all the pins in detail.

Symphonies around the world

 Explore our guide to where the great composers were located.

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All the locations at once

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Storrington, West Sussex

Malvern, Worcestershire

Dorking, Surrey

Snape, Suffolk

Kenmare, Southern Ireland

Vasterival, Normandy




Paris (later emigrated to USA)

Frankfurt (later emigrated to USA)


Vienna (later emigrated to the USA)

Vienna (later emigrated to USA)


Funen, Denmark

Gothenberg, Sweden

Helsinki, Finland

Finland/Russia border

St Petersberg (later moved to Paris, then emigrated to USA)

St Petersberg (later moved to Moscow)


Liveni, Romania

Brno, Czech Republic

New York

New York

New York

New York

Melbourne, Australia

Sydney, Australia

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