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Music in the Nineteenth Century


CHAPTER 13 The Return of the Symphony
Richard Taruskin

The last thing Naumann expected was the “symphonic revival” that was by then already well under way, although (like anyone committed to a theory of history) he failed to notice what was going on all around him. The reasons for this massive infusion of new creative energy into what had been considered a moribund genre are notoriously complex. Of course they include the appearance of a new generation of highly capable musicians; but that has to be considered not so much a cause as a contingency. Without “new symphonists,” to be sure, there could never have been a “new symphony.” But the talent and renewed dynamism that went into the symphony beginning in the 1870s could have gone elsewhere. Something had to revive the genre's prestige and renew its prospects in order to attract the talent. That something was a volatile compound of contradictory historical and social factors that transformed concert life, producing the powerful notion of a “classical tradition” in music that is still with us today.

With the swelling of urban populations in the wake of industrialization came a broadening out of the musical audience into what could be truly thought of as a “public”: a cross-section of society—or, at least, a cross-section of “affluent society,” people with “disposable income,” uncommitted money to spend. The concert hall began to rival the opera house as a potential source of profits, and toward the middle of the nineteenth century halls of a size comparable to opera theaters but specifically designed for orchestral concerts—the kind of concert hall familiar to us all—began to proliferate.

The Leipzig Gewandhaus (drapers’ hall), built in 1781, was for a long time an isolated badge of commercial prosperity and the appetite for concert music that it stimulated. It had no rival until 1831, a round half-century later, when the Vienna Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde (Society of Friends of Music), a “voluntary association” or private club supported by a paying membership, built a hall for the propagation of orchestral music. The “Gesellschaft” or “Society” (as it was known for short) was a very important organization, always at the forefront of public concert life in the Viennese capital. As the city grew in size and wealth, so did the Society, reflecting the city's burgeoning commercial prosperity and channeling it into musical ventures; as the Society grew, so did the concert life it managed. It is to that process that we must look if we want to understand the rebirth of the symphony.

Founded in 1812 as an amateur orchestra, the Society endowed the first Viennese conservatory in 1817, with an enormous library attached containing many autograph manuscripts by the giants of the “classical” repertoire, purchased for the Society by its wealthier members. The concert hall, Vienna's first, was erected three years after Beethoven's death and two years after Schubert's. Their symphonies had been played during their lifetimes in theaters, dance halls, and aristocratic palaces, not in specially designed spaces for which there was as yet no perceived social need.

Once the first public halls were in place, others followed, ever bigger; and as halls grew, so did orchestras. In 1860, public music-making in Vienna was rather belatedly professionalized on the Leipzig model with the establishment of the Künstlerverein (Artists’ Club) orchestra, now called the Vienna Philharmonic. A hall was built for it ten years later by the Vienna Musikverein (Music Society); known as the Grosser Saal (Large Hall), and familiarly as the “Goldener Saal” (Golden Hall) because of its lavish appointments and superb acoustics, it had a previously unheard-of seating capacity of almost 2,000, larger than many opera houses. It was joined later the same year, 1870, by the Gewerbehaussaal (Chamber of Commerce Hall) in Dresden, with comparable dimensions and a fully professional Philharmonic Orchestra. Both the Vienna and the Dresden orchestras began offering full season subscriptions like those of the precocious Gewandhaus, and like all “major” big-city professional orchestras today. From 1870, then, one may say that such subscription series were “normal” in European concert life, and so they have remained, both in Europe and in its cultural colonies.

Museum Culture

fig. 13-1 Interior of the Grosser Saal of the Musikverein (Great Hall of the Musical Society; now the Vienna Philharmonic), built by Theophil Hansen in 1870.

Shorter orchestral subscriptions had been a fixture of Paris music life since 1828, when the Société des Concerts du Conservatoire was founded by the Opéra concertmaster François Antoine Habeneck. It gave its concerts, as its name suggests, in the conservatory's Grande Salle. In 1853, a rival concert organization, the Société des Jeunes Artistes du Conservatoire, began giving concerts under Jules-Étienne Pasdeloup (1819–87), who went on, beginning in 1861, to offer a series called Concerts Populaires de Musique Classique in the mammoth Cirque Napoléon. The hall held 5,000, and the orchestra numbered 110. After the war of 1870, the Concerts Pasdeloup, as they had come to be called, faced competition from a pair of rival organizations, popularly named after their enterprising virtuoso conductors: the Concerts Colonne (after Edouard Colonne, 1838–1910) from 1873, and the Concerts Lamoureux (after Charles Lamoureux, 1834–99) from 1881.

London was the only other European city that, like Leipzig, had boasted a full-fledged concert hall (the Hanover Square Rooms, where Haydn appeared) before the end of the eighteenth century. The postindustrial burgeoning was especially spectacular there, as befitted the city that continued to be the nineteenth century's largest commercial center. St. James's Hall went up in 1858, with a gargantuan seating capacity of 2,127. It was the site of the series known as Popular Concerts, more familiarly as the “Pops.” Nothing could compare, though, with the Royal Albert Hall, still London's premiere concert space, which opened in 1871 with an audience capacity of 6,500 when the parquet seating is removed, as it now is for the summer “Promenade” (or Proms) concerts at which the ground-floor audience stands (and circulates). Those concerts had actually started at the Queen's Hall (capacity 2,492), erected in 1893 but destroyed by a German bombing raid during World War II.

Russia's first professional orchestra was founded at St. Petersburg in 1859 by the aristocratic Russian Musical Society, the same organization that sponsored Rubinstein's conservatory. Its concerts were given in what was formerly known as the Zal dvoryanskogo sobraniya (Assembly Hall of the Nobility), built in the 1830s for fashionable balls. As converted to concert use it seats a mere 1,318. Mammoth halls on the order of the ones that went up in Western Europe in the heyday of bourgeois concert life had no real counterparts in imperial Russia, which maintained a quasi-feudal society until the 1860s, and where the growth of an entrepreneurial bourgeoisie was stunted by reactionary laws. Somewhat paradoxically, a burgeoning public concert life in Russia on the bourgeois model had to await the Communist (that is, antibourgeois) revolution of 1917.

The most prestigious nineteenth-century concert hall in America was New York's Music Hall (now known as Carnegie Hall after Andrew Carnegie, the steel magnate who financed it), with a seating capacity of 2,784. It opened its doors in 1891 (with the Russian composer Chaikovsky as the guest star of the inaugural gala) as a home for the orchestra of the New York Philharmonic Society (founded 1842; now the New York Philharmonic Orchestra). Carnegie Hall's only serious rival was Boston's Symphony Hall (capacity 2,645), built for the Boston Symphony Orchestra (founded 1881), in use since 1900.

The audience for “symphony concerts” reached a new plateau, then, around 1870, and only seemed to keep growing for the rest of the century. Up to a point, large halls and large audiences were symbiotic: big capacities meant lower prices, which meant more people, which necessitated bigger capacities. The Leipzig Gewandhaus, the original “symphony hall” had to be completely rebuilt in 1882–84, after about a century of use, at twice its original capacity in order to accommodate the socially diverse (“mass”) audiences that now flocked to symphony concerts. Although the new building was never used as a textile trade center, it was still called the “draper's hall,” since that name was now ineluctably and honorably associated with the history of orchestral music, now more popular and prestigious than ever before.

But we are facing a potentially grim paradox; for “symphonic” music began growing toward its new plateau of popularity and prestige exactly as its production was falling off. What were all those excellent new professional orchestras playing in their immense new concert halls?

The answer is implied in the statement of aims with which Pasdeloup launched his Société des Jeunes Artistes du Conservatoire in 1852: “to present recognized masterpieces alongside music by young composers.” Pasdeloup's repertoire consisted of the “Viennese classics”—Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven—plus Mendelssohn and Schumann (shortly destined to join the rest in the ranks of dead composers), with the works of “young composers” admitted only insofar as they were composed in “classical” forms. The early symphonies of Saint-Saëns and Gounod, mentioned above as conservatory produce, were all that Pasdeloup was at first prepared to admit alongside the masterpieces of the Teutonic dead. These were (in the words of David Charlton, a historian of French music) “among the earliest works in ‘classical’ forms by Frenchmen.”5 Audiences found them delightful, especially Gounod's. But from the historicist standpoint Pasdeloup was providing a counterhistorical incentive to “epigonism.” By historicist lights, “works in ‘classical’ forms by Frenchmen” had no call or right to exist, at least not at that late date.

Pasdeloup's proclivities were matched by all the other enterprises that popularized symphonic music. In its first year, 1858, the London “Pops” at St. James's Hall presented (in descending order of frequency) works of Beethoven, Haydn, Mozart, Mendelssohn, and Weber. The next season the repertoire was broadened to encompass Handel and Bach—even older music!—and a single program of British music that “epigonally” imitated the composers already named. In other words, the symphonic repertoire as purveyed in the latter half of the nineteenth century—with increasing frequency, in ever improving performances, and to an ever widening public—had been frozen at the century's midpoint.

A startling statistic established by William Weber, a social historian who has made a specialty of the sociology of musical taste, reveals that around the turn of the nineteenth century about 80 percent of all the music performed in Vienna, Leipzig, Paris, and London (the cities mainly surveyed above) was the work of living composers, while after 1850, and especially by 1870, the ratio of living to dead authors performed had been almost exactly reversed.6 Eighty percent of the music offered was by the ancient dead, and the composers of the remaining 20 percent now had a powerful “counterhistorical” incentive to become their elders’ epigones. The concert hall had effectively become a museum, and so it has remained to the present day. As the music historian J. Peter Burkholder put it, commenting on Weber's findings, “a young composer [as of the 1850s] had not only living models but also dead and deified ones.”7 The newly professionalized, newly democratized, and newly profitable concert world of the late nineteenth century seemed willy-nilly to be aping and universalizing the aristocratic antiquarian taste of London's quaint old Concert of Antient Music. That society, founded in 1776 by the earl of Sandwich and some other noblemen, and unique for its time, had stipulated that no work should be performed at its concerts that was less than twenty years old. By the turn of the century it had become something of a laughing stock, owing to the “want of variety” in its programs, as one critic complained, and its “total discouragement of living genius.” But it held on until 1848, and only disbanded when concert programs everywhere began conforming to its strange rule, thus depriving it of a raison d’être.

“Historical concerts”—panoramic, canon-solidifying surveys of the musical past—became fashionable everywhere. Anton Rubinstein toured the world with a series of seven historical recitals that established the royal line of keyboard succession (somewhat nationalistically colored at the end) as follows:

First concert (sixteenth to eighteenth centuries): Byrd, Bull, Couperin, Rameau, Scarlatti, J. S. Bach, Handel, C. P. E. Bach, Haydn, Mozart

Second concert: Beethoven (eight sonatas!)

Third concert: Schubert, Weber, Mendelssohn

Fourth concert: Schumann

Fifth concert (virtuoso composers): Clementi, Field, Hummel, Moscheles, Henselt, Thalberg, Liszt

Sixth concert: Chopin

Seventh concert: Chopin, Glinka, Balakirev, Cui, Rimsky-Korsakov, Anatoly Lyadov, Chaikovsky, Anton Rubinstein, Nicholas Rubinstein (his brother)

And now the biggest paradox of all: The driving impulse behind this newly universalized, high-minded “classicism” was, perversely, a commercial one. Selling music to a mass public meant guaranteeing its quality by invoking the “test of time.” Veneration of the masters, moreover, conferred a cachet not only on producers and purveyors, but on consumers, too. As Peter Gay, the leading historian of bourgeois mores and foibles, puts it, to attend such a concert was “to document one's membership in a coterie”—an irresistible blandishment, albeit an ironic one, to an ever enlarging audience of social climbers.

Finally, the very nature of a public concert (especially an orchestral or a choral one) as a social gathering furthered the ossification of the repertoire. Such concerts, in William Weber's words, satisfied the “desire to celebrate the emerging urban-industrial civilization with a grand thronging together in public places.”8 And what drew the throngs together was “the need of the new industrial society to manifest its economic and cultural potency through its own grand rites of secular religiosity.” The music of the “classical masters” had become a kind of liturgy.

The newly widespread “discouragement of living genius” was not only demoralizing to composers. It was also in flat contradiction with the historicist esthetic by which most of them had come by then to swear, with its call for perpetual progress and renewal of artistic means. The esthetic of Romanticism, in one of its major late strains, had collided with the realities of musical life as actually lived, even (or especially) in Germany. No wonder, then, that symphonic production had fallen off. On the one hand, it had been declared obsolete by the lofty arbiters of musical “progress,” and on the other it had to vie in the real world (the world of expenses, promotions, and remunerations) with works that had been declared timelessly enduring—hence unsurpassable—achievements.

This untenable situation was already implicit in the contradictions between the romantic cult of original genius and the new concept of the musical “work of art.” Once musical quality had been identified with masterworks, and masterworks with a specified collection of indispensable scores, then curatorship—preservation and display—became the job of performing organizations. As the repertoire was conceived as “complete and finished” (to recall Emil Naumann), the objectives of performers and composers began to diverge. The latter wished to add to the repertoire, but their additions were only welcome insofar as they were seen as compatible with the existing collection, or complementary to it—which is to say, practically never. The symphonies of Rietz or Reinecke or Jadassohn or Gade might be shown once or twice, especially locally, but the need was rarely seen to add them to the permanent collection. And now we have at last defined “classical music” as the term is used today, and pinpointed its origin: “classical music” is the music in the “permanent collection,” first defined around 1850.

Against the “permanent collection” or closed tradition of classicism was pitted in fine paradox the “permanent revolution” celebrated by historicism. The paradox led to the rifts that have yawned ever since between repertoire and canon, on the one hand, and between contemporary composition and the contemporary public, on the other. A strange but durable amalgam of esthetic idealism and crass commercialism had equated repertoire and canon, at least for the present, and thereby frozen both. Music of easy audience appeal was excluded and had to find other outlets, other venues. Thus not only was “classical” or “art” music born at that crucial nineteenth-century midpoint; so was “popular” or “entertainment” music (commercially purveyed music not meant for permanent display but for instantaneous, ephemeral success). The simultaneous origin of both these categories, eternally antithetical though they may appear to us by now, was only inevitable, since each was defined by the other's exclusion.

Composers were now really in a bind. The only way they could at once maintain self-respect in the face of historicism and at the same time have access to the newly defined “classical” repertoire and its prestigious venues was to create “instant classics”—compositions that in their high-minded and compelling seriousness could somehow simultaneously project both novelty and enduring value. They had at once to communicate, first, sufficient freshness and originality to stimulate interest; second, sufficient conformity to traditional values to warrant inclusion in the permanent collection; and third, sufficient intricacy of design to encourage a test of time.

Such a prescription, involving as it did the juggling of so many contradictory criteria, was indeed daunting. But it is the prescription under which composers of “classical music” have been laboring ever since the musical museum was established. Burkholder aptly sums it up in all its paradoxical majesty by observing that

Once the concert hall became a museum, the only works appropriate to be performed there were museum pieces—either pieces that were already old and revered or pieces which served exactly the same function, as musical works of lasting value which proclaimed a distinctive musical personality, which rewarded study, and which became loved as they became familiar.9

It sounds like something that couldn't be done. But someone did it. And in the process, as Burkholder observes, he provided “the model for future generations of what a composer is, what a composer does, why a composer does it, what is of value in music, and how a composer is to succeed.”10 In this formulation, of course, “a composer” here stands for modern composers, namely, in Burkholder's neat definition, “composers obsessed with the musical past and with their place in music history.”11 The definition is neat because it encapsulates yet another paradox, the ultimate one: modernity in music has come to be chiefly defined by a relationship to the past, rather than (according to the old “Zukunftist” definition) a relationship to the future.


(5) D. Charlton, “Paris,” in New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Vol. XIX (2nd ed., New York: Grove, 2001), p. 108.

(6) See Willaim Weber, “Mass Culture and the Reshaping of European Musical Taste, 1770–1870,” International Journal of the Aesthetics and Sociology of Music VIII (1977): 5–21.

(7) J. Peter Burkholder, “Museum Pieces: the Historicist Mainstream in Music of the Last Hundred Years,” Journal of Musicology II (1983): 120.

(8) William Weber, “Mass Culture and the Reshaping of Musical Taste,” p. 15.

(9) Burkholder, “Museum Pieces,” p. 119.

(10) J. Peter Burkholder, “Brahms and Twentieth-Century Classical Music,” 19th-Century Music VIII (1984–5): 81.

(11) Ibid., p. 76.

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. 7 May. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-013002.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 7 May. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-013002.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 7 May. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-013002.xml