I spent a ridiculous amount of time writing my last blog post. I mean, it was almost 5000 words. Who writes 5000 words just for fun? But luckily, all that work will yield not just one, but two (or maybe even more) blog posts. Just as PhD’s mine their dissertations for journal articles, I will mine the last post for more nuggets of symphonic information. We will count down the 100 symphonies ever written. Most of the work has already been done: I’ve ranked every numbered symphony I could think of (spoiler alert: Sibelius has the top 2 spots!) but there are some symphonies I’ve left out. We need to add some works numbered 10 and beyond; and we need to add a few symphonies without numbers at all. Likewise, we need to get rid of some of the “throwaways”. Sorry, Haydn #9.
What, exactly, is a symphony? I consider it a large-scale work for orchestra, for which soloists don’t play a major part. That’s a pretty broad definition, but it excludes things like Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, and Beethoven overtures. There’s some subjectivity here: why exclude Lenore III when, in actuality, it’s longer than some Mozart symphonies? I don’t have a good answer except to say that Lenore III wasn’t meant to stand on its own…it was meant to be part of an opera. A symphony should be self-contained.
One further point. I’m not going to rehash all of the symphonies from the previous post. I am going to use the scores from that post, but in order to keep this post under 5000 words I’m going to limit myself to one sentence only for each symphony.
Here’s the countdown:
- Bruckner Symphony #1
Not the strongest Bruckner symphony, but worth a listen for the promise it conveys.
- Schumann Symphony #4
Schumann’s best symphony is well-constructed but kinda forgettable.
- Beethoven Symphony #6, “Pastoral”
Most people like it, but it’s too cheery for me (in a “drunken centaur” kind of way).
- Tchaikovsky Symphony #1, “Winter Dreams”
Not Tchaikovsky’s best, but sprightly and with a triumphant ending.
- Shostakovich Symphony #15
A demented toy shop: just listen for the quotes from the William Tell Overture.
95. Borodin Symphony #2
Good and bad in equal measure, it depends upon your mood.
- Beethoven Symphony #3, “Eroica”
The first memorable Beethoven symphony, but the funeral march is boring.
- Tchaikovsky Symphony #2, “Little Russian”
More serious, slightly improved version of Tchaikovsky’s 1st.
- Bax Symphony #7
Bax tries to emulate Holst’s The Planets, but only partly succeeds.
- Piston Symphony #7
Almost like a movie soundtrack, with hints of Copeland.
- Haydn Symphony #94, “Surprise”
Stereotypical late Haydn, which can be good or bad.
- Mahler Symphony #3
A glorious, epic mess; the singing parts are just weird.
- Schubert Symphony #6, “Little”
Even a weaker effort of Schubert is better than most people’s best.
- Shostakovich Symphony #2, “October”
Experimental, random, chaotic, but ultimately triumphant.
- Mahler Symphony #1
All-encompassing journey to a primordial alien world, marred by the presence of an insipid children’s song.
- Glass Symphony #9
This is what happens when Glass tries to sound more like Sibelius or Bruckner.
- Bax Symphony #6
This muscular symphony could be the soundtrack to Conan the Barbarian.
- Brian Symphony #1, “Gothic”
Gargantuan, beautiful, and over-long.
- Mahler Symphony #8
Mahler tries to make his own “Beethoven’s 9th” but dispenses with the foreplay.
- Bruckner Symphony #3, “Wagner Symphony”
The first fully mature Bruckner symphony…serious and masculine.
- Dvorak Symphony #8
Happy and mature…a hike for grown-ups.
- Tchaikovsky Symphony #4
“A sleigh ride through Siberia”, and proof that Tchaikovsky just kept getting better.
- Mozart Symphony #39
Underrated Mozart symphony that matches the heft and polish of the more famous last two (#40 and #41).
- Prokofiev Symphony #7
Melancholy and percussive, and proof that Prokofiev wrote more than just the “Classical” symphony and Romeo and Juliet.
- Shostakovich Symphony #12, “The Year 1917”
Some call it a film score looking for a movie, but it sounds good to me.
- Sibelius Symphony #1
The first sign that Sibelius is The Chosen One.
- Mendelssohn Symphony #4, “Italian”
It’s like crème brulee that’s been sitting out for an hour or so.
- Glass Symphony #3
The best symphony by Philip Glass.
- Haydn Symphony #88
This takes refinement to a whole new level.
- Vaughn Williams Symphony #8
Great and otherworldly, but the ending has me thinking of all the Who’s singing down in Whoville.
- Prokofiev Symphony #1, “Classical”
Hey, look Ma, I can write a classical Haydnesque symphony in the 20th century!
- Vaughn Williams Symphony #5
Pastoral and Faux-Sibelius, with Hobbits.
- Vaughn Williams Symphony #6
Hey, I know, let’s just depress everyone with this “nuclear wasteland” ending.
- Mahler Symphony #6, “Tragic”
It’s got some hammer blows in there somewhere?
- Mahler Symphony #5
A sublime Adagietto padded by an hour of epic Mahlerian mush.
- Sibelius Symphony #3
Leaner and more focused, this is a new direction for Sibelius.
- Shostakovich Symphony #10
Tense and colorful and oppressive, like a Soviet propaganda poster brought to life.
- Mahler Symphony #7
Strange, bleak, demonic, and then…triumphant?
- Mozart Symphony #35, “Haffner”
Mozart tries something a little…bigger.
- Hovhaness Symphony #63, “Loon Lake”
I have no idea where Loon Lake is, but I want to go there now.
- Haydn Symphony #82, “The Bear”
My favorite lesser-known Haydn symphony.
- Bruckner Symphony #6
Like Bruckner’s 5th on Xanax.
- Bruckner Symphony #4, “Romantic”
The age of chivalry made into music.
- Shostakovich Symphony #9
Goofy, sinister, vigorous, and off-putting.
- Tchaikovsky Symphony #5
Despair gives way to triumph.
- Schubert Symphony #5
You could call this “Mozart’s 42nd”.
- Schubert Symphony #8, “Unfinished”
Pristine, flawless, menacing…then peaceful.
- Shostakovich Symphony #1
A stroll through a museum of artworks by mental patients.
- Haydn Symphony #26, “Lamentatione”
Why didn’t Haydn write more symphonies in a minor key?
- Hovhaness Symphony #22, “City of Light”
Harmonious and magisterial.
- Mozart Symphony #38, “Prague”
The first Mozart symphony with real gravitas.
- Bruckner Symphony #7
Great Adagio, even if Hitler liked it, too.
- Sibelius Symphony #6
It’s like waking up to a foggy dawn in the Smokies, to discover autumn’s first frost.
- Beethoven Symphony #4
The most underrated Beethoven symphony.
- Tchaikovsky, Manfred Symphony
This is so good, how come no one has ever heard of it?
- Nielsen Symphony #4, “The Inextinguishable”
Eclectic, disturbing, psychological, with a timpani battle!
- Khachaturian Symphony #3
“Raw and strident” …it’s a single movement, dominated by an organ and 15 (!) trumpets.
- Shostakovich Symphony #8
Like a vacation in East Germany.
- Schubert Symphony #3
I challenge you not to like this.
- Mahler Symphony #10
Ah, what might have been…
- Bizet, Symphony in C
Here’s a teenager putting the rest of us oldsters to shame.
- Nielsen Symphony #5
Nielsen tops his 4th with an even more war-like symphony.
- Rachmaninoff Symphony #2
A harmonic mosaic that somehow conveys poignancy, joy, and sadness at the same time.
- Dvorak Symphony #7
My favorite Dvorak symphony other than the 9th…I wish I knew why.
- Ives Symphony #4
It’s like a church service with goblins besieging the place.
- Haydn Symphony #49, “La Passione”
Haydn + minor key = good.
- Mozart Symphony #40
Mozart + minor key = good.
- Górecki Symphony #3, “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs”
Threadbare songs of infinite sadness.
- Tchaikovsky Symphony #6, “Pathetique”
Tchaikovsky’s best; there’s just so much going on here.
- Haydn Symphony #39
Strum und Drang…must I say this was in a minor key?
- Strauss, Also Sprach Zarathustra
OK, maybe this isn’t a symphony, but holy shit….please, please, listen to more than just the cliched opening two minutes!
- Mahler Symphony #9
Funny, how much of the best Mahler is the Mahler that sounds most like Bruckner.
- Franck, Symphony in D minor
A French organist tries his hand at symphonic writing, and scores a home run.
- Mozart Symphony #29
Maybe the best opening movement of any Classical symphony.
- Mahler Symphony #2, “Resurrection”
- Beethoven Symphony #5
Skip the first movement if you want to hear this with fresh ears.
- Mozart Symphony #25
Agitated, syncopated, minor key…are we sure this was written in 1773?
- Shostakovich Symphony #7, “Leningrad”
Trump’s ascent made into music: the banality of evil.
- Shostakovich Symphony #11, “The Year 1905”
Highly visual and emotional tour-de-force.
- Dvorak Symphony #9, “From the New World”
Maybe the catchiest symphony of all time.
- D’Indy, Symphony on a French Mountain Air
Like a picnic in the Alps, in springtime.
- Brahms Symphony #1
Some call it “Beethoven’s 10th” and that’s not far off the mark.
- Brahms Symphony #4
Better than the 1st, by a hair…Brahms proves here that rigid structure and control can still yield immense beauty.
- Saint-Saëns Symphony #3, “Organ Symphony”
The organ’s entry in the finale is spectacular…and is that a fugue?
- Bruckner Symphony #8
Apocalyptic in every sense of the word.
- Berlioz, Symphonie Fantastique
A fever dream: Downton Abbey on ecstasy, with some Satanism thrown in for good measure.
- Beethoven Symphony #7
- Mozart Symphony #41, “Jupiter”
Sounds simple, but if you look at the 4th movement along with the score, your mind will be blown by how complicated the fugue is!
- Bruckner Symphony #5
So Bruckner…so complex.
- Walton Symphony #1
The fragmented motifs, the iron-clad logic…every single movement makes me smile.
- Schubert Symphony #9, “The Great”
If this music doesn’t make you feel anything, you might want to check your pulse.
- Hovhaness Symphony #2, “Mysterious Mountain”
Subterranean caverns, glistening stalactites, corners with cobwebs, and sunlight glinting off giant broken geodes.
- Sibelius Symphony #4
Music that stares back at you, with a gaze “blank and pitiless as the sun”.
- Hovhaness Symphony #50, “Mt. St. Helens”
Mysterious Mountain on steroids, complete with a volcanic eruption unlike anything ever portrayed in symphonic form.
- Shostakovich Symphony #5
Even though it predates World War II, this is an invasion by Nazis, turned into music.
- Bruckner Symphony #9
Unrequited longing…unresolved harmonies…and then it—
- Sibelius Symphony #2
Has the greatest musical orgasm ever written.
- Beethoven Symphony #9
Encompasses all of human experience.
- Sibelius Symphony #5
The best symphony ever written.
- Sibelius Symphony #7
The best symphony ever written [stet].
[Note: after having written all this, I realize there are some good ones I’ve forgotten: Strauss’ Alpine Symphony, Vaughn Williams’ Sea Symphony, Rimsky Korsakov’s Scheherazade, Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals. I could probably justify not calling any of these symphonies per se (even the Sea Symphony sounds more like a cantata to me) but I’ll instead just call these honorable mentions. Having said that, they’re all very good, and if I wanted to spend another hour or so they’d bump Bruckner’s Symphony #1, Schumann’s Symphony #4, Beethoven’s Symphony #6, and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony #1 out of the top 100.]
[Note added 2-20-17: Since writing this piece I’ve been listening to symphonies I wasn’t familiar with before. Of these, I’ve really enjoyed Vaughn Williams’ 2nd and 3rd symphonies. The former (“London”) is notable for having the Phantom of the Opera theme embedded in it, 72 years before its time. The latter (“Pastoral”) is also good.]