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Which composers have historically been the most prominent in orchestra repertoires?

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Although Beethoven accounted for the largest share of symphonies' repertoires in only five of the thirteen decades studied (the 1870s, 1880s, and 1940s through 1960s), the number of Beethoven's compositions that were included in these 27 orchestras' annual repertoires increased in all but the last decade of the study. In the 1840s, Beethoven's compositions comprised 9% (n = 22 pieces included) of the symphony repertoires; his works hit their peak share in the 1870s at 20% (n = 64). By the 1960s, they were back to 9% (n = 1389) of the repertoires. [Note: Multiple performances of a particular piece in a single year by the same orchestra (beyond the first performance) are not counted in these totals - see Cautionary Notes, for more information.]

In the 1840s through 1860s, the top composer was Felix Mendelssohn (d. 1847), whose pieces accounted for one third to just over one fifth of the major symphonies' repertoires (1840s - 34%, 1850s - 32%, 1860s - 22%).

Richard Wagner was the top composer from the 1890s through the 1930s. Wagner, who died in 1883, was also quite popular during the 1840s through the 1880s. His works accounted for 8% of repertoires in the 1840s, 6% in the 1850s, 7% in the 1860s, 8% in the 1870s, and 8% in the 1880s. After his death, his share climbed to 15% of all major orchestra repertoires during the 1890s.

Graph: Changes in the Top Composer Over Time: Percentage of Pieces (Source: American Symphony Orchestra Repertoires 1842-1970)

Graph: Changes in the Top Composer Over Time: Total Number of Pieces (Source: American Symphony Orchestra Repertoires 1842-1970)

While there has been little change over time in the composers who occupy the top two spots in the list of most performed composers, there have been substantial changes among the third through fifth most prominent composers over the thirteen decades of the study. [In the following chart, "n" refers to the number of pieces by a particular composer that were included in the annual repertoires of the 27 major orchestras studied during each decade.]

Decade Top Five Composers & Their Share of Orchestra Repertoires
1840s
  • Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) - 34% (n = 80)
  • Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) - 9% (n = 22)
  • Richard Wagner (1813-1883) - 8% (n = 20)
  • Carl Maria Weber (1786-1826) - 7% (n = 17)
  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) and Louis Spohr (1784-1859) - 5% each (n = 12)
1850s
  • Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) - 32% (n = 141)
  • Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) - 7% (n = 30)
  • Richard Wagner (1813-1883) - 6% (n = 24)
  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) - 5% (n = 21)
  • Robert Schumann (1810-1856) - 4% (n = 19)
1860s
  • Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) - 22% (n = 103)
  • Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) - 9% (n = 44)
  • Robert Schumann (1810-1856) - 7% (n = 32)
  • Richard Wagner (1813-1883) - 7% (n = 31)
  • Modeste Mussorgsky (1839-1881) - 5% (n = 22)
1870s
  • Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) - 20% (n = 64)
  • Richard Wagner (1813-1883) - 8% (n = 26)
  • Robert Schumann (1810-1856) - 7% (n = 22)
  • Franz Liszt (1811-1886) - 7% (n = 22)
  • Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) - 5% (n = 15)
1880s
  • Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) - 15% (n = 199)
  • Richard Wagner (1813-1883) - 8% (n = 107)
  • Franz Schubert (1797-1828) - 6% (n = 72)
  • Robert Schumann (1810-1856) - 5% (n = 69)
  • Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) - 5% (n = 64)
1890s
  • Richard Wagner (1813-1883) - 15% (n = 416)
  • Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) - 9% (n = 257)
  • Peter I. Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) - 5% (n = 148)
  • Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) - 4% (n = 116)
  • Robert Schumann (1810-1856) - 4% (n = 115)
1900s
  • Richard Wagner (1813-1883) - 14% (n = 582)
  • Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) - 10% (n = 414)
  • Peter I. Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) - 6% (n = 251)
  • Richard Strauss (1864-1949) - 4% (n = 167)
  • Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) - 4% (n = 161)
1910s
  • Richard Wagner (1813-1883) - 13% (n = 886)
  • Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) - 9% (n = 563)
  • Peter I. Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) - 5% (n = 358)
  • Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) - 5% (n = 337)
  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) - 4% (n = 287)
1920s
  • Richard Wagner (1813-1883) - 11% (n = 1168)
  • Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) - 8% (n = 792)
  • Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) - 5% (n = 487)
  • Peter I. Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) - 5% (n = 484)
  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) - 4% (n = 427)
1930s
  • Richard Wagner (1813-1883) - 9% (n = 1058)
  • Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) - 7% (n = 857)
  • Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) - 5% (n = 588)
  • Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) - 4% (n = 526)
  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) - 4% (n = 511)
1940s
  • Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) - 7% (n = 1136)
  • Richard Wagner (1813-1883) - 6% (n = 959)
  • Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) - 6% (n = 889)
  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) - 5% (n = 819)
  • Peter I. Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) - 5% (n = 726)
1950s
  • Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) - 8% (n = 1419)
  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) - 7% (n = 1125)
  • Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) - 6% (n = 1008)
  • Richard Wagner (1813-1883) - 5% (n = 908)
  • Peter I. Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) and Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) - 4% each (n = 592)
1960s
  • Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) - 9% (n = 1389)
  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) - 7% (n = 1147)
  • Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) - 5% (n = 820)
  • Richard Wagner (1813-1883) - 4% (n = 570)
  • Peter I. Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) - 3% (n = 499)
[A similar analysis can be found on page 53 of Dowd, Timothy J., Kathleen Liddle, Kim Lupo, and Anne Borden. 2002. "Organizing the Musical Canon: The Repertoires of Major U.S. Symphony Orchestras, 1842 to 1969." Poetics 30:35-61. ]

 

Has American composers' prominence changed over time?

Compositions by American composers had a negligible presence in the repertoires of major symphony orchestras until about the turn of the century. In the 1840s, major American orchestras performed only three pieces by a total of three American composers. The numbers improved only slightly until the 1890s when the total number of pieces increased to 124; by that point thirty-six American composers were included in the repertoires, up from only 14 in the prior decade.

Graph: Emergence of American Composers: Total Number of Pieces (Source: American Symphony Orchestra Repertoires 1842-1970)

During the 1900s, American composers increased their share of the repertoires dramatically. In the 1940s, the portion of the repertoire represented by the compositions of all American composers combined finally surpassed the portion of the repertoire represented by the single top composer for the first time. Beethoven's compositions were represented in the annual repertoires 1136 times by major orchestras, while the compositions of American composers were represented 1926 times. By the 1960s, there were 268 American composers with a total of 1945 compositions included in major American symphony orchestra repertoires.

 

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