Puzzles mixed with classical music?
A special thank you to Los Angeles blogger CK Dexter Haven who came up with an intriguing game of choosing your “Top Nine” symphonies. Sounds simple, but there are a couple of twists.
His three rules:
- Only one symphony per composer
- Only symphonies numbered 1-9. No names either: e.g. Symphonie fantastique, Symphony of Psalms, Symphonic Dances, etc.
- No duplicate numbers. In other words, one Sym #1, one Sym #2, one Sym #3, etc.
Why only nine symphonies? As he explains: “Nine has been a magical number of sorts for symphonies ever since Beethoven wrote that many and stopped.” Of course, with people being superstitious and all, many composers decided that there was a curse of the ninth that would strike down those who dared moved beyond the appointed number.
Many have taken up the challenge, including Brian Lauritzen and Alex Ross; and at the risk of presumption, I’d like to toss my own hat into the ring, too. Hopefully, peer pressure can induce Emily Hogstad over at Song of the Lark to do the same….
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First, an observation. What gives this challenge its Sudoku-like charm is that some of your favorite choices end up blocking others. For example, several of my favorites share the same number. And since you can’t double up on composers, you’re forced to back into a couple of choices, or have second-place finishes break ties. Because I hate to lose some of my choices, I’ll list a few honorable mentions along with my final answer.
But in the end, I think I’ve assembled a list I can live with.
1. Vaughan Williams. This is stretching, but not breaking the rules, in that Vaughan Williams didn’t use numbers on his first three symphonies, but gave them descriptive titles. Only later, under the influence of his publisher, were they demarked by numbers. But, demarked they are… so there. The original title was A Sea Symphony, which gives a sense of the epic breadth of the work. It is a choral symphony, using poems by Walt Whitman, and I absolutely loved performing it with Osmo and the Minnesota Orchestra a few years back. Honorable mentions include Sibelius, Walton, and Kalinnikov.
2. Chávez. I waffled on this one. When my friends and I were first talking about this challenge, I listed Mahler’s Resurrection as my number two. I can still make a good case for it… it was a piece that I performed in a variety of settings over the last year, including a fantastic community group, the Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra, and a student orchestra from the University of Minnesota as part of the grand re-opening of historic Northrop Auditorium. Nothing can compare to the season opening of the Minnesota Orchestra, led by Osmo Vänskä in his triumphant return as Music Director after the lockout. But after thinking it over, I decided to go in a different direction. After all, my blog ties together music and my love of ancient Mexico, and I couldn’t resist the opportunity to include Carlos Chávez’s Symphony No. 2, Sinfonía India. It is a single-movement symphony, that draws primarily on melodies by the Huichol, Yaquis, and Seris people of western Mexico. It is rhythmic and vital, and an absolute joy (especially in contrast to some of the heavier choices on this list). Honorable mentions include Vaughan Williams, Elgar, Nielsen, and Rachmaninoff. Also, I always put on Sibelius Second when we get our first snowfall of the year, and Hovhaness’s Mysterious Mountain is what made me a fan of that composer. Ah well.
3. Mendelssohn. Gah. This is where it starts to get interesting. I absolutely love Vaughan Williams’ Third, and in fact I just heard a fantastic rendition of it with the Philharmonia in England last fall. But Vaughan Williams is spoken for. Mendelssohn to the rescue! I love this musical postcard of Scotland, which is often overshadowed by his Fourth Symphony, Italian. Honorable mentions to a pair of Finnish classics, Madetoja and Rautaavara; and a trio of American greats, Harris, Schuman, and Copland.
4. Nielsen. “The Inextinguishable” is an imminently worthy choice, and one that I find endlessly fascinating. It is epic and exhilarating, offering something for everybody. That said, I am much, much more in love with Sibelius’s Fourth. Sigh. This game is painful. Honorable mentions to Mendelssohn, Bruckner, Puts, Braga Santos and Vaughan Williams.
5. Sibelius. Curiously enough, my choices for five and six could easily be flip-flopped. As it turns out, the Sixth Symphonies of both Sibelius and Tchaikovsky are very, very close to my heart… although for different reasons. I first experienced Tchaikovsky’s as a boy, after the mother of one of my friends died from cancer. Ever since, it has been for me a very personal statement of grief and loss, and I still doubt I can make it through to the end without breaking down. Sibelius’s Sixth, on the other hand, simply hit me. I heard it by accident because it was a filler on a different Sibelius disc… but the bond was instant and profound. Ever since, I’ve felt like it was my symphony. Heck, as I’ve mentioned, I drove 500 miles (each way) to hear Osmo conduct it. So which one gets the nod? Helpfully, both composers’ Fifth Symphonies are also on my shortlist, which was a lifesaver. In the end, I like Sibelius’ Fifth more than Tchaikovsky’s Fifth, which settled how the composers ended up getting placed. Sibelius’s Fifth is wholly original, and its ending is one of the most remarkable things in music. Honorable mentions include Bruckner, Prokofiev, Shostakovitch, Tchaikovsky, and another of my all-time favorite pieces of music, the Vaughan Williams Fifth. (As a point of pride, I played the Vaughan Williams Fifth so often when I was living in Costa Rica that the family I lived with fell in love with it, too. I left them my CD when I moved out.)
6. Tchaikovsky. Well, see above. This work has incredibly deep meaning for me, and I can’t live without it. Honorable mentions include Rautaavara, Beethoven, and Mahler.
7. Rautavaara. Again, my seven and eight composers could easily be flipped. But Rautavaara’s Angel of Light is such a remarkable work that I have to put it here. It also makes a powerful statement that the symphony is hardly dead—great works are still being written, and they are still finding an audience. In fact, this symphony sparked a renewed interest in this composer’s body of work. Luminous, thrilling, and profoundly moving, it has more than earned its popularity. Honorable mentions are many, including Beethoven, Dvořák, Vaughan Williams, Sibelius and Aho.
8. Dvořák. What a great work this is—too often in the shadows of the symphonies that came immediately before and after it. It shows the composer’s gift for writing melodies, here inspired by folk music of Bohemia. But it’s not just a piece of gorgeous music; it is exquisitely well-constructed, too. Man, it’s been a while since I’ve heard it… I may need to fire it up on Google music. Honorable mentions include Rautavaara (whose Eighth I’d happily put here, if I could switch out for Dvořák), Mahler, and Bruckner.
9. Beethoven. My first “real” musical performance came at age 18 when I sang the chorus of Beethoven’s Ninth at Avery Fisher Hall in Lincoln Center. I’ve sung it a bewildering number of times since, and I’ve written about the joy of recording it with the Minnesota Orchestra. I would sing it tomorrow if you asked me, as this is one of those works I cannot do without. Honorable mentions include Dvořák, Bruckner, and Vaughan Williams.
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Well, that’s my list, with me playing by the rules.
But let me bend the rules for just a second.
As others have remarked, the rules unfairly bar a number of works that could happily make the list. On the one hand, there are a few composers who only wrote one symphony, meaning that in the strictest of senses they are ineligible. So let me say that Franck’s Symphony in D Minor and Dukas’s Symphony in C Major are fantastic works that I’d hate to leave out in the cold. Plus, Mozart’s Symphony No. 40, Shostakovitch’s Symphony No. 10, and Hovhaness’s Symphony No. 50, Mount St. Helens, miss the cut. My overall selection for numbered symphonies outside the original nine is Mozart’s No. 40.
Worse, though, is the fact that many symphonies are indicated by names, rather than numbers. How on earth can we leave off Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique? That would clearly be my selection in the “named symphony” category. I also dearly love Bliss’s A Color Symphony and Suk’s Asrael. Heck, Liszt’s Faust Symphony and Turina’s Sinfonía Sevillana should get a nod, too. Or what about the playful Metropolis Symphony by Daugherty?
And, what about works that are symphonies in all but name? Sibelius’s Kullervo, for one?
Hm, looking things over, it’s clear that I lean much more to the northern countries than the German-speaking ones, which probably indicates I’m a tasteless hack. And, I seem to have a disturbing fixation on Jean Sibelius and Ralph Vaughan Williams.
What about your list?