Below follows a selection of some fascinating 19th century symphonies by so-called "unknown" composers - all works that deserve to be better known!
1. Ferdinand Ries, Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Op. 112 
Ries was Beethoven's favorite disciple. Good disciples start (but don't end) by copying the Master, and that is what Ries has done here in his 5th symphony. Ferdinand Ries (1784-1838) was born in a musical family in Bonn, the same city where his teacher hailed from. He was a pianist and composer who left eight symphonies, a violin concerto, eight piano concertos and numerous chamber works, including 26 string quartets. His style is that of the early Beethoven, hovering between the Classical and Romantic eras. Ries made his pianistic debut in 1804 with the 3rd Beethoven concerto. He also worked as secretary and copyist for Beethoven. In 1813 he moved to England, where he would remain for eleven years. Later Ries settled in Frankfurt am Main as composer and conductor. The 5th symphony was written in London in 1813. Although his symphony is in D Minor rather than C minor, in the first movement Ries uses the rhythm of Beethoven's famous "Fate" motif with different pitches - when this symphony starts you almost sit up and think "What? Another Beethoven Fifth?" But this is neither an act of "copying" nor a "parody," but rather a conscious homage to the Master. The hammering Fate motif dominates the entire first movement, although it is rather less ominous than in Beethoven's Fifth. Ries also uses some typical Beethovenesque harmonies. The second movement is a subtle Larghetto, with a plaintive melody echoing through the orchestra. In the third movement we find a forceful Scherzo with a dance-like trio and the stormy finale, playing with the typical rhythm of the Fate motif, leads to a triumphant conclusion. Ries has written an excellent symphony that certainly deserves to be performed more often. This is the "normal level" of art music in the 19th century - listening to this music we realise all the more how exceptional a genius like Beethoven was. P.S. Ries also wrote interesting piano concertos and chamber music - the concertos have been recorded by Naxos.
Recording listened to: Zürcher Kammerorchester directed by Howard Griffiths on CPO (with 3rd Symphony)
2. Johann Wilhelm Wilms, Symphony No. 6 in D minor, Op. 58 
Dutch classical music is so little known (even less than that of other small countries, like Denmark), that some people even may wonder whether it at all exists. This situation has been caused by the fact that Dutch orchestras almost never perform their own country's music - which is a shame (happily, the CD below is an exception). Here is an early 19th c. Dutch symphony, although written by a composer born in neighboring Germany. Johann Wilhelm Wilms (1772-1847) was a contemporary of Beethoven and although he was born in Germany, he spent all his creative life in Holland, working in Amsterdam where he moved in 1791. Wilms was mostly active as a composer between 1810 and 1820. In 1815 he won the contest to write the national anthem for the new Kingdom of the Netherlands ("Wien Neerlandsch Bloed," discarded in 1932 for the present "Wilhelmus"). His last position was that of organist at the United Baptist Church in Amsterdam. The symphony in D Op 58 was written in 1819 and is decidedly early Romantic. You will be surprised at the ebullience and drive of the music. Wilms' music is skilfully written, with an abundance of attractive and distinctive melodies. The symphony was published in 1823 by Breitkopf und Härtel in Leipzig - it was the crown on Wilms' work as a symphonist. This well-crafted symphony again poses the question (which is not really a question): shouldn't orchestras be looking for more good pieces to play - like this symphony - instead of continuing to sleepwalk through only a few famous ones?
Recording listened to: Netherlands Radio Chamber Orchestra, directed by Anthony Halstead on Brilliant Classics (with symphonies Opp. 23, 14 and 52; symphonies 6 and 7 have also been recorded by Concerto Köln on Deutsche Grammophon)
3. Georges Onslow, Symphony No. 2 in D minor, Op. 42 
Despite the English name, Georges Onslow (1784-1853) was a French composer, a contemporary of Ries and Spohr. His father was an English nobleman who had been kicked out of Parliament because of a gay affair, fled to France, where he settled down and married a rich heiress. Their first son, Georges, came of age in the shadow of Beethoven. He studied with Dussek, Cramer and Reicha and lived in the Auvergne (on his family estate) and Paris. Onslow composed in the first place a prodigious amount of chamber music, among which 36 string quartets and 34 string quintets. He also wrote four symphonies. Onslow never was a popular composer, living as he did in opera-crazy France, where orchestral and instrumental composers were automatically considered as of second rank (unless one was a showman like Berlioz). In the last decades, his chamber music and symphonies have been revived on CD. He is an important figure of the early Romantic period, classical in form but romantic in feeling. His works are full of spirit and expression and deserve to be heard more often. The second symphony was dedicated to the London Philharmonic Society. It is a finely crafted piece of music that adopts the German romantic style.
Recording listened to: Radio-Philharmonie Hannover des NDR, directed by Johannes Goritzki on CPO (with Onslow's fourth symphony; the other two symphonies have also been recorded on CPO)
4. Louis Spohr, Symphony No. 4 in F major Op. 86 "Die Weihe der Töne" 
One does not often speak about a "Biedermeier-period" when talking about musical history, but that is because most people only look at the great composers like Schubert or Schumann, who indeed don't fit that label. The Biedermeier-period was a conservative era between the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815 and the popular revolutions that woke up Europe in 1848. The period was autocratic, politics was a forbidden topic, so art concentrated itself on the domestic life of the new middle class - lots of "home music" was produced. But more than that, there is a clear Biedermeier period-style also in music: the keyword is Gemütlichkeit, which means a cheerful mood, peace of mind, with the connotation of belonging and social acceptance, coziness and being unhurried. "Happiness within restrictions," one could also call it. There are several true Biedermeier composers, but the most characteristic one is in my view Louis Spohr (1784-1859), a composer who in his own time was regarded as one of the most significant personalities in German music, equally outstanding as a composer, violinist and conductor. Spohr wrote voluminously in all genres. But a few decades after his death, he was completely forgotten, until a small renaissance set in since the 1980s. Among Spohr's works that have gained new esteem are his four clarinet concertos; one or two of his eighteen violin concertos; and especially his chamber music: the octet and the nonet, the music for harp and the four double quartets for two string quartets, to name a few. Spohr also composed nine published symphonies between 1811 and 1850, which were in his own time ranked with the great compositions of Mozart and Beethoven and which remained popular with concertgoers until the late 19th c. - after which they were completely forgotten. The symphonies have been recorded on Marco Polo, Orfeo, CPO and - a complete series - on Hyperion. They are the summum of the Biedermeier style, pleasant and melodious, but always remaining within bounds, in contrast to for example Berwald's "Sinfonie Singulière" (see below). A good example is the fourth symphony, the most epic of Spohr's ten symphonies. The literary source for this work was a volume of poems by Carl Pfeiffer, Die Weihe der Töne (The Consecration of Sound). The first movement opens with a slow introduction, illustrating the silence before the creation of sound. In the sonata-form Allegro that follows, sound is born in the gentle sighing of the wind and the calls of birds. The main theme of the Allegro shows the activity of life itself. The development section brings a storm on stage, after which nature and life return to their normal pace. The slow second movement illustrates the functions of music, as lullaby, dance, and lover's serenade. In the coda all three are expertly combined. The third movement shows us another role of music: as inspiration to courage in a military march; the trio section depicts the anxiety of family and friends back home when the boys are fighting. The movement ends with a song of thanksgiving, called "Ambrosian Ode." The final movement, a Larghetto-Allegretto, is funeral music: the dead (not only those of the war from the previous movement, but more in general) are buried under the sound of a gravely beautiful chorale, and the symphony ends with a gentle consolation. The symphony was enormously successful, not only in Germany but also in England, where Spohr went to conduct it.
Recording listened to: Budapest Symphony Orchestra directed by Alfred Walter on Marco Polo (with overtures to Faust and Jessonda)
5. Niels Gade, Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 5 [1841-42]
Niels Gade (1817-1890) is the first Danish symphonic composer of any real significance. He was born as the son of an instrument maker and studied in Leipzig on a scholarship from the Danish government. Later he taught at the Conservatory in Leipzig and worked as assistant conductor of the Gewandhaus Orchestra. He also became friends with Mendelssohn, who had a profound influence on his music. In 1848 he returned to Copenhagen where he became director of the Copenhagen Musical Society, a post he retained until his death. He was the teacher of Grieg and Nielsen. Gade composed eight symphonies throughout his career. His First Symphony was the most popular, probably thanks to its youthful vigour and exuberance - it was written when Gade was only 25. Gade submitted the work to the Copenhagen Musical Society for performance but the work was turned down, which was in fact a stroke of good luck, for Gade now approached Felix Mendelssohn at the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. Mendelssohn received the work positively and conducted it in Leipzig in March 1843, to great acclaim. The main theme of the first movement is based on an earlier song by Gade, "Paa Sjølunds fagre Sletter" ("On the beautiful plains of Sjölund"). This simple, almost folk-like opening phrase forms the basis of many other themes and motifs in the symphony. The theme returns in the finale, where in true romantic manner it is led to victory in the coda in a blazing C major. There is not a dull moment in this masterful symphony.
Recording listened to: The Stockholm Sinfonietta directed by Neeme Järvi on BIS (a full cycle of all eight symphonies. Another excellent complete cycle is the one by Hogwood on Chandos)
6. Franz Berwald, Symphony No. 3 in C major "Sinfonie Singulière" 
The Swedish composer Franz Berwald (1796-1868) came from a musical family and from a young age appeared as a violinist in concerts. In 1829 the Swedish King gave him a scholarship to study in Berlin. In 1841 he moved to Vienna where he composed his four symphonies. Berwald's music was not appreciated in Sweden during his lifetime, and only fared a little better in Germany and Austria. In 1835, in Berlin, he had started an orthopedic and physiotherapy clinic to make both ends meet and on his return to Sweden in 1849, he had to work as the manager of a glass works. Berwald now focused his attention on producing chamber music. In 1867, Berwald finally became professor of musical composition at the Stockholm Conservatory, but he died the following year. The Sinfonie singulière is often regarded as Berwalds best symphony, but the composer never heard it - it was not premiered until 37 years after the death of the composer, in 1905. The work has an energy and imagination that surpass most music of its time. The opening movement is indeed "singular" and unusual, sometimes touching on the bizarre, but with a fresh sensibility. The scoring has been called "luminous," like the quality of the light found in northern Europe. An interesting structural characteristic is that the slow movement encloses the scherzo within it. The finale has tremendous fire and a spirited main theme.
Recording listened to: Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra directed by Neeme Järvi on Deutsche Grammophon (all four symphonies by Berwald)
[Rubinstein by Ilya Repin]
7. Anton Rubinstein, Symphony No. 2 in C major, Op. 42 "Ocean" (1851, revised 1863, 1880)
Rubinstein (1829-1894) was in first place famous as one of the foremost 19th century keyboard virtuosos (no, he was no family of the 20th c. Polish-American pianist Arthur Rubinstein) - he was known for his gigantic recitals which he gave throughout Europe and also in the United States. But Rubinstein was also a conductor and teacher, the founder of the Saint Petersburg Conservatory and the composition teacher of Tchaikovsky. And on top of that, Rubinstein was a prolific composer, who wrote 20 operas, five piano concertos, six symphonies and a large number of solo piano works, songs and works for chamber ensemble. Because of his international style, he was satirically called not a "Russian composer," but a "Russian who composes." Rubinstein studied in Germany and was strongly influenced by Mendelssohn, something which nationalistic Russians couldn't stomach - his position was comparable to that of Turgenev in literature. Another reason for the general prejudice against his music was anti-Semitism. In fact, Rubinstein was a very able composer of much that is still good - the only thing you have to do, before starting to listen, is remove the idea that you are going to hear something Russian. The style is that of - for example - Spohr and Gade, in the first place inspired by Mendelssohn. The Ocean Symphony is unusual in that it contains seven movements, the result of various revisions over a period of almost 30 years. Rubinstein paints a vivid musical scene of the sea, full of mood and atmosphere. The light and atmospheric first movement (moderato assai) has been beautifully crafted, with a clarity of form and texture that Mendelssohn indeed would have appreciated. The second movement (lento assai) is more contemplative, filled with an almost sinister foreboding. The next andante conjures up a pastoral seascape, with the celli depicting a soft current. A scherzo-like allegro follows, and then a moving andante with a romantic theme. Next we again have a scherzo, perhaps for the inevitable sailor's dance, and the symphony closes with an andante, a long movement that after many meanderings reaches a safe haven.
Recording listened to: Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra, Bratislava, directed by Stephen Gunzenhauser on Marco Polo
8. Charles-François Gounod, Symphony No. 1 in D major 
Gounod (1818-1893) was of course the French opera composer par excellence, famous for his Faust and twelve other operas, as well as an avalanche of religious music - everybody knows his Ave Maria. Gounod would not fit on my list, if he had not also written three symphonies, which are singularly unknown. The first one is the freshest (although the third one, for wind orchestra, is also very interesting). It was only rediscovered in the 1950s. What also became clear then was that Bizet had modeled his (today more famous) symphony closely on his teacher Gounod's Symphony No. 1- there are many rhythmic and melodic similarities. Another case of the disciple imitating his master! Gounod's First is a bright and witty symphony, that stands aside from its period - there is nothing romantic about it, it is rather a neo-classical symphony avant-la-date. But that doesn't change the fact that it is also hugely enjoyable.
Recording listened to: Orchestre de Capitole de Toulouse directed by Michel Plasson on EMI Classic (with 2nd symphony)
9. Johan Severin Svendsen, Symphony No. 1 in D major, op. 4 
The Norwegian composer, conductor and violinist Svendsen (1840-1911) was born in Christiania (now Oslo) but spent most of his life in Copenhagen, Denmark. He studied in Leipzig with Carl Reinecke. His most famous work during his lifetime was his Romance for Violin and Orchestra. He was very popular in Denmark and Norway, but never entered the international repertory. Besides excellent chamber music, Svendsen wrote two symphonies (a third one was according to an anecdote that may not be wholly reliable, thrown into the fire by Svendsen's wife during a conjugal quarrel). The first one was completed while Svendsen was still studying in Leipzig. Again a famous anecdote has come down to us: Svendsen had been very successful with his Octet for Strings, which made Reinecke obviously somewhat jealous, so he remarked cynically: "I guess the next thing will be a symphony!" A week later, Svendsen dropped the present work on his astonished teacher's desk (no, he had not written it is just one week, we know that he had been busy on it from the previous year). The First Symphony is a work of great assurance and freshness, in the traditional four movements. The opening movement with its rather pithy themes is a textbook sonata-allegro, working towards a neat climax. The andante is the longest movement, but thanks to its strongly felt melody, returning in various guises, it effortlessly sustains its length. The scherzo sounds like a Norwegian peasant dance and the finale blasts the symphony towards a triumphant ending. A most charming and youthful work.
Recording listened to: Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Mariss Jansons on EMI (with Svendsen's 2nd symphony)
10. Joachim Raff, Symphony No. 3 in F major, Op. 153 "Im Walde" 
How radically reputations can change is vividly illustrated by the case of Raff (1822-1882). Regarded in his lifetime by colleagues, critics and audiences alike as one of the foremost composers of the romantic era, a musician of world renown, after his death Raff was almost immediately forgotten. He was among the most performed of living composers, not only in concert halls but also in homes, but after 1882 only his trifling Cavatina remained popular... This is now slowly changing again, as many of his works have been recorded on CD. Although in some instances technical virtuosity takes the place of inspiration, generally speaking Raff deserves to be reinstated to the place he occupied in his own time. Raff was born in Switzerland and was largely self-taught in music. In 1844 his piano compositions were recommended by Mendelssohn to Breitkopf & Härtel, and this publication was next favorably reviewed by Schumann. From 1850 to 1853 Raff worked as amanuensis of Liszt, assisting in the orchestration of several of Liszt's works. In 1856 Raff moved to Wiesbaden and started to devote himself mainly to composition. In 1878 he became the first Director of the prestigious Conservatory in Frankfurt. By his teaching and his innovations Raff influenced composers as diverse as Mahler, Richard Strauss and Tchaikovsky. Raff wrote eleven numbered symphonies, in which he often combined the classical symphonic form with the Romantic penchant for program music on the one hand, and contrapuntal writing harking back to the Baroque, on the other. Many of his symphonies carry descriptive titles, often connected with nature or the seasons. The third symphony of 1869 consolidated Raff's fame - in Raff's time it was hailed as a masterpiece, and indeed it boasts inventive orchestration and abundance of melody. Each of the four movements has a descriptive subtitle. The joyful opening allegro is called "Daytime. Impressions and feelings," and depicts the feeling of liberation during a walk in the forest. Bird song fragments are interspersed with horn calls. After a powerful development, the movement ends on a tranquil note. The second and third movements have been linked together. The serene Brahmsian largo is called "At twilight - Dreaming," and is notable for its clarinet obbligato and expansive string melody. The mercurial scherzo is called "Dance of the Nyads" and has a close affinity to the Mendelssohn of the Midsummer Night's Dream. The finale is called "Night....still murmurings.....the wild hunt of Hulda & Wotan......sunrise." After first depicting the sleeping forest with a canonic figure in the lower strings, the frenzied sounds of a wild hunt take over. But after the vehemence dies down, the first light of dawn penetrates the forest, and the opening figure is transformed into a hymn of thanksgiving for the passing of the night.
There is an excellent website dedicated to the music of Raff.
Recording listened to: The Philharmonia conducted by Francesco D'Avalon on ASV
11. Richard Hol, Symphony No. 3 in B flat major op. 101 
To restore the balance somewhat (Dutch classical music is one big black hole, thanks to the disinterest of the Dutch in their own musical culture) here is another Dutch symphony, by a composer who is even less known than than the previously discussed Wilms. Richard Hol (1825 – 1904) was a Dutch composer and conductor, born and educated in Amsterdam, but mainly active in the central Dutch city of Utrecht, where from 1875 he served as director of the Stedelijke Muziekschool. His most prominent pupil was Johan Wagenaar. The third symphony by Hol was dedicated to Anton Rubinstein - in 1867 Hol had conducted Rubinstein's Ocean Symphony (see above) and he may also have met the composer during the latter's Dutch tour a year later. Although basically a conservative composer in the German tradition, Hol's instrumentation and harmony here are relatively daring. The Mendelssohnian scherzo is enchanting and fairylike. Even more accomplished is the intimate Night Music of the slow movement. The suitably exuberant finale quotes material from the opening allegro, to make the circle round. This certainly is an interesting symphony that deserves to be heard.
Recording listened to: Residentie Orchestra The Hague conducted by Matthias Bamert on Chandos (with Hol's 1st Symphony - both premiere recordings; Chandos has recorded all four symphonies by Hol)
12. Charles Villiers Stanford, Symphony No. 3 in F minor, Op. 28 "Irish" 
The English have done much more for their musical heritage than the previously mentioned Dutch, and although British 19th century music (everything before Elgar) was also forgotten in the 20th c., the situation now has completely changed. All relevant composers have been recorded, often several times. One of these is the Irish composer, music teacher, and conductor Sir Charles Villiers Stanford (1852 – 1924). Stanford came from a well-to-do and musical family in Dublin and was educated at Cambridge, and later also in Leipzig and Berlin. He was organist of Trinity College, Cambridge, and became one of the founding professors of the Royal College of Music, where he taught for the rest of his life. Among his pupils were Gustav Holst and Ralph Vaughan Williams. Stanford had a great success with his music in the last two decades of the 19th c., before being eclipsed by Elgar and modernism. He was in the first place famous for his choral music, but he also composed seven symphonies, solo concertos, and chamber music. His most popular symphony was the third, nicknamed "the Irish," which enjoyed immediate and widespread success, and continued to be played at concerts well into the 20th c. Although the work stands squarely within the Austro-German symphonic tradition, the "Irish" subtitle indicates its frequent use of genuine folk-tunes. The first movement opens with appealing material. The work's Irish character comes to the fore in the scherzo, with its hopping rhythms. In its own time much of the fame of this symphony rested on the slow movement, one of the most moving pieces Stanford ever composed. The traditional Irish tune used here is "The Lament of the Sons of Usnach" (also used by Bax in the final movement of his oboe quintet, and having an eerie resemblance to the third movement of Brahms Fourth Symphony). In the vivacious finale, two Irish tunes are quoted: "Molly McAlpin" and "Let Erin remember the days of old" - the latter one, announced on four horns, concludes the symphony on a triumphant note.
Recording listened to: Ulster Orchestra conducted by Vernon Handley on Chandos (with Irish Rhapsody No. 5)
13. Zdenek Fibich, Symphony No. 2 in E flat major, Op. 38 
After the Biedermeier-period had ended around the middle of the century, high Romanticism followed, which also saw the birth of nationalistic movements in the various parts of the Habsburg Empire, and in other European countries. In Bohemia (the later Czech republic) this nationalism was embodied in the music of Smetana and Dvorak. Their younger contemporary Zdenek Fibich (1850 - 1900), however, was not overtly nationalistic, although he used Czech color and energy - Fibich rather embraced the German-Austrian tradition. Fibich was trained in Vienna, Paris, Leipzig and Mannheim and was the best educated among his Czech contemporaries. He worked first as a conductor, but after 1881 would apply himself wholly to composing. He wrote in all genres - his piano pieces collected under the title Moods, Impressions and Souvenirs are his most famous work. He wrote three symphonies. The second symphony incorporates melodies from the above mentioned piano work, which was a sort of musical diary of his love affair with Aneika Schulzová, a pupil for whom he left his second wife. This is in the adagio, which follows the passionate first movement. A yearning melody is heard with appealing mid-lower string writing, recalling the start of the composer's love affair with Schulzová. After the more lighthearted scherzo we have a vigorous finale which dances along, now and then interrupted by more graceful, romantic themes. Fibich's music is always highly melodic and attractive.
Recording listened to: Detroit Symphony Orchestra conducted by Neeme Järvi on Chandos (with Fibich's 3rd symphony)
14. George Whitefield Chadwick, Symphony No. 3 in F major 
The Boston-based composer Chadwick (1854-1931) was a representative of the New England School of American composers of the late 19th century - together with Horatio Parker, Amy Beach, Arthur Foote, and Edward MacDowell. Chadwick created a voluminous oeuvre in every medium - his works include operas, three symphonies, five very fine string quartets, tone poems, incidental music, songs and anthems. Chadwick studied for two years in Leipzig with Carl Reinecke, and after that with Rheinberger in Munich. Back in Boston, he served as director of the New England Conservatory. He also was active as a conductor and organist. Any American (or for that matter, "just any") composer wanting to write a symphony in the last decades of the 19th c. had to confront the fact that the symphonic tradition was German-Austrian, in its models, its musical materials, its architecture and the nature of the musical discourse. In other words, it is not surprising that Chadwick's third symphony has a Brahmsian quality. The first movement is a well-designed sonata-allegro with lovely melodic passages and strong development. The Andante is rather dramatic, with a grand climax, while the Vivace is a delicate movement with a saltarello opening. The work is concluded by a robust finale, featuring memorable melodies.
Recording listened to: Detroit Symphony Orchestra conducted by Neeme Järvi on Chandos (with Chadwick's 2nd symphony)
15. Albéric Magnard, Symphony No. 3 in B flat minor, Op. 11 
The French composer Albéric Magnard (1865-1914) has already been introduced in my post about The Best Cello Sonatas. He was a man with a small but very fine output, influenced by Franck, but also with a style which is all his own. Magnard wrote four symphonies. His Third Symphony was composed in 1896, the same year as Bruckners No. 9 and Mahler's No. 3. For Magnard, it was the year of his marriage and his obtaining a position as counterpoint tutor at the recently founded Schola Cantorum. Despite that, his symphony is in B flat minor, a surly and discontented key. Not surprisingly therefore that the Introduction to the symphony is dressed in the garment of night, with only here and there a twinkling light. The second movement, Danses, is an explosif presto, Magnard's lightest and truest scherzo. The third movement is a Pastorale, a string dominated intense outpouring, that meanders along while its idyll is constantly undermined by turbulence. After that, the finale comes as a grand, life-enhancing experience. There are many magic moments in this music. Magnard wrote large symphonies rare for French music, and was therefore sometimes called "the French Bruckner," although he has a bit more of Mahler in my view. We end with the question I posed at the beginning: shouldn't orchestras be looking for more good pieces to play - like this symphony and the fourteen others introduced here - instead of continuing to sleepwalk through only a few famous ones?
Recording listened to: Orchestre du Capitole de Toulouse conducted by Michel Plasson on EMI (with Magnard's first symphony)