Wine lists are notoriously hard to decipher. At a recent dinner, my friend, who had just attended her first-ever orchestral performance, joked that the exercise was almost as difficult as her experience from hours earlier of trying to decode a classical program. Bottles on a wine list are usually printed like this:
The comparison led to a discussion of vintage, something that is always printed on a wine list, which we brought up with the waiter—at this particular restaurant, there were options of the same bottle from 2014, 2015, and 2016. As those who love wine know, and as the waiter confirmed, vintage often affects the taste of a bottle as much as other notable characteristics, like varietal, region, and style of production. Great vintages, a product of the right weather, growing conditions, and harvest date, hold legendary status in the wine world: 1982 Bordeaux, 1990 Burgundy, 2007 Napa.
As we sat at dinner, continuing to peruse the wine list and discussing program books, my friend posed an interesting question: “They always seem to print the date of composition next to the piece; does vintage also matter in classical music?”
The full answer to my friend's question is complex, unanswerable in a short blog article, and left for someone far more qualified. For the purposes of this post, some broad points of comparison jump out: most importantly, unlike wine, the year of a piece’s composition does not inherently have an effect on the final product. Granted, most pieces composed around 1700 share certain stylistic characteristics, ones that differentiate them from pieces composed around 1800 or 1900—hence the common classification of classical music into eras like Baroque, Romantic, and Contemporary. Social, cultural, political, and artistic forces can have a tangible influence on a particular year in music history: relatively few pieces were composed in Europe in 1848, as revolutions swept across the continent, and composers like Wagner were busy manning the ramparts. In addition, a particular date of composition can say something about a piece in the context of a given composer’s output: Stravinsky’s work prior to 1914 displays a distinct style, while his post-1914 works are quite different. But distinctions between individual years of composition say little about the pieces themselves, especially when looking across an array of composers. However, despite this tenuous analogy between classical music and wine, I was inspired by my friend’s question to do some digging, and eventually came up with my own list of the greatest vintages of classical music.
The Top 15 Classical Music Vintages
In the highly subjective exercise of choosing the greatest classical vintages, I considered several factors. The first was the volume of great pieces produced, with pieces that I deemed particularly strong weighted more heavily. I also considered variety, in genre of composition, (opera, symphonic, chamber music), number of composers with great works, and stylistic diversity. I also gave some weight to the historical importance of pieces, although I treated this as secondary to the quality of the pieces themselves. Notably, this list is not a list of the most important years in classical music history. Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, composed in 1803, is one of the most significant pieces in the classical canon—many see it as the beginning of musical Romanticism. However, 1803 was otherwise a relatively unmemorable year for great pieces, so it did not make the list. After considering these factors, I assigned each year a vintage score, like wine critics do, using the Wine Enthusiast scoring system: 90-93 represents excellent, 94-97 is superb, and 98-100 is a classic.
*A technical note: pieces are often composed over multiple years, and their completion does not always coincide with the premiere. I tried to honor either the year a piece was finished or the year of greatest compositional progress in this list, so that the vintages reflect when pieces were composed, not premiered.
1874 – 98 points
A year of great variety, with some gargantuan watershed pieces. Wagner’s Götterdammerung, the final opera of the Ring Cycle, was completed, capping of more than a quarter-century’s worth of work. In Russia, Mussorgsky’s vivid Pictures at an Exhibition was finished, and Boris Godunov, his dramatic opera based on the play of the same name by Pushkin, was premiered. In Vienna, two strikingly different works: Johann Strauss’s comic operetta Die Fledermaus, and the first version of Bruckner’s stoic Symphony No. 4, the “Romantic.” In Italy, Verdi completed his Requiem, a powerful work for orchestra and choir that shows the composer’s skill in writing for voice and dramatic flair.
1905 – 97 points
Modernism sweeps across the European continent! In France, Debussy completed his beloved symphonic sketch, La Mer. In Finland, Sibelius finished his Violin Concerto in D Minor, stretching the limits of violinistic technique and giving students like myself material for thousands of hours of practice. Strauss exploded onto the operatic scene with the premiere of Salome, first performed in Dresden after being deemed too risqué for Viennese audiences. Elsewhere, Manuel de Falla completed La Vida Breve in Spain, Elgar paired string quartet with orchestra in his Introduction and Allegro in England, and Schoenberg tested the expressive limits of tonality in Vienna with his String Quartet No. 1 in D Minor.
1842 – 96 points
A watershed year for Schumann, and one of staggering productivity. He produced five masterpieces of chamber music: the three String Quartets, of which the first two are my personal favorites, along with both the Piano Quartet and the Piano Quintet, both in E Flat Major. Mendelssohn produced the best symphony in a decade, the “Scottish” Symphony No. 3 in A Minor. In opera, a trio of notable works: Glinka’s Ruslan and Ludmilla, Verdi’s Nabucco, and Wagner’s Rienzi.
1936 – 95 points
A high volume year of hidden gems. Shostakovich completed his chilling Symphony No. 4, the last of his symphonies written before he was censored by the Stalinist regime. Prokofiev released two beloved pieces, Peter and the Wolf, and his score to the ballet Romeo and Juliet. Bartok finished a modernist masterpiece, the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste. In America, Schoenberg, having recently emigrated from Austria, penned two highly progressive pieces of his own, the Violin Concerto and String Quartet No. 4, and Barber wrote the underrated Symphony in One Movement. His String Quartet No. 1, also written in this year, includes the famous Adagio, famously excerpted and played by string orchestra for JFK’s funeral.
1896 – 95 points
A year of lower volume, but of colossal masterworks, including Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra, the opening of which is used to great effect in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Nietzche was also on the mind of Mahler, whose Symphony No. 3 is an hour-and-a-half long Nietzschian journey towards enlightenment. Bruckner was in process of finishing his Symphony No. 9, which he left incomplete, due to his death in October. And the big crowd pleaser, premiered at the beginning of the year: Puccini’s La Boheme.
1824 – 94 points
One big blockbuster and three small ones: from Beethoven, the choral Symphony No. 9, possibly the most famous and influential piece in classical music history, featuring the famous Ode to Joy. From Schubert, three pieces of chamber music, all works of genius in their own right: the String Quartets No. 13 and 14, nicknamed “Rosamunde” and “Death and the Maiden” respectively, and his “Arpeggione” sonata for cello.
1826 – 94 points
One of the last years of Beethoven’s life, which included the composition of two of his late string quartets, Nos. 13 and 14. The Quartet No. 13 in B Flat Major features two of Beethoven’s most famous movements of chamber music, the Cavatina and the Grosse Fuge. The Quartet No. 14 in C Sharp Minor, also a masterpiece, is in an eccentric seven-movement form, with a particularly fun Presto fifth movement. Schubert completed his colossal Symphony No. 9 in C Major, nicknamed the “Great”, described famously by Schumann as having “heavenly length.” Other highlights from the year include the young Mendelssohn’s Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Weber’s opera on a similar theme, Oberon.
1888 – 93 points
Mahler and Strauss, the two giants of early Austro-Germanic modernism, burst onto the scene with Symphony No. 1 and the tone poem Don Juan. In France, Fauré penned the majority of his sublime Requiem, and César Franck finished his only pure symphony, the Symphony in D Minor. Tchaikovsky also wrote the crowd-pleasing Symphony No. 5 in E Minor, and Grieg completed the all-too-familiar Peer Gynt Suite.
1859 – 92 points
A big year for opera, crowned by the completion of Wagner’s highly chromatic, everlasting Tristan and Isolde. Also activity in French and Italian opera, including Gounod’s Faust and Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera. A young Brahms dipped his toe in the water of two massive genres, the concerto and the symphony, (though he would not call it that yet), with his Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Minor and the Serenade No. 2 in A Major. Franz Liszt, Wagner’s ideological compatriot in the New German School, completed his virtuosic Totentanz.
1913 – 91 points
One of the most famous years in music history, due to the riotous premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. In the United States, Charles Ives incorporated several American folk tunes into his fascinatingly complex String Quartet No. 2. Also, two underrated works from this year: Rachmaninoff’s The Bells, written for choir and orchestra, and Vaughan Williams’s A London Symphony.
We would also love to hear what your top classical vintages are! Let us know in the comments below, and remember to tune in to the Attention to Detail podcast for more content!
Jacob Joyce, Resident Conductor of the Indianapolis Symphony and host of the Attention to Detail podcast.