Was 1876 classical music's most important year?

Mike Ashman Fri 4th August 2017

Twelve seismic months heralded a new age; we still feel their impact today, says Mike Ashman

1876: musical milestones

  • Richard Wagner

    The Bayreuth Festival opened with his epic Ring cycle, including the world premieres of Siegfried and Götterdämmerung

  • Gustav Mahler

    At 16 the driven teenager was producing his first works, including the Piano Quartet movement in A minor

  • Edvard Grieg

    The Norwegian took the first steps to a new realism with his major incidental music for the Ibsen drama Peer Gynt. It was a score that was to provide some of his most popular pieces

  • Johannes Brahms

    After more than a dozen years in the writing, Brahms’s much fretted-over First Symphony is unveiled at Karlsruhe in Germany

  • Anton Bruckner

    A high peak in Romantic symphonic writing, the magisterial Fifth Symphony receives its premiere 

  • Antonín Dvořák

    The future Czech star announced his arrival on the music scene with his Piano Concerto

  • Bedřich Smetana

    The anguish of the composer’s deafness was startlingly illustrated in his string quartet From My Life

  • Amilcare Ponchielli

    The opera La Gioconda (with libretto by Boito) becomes a hit after the first performance 

  • Pyotr Tchaikovsky

    A new patron prompts a creative spurt, with the composer delivering works including Marche slave and Francesca da Rimini. Music from the soon-to-be-staged Swan Lake caught the public ear, too

1876 was a melting-point for music, a watershed year in both concert hall and opera house. With the premiere of Wagner’s four-evening Ring cycle, and the composition of Bruckner’s 65‑minute Fifth Symphony, it saw great peaks of Romantic operatic and symphonic writing. The appearance of Mahler’s first significant score, a Piano Quartet, the development of the one-movement Lisztian tone-poem by Tchaikovsky and the more realistic bourgeois drama of operas by Bizet, Ponchielli and Smetana, introduced the newer, less formally structured musical forms that would succeed them. 1876 also witnessed novel ways of promoting and supporting music in performance. Wagner’s Bayreuth was the first artist-led and artist-promoted festival, attended by international commentators and journalists who produced the first real impact of widely circulated musical criticism. For the first time, the art form of music became aware, and capable, of the ability to promote and to present itself to a wider, urban audience.

Another novel kind of sponsorship was initiated later in the year by the beginning of Tchaikovsky’s financial relationship with his private benefactor, Nadezhda von Meck. The invention of the player-piano and the mimeograph (the first photocopier), not to mention the strides Thomas Edison made in the year towards the world’s first phonograph, saw the first applied use of the new industrialised technology both to preserve and to amplify the presentation of musical performances.

The breaking-down of the formal models of the Ring and Bruckner’s Fifth could be seen in several of the year’s other compositions. The 1875 opening of Georges Bizet’s ultra-realistic and novelistic Carmen had cast a long shadow over ‘grand’ opera with its realistic slices of sex, violence and life in the gutter (the all-seeing Nietzsche was soon to hail Carmen as the opera of the moment whereas he thought Wagner was ‘not the prophet of the future, as perhaps he wanted to appear to us, but the interpreter and clarifier of the past’). The other opera creations of 1876 – Ponchielli’s La Gioconda and Smetana’s The Kiss – were more children of the Frenchman’s Seville than the German’s Nibelheim. The new bourgeois novels of Flaubert, Mérimée and the young Zola had started to impact into music, and would eventually lead to the new Italian verismo school of Mascagni, Puccini and Giordano. In the same year Grieg, with much huffing and puffing about creating music that might just smell of ‘Norwegian cow dung’, also took steps towards a new realism with his large-scale incidental music for Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, itself a work both surreal and hyper-real.

The ‘Tobia Gorrio’ who provided the libretto for La Gioconda was, in fact, Arrigo Boito. This poet/composer had already worked briefly with (and then offended) Verdi. They would soon be reconciled, a relationship which would lead to (for Verdi) the new realism of his ‘late’ years – the Council Chamber scene from Simon Boccanegra, Otello and Falstaff. As if to mark the change of times, Francesco Maria Piave, the ranking librettist of Verdi’s ‘galley’ years, died in 1876. For Verdi himself this was a gap year as regards creating music, and a difficult one elsewhere, being taken up with debt-collecting, poor French revivals of Aida, farming, local politics and the problems of his personal life. ‘Remember,’ wrote Giuseppina Strepponi to him, ‘that I your wife am living at this very moment à trois and have the right to ask, if not for your caresses, at least for your consideration.’ The other lady was (in Verdi’s phrase) ‘the rotund and appetising soprano’ Teresa Stolz.

More musical rules were broken when the age of the neurotic creative artist as hero of his own work was heralded by the large-scale Piano Quartet movement (11-minutes-plus) that the young student Gustav Mahler debuted that summer in Vienna – his first significant composition. Despite evident Brahmsian antecedents, its palette was forward-looking and even Impressionistic – the second Impressionist show with major contributions from Sisley and others had opened in Paris in March, and the resonant poem The Afternoon of a Faun (L’après midi d’un faune) by schoolteacher Stéphane Mallarmé was published. A recent performance review of this Mahler fragment wrote that ‘the rich texture and harmonic structure could easily be confused with some of the string chamber music of Schoenberg’. Alma Mahler related a tale that it was written down at white heat in a single night, the composer’s flatmates (including Hugo Wolf) forced out to walk the streets of Vienna, and the piece certainly suggests more a programme based on its composer’s current mental state than on abstract sonata form. Here was the beginning of music as a medium for both a composer’s biography and exorcism. Mahler would base a majority of his great chain of symphonies on detailed programmes about nature, the gods, Alma’s infidelities or – as Sir Simon Rattle recently suggested about his last three big scores – a personal victory over the threat of death. The influence of this music as psychosis has continued to the present day in the songs of Leonard Cohen, Ian Curtis of Joy Division and with Amy Winehouse’s ‘Rehab’.

Meanwhile, Brahms himself finally answered the call that his friends the Schumanns had been making since the late 1840s and ‘set drums and trumpets to work’ in his First Symphony. The idea of Brahms as a kind of traditionalist reactionary to the ‘new’ music of Berlioz, Wagner and Liszt has died hard, as has the talk (some of it his own) of the fear of following in Beethoven’s footsteps. But, even before the monographs of David Brodbeck and others demonstrated coded references to the composer’s love for Clara Schumann (anticipating Alban Berg’s and Janáček’s private musical love letters), it was surely clear – in, for example, the stormy start of the final movement – that a further example of personal struggle was being played out in music. With the exception of the ever-cynical Hugo Wolf, the junior Viennese musicians of the day had no trouble in recognising Brahms as a contemporary. Schoenberg wrote openly of his wish to be Brahms (if that were possible), orchestrating his Piano Quartet as part wish-fulfilment, while Webern, for his own Op 1, took up the passacaglia form with which Brahms ended his symphonic career.

At the same time the notionally more modern form of the Lisztian tone-poem was making great strides in Tchaikovsky’s hands. Although he reported that much he heard (and saw) on his visit to Bayreuth was ‘overcooked’ to his taste, the Russian composer did get to talk music with Liszt there and, on his return, completed two scores which seem definitely touched by a first hearing of Götterdämmerung – the Siegfried’s Funeral-like start of Marche slave and the orchestral recitatives, low wind declamations and the launch of Francesca da Rimini.

The storms of that Tchaikovsky tone-poem after Dante bear clear aural witness to the age of the Industrial Revolution which had already given the later 19th century new ways of harnessing power for domestic (and theatrical) use and greatly increased communications. Music was finding new ways to present and promote itself. Wagner plunged his Bayreuth spectators into darkness (a first), the better to watch a carefully lit stage and its use of technical special effects of projection, flying and steam machines. The seeds of the musical and the pop concert – the visual event becoming of almost equal importance to the music it was showcasing – were sown. Attending these new, grander musical events in ever-increasing numbers was a new phenomenon – the professional music critic. The verdicts of the Viennese Eduard Hanslick – and composers Tchaikovsky, Grieg and Saint-Saëns who made the trip to the first Bayreuth Festival as waged newspaper reporters – helped make Wagner the first media music star.

The year also saw the beginning of being able to copy and retain things in sound with the invention of the player piano (by Scottish-born John McTammany) – it produced music mechanically from perforated paper rolls. The almost deaf American Thomas Edison opened a new laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey, his ‘invention factory’. He was actually working on bettering existing telegraph systems when he discovered that the tape of the machine gave off a noise resembling spoken words when played at a high speed. He then devised another machine which played cylinders rather than discs, with two needles for recording and for playback. Speaking into a mouthpiece indented the sound vibrations onto the cylinder with a recording needle. In 1876 Edison was also granted a patent for ‘Autographic Printing’ – later called the mimeograph, the ancestor of photocopying – and the year also saw the first appearance of the Dewey Decimal System that still catalogues our libraries today.

The influential political background to these events in Europe was a year of struggle for the rights and individuality of nationhood. While Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin (Wagner’s old chum from the barricades in Dresden) lay dying in Switzerland, his compatriots signed up to assist Serbian and Bulgarian forces in fighting off the British-backed Turks. Protest at Turkish violence drew responses from Gladstone in Britain (in print) and a rabidly anti-British Tchaikovsky, who dashed off his Marche slave, with quotations from two Serbian folk tunes, in just five days. It was premiered at a pioneering example of a war refugees’ benefit concert (Liszt gave one earlier in the year for Budapest flood victims), and was immediately encored. Widely attended by government circles, this concert was brought immediately to the Tsar’s attention and contributed directly to Tchaikovsky’s many state commissions and the later award of a life pension.

The year had already thrown up another coincidence of war and music hand in hand, mirroring contemporary modernity and barbarity. In the third week of June, while Wagner and his creative team were in final rehearsals for the world premiere of Siegfried, George Custer (like Wagner, another academic reject who had almost failed final examinations) was heading towards the massacre of his 264-man US Seventh Cavalry force at the Battle of the Little Big Horn. Further afield, Japan, Korea and China took important steps in opening themselves up to Western (especially American) trade and influence – not to mention the wooing of a more intimate nature that would feed music drama from Delibes’s Lakmé to Sondheim’s Pacific Overtures.

Meanwhile the United States of America became 100 years old to the tune of a specially commissioned (if laboriously and reluctantly completed) Centennial March by Richard Wagner, proof that ‘classical’ compositions were now becoming an international commodity and lent status to important national events. This last was a kind of cultural exchange for America’s growing obsession with Europe and its culture, well realised in the contemporary novel Roderick Hudson – by the young New York-born émigré author-critic Henry James – which examines the moral and artistic disintegration of an American traveller in Rome. This Old/New World dialogue continued into the 20th century. Mahler’s Second and Fifth Symphonies became (nationally televised) memorials for John and Robert Kennedy. American soprano Jessye Norman sang the Berlioz-arranged Marseillaise at the 200th anniversary celebrations in Paris of the French Revolution and Leonard Bernstein led an international ensemble in Beethoven’s Ninth to mark the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Music was now aspiring to be a commentator on, a mirror to, and a barnstorming stirrer-up of nationalism – and the governments of 1876 were starting to listen. At the start of the decade Wagner had wanted to be to the newly unified Germany what Verdi (or at least his initials and his most rousing choruses) had been to the Italian Risorgimento. Count Otto von Bismarck, now Germany’s ‘Iron Chancellor’, tried (in vain) to get Wagner to influence his patron King Ludwig of Bavaria into supporting Prussia at war with Austria. He granted Wagner an audience in 1871 in acknowledgement of the composer’s patriotic tributes (the Kaisermarsch and the poem To the German Army Before Paris) but preferred an arm’s-length support of Bayreuth, sending his master Kaiser Wilhelm I to the Festival instead of money. ‘It seemed true indeed that never had an artist been thus honoured,’ wrote Wagner about the 1876 Festival. ‘Though it was not unknown for an artist to be summoned before an emperor and princes, no one could recall that an emperor and princes had ever come to him.’ ‘I never believed you would be able to do it, but now the sun is shining on your work,’ was the Kaiser’s greeting to the composer.

‘Free from the influences of the routine repertory of our existing theatre, and with no clash with an existing theatre of any great size nor a confrontation with the usual theatre-going public of a large city and its habits’, the first Bayreuth Festival was financed not so much by the state – although Ludwig provided much help in terms of men and materiel – as by donations from interested subscribers, the seed of modern-day subscription systems and the starting-point for all the ‘Friends of’ organisations which feed the opera houses of today. The custom-built Festspielhaus building itself was radical – all the seats faced the stage rather than being in a horseshoe arrangement where the audiences could watch themselves. Art, not society, came first. ‘The town,’ prescribed Wagner, ‘ought not to be a capital city with a permanent theatre, nor one of the more popular large spas, which would attract precisely the sort of public I least want, especially in summer’. He must have seen, however, that Bayreuth was strategically placed at the centre of the new country’s railway network.

Nietzsche identified another novel aspect of Wagner’s festival. Composers naturally sought ideal circumstances for their works to be heard but few had gone as far as Wagner: ‘His work would not have been complete had he handed it to the world only in the form of silent manuscript. He must make known to the world the new style for the execution and presentation of his works, and thus establish a tradition of style, not on paper, but through impressions made upon the very souls of men.’ This tradition (and illusion) of the ‘definitive’, composer-approved creative representation of their work – one standardised staging to play in every town and country – would be picked up by Puccini and Ricordi, and by Richard Strauss and Max Reinhardt, echo down through the ages via any number of Broadway musicals with their out-of-town try-outs and continue in the present-day practice of Lloyd Webber. And this first stage in the increasing power of the artist in 1876 set another precedent that continues – the artist-led festival. Yet Wagner’s attempts at a radical art enterprise, both on- and offstage, did not please all of his significant contemporaries. Combing newspapers on a rail journey, Karl Marx wrote to Engels that summer that all the news in Germany seemed to be of ‘a fool’s festival by Wagner the state musician’.

The question of how a composer’s work was supported was also vital to Tchaikovsky, who had only accepted to travel to Bayreuth because he would be paid as a newspaper correspondent. After meeting Liszt there, he returned to Russia and got to know another personal hero, Count Leo Tolstoy, who sent him rather indifferent lyrics to compose and (secretly) annoyed Tchaikovsky with his conservative views of music post-Haydn. Tchaikovsky also began a correspondence with Nadezhda von Meck, a rich 45-year-old widow (and mother of 18 children). She would eventually offer him a basic annual stipend of 6000 roubles for a period of 14 years, freeing him from the necessity of teaching work. This first great example of private sponsorship was a significant step in freeing the artist from the whims (and hierarchy) of court patronage that had so frustrated Monteverdi, Mozart and Haydn. But the ‘arm’s length’ nature of the Tchaikovsky/von Meck arrangement – they agreed never to meet and did so only by accident – was occasionally strained by her demands for instant composition and for the composer to shadow her visits around Europe, both problems anticipating the would-be controlling influence of latter-day sponsors.

Elsewhere, August Bornonville, now 71, rehearsed his final ballet in Copenhagen (From Siberia to Moscow, music by CC Møller), while the American Henry Clay Work was putting the finishing touches to the ubiquitously popular song ‘Grandfather’s Clock’ (‘But it stopped, short – never to go again – when the old man died’). Smetana, by now completely deaf, finished his autobiographical From My Life, the first of two string quartets, whose final movement is punctuated by a high E in the first violin which, the composer explained, aimed to mimic the effects of tinnitis on his hearing. Antonín Dvořák, the coming Czech star, completed a large-scale (and now rather neglected) Piano Concerto. Hermann Goetz (composer of a now also neglected Taming of the Shrew opera) and SS Wesley (of many a favourite church hymn fame) passed on, while Havergal Brian, Manuel de Falla, Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari and the conductor/composer Bruno Walter most aptly entered a world that was becoming as diverse as their own careers would be.

1876 was also the year in which music came out of its specialist temple, looked to a wider (if sometimes less Elysian) world for inspiration, and began to inter-react seriously with the society and politics of the new nation states. Marche slave and the American Centennial March were products of this new relationship, and noticed by the authorities. Carmen, La Gioconda, The Kiss and Peer Gynt mirrored and spoke more directly to the concerns of their less moneyed audiences. ‘For an event to be great,’ wrote Friedrich Nietzsche in 1876, ‘two things must be united – the lofty sentiment of those who accomplish it, and the lofty sentiment of those who witness it.’ It was music’s new awareness of its audience, both existing and potentially new, that marked 1876 out as a revolutionary year for the art form.

Other great years

The year 1876 had a huge impact on music and the world but here are some other contenders for classical music’s most important year...

1607

In some ways music’s history can be separated into two eras – BO and AO (Before Orfeo and After Orfeo). The premiere of Monteverdi’s Orfeo, the earliest opera to have re-entered the repertory, was arguably the start of music as a narrative entertainment form.

1786

And yet it was the phenomenal success of Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro which saw an opera first get a foothold as an often-produced repertoire work. Music finally became an art form for the people.

1805

An immense year, 1805 heard Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony – the first work to burst through accepted forms to be entirely moulded by the composer’s personality. Music’s identification with politics also started here, as the French Revolution inspired Beethoven, before he furiously scrubbed out the symphony’s dedication to Napoleon.

1913

With the storm clouds of the First World War gathering, the forces of change hit music. Riots attended the premiere of Stravinsky’s
The Rite of Spring, the shockwaves of which would be felt across all genres of music for decades to come. At the same time, Irving Berlin was touring internationally, helping to move operetta towards musical theatre, and ragtime fever took hold, laying the crazy paving for jazz.

1976

The new generation of composers broke through with Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach, Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians and Arvo Pärt’s Tabula rasa. Minimalism took hold, and the rock world took note and followed its lead.

This article originally appeared in the May 2008 issue of Gramophone. To explore our latest subscription offers, please visit: gramophone.co.uk/subscribe

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