The Symphony: From Mannheim to Mahler

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With impeccable timing at the start of a new academic year, Faber Music have just released The Symphony: From Mannheim to Mahler, an accessible new guide written by Christopher Tarrant and Natalie Wild, which hopes (and in my view deserves) to become a standard text for A’ level and undergraduate students.

While not a piano book, this publication certainly merits the attention of any advancing pianist or teacher with an interest in the core classical tradition; as the dominant instrumental form from the mid-eighteenth century onwards, the symphony’s parallel development and symbiotic relationship with the sonata undoubtedly make an understanding of the former helpful for a full appreciation of the latter.

With that in mind, let’s take a look…

A Symphonic Overview

The Symphony: From Mannheim to Mahler is a high quality and superbly presented 192-page text book with stiff laminated card cover, in a format just a little smaller than A4 size.

We are told that:

“This fascinating and accessible guide considers the development of the symphony from a number of different perspectives: analytical, historical, and critical. Exploring important milestones, touchpoints, events, key works, and the composers that surround the genre, it also includes a composer timeline, detailed case studies, and comprehensive musical examples.”

Where the book differs from others is in its reluctance to simply deliver a chronological survey; with this in mind the composer timeline is particularly welcome, listing composer births from Stamitz (1717-1757) up to Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912) as well as other key musical events.

Having consciously eschewed a merely narrative approach, the authors approach different topics related to symphonic composition in a complementary, thematic way, explaining in their Foreword:

“The idea of constant progress is resisted in this book, along with the idea that the symphony was a stable category in the 150-year period under discussion. We have tried to give fair emphasis not just to the continuities and the sense of progression and development during this time, but also the discontinuities and ruptures that have characterised the genre, especially in the nineteenth century, while also shining a light on marginalised composers forgotten by history.”

Cycling through pertinent topics as they relate to the larger canvas, we repeatedly encounter the same composers, events and ideas throughout, each chapter offering a different perspective to contributes towards a distinct and holistic understanding. The authors’ aims are certainly ambitious, and it seems to me that they admirably succeed.

For a better idea of the framework of the text, here’s the chapter headings:

Timeline of events
Case Studies (sources and recordings)

1. A genre in crisis?

Part I: Contexts
2. The early symphony
3. Patronage and public concerts

Part II: Materials
4. Melody, harmony and syntax
5. Form, structure and cycle
6. Sonata form
7. Tonality

Part III: Ideas
8. Absolute music and programme music
9. The symphony outside Germany and Austria
10. The symphony’s second age


Bearing in mind the circuitous path of the book, I think that the inclusion of an index might have been useful as a reference aid, for example to assist students in building explicit connections, or when revising or revisiting the material. That said, the general clarity of presentation is of such a superb standard that it is fairly easy to find composers and works as they reappear throughout the book.

Regarding the symphonies which are considered as case studies, the authors helpfully provide YouTube links to recommended recordings, also suggesting that scores be accessed on

Those symphonies, for your interest, are:

  • Stamitz: Sinfonia in D, Op. 3/2
  • Mozart: Symphony No.31 in D, ‘Paris’
  • Mendelssohn: Symphony No.4 in A, ‘Italian’
  • Joseph Bologne: Symphony No.1 in G
  • Haydn: Symphony No.104 in D, ‘London’
  • Beethoven: Symphony No.1 in C
  • Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique
  • Mahler: Symphony No.3 in D minor

Lastly, in terms of the content and scope of this book, I should note that the story of the Symphony did not end with Mahler; I would have welcomed a chapter considering how subsequent generations up to and including today’s composers have revisited and redefined the symphony as an artistic construct.

An Approachable Evaluation

While much of the material in this book covers familiar territory, it does so with an impressive freshness and verve, driven by a 21st-century critical reflection on all the key developments, musical and social. This gives the text a compelling immediacy, even for those who might think they understand the subject comprehensively already.

While both authors are esteemed academics, their divergent careers have undoubtedly contributed to the multifaceted approach the book takes.

Christopher Tarrant is a lecturer in music analysis at Newcastle University, while also a violinist and conductor. Natalie Wild, meanwhile, is Director of Research and Deputy Director of Music at the Music in Secondary Schools Trust, and taught for many years in inner-city schools. Their combined insights and interests result in a book which is both authoritative and accessible to students, from teenage to adult readers.

The book includes plenty of musical illustrations, including an ample selection of orchestral score excerpts which serve effectively to illustrate and underpin the thrust of the authors’ arguments. Explanations are always clear, and where necessary are accompanied by tables and (in the chapter on tonality) a diagram of the circle of fifths.

Closing Thoughts

Tarrant and Wild must be congratulated for providing so lucid and approachable an introduction to a vast subject. Their book can be very highly and warmly commended to music students and enthusiasts everywhere. I would certainly have benefitted from this in my student years, and enjoyed reading it today.

Tackling the question of the symphony’s ongoing relevance in the modern world in their Foreword, they are typically succinct:

“…music if not simply an historical artefact. The strange thing about pieces of music is that they can be brought to life again and again.”

In their masterful book, Tarrant and Wild deliver the insight and enthusiasm to inspire and underpin many more such musical resurrections. Outstanding!

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Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a widely respected piano educator, writer and composer based on Milton Keynes UK. His book HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC is published by Hal Leonard.

2 thoughts on “The Symphony: From Mannheim to Mahler”

  1. Dear Andrew,I appreciate the time and research you do on the music for your blogs. I always look forward to what you are going to have a blog about. Many thanks for putting Bill (William) Gillock’s music into levels. He was a friend of mine when I lived in Dallas, TX. Jodie Jensen shared you book on practise. I LOVE IT!!!!  Please let me extend my sympathy for the loss of Queen Elizabeth. I was 12 years old when she was crowned and I watched it on our black and white television. My parents thought it was such an important time in history and awaked me at 2 a.m. to watch the coronation. I still remember it vividly. My sister is 92 and we have talked about that day. The queen’s memory will live on in my heart.  Thank you for helping many with your music and blogs.Blessings~Linda King

    1. Dear Linda, it’s always such a pleasure and encouragement to hear from you, and I am so glad that since we met in Colorado you have kept in touch! Thank you!
      I am really pleased to hear that you continue to find this site helpful, as well as my commercial publications. I hope that perhaps some day we might talk properly about your memories of Bill.
      Thanks too for your warm thoughts at this time of national mourning for our Queen. She will be missed by us all.
      Take care! Thanks, Andrew

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