Notes on Late Romantic Symphonists



JEAN SIBELIUS (1865 - 1957)

Kullervo Symphony, Op. 7 (1892)
Symphony No. 1 in E Minor, Op. 39 (1899)
Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 43 (1902)
Symphony No. 3 in C Major, Op. 52 (1907)
Symphony No. 4 in A Minor, Op. 63 (1911)
Symphony No. 5 in E-flat Major, Op. 82 (1915/19)
Symphony No. 6 in D Minor, Op. 104 (1923)
Symphony No. 7 in C Major, Op. 105 (1924)

The dean of Nordic symphonists. More than any other European composer, Sibelius was connected inextricably with national aspirations. Born a Swedish-speaking Finn, he attended Finnish-speaking schools and became steeped in the literature of Finnish folklore. At the most critical moment during Finland’s struggle against Russian imperialism he emerged as a Finnish cultural Hermes, and by the time of his first symphony he was at the height of his powers. Yet it is the path of exploration leading beyond the first symphony that defines his contribution. Embracing culture and landscape as his chief emphases, he shifts subtly but visibly towards landscape beginning with the third symphony. With the fourth he allows realism to enter the picture in a prophetic utterance that would largely go unheeded. The fifth is his symphony of war and deliverance. The sixth and the seventh, which gestated in one and the same canvass bag, are not necessarily crowning, but certainly culminating masterpieces alongside the mammoth tone-poem Tapiola. For the last thirty years of his life Sibelius the symphonist contemplated what he had done but found no opportunity to add anything, which perhaps is the most extraordinary evidence of eloquence that can be offered.


Sibelius links



CARL NIELSEN (1865 - 1931)

Symphony No. 1 in G minor, Op. 7 (1892)
Symphony No. 2, “De fire temperamenter”, Op. 16 (1902)
Symphony No. 3, “Sinfonia espansiva”, Op. 27 (1911)
Symphony No. 4, “Det uudslukkelige”, Op. 29 (1916)
Symphony No. 5, Op. 50 (1922)
Symphony No. 6, “Sinfonia semplice” (1925)

The Danish answer to the German symphony. As symphonic composers Nielsen and Sibelius are equivalent in stature, and though worlds apart, in both cases the music is profoundly Nordic. Whereas Sibelius was the chief architect of the late romantic (nationalistic) symphony, Nielsen was probably responsible for its greatest individual achievements. Yet it is difficult to say which. His symphonic cycle divides into two equal halves, and the second half is no doubt more significant than the first. The third symphony appears to be the most important of the first half, which is made up of fairly conventional works. Yet each is essentially immaculate, and one might consider that the first two attain a perfection which the third does not. The fourth is a new sort of music, just as tonal as before, but thematically much more exploratory. It is less rooted in the contemporary Denmark and more all-encompassing with respect to Danish identity. Its title of Inextinguishable is thought to refer to the human spirit in the face of war’s horrors and degradations. The fifth symphony continues in a somewhat darker, more resigned, and perhaps more descriptive vein. The sixth seems more of a commentary on the aftermath of the First World War, the pettiness of political solutions, the inevitability of mistakes repeating themselves when political objectives receive greater weight than humanitarian – all in a tragi-comic tone that leads into derision and pathos, but also to passages of great beauty and wit.

Carl Nielsen Selskabet i Danmark

Carl Nielsen Works



HUGO ALFVÉN (1872 - 1960)

Symphony No. 1 in F minor, Op. 7 (1897)
Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 11 (1897-8)
Symphony No. 3 in E major, Op. 23 (1905)
Symphony No. 4 in C minor, “Från Havsbandet”, Op. 39 (1918)
Symphony No. 5 in A minor, Op. 55 (1942-52)

Father of the late romantic (nationalistic) symphony in Sweden. Already in Berwald and Norman the Swedes had strong if isolated representation among early romantic symphonists, and following Alfvén’s trail-blazing came the more limited and profound achievement of Stenhammar, the imposing romantic cycle by Atterberg, and the realism of Rosenberg, among others. Alfvén nevertheless remains representative of the tradition, indeed the iconic Swedish symphonist. Technically the first two symphonies are student works, since the composer was working chiefly in Germany on scholarship with the Swedish government. Mature and serious, they contain a full measure of Alfvén charm and vigor, along with his lean, sturdy and bright orchestration. The first is comparable with Nielsen’s first, and, while Alfvén never quite keeps pace with the Dane, the fourth symphony has European dimensions. Despite these achievements, Alfvén is known chiefly for the pops favorite Midsommarvaka (Swedish Rhapsody no. 1, a Mantovani hit in the 1950s), while his finest orchestral work is, paradoxically yet unarguably, the sublime and obscure Dalarapsodi (Swedish Rhapsody no. 3).

Hugo Alfvénsällskapet (Hugo Alfvén Society)



GUSTAV MAHLER (1860 - 1911)

Symphony No. 1 in D major (1888)
Symphony No. 2 in C minor (1894)
Symphony No. 3 in D minor (1896)
Symphony No. 4 in G major (1900)
Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp minor (1902)
Symphony No. 6 in A minor (1904)
Symphony No. 7 in E minor (1905)
Symphony No. 8 in E-flat major (19079)
“Das Lied von der Erde” (1909)
Symphony No. 9 in D major (1909)
Symphony No. 10 (incomplete)

Late romantic symphonist of the German sphere. Mahler the composer had time for little else but symphonies and large-scale vocal works – and frequently he was working on a combination of the two. It is somewhat ironic that he should be the German heir to the early romantics, since he moves radically away from formal structure. This is not to say that he repudiates form: indeed there is a logical correlation between the sheer size of his works and the loosening of structural requirements. A more compact work such as the fourth symphony is able to show considerable formal discipline. His symphonies are about life, not show, and this might reflect the importance of his Jewish background. He was also opinionated in that direction, however, and denigrated the supposedly worthless products of “nationalistic” composers while at the same time exploiting them, for example quoting Glinka’s Jota aragonesa throughout the central movement of his third symphony. Of course, he did not live to see the actual florescence of nationalistic symphonic composing, nor did he have much influence on it. And yet more often than not the music sounds thoroughly Austrian. His large-scale forms already existed in the symphonies of Bruckner, the Austrian composer who represents a bridge – as well as the waters of separation – between Mahler and the early romantics.

International Gustav Mahler Society




Symphony No. 1 in E major, “Slavianskaia”, Op. 5 (1882)
Symphony No. 2 in F-sharp minor, Op.16 (1886)
Symphony No. 3 in D major, Op. 33 (1889)
Symphony No. 4 in E- flat major, Op. 48 (1893)
Symphony No. 5 in B-flat major, Op. 55 (1895)
Symphony No. 6 in C minor, Op. 58 (1896)
Symphony No. 7 in F major, “Pastoral”, Op. 77 (1902)
Symphony No. 8 in E-flat major, Op. 83 (1906)

Russian symphonist of the Baltic. Widely known though his music may be, Glazunov has a neglected profile, falling as he does directly between the Prometheans of the Russian nationalist school and the Soviet-era Titans. He was a native of St. Petersburg, Russia’s window on the west. There he was taught by Balakirev and Rimsky-Korsakov and eventually became Director of the St. Petersburg Conservatory. At sixteen he brought out a symphony Russian in character but informed by German models. Other symphonies followed in fairly rapid succession – though marginally younger than Sibelius, he would complete six of his eight symphonies before Sibelius began his first. As symphonist Glazunov perhaps reaches his apogee in the consummate design of his sixth, a work of enormous refinement deserving of a dedicated performance. More than a mere harbinger, in Glazunov the Scandinavian symphonists had a ready-made model. Like them he saw the symphony as an undertaking where the most significant goal is a unity realized through attention to form. He is Russia’s great contributor to the late romantic (nationalistic) symphony, whereas the achievements of his pupils Prokofiev and Shostakovich were essentially realist.




Symphony No. 1 in E major (1900)
Symphony No. 2 in C major (1902)
Symphony No. 3, “The Divine Poem”, Op. 43 (1903)
Symphony No. 4, “The Poem of Ecstasy ”, Op. 54 (1907)
Symphony No. 5, “Prometheus: The Poem of Fire ”, Op. 60 (1910)

The cosmopolitan Russian mystic. Scriabin and Rachmaninoff were contemporaries at the Moscow Conservatory, became international piano virtuosos, and as composers turned early in their careers to the symphony. Whereas Rachmaninoff produced three estimable symphonies without his craft undergoing much development, Scriabin engaged in constant development from the moment he took up the pen, and he left a monumental cycle at his premature death at age 43. His first symphony announces Wagner as an implicit point of departure, although the music remains Russian in execution. Scriabin then probes ever deeper into a world of suspended tonalities until, in his later symphonies, he departs tonality altogether. At the same time he observes the role of dissonance, explores dissonance for a time, and then gradually eliminates the effects of dissonance from his composition. This exploration went hand in hand with increasing immersion in philosophy and mysticism. All components are in place with The Divine Poem, which is probably his finest symphony in that it achieves the most in formal terms. With the Poem of Ecstasy it is debatable whether Scriabin maintains contact with form, while Prometheus inhabits territory beyond the late romantic and the nationalistic.

Scriabin Society of America



EDWARD ELGAR (1857 - 1934)

Symphony No. 1 in A-flat major, Op. 55 (1908)
Symphony No. 2 in E-flat major, Op. 63 (1911)
Symphony No. 3 (sketches)

Tone poet of the British empire. Despite the considerably more voluminous symphonic output of his elder contemporaries Parry and Stanford, Elgar remains the perfect British symphonist of the late romantic period, heading a lengthy list of twentieth-century English symphonic composers that would include such redoubtable names as Vaughan Williams and Walton. There is no question of the importance of the symphony to Elgar’s personal artistic objectives – that he only succeeded in the venture twice is a testament to the seriousness with which he viewed the task. Both symphonies exhibit extraordinarily sustained craftsmanship and contain moments of profound emotional insight. Just as the composer galvanized his countrymen with Land of Hope and Glory, so do the symphonies embody the living history of his times. The sketches of the third symphony, which occupied Elgar toward the end of his life, were sufficient for reconstruction of some substantial and valuable music, with the particular virtue that through its contemplative outlook it provides a glimpse into a world quite different from that of the first two symphonies.

Elgar Society and Elgar Foundation

Elgar Birthplace Museum




Symphony No. 1, “The Sea” (1910)
Symphony No. 2, “London” (1914)
Symphony No. 3, “Pastoral” (1922)
Symphony No. 4 in F minor (1934)
Symphony No. 5 in D major (1943)
Symphony No. 6 in E minor (1947)
Symphony No. 7, “Sinfonia Antartica” (1952)
Symphony No. 8 in D minor (1956)
Symphony No. 9 in E minor (1958)

The most English of composers. A major collector of English folk song, Vaughan Williams had already begun to find his voice as large-scale composer when the First World War broke out. During this conflict, in which his close friend and fellow composer George Butterworth was killed, he served in the Field Medical Corps, in France, then Greece, and again in France as officer. From this experience emerges the Pastoral Symphony, a stunning late romantic work conceived apparently as the antithesis of the horrors which he had witnessed and utilizing themes devised during rare moments of tranquillity in the French countryside. Many years then passed before the advent of his fourth symphony, which appears to confront the horrors of war as a matter of conscience by actually personifying them. How else does one explain its ranging, jaunting violence? Then, in the midst of the Second World War arrives the fifth symphony, dedicated to Sibelius “without permission” and embodying all things virtuous and eternal. The development achieves a natural culmination and even a fulfillment in the sixth symphony, where episodic music appears to represent different stages of progress through war-ravaged terrain. These four great works with their polarizing contrasts of the ethereal and the stark establish Vaughan Williams among the most important twentieth-century composers.

The Ralph Vaughan Williams Society