The age between the close of the Napoleonic Wars and the death of Queen Victoria – from 1815 to 1901, a span of 86 years, saw the coming and going of many now justly famous great composers. This was the high alpine to Himalayan heights of Western classical music, exemplified in the works for symphony orchestra; an assemblage of instruments and people that can range from perhaps 35, all the way to well over 100, and in later cases up to a thousand people on one stage!
We begin by listing when certain prominent symphonies were actually premiered as from thence came their influence on subsequent audiences and composers.
Beethoven Symphony #9 Op. 125 “Choral” was completed and first heard in Vienna in 1824 and Beethoven had but three more years to live. Franz Schubert was perhaps in the audience and was certainly inspired as that same year he began what would be his ninth symphony termed “The Great” and completed the following year. The 15 year old Felix Mendelssohn wrote his first symphony in this same year that Beethoven's last symphony was premiered.
Though Schubert may have heard parts of his last symphony played during his lifetime, it wasn't until 1838 that as wikipedia has it, “In 1838, ten years after Schubert's death, Robert Schumann visited Vienna and was shown the manuscript of the symphony at the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde [Society for the Friends of Music] by Ferdinand Schubert. He took a copy that Ferdinand had given him back to Leipzig where the entire work was performed publicly for the first time by Mendelssohn at the Leipzig Gewandhaus on 21 March 1839. Schumann celebrated the event in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik [New Music Newspaper] with an ecstatic article in which, in a phrase destined to become famous, he hailed the symphony for its 'heavenly length'.” Well, in 1839 Schumann and Chopin were both 29, Mendelssohn, a couple years older, Liszt a year younger and Brahms was a 6 year old boy.
Nine years earlier, in 1830, when Chopin and Schumann were both 20, Hector Berlioz had produced and premiered his Symphonie fantastique: Épisode de la vie d'un artiste ... en cinq parties Op. 14, a deliberately programmatic symphony and it had then and still does have its admirers. Liszt was one of its earliest proponents. That same year saw the appearance of what would eventually become Mendelssohn's 5th “Reformation,” a work that was not as well known or performed as it is today. Mendelssohn had had to wait to get it performed and then a few years later regarded it as “'a piece of juvenilia,' and perhaps he was being polite.
Beethoven's 9th Choral: Mendelssohn's 1st – 1824
Berlioz Symphonie fantastique – 1830
Mendelssohn's 5th Reformation - 1832
Mendelssohn's 4th Italian – 1833 – Brahms' birth year.
Schubert's 9th The Great – 1839
Schumann's 1st - 1841
Mendelssohn's 3rd Scottish [last] - 1842
Schumann's 2nd – 1846
Schumann's 3rd Rhenish – 1850
Schumann's 4th - 1851
Mendelssohn was active, writing symphonies and touring Europe during the late 1830' and early 1840's. His Lobgesang or Hymn of Praise was an oratorio a good deal longer than any of his other symphonies and became known as his 2nd symphony. But it didn't have wide reception, while his 4th, “Italian” has never been out of the repertoire and I regard that work as his best ever. Between 1829 and 1842 he was working on his last symphony, the “Scottish” now given the designation as his 3rd symphony, though it was the last one he wrote.
Then between 1841 and 1851, all Schumann's symphonies were written and premiered. Brahms was to enter the Schumann family in 1853, the same year Steinway & Sons opened in New York. Robert died three years later and Brahms and Clara (who was 14 years older) passed the remainder of their lives as poet and muse, she dying a year before him.
While these symphonies were presented to the public by the great masters, there were a dozen or so other composers writing symphonies, some we have encountered already by the Swedish composer, Franz Berwald. If you are not familiar with the music mentioned so far, just cut and paste them into your browser and see whose performances come up. Believe it or not, I am more and more of the opinion that some of the modern performances are truly better than anything in the past, as good as they were. There is surprising talent springing forth from all over the world now and their performances extend the literature and the interpretations of these masterpieces giving them sufficient grounding in the present to carry the day or hold their own. It's not enough now just to play the music well, you have to make it real now and in most cases with all of the music mentioned here, with the right talent, the best yet is possible. There has never been the best performance of Beethoven's 9th as each performance, especially live, is its own opportunity for greatness. That's the case with all of these works. Enjoy.