Berger, Wilhelm


Berger, Wilhelm

Symphony in B-flat Major Op. 71

SKU: 1936 Category:


Wilhelm Berger

(b. Boston, 9th August 1861 – d. Jena, 16th January 1911)

Symphony in B-flat Major, Op. 71

“The young composer Wilhelm Berger’s excellent melodious symphony in E flat major [sic.], the bold last movement of which is modern in character, is representative of the high degree of technical ability that he, like most adherents of the predominantly formalistic Berlin academic compositional style, which is imbued with the ideas of the influential Vienna critic Eduard Hanslick as well as with real Saxon conviviality, managed to acquire.”1

While the Berliner-by-choice Wilhelm Berger may well have been pleased with such a laudatory review in the Musikalisches Wochenblatt, its author, Arthur Smolian, got his facts rather mixed up. Apart from the fact that the work is not in E flat major – to add to the confusion, another reviewer, writing for Signale, thought it was in G major2 – the composer, who was almost 38 by the time the piece was premiered in 1898, was not exactly young anymore. The second part of Smolian’s review, on the other hand, seems apt: modern reference works continue to place him in the conservative context of “Berlin academia”. But as justified as the classification may generally be, a closer look at the symphony in B major invites a more differentiated view.

Berger became well-known after his songs, choral works and chamber music had been praised by such illustrious figures as Anton Rubinstein, Edvard Grieg, Joseph Joachim and Hans von Bülow. It is not known what subsequently moved him to compose a symphony. His third completed orchestral work, and the first of only three that would find a publisher, the B major symphony was preceded by a “dramatic overture” (op. 33) and by a concerto for piano and orchestra (op. 43), which were never printed. The first symphony was followed directly a second,3 and by an independent fugal theme with variations (op. 97) nine years later.

Only five orchestral compositions among his 106 works! And yet, Georg Riemenschneider could not do otherwise than call Berger a “born symphonic composer”,4 while biographer Gustav Ernest called the first “worthy of rediscovery”.5 Those who know Berger only as a choral and chamber music composer – and it is possible nowadays to know him in this capacity at least, thanks to a number of CD recordings6 – must surely be tempted by such phrases. And yet, the orchestral variations, which were recorded, have long been out of print;7 and yet, the symphonies still await rediscovery. Klaus Reinhardt did initiate a performance of the second symphony for Radio Bremen in the 1980s,8 but it has, since then, again been forgotten, while the first seems not to have been awakened from its slumber since World War One.

It was first performed in the festive context of the second evening of the 34th musicians’ assembly of the Allgemeiner Deutscher Musikverein, which took place from 25th – 28th June 1898 in Mainz, and on that occasion formed the beginning of one of the monumental concert evenings of the nineteenth century the ambition, as well as formal and stylistic range of which astonish us today – Berger’s symphony is 45 minutes long, and on that Sunday evening, it was followed by an extract from Hans Pfitzner’s Armer Heinrich that lasted almost twenty minutes, after which the third Leonoren Overture heralded the interval. Thereafter, refreshed concertgoers heard three French orchestral songs (by César Franck, Émile Paladilhe and Charles Lefèbvre), Tchaikovsky’s Concert Fantasia (op. 56), and the final scene from the Meistersinger as a good-night treat


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