A while ago, I came across an amusing challenge from CK Dexter Haven at the All Is Yar blog. Months later, I’m finally following through on it.
The challenge is to choose your favorite symphonies, for the “magic” symphony numbers one through nine only. There are some restrictions, like no named symphonies without numbers (no Symphonie fantastique or Symphony of Psalms). Another rule is that one is allowed to pick only one symphony per composer, although I chose to get around that to some extent with my Honorable Mentions (but again, only one per composer). One should also use the conventional numbering: if I were to have included Schubert’s “Great” C major Symphony or Dvořák’s “New World,” for instance, they would each have gone into the ninth slot.
There are obviously many wonderful choices that don’t appear on this list, for a wide variety of reasons. Some perhaps obvious names are missing from my list: no Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Vaughan Williams, Martinů, or Bruckner. There’s also no Mozart or Haydn, but that isn’t surprising given the restriction of numbers 1-9.
Another important point is that the word “greatest” doesn’t appear anywhere here. I’m not choosing greatest, most profound, or most ambitious works. I’m simply choosing works that give me great personal satisfaction, and the following nine would keep me quite happy on the proverbial desert island.
Symphony No. 1 – Johannes Brahms
(Honorable Mention: Havergal Brian)
There are many remarkable first symphonies out there. But I went with one of the standards, the one that Brahms waited until the age of forty-three to give to the world because he wanted it to be something special. For my honorable mention, while considering names like Mahler, Shostakovich, Bizet, Nielsen, or Sir William Walton, I went with the massive “Gothic” Symphony by Havergal Brian – it’s pretty thrilling, and certainly deserves an “A” for ambition with its nearly two hour duration, gargantuan orchestra, choirs, brass bands, etc. etc.
Symphony No. 2 – Leonard Bernstein
(Honorable Mention: Gustav Mahler)
I’ve loved Bernstein’s jazz-tinged “Age of Anxiety” Symphony, inspired by the long W.H. Auden poem, for a long time. Mahler’s “Resurrection” would also have been a wonderful choice, but since Mahler has a pick elsewhere in the list, I felt confident in going with Bernstein. Sibelius, Vaughan Williams, Rachmaninov, and the “Mysterious Mountain” by Alan Hovhaness also passed through my mind.
Symphony No. 3 – William Schuman
(Honorable Mention: Ludwig van Beethoven)
Another American composer makes the list, with a work that makes a strong case for the title of Great American Symphony. The polyphonic web with which Schuman begins his symphony is one of my favorite symphonic openings ever. While the “Eroica” is not a surprising second place, there were some other nice options here too, like Lutosławski, Górecki, Saint-Saëns, and a seldom-played personal favorite, the Sinfonie singulière by Swedish composer Franz Berwald.
Symphony No. 4 – Edward Tubin
(Honorable Mention: Carl Nielsen)
To some degree I really regret not giving the prize here to Carl Nielsen’s “Inextiguishable,” one of my all-time favorite symphonies. But with Nielsen winning the No. 5 spot, I felt less bad about recognizing a really special symphony and composer. Eduard Tubin, from Estonia, wrote several memorable symphonies that get too little attention. My favorite is his Fourth, the “Sinfonia lyrica.” Sibelius fans would love it, I think, with its cool but profound beauty. Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky, Brahms, and Mahler were also under consideration.
Symphony No. 5 – Carl Nielsen
(Honorable Mention: Sergei Prokofiev)
The powerful Fifth Symphony by Carl Nielsen was not a hard choice for me. Prokofiev as well as Shostakovich, Schubert, and Beethoven gave him a run, not to mention the beautiful Fifth by Ralph Vaughan Williams. But Nielsen’s Fifth is a uniquely dramatic experience.
Symphony No. 6 – Jean Sibelius
(Honorable Mention: Piotr Tchaikovsky)
Described by the composer himself as “cold spring water” that evokes “the scent of first snow,” the often enigmatic Sixth Symphony is many a hardcore Sibelius fan’s favorite among his symphonies. It’s true for me as well; its austere beauty, for whatever reason, speaks directly to me. Coming in a strong second is Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique,” his emotionally-draining final symphony.
Symphony No. 7 – Ludwig van Beethoven
(Honorable Mention: Jean Sibelius)
This was an easy choice, as it’s probably my favorite symphony, and would be near the top of my desert island pieces – after all, if you’re going to be stuck on a desert island, you”ll probably need something as life-affirming as Beethoven’s Seventh to keep your spirits up! Sibelius’s last symphony, assuming that the legendary Eighth never magically appears, was an equally easy honorable mention for its terse power.
Symphony No. 8 – Antonin Dvořák
(Honorable Mention: Dmitri Shostakovich)
Speaking of life-affirming symphonies, Dvořák’s tuneful, exuberant Eighth is a work I would not want to be without. By considerable contrast, the Shostakovich Eighth, written in the middle of World War II, is quite a grim and powerful experience, its resolution into C major toward the end after more than an hour of pretty seriously dark music both tentative and hard-won.
Symphony No. 9 – Gustav Mahler
(Honorable Mention: Ludwig van Beethoven)
Moving from life to death for my final choice, Gustav Mahler had recently experienced the death of his daughter Maria, and found out about the heart condition that would within a few years kill him, when he wrote his final completed symphony. As death-obsessed as the music often seems, it can just as easily be read as an affirmation of, or at least a clinging to, life. It makes for an interesting juxtaposition with the famous Ninth of Beethoven, the logical honorable mention.