Sunday, April 15, 2018

The Best Symphonies

For whatever reason, I decided to answer a Quora question on my ten favorite symphonies. The answer of course turned out to be rather different and much more extensive than I had anticipated. I expect I'll feel the need to tinker endlessly with this. For whatever reason, no Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Franck, or Dvorak, but here is the results of what I've done tonight, when I should, of course, be doing something much and very different. I suspect I'll find ways of including the aforementioned composers as I tinker endlessly with this in future months, along with knowing that I didn't get to most more contemporary composers before I got exhausted of this, and therefore need to find things to say for Penderecki, Rautavaara, Aho, Miakovsky, Panufnik, Langgaard, Martinu, Henze, Dutilleux, Hindemith et al.


I recently taught a class on the history of the symphony, and I hold with Mahler that the Symphony should be like the world. It should embrace everything. ‘Symphony’ means ‘harmonious sound’, and symphonic form dictates that two diametrically opposed ideas must be brought together in synthesis. I take from this that the symphony must be a reflection of everything in life: tragedy and comedy, high sublimity and low comedy, beauty and ugliness, creation and destruction, everything that existence is, everything brought together to sound in the context of everything else a kind of cosmically harmonious totality.
So with that in mind, here are, one per composer, one symphony each by the ten composers that I think best demonstrate what a symphony can do. Except for the first two, the rest should not be considered in any official order at all.
1. Mahler 3 Everything that existence is, the very peaks and valleys of creation, is reflected here. This work is everything, in my strong opinion, that a symphony is supposed to be. Every yin in this symphony is balanced by a yang. Except perhaps for ‘long’, no adjective works for it any better than its opposite. Even ‘big’ doesn’t work in a symphony in which there are so many intimate moments. High sublimity stands alongside crude humor, the most beautiful music in the world right next to noise that’s ugly as sin, everything in the universe that creates and everything in the universe that destroys. It’s all here in this symphonic masterwork of masterworks.
2. Beethoven 9 It almost seems profane to not put Beethoven 9 at the top, but wherever it is, it has to be on the list. To me, Beethoven 9 is about the whole of the world and how the angry loneliness of the individual is gradually pacified into realizing that the community matters more than any person. It is for that reason that perhaps it does not get the top spot, because the community can so often exploit the individual, much as Hitler and Stalin did this great work.
3. Ives 4 There is so much here that sounds together, so many popular songs unrecognizably strung together in a mad collage, and yet within that dissonance is pure joy. Yet right after that utterly insane second movement is a slow movement of pure simplicity, followed by a finale that is an emanation from a more sensible dimension than ours, where it’s possible to be both as chaotic as the second movement and harmonious as the third.
4. Sibelius 7 In Mahler, everything of the world is represented in music. In Sibelius, everything is abstracted. Rather than human invention, natural invention - storms and treelight, the birds that fly through the air and the insects that crawl on the ground. Mahler inflates life to include everything within it, Sibelius distills to the essence. A whole symphony grounded into one movement, with the transitions from one movement to the next happening imperceptably. Together, Mahler and Sibelius form the core of the symphonic canon.
5. Berio Sinfonia In the Berio Sinfonia, we hear the stream of consciousness itself. The first movement is philosophical thought rendered in music. In the third movement, we hear a Mahler scherzo that is an improvement upon the original, recording not only the experience of Mahler but the experience of listening to Mahler. The final movement seems to be a commentary upon a commentary upon a commentary on the material that already transpired in an endless recursion.
6. Messiaen Turangalila Messiaen’s Turangalila is a hymn to universal love (or perhaps the universe of love) in which the universe itself seems to be incorporated into the texture. This is love in the sense of eros, in which the exuberance and awful immediacy seems to incinerate everything within its path, and within its path, Messiaen seems to incorporate literally everything.
7. Haydn 104 I think the original symphonist laid his symphonic pen down at 104 because he arrived at the summit of what his orchestral art was capable of doing. Haydn always incorporated darkness and played with it against his fundamentally sunny works, but 104 is the perfect fusion of light and darkness. After 104, it was left to fundamentally darker-minded creators to go to battlefields where light could triumph over darkness.
8. Nielsen 4 “Inextinguishable” “Music is life, and is therefore inextinguishable” This is the message of Nielsen 4, and it is a statement about the elemental life force, the will-to-life, that animates us and lets us keep going under the most adverse of circumstances, circumstances like the world in 1916 when Nielsen wrote it. It is, in all kinds of ways, a successor symphony to Beethoven’s Eroica, but it is in a musical language all its own.
9. Tchaikovsky 6 “Pathetique” The obverse side to Nielsen’s Inextinguishable is Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique. Whether or not Tchaikovsky meant it as a suicide note, it’s clearly a symphony about death that begins and ends in the bowels of the low instruments. There are two motifs that occur all throughout the symphony, one goes stepwise up - life, and one goes stepwise down - death. But even if it’s about death, it’s a life-embracing work. The whole reason for going on living is given all throughout this symphony, and even if the struggle against death eventually proves futile, that does not mean it was not in vain.
10. Shostakovich 7 “Leningrad” Like Shostakovich himself, the symphony is still senselessly derided for no reason than Shostakovich was coerced into writing music that the West found unfashionable. And yet here Shostakovich managed to incorporate a universe of life amid a maelstrom of death, with resolution and hope that life may yet go on, even in a world that demands premature death of so many. Shostakovich will be remembered long after his critics, he always has been.
Honorable Mentions:
Vaughan Williams 2 “London” A day in the life of a great city. Not portraying any person in particular but showing how every person is a small atom within a great multi-dimensional organism much to large to have logic that yields to human explanation. To this day, RVW is horribly misunderstood as a reactionary with a backward musical language, when in fact, he was an English Bartok who collected the folk music of his country and assimilated it into something truly bizarre and modern.
Bruckner 5 Bruckner 5 is the symphony that picks up where Beethoven left off - a clear homage not just to the great ‘9th’ but also to Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata, in which every conceivable musical building block is assembled over a period of 80 minutes (mercifully 70 in the linked performance…), until the music arrive at a climax that is truly, absolutely, earned, because its seeds have been planted all throughout the work to finally come to fruition.
Schnittke 1 The musical giant of the second half of the twentieth century, a genius who gulped whole every musical style and form into his completely unique musical language. The Symphony no. 1 was a musical event that Soviet officials reacted to as though a bomb had gone off in the theater. Musicians leave the stage and re-enter, jazz improvisations abound, musicians are told to improvise themselves in chaos. It was Soviet music’s long-delayed declaration of independence.
Bernstein 2 “Age of Anxiety” I think this is Bernstein’s greatest classical work. Lenny created a symphony here that was a real statement about the discordant ways of modern life. Like Bernstein himself, it branches in all directions, never discovering what it truly wants to be, but it shows just what a genius he was that he could write what’s, at least for me, the greatest American symphony of his generation in spite of the fact that he composed so much less than ‘real’ composers.
Scriabin 4 “Poem of Ecstasy” Scriabin’s philosophy drove him insane, but it did result in him some truly great symphonic music - certainly more symphonic than the symphonies of Rachmaninov, which, for all Rachmaninov’s great qualities, push so few boundaries of what is possible in a symphony that they have to be considered more imitations of symphonies than the real thing. The problem with calling Scriabin a symphonist is that much of what he did, particularly in this symphony, was completely unbound by considerations of symphonic form. He did, however, feel the metaphysical spirit of the symphony very intensely, and never moreso than here. Much more than Bruckner, Scriabin translated the crazed, fanatical psychology of the self and its archetypes that made Wagner Wagner into symphonic music.
Szymanowski 3 “Song of the Night” The extremely Scriabin-influenced Song of the Night is another metaphysical statement of psychological archetypes in which the soul soars through a journey of the unconscious. With a text by the medieval Persian poet Hafiz, this is no trite orientalism, the poems are treated with metaphysical depth. Sorabji, a British composer of Iranian extraction, called Szymanowski ‘no mere European in fancy dress.’
Elgar 1 It’s unbelievable to think that this was considered the greatest symphony since Beethoven when it was written, but it is an undeniably, truly major symphony, for all the flaws of its design. A statement of hope in an era and place when hope was omnipresent, and their hopes were soon to be forever dashed upon the seas.
Honegger 3 “Symphonie Liturgique” Honegger 3 is a symphony of horror and its beautiful ending is merely a prayer for the horror to cease with no guarantee that it ever shall. The musical violence is worthy of the most dissonant stuff in Schoenberg or Berg, but juxtaposed with a longing for an ideal world that can only be conjured in the imagination, and never in reality. Both one of the most disturbing, and moving, pieces of music ever put to pen.
Brahms 3 Great though he was, Brahms was not a natural symphonist, he was a man who wrote amazing forms and designs, but his music is scaled to life, and the larger than life statements of the symphony were atypical to his nature. He never came closer to an admonition of it than here, a Beethoven symphony played backwards with the triumph in the front and the agitation in the back. Every time he tries to overcome adversity, he overcomes it by deflecting it, and retreating not into triumph but into peace.
Berlioz Romeo et Juliette The problem with including Berlioz on this list is that he’s not really a symphonist either. He is a creator of Orchestral Theater. I could put the Symphonie Fantastique on the list, and it’s just barely symphonic, but he wrote still greater pieces later. He calls Romeo and Juliette a ‘Symphonie Dramatique’ but there’s not much at all symphonic about it. It only counts as a symphony because it is called a symphony. There isn’t really much that distinguishes it symphonically from a bunch of pieces that come after it which Berlioz doesn’t call a symphony. That doesn’t, however, mean it isn’t a great work that conjures Shakespeare magnificently - almost certainly the greatest work that Berlioz called a symphony, and one that is not played nearly often enough. But I don’t really think it’s a symphony.
Carter Symphony of Three Orchestras Not my favorite work, but Carter is an unavoidable fact of American music. He said that he came to his style after reading Freud and realizing that the neoclassical music he’d written until the 1950’s did not truly express the depth of the human psyche. Monotonously dissonant as Carter can often be, I can’t deny that there is something truly subterranean about his music, as though it comes from the bowels of human consciousness - a nightmarish image conjured from a bottle that we can’t stuff back into it.
Lutoslawski Symphony no. 3 Not my favorite Lutoslawski work. But it is the ultimate work of symphonic chance, a new way of playing music in which the orchestra is instructed to play discordantly, simply given a few notes at a time, and told to play in undisciplined hazes. The quality of the performance in many ways depends on the performers, and every performance is somewhat different. It may sound unharmonious to the new listener, but nobody can deny that it’s a new kind of harmonious sound.
Mozart 41 “Jupiter” Great as a few of his symphonies are, the center of Mozart’s achievement is not to be found in the symphonies. Mozart was a great soloist, and thought like a concerto writer who writes a melody first and then writes accompaniment. But in the finale of the Jupiter, Mozart rose his contrapuntal art to its zenith, and in a very old sense of the term, the ultimate harmony of sound.
Prokofiev 5 Prokofiev was like Mozart in the sense that he thought more like a writer of concertos than symphonies. But in Prokofiev’s ‘Symphony about the Spirit of Man’ he created a larger-than-life statement of almost mechanical music that was about less the spirit of man than the community of man, and did not necessarily say the most flattering things about humanity. If you listen to the last sixty seconds, it’s as though Prokofiev pulls the curtain behind his heroism, and you realize the mechanical cogs that go into making something so larger than life. Like Chaplin’s Modern Times, the irony and comedy is a euphemistic way of showing how so many people can be crushed in societies wheels.
Stravinsky Symphony of Psalms Stravinsky was not a symphonist, he was a composer of ancient rituals who found a natural home in ballet and dabbled in other genres. The Symphony of Psalms is not symphonic by too many definitions, but the sounds are most certainly harmonious.
The more I put in, the more I feel like I’ve left out, so I should probably stop here…


  1. This is an interesting list of musical extremes; more expository than evaluative. Most of your observations about Brahms, while describing his 3rd, are fully negated when you consider his 4th. "Natural" or not, what makes both Brahms 3rd and 4th so great is that he successfully brings to life, on a grand scale, those very personal perceptions and mostly dark perspectives he details so well in his chamber and solo piano works. That is to say, even following your fingering of extreme examples as "the greatest" of symphonies, excluding Brahms 4th seems a serious misfire. There is no compromise of this introverted artist's revolutionary insights, which were communicated within generally conventional formal structures. The reason Brahms 4th towers over much of the late Nineteenth Century is precisely that this genius of introspection was able to let it all hang out in the kind of glorious detail only available with symphonic forces, of which he was a supreme master.

    1. I think you're taking this list rather too seriously. I love Brahms 4 dearly, but I don't see Brahms 3 or 4 as symphonies so much as works for expanded chamber ensemble. Brahms 4 particularly is not a work of harmonious sound but of profound discord. I love Brahms perhaps over all other composers, but to say that any work of his towers over an entire epoch is to severely underestimate some of the greatest composers who ever lived. Brahms's natural symphonic metier was to scale down, not up, to embrace smaller notions and comforts, his worldview was too pessimistic for the kind of symphonic affirmation one gets from Beethoven, or Mahler at his most affirmative. It is certainly great, all four symphonies are, but except for the first, the other three are, in one way or another, symphonic evasions, not affirmations, while Brahms 1 is almost deliberately a tortuous, reluctant continuation of Beethovenian mode.

  2. I'm in wholehearted agreement with about 60% of your choices here, Evan. No more than that, though, you'll doubtless be relieved to hear - it would be extremely dull of me otherwise...

    1. Many thanks Chris. Always nice to know there's at least one devoted reader out there :).