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Laurie Niles weekend vote: Who is your favorite composer of symphonies?

June 19, 2010 at 4:11 PM

 I was listening to the radio today when Robert Schumann's third symphony came on.

"Ahhh," I thought. "The Rhenish Symphony. Schumann is my favorite composer of symphonies…" I thought about how Schumann related to Brahms, personally and musically. You really do hear it in the music. Yes, sometimes it sounds like Brahms.

Brahms, who is my favorite composer of symphonies. Who can resist the fourth symphony? And the first symphony of Brahms, written when he was 42! Nice that life begins at 42, since I'm 42. He only wrote four, not nine, like Beethoven.

Beethoven, who has to be my favorite symphony composer. That slow movement of the seventh symphony gets me every time, the way it starts, like a heartbeat. And the ninth symphony -- that he composed his Ode To Joy as a deaf man! Nine symphonies, who wrote more? Oh yes, Mahler. Talk about symphonies.

Mahler is the man, what more can we do with a symphony? From the frolicking first symphony, and that awesome scordatura stuff in the fourth, to the slow-drip death, is that at the end of the ninth or the tenth?

That ending makes me things of colder things, like Sibelius, who wrote my favorite symphony, his first Symphony. I love it. He wrote Finlandia, too, what a picture he paints of a country.

But then there is the symphony about my country, Dvorak's New World Symphony? It speaks to me, as an American. I truly think he captured it well. In fact, it's my favorite symphony.

Besides Prokofiev's Symphony No. 5, which is astounding and which I would drop anything and everything to play again. If you liked that check out the hugeness of this movement) And speaking of Symphony No. 5's, how about Shostakovich's?

This list is not exactly complete, as quite a lot of composers have written symphonies!





From Royce Faina
Posted on June 19, 2010 at 4:43 PM

I love what is on the list.  But I have to vote for Bella Bartók.  When I listen to his works, not only are they timelessly fresh for me but I catch sparks of the past composers as well as glimpse into what would come after him!

From elise stanley
Posted on June 19, 2010 at 5:28 PM

Couldn't believe myself - I voted for Mozart.  I've always loved Beethoven - but of late I'm finding his symphonies too 'accessible'.  Curious because I am just discovering his violin sonatas which are anything but.... Perhaps its because I'm just working on some Mozart right now...

From Dale Forguson
Posted on June 19, 2010 at 5:38 PM

I didn't vote for him but it would be hard to leave Rachmaninov #2 off my list of favorites.

From carlos majlis
Posted on June 19, 2010 at 5:53 PM







From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on June 19, 2010 at 6:49 PM

Lalo... Spanish Symphony ; )

From Kevin Robinson
Posted on June 19, 2010 at 6:51 PM

? Wait!!!!!!!!! Wait!!!!!! I got hung up on the "42" .. I thought you were 22!!! My bad! ?

? Anyway, my favorite would have to be Smetana for one movement of one work: the Moldau!


From Tobias Seyb
Posted on June 19, 2010 at 7:01 PM

Of course there are Beethoven, Brahms and Schumann,  but is it true nobody mentioned Anton Bruckner?

No matter if you count nine symphonies or one in nine versions, like someone once said, but I think he should be among the first few names when talking about this genre.

And Mendelssohn.

From Corwin Slack
Posted on June 19, 2010 at 8:30 PM

 Too hard to say who the favorite is but one of them should be excised from every list forever.

From Josh Thomas
Posted on June 19, 2010 at 8:29 PM

If the question had been, "Who is the greatest composer of symphonies?" I would have said Beethoven. He mastered the symphonic form. He created the large-scale symphonies that we have today. His Ninth is, in some people's opinions, the greatest piece of music ever written.

However, that was not the question, so I voted for Dvorak. "From the New World" is my favorite symphony by far (my favorite movements are 2 and 4). I also love the Eigth in G Major. The melodies, the instrumentation... it's great!

From Jim Hastings
Posted on June 19, 2010 at 9:19 PM

I didn't cast a vote, because I don't have a favorite composer; I like different composers for different reasons. Each writer on the list, except for Mahler and Shostakovich, has a particular symphony that reminds me of a time and place in my early childhood.

Point of information about Brahms: He was, in fact,  43 1/2 when his First Symphony had its premiere in 1876 -- although, according to the history I've read, he actually began writing it many years before then, with the first sketches dating back to the 1850s. The composer's uneasiness about following Beethoven as a symphony-writer and his painstaking methods of revision and fine-tuning were major factors in the long time-span.

From Manuel Tabora
Posted on June 19, 2010 at 10:43 PM

It's hard to say, because Brahms is probably my favorite composer in general. But then there is Shostakovich's 5th, when I play that piece I feel like the music is playing me and not the other way around. It's a strange and almost overwhelming feeling that I have not experienced yet from other symphonies. Almost oppressive.

I am curious about Hovhaness. He has been one of the most prolific composer of symphonies in more modern times (I believe he wrote close to 70), yet I have never heard one performed live. It's really beautiful music!

From stephen kelley
Posted on June 19, 2010 at 11:26 PM

My favorite symphony is the Brahms 4th. Leonard Bernstein devoted an entire chapter to its first movement in his 2nd volume to "The Joy of Music". To me, Benstein's Vienna recording is equal to Kleiber or Giulini.

I also like the Nielsen 4th (Markevitch), Schubert 2nd (Steinberg/with Milstein Glazunov), Mahler 4th (Dohnanyi), Beethoven 6th (Bernstein), Bruckner 9th (Jochum), Shostakovich 14nth, Scriabin Poem of Ectsasy, and the Mozart "Prague" (Kubelic/Chicago).

From Lisa Van Sickle
Posted on June 20, 2010 at 12:20 AM

The way the question is worded, I voted for Brahms.  I'm not sure that any one of his symphonies would rate as my absolute favorite, but the four of them taken together are incomparable.  At the risk of starting a fight, I'd say there's more in the four Brahms symphonies than in all 41 of Mozart's put together.

From Stephen Mayhew
Posted on June 20, 2010 at 1:23 AM

 That's not fair, Laurie! You got to pick them all as your favorite symphonies, and we only get to pick one! I chose Sibelius because that was the one I listened to most recently.

From Laurie Niles
Posted on June 20, 2010 at 2:23 AM

 I forgot Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky! How could I?!

From Josh Thomas
Posted on June 20, 2010 at 2:38 AM

Oh! Tchaikovsky's Sixth is wonderful! So unique... every movement has something different about it. The first blossoms from nothing, fades back down, only to be interrupted by the fortissimo. Then it dissolves back down to nothing. The second is so interesting in its lilting, stuttering 5/4 waltz. The third is great with the march theme and the quick triplets. And the slow fourth is such an amazing finale. The whole symphony just works so well.

Not quite the New World, but ah well.

From Ronald Mutchnik
Posted on June 20, 2010 at 4:30 AM

I voted for Beethoven though at any given moment the  composer of the symphony I might be performing or listening to will seem like my favorite- the symphonies of the great masters of the 18th, 19th, and 20th century are  a great treasure but just to add another name into the ring who should not be overlooked though his violin concerto is  probably his best known and most frequently performed work, would be Glazunov-in particular, the fourth symphony-such a tuneful, lyrical work that deserves more than a passing hearing. You can sample some of it here:


and for more information and a review you might check out:

And while I am thinking of Russian symphonies there is the highly original Borodin Symphony no. 2 ( how many pieces of music do you know have time signatures of 1/1), in particular the refreshing rhythms and harmonies and orchestration of the scherzo and the last movement and the haunting melody of the slow movement.

From Christopher McGovern
Posted on June 20, 2010 at 7:41 AM

That is a very tough call! You KNOW those guys all wrote absolute classics!

I had to vote for the last option because you left out Tchaikovsky. Nearly every one of his Symphonies (Particularly the 2nd, the 4th, the 6th, and the unnumbered Manfred) are exciting pieces!

I still don't know who my favorite is, though. Beethoven was the one that set the gold standard for more extended programs (not to mention he added vocals; Mahler and several others picked up on that).

Liszt wrote some great Symphonic music, besides writing the Faust and the Dante Symphonies he started the concept of Tone Poems.

From Alison Daurio
Posted on June 20, 2010 at 2:19 PM

I voted for Mahler. I remember playing his first symphony with my orchestra a year or two back. Was the first time I actually almost cried WHILE playing :)

From Marijke Welch
Posted on June 21, 2010 at 12:32 AM

 It'd be hard for me NOT to put Shostakovich, so I did. I love researching his music, it's so detailed, satirical, etc. I know not all of it is ''accessible'' but I really enjoy it. Playing it is fun too. Smokin' viola parts. If I could vote twice, I guess I'd put out Mahler too. He's such fun to play, and so deep. Shostakovich influencer also, oops. :P

From David Beck
Posted on June 21, 2010 at 6:51 AM

There's every reason to think that If I had met Beethoven I would not have liked him much. I might have HATED some of the others, one-to-one. But I DO have a personal friend who has composed over 50 Symphonies - Derek Bourgeois.

As a Symphony player, Symphonists were the folk I loved to hate, especially Bruckner, with all those vast tracts of arm-numbing tremolandi.

From Jeff Terflinger
Posted on June 21, 2010 at 10:48 PM

All of the ones listed above, but also Franz Schurbet's.  I just love the Symphony # 9.

From Ashley T.
Posted on June 23, 2010 at 8:26 PM

Hey Laurie thanks for the question!  I haven't even realised before that so many of my favorite composers have never even attempted a symphony in their lives!!

Beethoven will always be remembered as the granddaddy of the symphonic form; Mozart would go down in history as the master of the symphonic form; and how much I love the thick, frothy chords in Brahm's symphonies...  But my vote adamantly goes to Tschaikovsky, despite his perfunctory respect of forms.  Sure his "killer melodies" are very persuasive, but what won me over are:

(1) how much of his personal life has been written into his music [try symphony #4] - I love music that coerces you to empathize with the "state of mind" of the composer.

(2) his acute sense of tone coloring [even Mozart - arguably the composer with the most acute ears for tone coloring - has not played as much with the woodwind section - let alone the brass - in his 41 symphonies].

Smetana's Ma Vlast came pretty close, but has been eliminated for form: ma vlast is a "symphonic poem", as the composer aptly put it.  Gosh, how much I wish I could ever write music like that for my own country...

The closest contender was Mahler.  But Tschaikov speaks much closer to my heart - there goes my vote!

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