We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more


Music in the Nineteenth Century

CHAPTER 13 The Return of the Symphony


CHAPTER 13 The Return of the Symphony
Richard Taruskin

Richard Taruskin


We have not taken a close look at an old-fashioned “nonprogrammatic” multimovement symphony since the end of chapter 2, when our subject was Schubert's “Unfinished” (1822), nor have we even given the genre a passing glance since chapter 3, when Mendelssohn's subtitled but nonprogrammatic “Reformation” Symphony (1832) briefly served us as a foil to his oratorio St. Paul. Had we not been sidetracked by what seemed at the time to be more pressing “historical” concerns, we might have spared a moment for Schumann's four symphonies, composed between 1841 and 1850, all of them now staples of the orchestral repertoire. The fact that we did not take the time is only another illustration of the problem broached in the previous chapter: the ease with which the historian's attention is captured by novelty.

But even if we had been telling the story in the guise of a repertoire survey rather than a narrative, the “classic” symphony would have fallen out of the picture in the second half of the nineteenth century, despite its Beethovenian prestige. For two decades beginning around 1850, it was no longer viewed as a site of potential creative energy. It was seen, rather, as an illustrious but outmoded genre. Its meteoric career had carried it in the course of little more than a century from the status of aristocratic party music to that of momentous public oration, but its place had been decisively preempted by the programmatic genres pioneered by Liszt and the “New Germans.” Wagner, going even further, made bold to declare (in The Artwork of the Future) that Beethoven's Ninth Symphony had made all purely instrumental music obsolete.1

Not a single symphony composed in the 1850s or 1860s has survived in the repertoire. It became a “conservatory” or “professor's” genre—a graduation exercise to demonstrate formal mastery—and its practitioners were for the most part academics. Perhaps the most prolific symphonist of the period, Anton Rubinstein (1829–94), a fire-breathing piano virtuoso but a conservative composer, was in fact the founder and director of the St. Petersburg Conservatory, and its head of composition. His counterparts in Germany—Julius Rietz (1812–77), Carl Reinecke (1824–1910), Salomon Jadassohn (1831–1902), and the Danish-born Niels Gade (1817–90) in Leipzig; the renegade Lisztian Joachim Raff (1822–82) in Frankfurt; Robert Volkmann (1815–83) in Vienna and Budapest; Karl Reinthaler (1822–96) and Schumann's brother-in-law Woldemar Bargiel (1828–97) in Cologne; and Carl Grädener (1812–83) in Hamburg—maintained the genre through its fallow period, but made no lasting contribution to it.

No composer could graduate from the Paris Conservatory at this time without a “classical” symphony under his belt, and that is how the student symphonies by the sixteen-year-old Saint-Saëns (1852) and the seventeen-year-old Bizet (1855) got written. Gounod's two symphonies (1855, 1856) were the by-product of his meeting with Fanny Hensel in Rome (described in chapter 3), as a result of which he met her brother, Felix Mendelssohn, and heard him conduct the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. “On his return to Paris,” the English critic Martin Cooper wryly noted, “Gounod was almost certainly unique among French musicians of his generation in his knowledge and understanding of music, past and present, that had nothing to do with the opera house and no place in the French tradition.”2

But by then the symphony was considered an anomaly practically everywhere. Its continued cultivation, except as a didactic genre, was taken as evidence that music had entered “the age of the Epigones,”3 or lesser descendents, to quote the most popular music history text of the 1880s, the Illustrated History of Music by Emil Naumann (1827–88), a Dresden professor who was himself a former pupil and “epigone” of Mendelssohn. Renewed vitality in this or any other “classical” genre was considered a historical (or “dialectical”) impossibility, so ingrained had the historicist viewpoint become.

And yet, as Naumann's textbook illustrates, the inherent optimism of the historicist progress-myth was producing a pessimistic backlash. Wagner and Liszt, the great figures venerated by the “New German School,” were at the time of Naumann's writing both recently deceased. It seemed to most observers that they had brought all the historicist prophecies to fulfillment. “Reflecting now on the achievements of the past,” Naumann concluded, “we observe in the tonal art an organic whole. It is complete and finished. What is to come one cannot divine.”4 There seemed to be nothing left to do.


(1) Richard Wagner's Prose Works, Vol. I, trans. W. Ashton Ellis (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner, 1895), p. 126.

(2) Martin Cooper, French Music from the Death of Berlioz to the Death of Fauré (London: Oxford University Press, 1951), p. 11.

(3) Emil Naumann, The History of Music, Vol. V, trans. F. Praeger (London: Cassell & Co., n.d.), p. 1193.

(4) Naumann, The History of Music, p. 1194.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 13 The Return of the Symphony." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 26 Sep. 2018. <http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-chapter-013.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 13 The Return of the Symphony. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Nineteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 26 Sep. 2018, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-chapter-013.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 13 The Return of the Symphony." In Music in the Nineteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 26 Sep. 2018, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-chapter-013.xml