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When was the heyday of the symphony?

Updated Thursday, 10th November 2011

Robert Samuels looks back to when symphonies were the way to get noticed in the world of music

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Franz Lachner Creative commons image Icon Work found at Wikipedia / CC BY-SA 3.0 under Creative-Commons license German composer and conductor Franz Lachner (1803-1890) In 1835, a symphony competition was announced in Vienna, with the offer of a large cash prize and guaranteed concerts for the winner.

There were fifty-seven entries.

The winner was a musician by the name of Franz Lachner, at the time the chief conductor of the orchestra at the Kärntnertor theatre in Vienna (where Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony had been premiered).

Sadly, Lachner’s ‘Prize Symphony’ never became a hit—the composer Robert Schumann, when he heard it in Leipzig the year after the competition, described it as ‘without style’—although when he heard one of the other entries a year or two later, he did say it must have been a worthy winner!

You can judge for yourself with this short extract from the opening of Lachner’s Symphony.

Anyone studying with the Open University can hear the whole work via NAXOS and the Open Library website.

The interesting thing about this story isn’t really whether or not Lachner’s symphony is a great work, so much as what made so many composers enter the competition in the first place.

What it shows is that the way to make your name, in the European musical world of the nineteenth century, was to have your symphony performed.

Schumann himself, after a disastrous attempt to make his name in Vienna (although he did discover Schubert’s Great C major symphony while he was there) returned to his beloved Leipzig in 1841 and set about writing three symphonies in a single year.

Even fifty years later, at the end of the century, a symphony was still de riguer for a great composer: in Britain for instance, Sir Arthur Sullivan, despite being the most famous and successful composer of the day, was constantly berated by critics for not following up on the one symphony he had written, in his early twenties.

Why was this? What was it that audiences thought you could hear in a symphony which you couldn’t hear anywhere else?

For a start, in a symphony you could hear what at the time was called the ‘genius’ of the composer. In a symphony, there is nothing to get in the way of the composer’s ideas reaching the audience: no flashy soloist calling attention to his virtuosity, as there is in a concerto; no singers pretending to be characters in a drama, as there are in an opera.

On the other hand, a symphony isn’t an intimate listening experience, like a piano sonata or a string quartet; it is a big, public event, requiring one of the new public concert halls that were built in almost every large town or city across the whole of Europe. You don’t just need a large number of musicians to play a symphony, you also need a large number of listeners to do it justice—so anyone who wrote a symphony had to believe they had something important to say in it.

And that ‘having something to say’ is the second big thing about symphonies in their heyday, the nineteenth century. A symphony was understood to be a way of ‘telling a story’ in music. Schumann, whose newspaper described itself as ‘written by musicians, for musicians’, likened Schubert’s Great C major symphony when he discovered it to ‘a fat four-volume novel’; when he came across Berlioz’s new Symphonie fantastique, he compared it to modern French novelists such as Victor Hugo.

Kärntnertor theater Creative commons image Icon Work found at / CC BY-SA 3.0 under Creative-Commons license Karntnertor theater, a prestigious theatre in Vienna during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Whether or not a symphony had a ‘programme’, as Berlioz’s does, critics usually described listening to a symphony as like following a story. And the story had to be a big, public one, told through the big, public event of a symphony concert.

The complicated, many-layered sound made by a whole symphony orchestra, where several tunes may be being played at the same time on different instruments, makes it sound like a story involving many people, each going in their own direction, but all part of a common situation.

The nineteenth century was one which loved big, public stories. Someone once called it ‘the age of grand narratives’. Across Europe, great novelists such as Balzac, Dostoevsky and Dickens were creating works chronicling extraordinary events against the backdrop of modern life; each novel would be translated at once and read everywhere.

And across the continent, great musicians such as Brahms, Dvorak and Tchaikovsky were creating works which aimed to do the same in sound; and because most people could only go to a symphony concert on rare special occasions, symphonies were printed and arranged for piano so that they could be read and played at home.

So when you hear a symphony, you are hearing a story as rich, complex and moving as Crime and Punishment or Bleak House.

Sometimes the story ends with triumph, as Brahms’s First Symphony does; sometimes with tragedy, like Tchaikovsy’s Sixth; sometimes with catastrophe, like Mahler’s Sixth.

Through symphonies we can live for ourselves through the extraordinary changes of the nineteenth century. There is always a bit more to the music than just what you can hear.

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