January 2015

Choosing Nine Symphonies

January 8, 2015 10:54

Yesterday I posted CK Dexter Haven‘s nerdy symphony challenge on Facebook. I wasn’t going to share my list publicly because my tastes feel so prosaic they didn’t seem worth writing about. (Plus, I know a lot more violin repertoire than I do symphonies.) But then fellow local blogger Scott Chamberlain called me out in this entry and gah; hey, look what I wrote last night!

If there ever was a time and place on the Internet for orch dorks to completely out-nerd each other, here it is: your chance to show off your music knowledge feathers like a displaying wild turkey.

The rules as stated by CK Dexter Haven:

If you had to pick nine symphonies — no more, no less — by different composers to include as part of a proverbial desert island survival kit, what would they be? I asked myself this question just for grins over the recent Christmas & New Year’s break…

You can only pick one symphony per composer

You must choose numbered symphonies 1 through 9 only. No Symphonie fantastique, Symphony of Psalms, Symphonic Dances, etc.

Once you choose a numbered symphony, you cannot choose another similarly numbered symphony by a different composer (i.e. no choosing both Beethoven’s 7th and Sibelius 7th).

So yeah. Here are my picks. What are yours? You don’t need to explain why, unless you want to. Just throw a list in the comments.


Symphony #1, 1935

William Walton, guys. Why don’t we talk about him more? The violin concerto seems to be – ssslowly – gaining the prominence it deserves, but a lot of Walton’s stuff still flies under the radar. When Walton composed his first symphony, he’d just broken up with his girlfriend and it, um, shows. I swear you can hear an angry heart beating throughout the first movement. There’s a lot of volume to this music – it’s loud – but somehow it never feels bombastic. It grabs you by the collar and won’t let go...whether you like it or not.

Symphony #2, 1877

Johannes Brahms. I’m pretty sure that in my previous incarnation, I was a buttoned-up Brahmsian in the War of the Romantics. (I probably also spent my spare time throwing roses at Clara Schumann’s feet.) This symphony is bittersweet nostalgia on demand. It hurts so good; it just takes your breath away. And it’s not only working on an emotional level. Brahms 2 is also a miracle of craftsmanship, a mighty masterpiece built out of a tiny rocking half-step back and forth. How did he do that? What the heck, Johannes? The Minnesota Orchestra Musicians’ performance of Brahms 2 was the first live one I heard. It came at a time in my life when I thought everything I loved, musically speaking, was slipping away – and there’s no hyperbole in that. This symphony was the perfect piece to help me through that time, and that’s probably why it’s on this list.

Symphony #3, 1847

Louise Farrenc. There ought to be a woman in this entry, since – News Flash! – women have written symphonic music, too. Shocking, I know. Which brings us to the third symphony of Louise Farrenc, the only work by a woman that the Guardian included in their Symphony Guide. This is a really fabulous example of a symphony from a time and place we don’t hear too much from: 1840s France. I hear tinges here of Beethoven, Mozart, Schumann, Mendelssohn... It’s quite wonderful. Tom Service actually writes that the scherzo “out-Mendelssohns Mendelssohn,” and I’d have to agree. It’s a work of elegant drama – corseted passion – and the Minnesota Orchestra would play the heck out of it. Too bad we probably won’t hear it from them: performances of Farrenc 3 are nearly non-existent, and the Guardian article claims there are only two recordings, which, depressingly, sounds about right. We’ve got to push this one into the repertoire somehow.

Symphony #4, 1877-1878

Pyotr Tchaikovsky. I prefer the fifth to the fourth, but there’s a complicating factor here in that Sibelius 5 is one of the greatest pieces of music ever written. And it felt weird not having Tchaikovsky on the list at all, so... As every music lover nerdy enough to complete this challenge knows, Tchaikovsky dedicated his fourth symphony to his best friend, the patroness Nadezhda von Meck, and I like to think about their intense emotional intimacy as I listen. There’s Shakespearean tragedy in the first movement, Russian melancholy in the second, wild callous-causing pizzes in the third, and the finale is all bashy clangy triumph.

All that being said, if I knew Mendelssohn 4 a hair better than I do, it would probably take this spot.

Symphony #5, 1915

Jean Sibelius. Back when the Minnesota Orchestra was recording Sibelius 2 & 5, violist Sam Bergman wrote a really lovely blog entry about why he thinks Sibelius 5 is the greatest piece of music ever written. Although the original vanished during the lockout purge, a bit of Internet Archive digging revealed an extant copy, so that was interesting to revisit. Back in the halcyon days of 2011 I was a bit skeptical about Sam’s opinion...until I heard Osmo Vänskä interpret the fifth...until I experienced the drama of the lockout...and then gradually my respect blossomed into deep love. Osmo’s Sibelius has a life and vibrancy that other conductors’ don’t. Everything sounds so relevant and modern and clear: the windy woodwinds of the opening; the impossibly quiet skitters of the third movement; the very end, with its exclamation marks of silence. In Osmo’s hands, those notes feel like the very end of creation itself. If the Minnesota Orchestra ever gets to perform a Vänskä Sibelius cycle at Carnegie, as they were going to do before the lockout ground those plans to a halt, it will be a seminal event in the New York season. I don’t care I’m a country bumpkin; on this one, I’m right.

This symphony turns a hundred in December – plus we’re in a Sibelius anniversary year – and I’m hoping I get to hear at least one performance of it in 2015.

Symphony #6, 1906

Gustav Mahler. I wrote an essay describing the sixth here. Three years later, I still feel exactly the same about it: I don’t even know if I like this piece. But it feels like the biggest sixth to me. So there it is.

Symphony #7, 1811-1812

Ludwig van Beethoven. The best symphony. (It was also, coincidentally, on the first concert I ever got a paycheck for playing.) I love when the first page, with all its super-exposed (maybe even fussy...?) scales, drifts into an exuberant dance. The second movement is ethereal; I think everyone who hears it has to stop whatever they’re doing to say, what is that? The galloping third movement seems to be a prequel hinting at something explosive...but what? WELL, THE FOURTH MOVEMENT, THAT’S WHAT. As a musician, I haven’t had a much more fulfilling moment than scrubbing away while the churning bass line seesaws away below. The exhilaration of this piece played well live is just exhausting! Keep your Third, your Fifth, your Sixth, even your Ninth. Beethoven Seven is where it’s at.

Symphony #8, 1822

Franz Schubert “Unfinished.” I dunno. It’s gorgeous. It’s dramatic. Its themes stick with you forever, even after just a single listen. It has a gripping musicological mystery behind it. It’s by a twenty-five-year-old, and twenty-five-year-olds are uniquely brilliant and charming. Also, I, um, don’t know a lot of eighths. I was feeling a bit unoriginal about this choice until I saw it’s Alex Ross’s favorite eighth, too, so, you know. So there.

Symphony #9, 1893

I’m ending on a painfully obvious choice: Antonin Dvorák's Ninth. Whatever; my heart is old-fashioned, and I (hopefully) have many years left to learn and love other ninths. But right now I love the emotions of the New World...the intimate grandeur of it, and how does that phrase make any sense? But it does, if you know this piece. The slow movement has to be one of the most beautiful ten minutes in music, immediately accessible to every listener. This piece was even sent to the moon, for crap’s sake. But I think Dvorák is underestimated...in a way. I feel like most people think of him as a bit of a guilty pleasure? At least in my experience, he tends to not be a favorite people are proud are having? Well, you’re always welcome in my heart and home, Antonin!


And now I’ll throw it over to you in the comment section! Using the rules of the game, what are your favorite nine? People are chatting about it under the hashtag #choosing9symphonies, so feel free to Tweet away, too!


This entry was edited and re-posted from my blog, Song of the Lark.

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