The Cambridge History of Nineteenth-Century Music

By Jim Samson | Go to book overview
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Beethoven reception: the symphonic

Symphonic practice in later nineteenth-century Europe was no unitary activity that we should collapse into a crisp, linear narrative. The reality was messier. It would be more accurate to regard the world of orchestral composition as an arena of competing ideologies and diverse aims, a field of energy and circulation. To be sure, the energy was anything but random. Composers, performers, publishers, critics, academics, students and audiences channelled it through a flurry of enabling and constraining preconditions, historical and cultural circumstances sorted out differently by different groups. Among the most significant precondition was the idea of tradition or, more to the point, the struggle over the presumed ownership of that tradition. By the second half of the century the European idea of the symphony as a high-status cultural achievement was nourished by lovingly shaped readings of the genre's Austro-Germanic past. Commonly enough, the grounding shape was reinforced by a heroic tale: the ascent to the apex, Beethoven embodying the long-sought liberation of the modern idea of greatness in instrumental music, the definitional moment of full symphonic adequacy, the 'undeniable' launching of 'the new era of music' (as Liszt put it in 1855)1followed by a crisis of continuation in subsequent decades.

Spurred also by external factors technological, economic, political, ethnic-national the symphonic crisis invited a number of solutions: it had been disseminated to several different publics on several different terms.2 As a result, by mid-century no central authority was able to establish a consensus concerning the best way to continue the tradition while still honouring its past. Consequently, the tradition shattered into individualised solutions and partisan controversy. Like the emerging marketplace with which it was implicated, European symphonic activity came to be moulded in significant measure

Liszt, 'Robert Schumann' [1855], in Gesammelte Schriften (henceforth GS), ed. L. Ramann [1882] (rpt. Hildesheim, 1978), IV, p. 163.
An overview of symphonic monuments is provided in D. Kern Holoman (ed.), The Nineteenth-Century Symphony (New York, 1997). A more extensive inventory may be found in selected volumes of A. Peter Brown's The Symphonic Repertoire: The European Symphony from 1800–1930 (vol. III, Bloomington forthcoming in 2001); and The Second Golden Age of the Viennese Symphony: Brahms, Bruckner, Dvořák, Mahler, and Selected Contemporaries (vol. IV, Bloomington forthcoming in 2001).


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