Nine Symphonies

Earlier today 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 Scott Chamberlain called me out in this entry and gah; hey, look what I wrote this evening.

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. (Buy Minnesota Orchestra tickets to some January Walton here.) 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 hell, 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 hell 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, 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 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 so 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 Dvorak’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 Dvorak 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?



Filed under The Orchestra Business

30 responses to “Nine Symphonies

  1. OK, here is my tentative list:
    Symphony # 1: Vasily Kalinnikov
    Symphony # 2: Johannes Brahms
    Symphony # 3: Gustav Mahler
    Symphony # 4: Dimitri Shostakovich
    Symphony # 5: Jean Sibelius
    Symphony # 6: R. Vaughan Williams
    Symphony # 7: Krzystof Penderecki
    Symphony # 8: Karl Amadeus Hartmann
    Symphony # 9: Anton Bruckner

    Lisa Renee Ragsdale: (hasn’t composed any symphonies (yet).

    • Stuard Young


      Great list! The Kalinnikov 1st should be performed way more often. Had the composer lived to be as old (young?) as Schubert, he would have been a giant of Russian music. I did not recognize it as such when I heard the American premiere (Ormandy/Philadelphia), but I am now convinced that Symphony 4 of Shostakovich is his greatest work in that genre. Vaughan Williams Symphony 6 is another haunting piece deserving a more conspicuous place in US concert halls. I don’t know the Penderecki 7th, but I like his 3rd, so I will explore that. Thanks for the tip. Have not heard the Hartmann in years, so it is time for a revisit. Anyone interested in Bruckner 9 should read about and listen to the reconstructed 4th movement (Rattle/Berlin Phil). Anton was heading where no man had gone before.

    • Stuard Young

      Yes. Another fine list. Has a more noble slow movement been written than that of VW’s Fifth? And Rautavaara’s Angel of Light”….gorgeous music, as are his other pieces in his Angels series.

  2. Robert Willoughby Jones

    THANK YOU for introducing me to Louise Farrenc! I’m 68 and had not heard of her before. My loss!

  3. Stuard Young

    For a musician claiming not to know that many symphonies, Emily’s list starts off with a daring display of musical insight by presenting Walton’s Symphony #1. The first movement is one of the greatest symphonic movements composed in the 20th century. That the rest of the symphony does not quite reach the same level of inspiration does not make this symphony as a whole any less an important piece of music, one which should be more standard repertoire than it is. Emily continues to undermine her self-deprecating label by offering Sumphony #3 by Louise Ferrenc. How many musicians of any age and experience have heard anything by this composer? After calling the 5th Symphony of Sibelius one of the greatest pieces of music ever written, she has established that she has one of the most insightful musical minds of her generation; one with a maturity that belies her age! Thank you, Emily, for all you have contributed to the cause!

  4. Stuard Young

    Balakirev 1
    Borodin 2
    Prokofieff 3
    Taneyev 4
    Glazounov 5 (his best)
    Tchaikovsky 6
    Shostakovich 7
    Weinberg 8 (OK. He was Polish, but he lived in Russia)
    Myaskovsky 9

    • Haha, wow. I love it. Your music knowledge feathers are on full display!!

    • Lisa Renee Ragsdale

      Two big mistakes (IMHO) here: Shosty’s # 7 is by far and away one of his worst symphonies (but better than 2 & 3), ,And the only two Symphonies Prokofiev wrote that are any good are #’s 5 & 6. I am not familiar with the Glazunov as I have not heard but a few of his symphonies. Left out Gliere, and several other Russian composers who are unknown outside of Russia.

  5. Stuard Young

    Thank you. I have more. I don’t want to clog your blog, but I would love to share.

  6. Way up there, Stuard Young mentioned …” had Kalinnikov lived to be as old (young) as Schubert”……
    I checked Kalinnikov’s dates (1866-1901) and it turned out he lived longer than Schubert but only the same age as Mozart when he passed away.

    • Stuard Young

      I stand corrected. I have not looked up Kalinnikov’s dates for some time, and was carrying in my head that he died in his twenties. Still way too young a demise for a wonderful Russian melodists. Thank you.

      • The only reason I questioned it was because I too thought he was in his late twenties but remembered seeing in the that he died shortly before or after his birth date. Then I went back to look at the years of birth and death and thought “wait a minute here, just how old was he?” Did the math and found he lived the same number of years as Mozart!

  7. Stuard Young

    (Fab Finns, Swell Swedes, an Esteemed Estonian, and a pair of Great Danes)

    Karl-Birger Blomdahl Sym 1
    (student of Hindemith)
    Carl Nielsen Sym 2 “Four Temperaments
    Franz Berwald Sym 3 “Singuliere”
    Eduard Tubin Sym 4
    Jean Sibelius Sym 5
    Kurt Atterberg Sym 6 “Dollar” (This prize winner was recorded by both Beecham and Toscanini!)
    Einojuhani Rautavaara Sym 7 “Angel of Light” (student of Sibelius)
    Vagn Holmboe Sym 8 “Sinfonia boreale”
    Allan Pettersson Sym 9 (no great recording yet)

  8. Stuard Young


    Symphony #1 Easley Blackwood
    (an outstanding first symphony, recorded by Munch and the Boston SO)
    Symphony #2 Randall Thompson
    (an American Classic-Bernstein)
    Symphony #3 Roy Harris
    Symphony #4 “Requiem” Howard Hanson (Hanson’s masterpiece)
    Symphony #5 “Hydriotaphia” William Alwyn (the most concise and heartfelt symphony by an underrated composer)
    Symphony #6 Walter Piston (a great recording by Slatkin/St. Louis SO)
    Symphony #7 “Sinfonia Antarctica” R. Vaughan Williams (any of his 9 could be on this list)
    Symphony #8 William Schuman (Bernstein again)
    Symphony #9 Malcolm Arnold (any of his 9 could be on this list)

    • My list is pretty awesome. ;) Great list. If I hadn’t put Beethoven where I did, and Sibelius 5 never existed, or I was trying to avoid those two pieces, I absolutely would have put it under the 5 slot!

  9. Pingback: Desert Island Symphonies | Bad Entertainment, A Minneapolis-St. Paul Arts Blog

  10. george jaquith

    Emily, What a pedantic, but very fun post you wrote that originated with the blogger Dexter. I have already shared it with others and will review all the lists in time. Gracias from Mexico.

  11. Odradek

    Just to prove the symphony is still alive as a genre, an all-post 1950 list:

    1: Rochberg
    2: Rouse
    3: Lutoslawski
    4: Sallinen
    5: Arnold
    6: Martinu
    7: Pettersson
    8: Holmboe
    9: Simpson

    • george jaquith

      Could you please explain more about your list of virtually unknown composers? What is the all post 1950 list. I want to understand, but more info please.

    • Lisa Renee Ragsdale

      To the individual with the all 9 Symphonies post 1950 here is my list:
      Hersch, M. 1
      Penderecki 2
      Gorecki 3
      Sallinen 4
      Silvestrov 5
      (instead of a # 6, I have a tie for # 7)
      Rautavaara 7
      Schuman, W. 7
      Schnittke 8
      Simpson 9
      You may notice that I kept two of the previous works. The reason is simple; I researched some of these composers I’ve never heard of and/or listened to some of these works and found the Sallinen and Simpson works to be excellent choices. 2 Americans, 2 Poles, 2 Russians (eh German born but lived in Russian for Schnittke), 2 Fins, and one Englishman.

  12. J Kendrick

    Farrenc 3 is fabulous . Haven’t played it and probably never will. How sad !

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s