Thursday, 10 April 2014

1900-1910 is my personal favourite classical music decade: an unrelenting tsunami of great music

My favourite classical musical decade was undoubtedly 1900-1910. For a fan of Late Romantic music, it was unsurpassed in terms of the number of major composers writing new works, the number of works they were producing, and the quality of those works. Obviously, we’re not talking about the absolute apogee of musical excellence – there was nothing to compare with, for instance, The St. Matthew Passion, the Ring Cycle, Mozart’s Requiem or Beethoven’s Symphonies. But the sheer plethora of significant works is nonetheless astonishing.

Here are a few of my personal highlights of works first performed or composed during those years (I’ve only included pieces I know):

Puccini: Tosca, Madame Butterfly, La Fanciulla del West

Sibelius: Finlandia, Valse Trise, Pohjola’s Daughter, Symphonies 1, 2 and 3

Janacek: Jenufa 

Ravel: Jeux d’eaux, Schéhérazade (song cycle), Miroirs, Introduction and Allegro for harp, flute, clarinet, and string quartet, String Qartet, Rhapsodie espagnole, Gaspard de la nuit

Mahler: Kindertotenlieder, Das Lied von der Erde, Symphonies 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10

Debussy: La Mer, Images, Children’s Corner, Préludes, L’Isle Joyeuse, Danses for harp and string quintet, Estampes, Pelléas et Méllisande (opera)

Richard Strauss: Sinfonia Domestica, Salome, Elektra, Der Rosenkavalier

Franz Lehár: The Merry Widow

Bartok: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra No. 1 (premiered in 1958)

Vaughan Williams: The Wasps, A Sea Symphony, Norfolk Rhapsody No. 1, Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis

Elgar: The Wand of Youth, The Dream of Gerontius, Pomp and Circumstance Marches 1-4, Cockaigne (In London Town), Introduction and Allegro for Strings, The Apostles, In the South, The Kingdom, Symphony No 1

Rachmaninov: Piano Concertos 1 & 2

Ives: Third Symphony

Nielsen: 2nd Symphony (“The Four Temperaments”)

Holst: “Beni Mora”, “A Somerset Rhapsody”

Apart from that little lot, plenty of other notable composers were at work: Scriabin, Schoenberg, Kodaly, Webern, Berg, Grieg, Satie, de Falla etc. I'm sure there were others, but these are the composers mentioned in my main source for this article: Alan Kendall's engrossing The Chronicle of Classical Music (available here).

Of the ten years covered in my little survey (oh, all right – eleven), the most remarkable would appear to have been 1910, during which the following occurred:

20th April: Ravel’s Mother Goose suite first performed in Paris

23rd June: First performance of Stravinsky’s ballet The Firebird in Paris

September: Vaughan Williams conducts the first performance of Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis in Gloucester

12th September: Mahler conducts the first performance of his Eighth Symphony, the Symphony of a Thousand, in Munich

26th September: Richard Strauss completes his opera Der Rosenkavalier

12th October: Vaughan Williams conducts the first performance of his Sea Symphony, in Leeds

10th November: Fritz Kreisler gives the first performance of Elgar’s Violin Concerto, in London

10th December: First performance of Puccini’s opera, La Fanciulla del West, at the Metropolitan Opera House, New York

There were, of course, other great classical music decades (the 1870s and 1880s weren't too dusty, either), but this one just happens to contain more of my favourite works than any other.


  1. Excellent. On a minor point, I would add Mahler's Ruckert Liede, also written in the same period. Ich bin de Welt Abhanden Gekommen has to be one of the most beautiful songs ever written. Spotify has a great range to choose from, including the so slow it almost stops Leonard Bernstein interpretation as well as Michael Tilson Thomas conducting Susan Thomas, a personal favourite. I won't make a case for Joe Walsh's version of Ravel's Mother Goose suite….

    And thank you for not making a spurious link with WWI, along the lines of 'Europe mines a rich seam of classical composition as storm clouds gather'.

    1. I'd never heard the Ruckert Liede - excellent and thank you for the recommendatiion.

      I'm trying not to add to the WWI centenary near-hysteria.

  2. Yes ex-KCS, and a rich seam emerged during and after WW1, which I mined for a post this very day (if I may?) on , taking in RVW and Ravel, along with less well known (unknown?) names such as Frederick Kelly and Arthur Bliss

    1. I'd never heard of F.S. Kelly - the Elegy for Strings is wonderful. Thank you. I'd also never visited The Dabbler, which I heartily recommend to readers of this blog.

  3. I certainly wouldn't dispute the point about a rich seam emerging both during and after WWI and in a wide range of the arts too. Very good post on The Dabbler. I had heard and enjoyed the Arthur Bliss work previously but not the Kelly. Many thanks to Mahlerman.