Symphonic progressivism, 1896

I came across the program above quite by chance the other day, during another search (I don’t even remember what I was looking for).

It’s rather astounding. In our own time, symphony orchestras have come to be seen as conservative organizations and as curators of the past. The call has gone out for a greater diversity in the repertoire, for the performance of more living composers and the performance of more women composers.

Here, from 1896, is an exemplar from the Boston Symphony. It’s a subscription concert and every composer on the program above, except for the last, was alive at the time of the performance.

And the first piece on the agenda — the “Gaelic” Symphony by Amy Beach — was, yes, composed by a woman. It’s a piece very much worth reviving, by the way.

3 thoughts on “Symphonic progressivism, 1896

  1. Very interesting indeed. Another excellent piece by Amy Beach is her fine Piano Concerto. Of course, this program comes from a time before Modernist composers broke faith with audiences. Concerts filled with living composers happen all the time nowadays, except those concerts consist of music by film composers who have not broken with their listeners.


    • Yes, Beach was apparently a fine pianist, and performed with the Boston Symphony in that capacity.

      The “Gaelic” Symphony might make a good pairing with the ubiquitous “New World” Symphony, a nice juxtaposition.

      Of course I know what you mean by Modernist composers breaking faith with audiences. But I think there are plenty of composers around today who are reaching out to audiences. And so much appealing and accessible modern music that is never played.


  2. Another big lesson for modern orchestras: The symphony comes first. The biggest piece when the audience is most ready for a big piece. The soloist (the primary focus for a hefty chunk of the audience) enters after, like an eagerly anticipated new character in a play. Then dessert. Some symphonies — Beethoven 9, Shostakovich 5 — resist the treatment. But remember this: Mahler and the NY Phil would OPEN with the Symphonie Fantastique.


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