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Carnegie Hall’s Five Most-Often Performed Works

Have you ever wondered which works are performed most frequently at Carnegie Hall? We have the answers, thanks to our team in the Carnegie Hall Rose Archives and the Carnegie Hall Data Lab. Take a look at the five compositions that have been heard inside the Hall more than any others, and stay tuned for future articles that highlight favorite works across the decades. (As we all know, musical preferences shift over time—what have might have been popular in Carnegie Hall’s earliest days didn’t always remain popular decades later.) Here are five works that endure.

No. 1: John Stafford Smith’s “The Star-Spangled Banner”

It’s ironic that a little-known composer of glees (a light, unaccompanied song for three or more voices) would write Carnegie Hall’s most popular work. John Stafford Smith’s (1750–1836) “The Anacreontic Song,” was written for and sung by members of his London men’s club. Baltimore lawyer Francis Scott Key (1779–1843) was inspired to write new lyrics for it after witnessing the British attack on Fort McHenry. The revised song was published in 1814, originally titled “Defence of Fort McHenry” before being renamed “The Star-Spangled Banner.” At the time, Baltimore newspapers noted it was to be sung to the tune of “The Anacreontic Song.” More suited to ceremonial occasions than actual concert fare, it was first performed at Carnegie Hall on April 6, 1891, for the Grand Army of the Republic Celebration. Since then, it’s frequently heard at graduations and other ceremonial occasions.

No. 2: Frederic Chopin’s Ballade No. 1

Pianist Florence Terrell debuted Chopin’s poetic Ballade No. 1 in an 1897 recital in the Carnegie Lyceum (now Zankel Hall). While Terrell is now a music history footnote, an honor-roll of legendary pianists have performed this repertoire favorite at the Hall. Ignacy Jan Paderewski, Vladimir Horowitz, Maurizio Pollini, Evgeny Kissin, Emanuel Ax, and Lang Lang are but a few of the keyboard masters who have interpreted this passionate masterpiece. Pollini, in particular, has made it a cornerstone of his Carnegie Hall career, performing it 15 times between 1984 and 2014. The ballade’s intense drama, sweet melodicism, and sizzling virtuosity make it one of Chopin’s most enduring treasures.

No. 3: George Frideric Handel’s Messiah

Handel’s most popular work had its first Carnegie Hall performance on December 29, 1891. Walter Damrosch conducted the Oratorio Society of New York in a performance that launched one of the longest streaks in the Hall’s history: the Oratorio Society’s annual performance of Messiah at the Hall—the only exception being 1960 when the Hall was scheduled to be demolished. Messiah is a shining jewel for amateur choirs, a Baroque repertoire standard for symphony orchestras and choruses, and a holiday tradition for audiences. Its beautiful arias, rousing choruses, and dramatic orchestral writing are irresistible, so it’s no surprise it has had many marvelous performances at the Hall. Take a deeper dive into Handel’s Messiah at Carnegie Hall.

No. 4: Richard Wagner’s Prelude to Act I of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg

Wagner’s music enjoyed great popularity at Carnegie Hall in the decades after its opening in 1891. Between 1900 and 1920, seven of his works were among the top 25 performed at the Hall. The rousing orchestral prelude to his sole comedy, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, is his most popular work at the Hall. Wagner-mania began on December 13, 1891, when Walter Damrosch conducted the New York Symphony Orchestra—competitor of the New York Philharmonic—in a wildly eclectic concert that featured music by Anton Rubinstein, Felix Mendelssohn, and Giuseppe Verdi. Lushly scored and joyous in spirit, Wagner’s prelude soars with themes heard throughout his four-and-one-half-hour–long opera. Perhaps that’s why Wagner was so popular in the early days­—audiences were happy to get small tastes of his notoriously long operas.

No. 5: Johannes Brahms’s Symphony No. 1

Prickly Brahms probably would have sneered at following Wagner in this list of works. While the two composers initially shared a good relationship, Wagner grew to intensely dislike Brahms—and Brahms was happy to return the sentiment. Walter Damrosch and the New York Symphony gave the Carnegie Hall premiere of Brahms’s majestic First Symphony on November 10, 1893. Brahms’s symphony is sometimes referred to as “Beethoven’s Tenth” because of its heroic tone, grand scale, and use of a hymn-like theme—all similar to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. Speaking of composer rivalries, that Carnegie Hall premiere performance also featured music by Wagner and Tchaikovsky. Tchaikovsky didn’t like Brahms either, and thought him to be emotionally cold and uninspired. Great symphony orchestras and audiences obviously feel otherwise, with Brahms’s symphony remaining a repertoire cornerstone at the Hall.

Concert artifacts courtesy of the Carnegie Hall Rose Archives.

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