The Five Most-Often Performed Symphonies at Carnegie Hall

Classic Arts Features   The Five Most-Often Performed Symphonies at Carnegie Hall
 
The top five spots are held by just two composers.
Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts the Philadelphia Orchestra at Carnegie Hall
Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts the Philadelphia Orchestra at Carnegie Hall Chris Lee

In 130 years, there have been thousands of concerts at Carnegie Hall that feature symphonies by hundreds of composers. Of course, there are some that are perennial favorites, treasured by artists and audiences alike. But which have been performed most frequently at the Hall? Our team in the Carnegie Hall Rose Archives have the answers. Some of what they found might be surprising—for instance that the top five spots are held by just two composers: Brahms and Beethoven.

Johannes Brahms
Johannes Brahms

No. 1: Brahms’s First
Johannes Brahms didn’t complete his Symphony No. 1 until he was 43 years old. He began sketches in 1854, but that work was eventually reshaped into the Piano Concerto No. 1. Brahms had already composed orchestral works but hesitated to take the next big step. Why? Brahms wrote, “You can’t have any idea what it’s like to hear such a giant marching behind you.”

The giant was Beethoven, and the weight of his symphonic legacy was not easy to confront. Brahms’s symphony has been called “Beethoven’s Tenth,” an allusion to Brahms carrying on the tradition of his predecessor. A case could be made that his use of a hymn-like theme in the finale recalls Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, but Brahms’s symphony is not derivative. Its grand scale, heroic tone, and passion are quintessentially his own. Walter Damrosch and the New York Symphony Orchestra gave the Carnegie Hall premiere of the symphony on November 10, 1893. It has been performed at the Hall a total of 356 times.

Portrait of Ludwig van Beethoven by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1820
Portrait of Ludwig van Beethoven by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1820

No. 2: Beethoven’s Fifth
The four opening notes of Ludwig van Beethoven’s symphony, which the composer likened to fate knocking at the door, are arguably the most famous in all of music. They have certainly taken on a life of their own in popular culture. During World War II, the BBC and RKO Pictures played the motif at the start of their films, the Morse code equivalent to V for victory.

Its premiere at the Theater an der Wein on December 22, 1808, was a massive concert that included Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony, Choral Fantasy, Piano Concerto No. 4, movements from the Mass in C Major, and the concert aria “Ah! perfido.” If that wasn’t enough, Beethoven also improvised at the piano.

It’s not surprising that Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 remains so popular with audiences and artists. Intense and highly dramatic, the composer takes the listener on a journey that culminates in one of music’s most triumphant finales.

The symphony’s Carnegie Hall premiere took place on May 9, 1891, during the Opening Week Music Festival. Damrosch and the New York Symphony Orchestra performed the work on a program that included music by Damrosch, Wagner, and Tchaikovsky, who was on also hand to conduct his Piano Concerto No. 1. It has now reached 328 performances at the Hall (before this year’s performance on Opening Night).


Panharmonicon
Panharmonicon

No. 3: Beethoven’s Seventh
Some say Beethoven’s symphonies that are even-numbered are gentle in tone, while the odd-numbered compositions are tumultuous. That may or may not be totally true, but the Symphony No. 7—perhaps more than any of his nine—certainly sets pulses racing. From its opening notes to its propulsive finale led by boisterous horns, the symphony rarely stops to catch its breath. Wagner called it “the apotheosis of the dance.”

Beethoven conducted the premiere at the University of Vienna in 1813 in one of the most successful but odd concerts of his career. Paired with the symphony was his Wellington’s Victory, a work celebrating the great victory over Napoleon. It was played on the panharmonicon, a mechanical organ that imitated military band instruments and gunfire. It was a tremendous hit—one Viennese critic referred to it as a companion piece to the symphony. Beethoven was not happy.

The symphony’s November 13, 1891, Carnegie Hall premiere saw Damrosch on the podium leading the New York Symphony Orchestra in a program that included music by Tchaikovsky, Wagner, and Brahms. The work has since received 300 additional performances at the Hall.

Walter Damrosch
Walter Damrosch

No. 4: Brahms’s Second
“It is all rippling streams, blue sky, sunshine, and cool green shadows,” wrote Brahms’s friend Theodor Billroth after playing through the score of the newly composed Symphony No. 2. While it took Brahms decades to complete his first symphony, his second was written over the course of a relaxing summer holiday. The symphony was premiered on December 30, 1877, by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Hans Richter. It was a colossal success, with the audience calling for a repeat of the third movement.

If Brahms is (unfairly) viewed as a cold, unemotional composer (Tchaikovsky’s criticism), this symphony refutes it with a smile on its face. The most genial of his four symphonies, its melodies flow like those rippling streams Billroth mentioned. Perfectly crafted and exquisitely scored—the wind and brass writing is sublime, especially when the cascading trombones sing out in the finale—the symphony glows with good spirit. Carnegie Hall audiences first heard it on February 3, 1893, with the ubiquitous Damrosch and the New York Symphony Orchestra performing. It has received a total of 291 performances at the Hall.


No. 5: Brahms’s Fourth
Brahms’s final symphony weds his mastery of traditional musical forms to a wide range of emotions. While an autumnal quality floats through the work, there are also moments of jubilation, all taking flight in gorgeous melodies. An orchestral staple, the symphony was not initially well received in Brahms’s circle of friends. Music critic Eduard Hanslick (who was mercilessly lampooned in Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg) remarked after hearing it in a two-piano run-through, “I feel like I’ve just been beaten up by two terribly intelligent people.”

Time and countless audiences have proven Hanslick wrong. The symphony has an emotional intensity that never releases its grip and leads the listener on a path to one of the most remarkable finales of any symphony: an epic passacaglia (variations over a repeating bass theme) on a J. S. Bach theme, building to a cathartic climax. Carnegie Hall audiences first took the journey on February 8, 1895, with the New York Philharmonic conducted by Anton Seidl. The symphony has been performed at the Hall 289 times to date.


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