A Musical Puzzle: The 9 Symphonies

Puzzles mixed with classical music?

I’m in!

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….

* * *

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.


* * *

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?

Ah well.

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?



18 thoughts on “A Musical Puzzle: The 9 Symphonies

  1. Brahms 1 – Honestly, you guys. Walton? Vaughan Williams? Come on, now. Everyone is overthinking the pole position in this exercise. There is exactly one first symphony that qualifies as a true masterpiece.

    Rouse 2 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C0tYsOoHD6s

    Gorecki 3 – History may not bear this one out, and it’s not a lot of fun to play. But it’s achingly beautiful to hear.

    Mendelssohn 4 – The Italian is a better top-to-bottom piece than the Scottish and you know it, Scott.

    Sibelius 5 (Revised, three-movement version) – Best symphony ever written (or revised) by anyone, ever.

    Mahler 6 – I shouldn’t have to explain this. There’s a fucking Fate Hammer.

    Beethoven 7 – People get excited about epic length and structure and subtext, and that’s what makes them use their Beethoven pick on the Ninth or Eroica. But, I mean, c’mon. This is the perfect late-classical symphony. I dare you to say otherwise.

    Dvorak 8 – Everything Scott said.

    Schubert 9 – I guess. If I have to pick a ninth. But honestly, I’d take Shostakovich’s 10th in this spot any day.


    • Huh. Well, reading this list brings to mind my favorite line from Much Ado about Nothing, “I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow….”

      Rouse I suppose in a transparent bid for street cred, but Gorecki? Gorecki?!

      And you turn away from Beethoven’s Joyousness of Universal Brotherhood… for the dance tunes of his seventh?

      Bergman, I think I need to stage an intervention.


      • That almost certainly factors into the equation. I had a paragraph touching on that in my post, but since the post was running long anyway, I edited it out. As a singer, my experience with symphonies is different from Sam’s. Well, paradoxically enough the experience is both very similar and very different. The number of symphonies I can truly know as a performer is much smaller, and the kind of things I’m focusing on are very different, even though we are in the same room working on the same piece.

        To another of Sam’s points, I cheerfully concede that Brahms’s First has a much higher stature and Vaughan Williams’s, and in an abstract way can be considered the “better” work. But to me, there is no comparison about which I’d rather live with; the visionary aspect of the Sea Symphony, the much more profound questioning… and literal questioning because there is actually a text asking these questions aloud. I don’t mind its presumed flaws in that I think it is so much “bigger” than these imperfections. When I sang the Sea Symphony, some friends who don’t normally respond to classical music came dutifully to the concert, and were blown away. They instantly related to it, and found it transformative. That’s what I love about great music… there are so many options, and so many chances to get swept away.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Beethoven’s ninth is a great symphony with a tragic flaw – the first movement isn’t actually very good. But as a singer, you probably hadn’t noticed that it has a first movement.

        Rouse is less a bid for cred than an acknowledgement that there aren’t very many great second symphonies. Brahms wrote one, but I already burned him because there are even fewer great first symphonies. Beethoven wrote one, but I needed him for the seventh. I thought about going with Schumann, but I definitely go back and listen to the Rouse more than I do the Rhenish. I think Chris Rouse is going to be one of those composers who winds up more famous 100 years after his death than he ever was in life.

        The Gorecki sold more than a million copies for a reason. Obviously, it’s not Beethoven or Brahms, but that’s the exercise. Again, not a lot of masterful third symphonies, and this is one.

        Also, can we just talk about the Vaughan Williams for a moment? This is a piece that the composer called “Sea Symphony,” which begins (begins) with the chorus melodramatically shrieking the words “Behold, the sea!” I’ve never been able to get past the inevitable giggle fit that opener inspires to find out what happens afterward.


      • Yes, let’s have that talk. I suppose you would prefer we get all ironical and belt out, “Behold, the LA-A-AND!” instead? That certainly would give listeners food for thought. Besides, it could be worse… in the urtext edition you’ll see quite clearly that Vaughan Williams indicated that the singers use jazz hands at this crucial passage. Fortunately, later editors discreetly removed this bit of choralography.

        Kidding aside, this is one of those pieces that I didn’t have a great deal of use for until I actually sang it. It is funny how often that happens. Its similar to how hearing the right performers can transform what you think of a work… I freely admit I had little use for Sibelius’s First until I heard Osmo’s rendition.

        Beethoven. Of course the first movement of Beethoven’s Ninth is a throw-away… I mean, it’s the Ode to Joy, right? Not the Ode to Allegro ma non troppo. But to your point, it isn’t the first movement that singers dread so much as the third. This is a movement that spans hours upon hours of overextended philisophicalness while we’re trapped up on stage, unable to move a muscle, looking out with expressions of bland benevolence. But man, what a payoff at the end!

        And if popular appeal is a key factor in making a symphony great, perhaps we should pivot and discuss our performance a few years back of the Lord of the Rings Symphony.


  2. 1. Rued Langgaard: Symphony No. 1 “Klippepastoraler” (Mountain Pastorals)’’
    Runner up: Brahms
    2. Leonard Bernstein: Symphony No. 2 “The Age of Anxiety”
    Runner up: Ives
    3. Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 3 “Eroica”
    Runner up: Lutaslowski
    4. Carl Nielsen: Symphony No. 4 “The Inextinguishable”
    Runner up: Mendelssohn
    5. Sergei Prokofiev: Symphony No. 5
    Runner up: Mahler
    6. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6 “Pathetique”
    Runner up: Vaughan Williams
    7. Jean Sibelius: Symphony No. 7
    Runner up: Shostakovitch
    8. Einojuhani Rautavaara: Symphony No. 8 “The Journey”
    Runner up: Vaughan Williams
    9. Franz Schubert: Symphony No. 9 “The Great”
    Runner up: Bruckner

    I tried to not repeat my runner up choices either. Yeah I know I am going to take heat for 9….


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  4. Fun, this, isn’t it? I did this on Facebook yesterday, and I posted two lists which I feel are interchangeable. And even then, many major figures whose symphonies I love just as much have been left out. Couldn’t fit Nielsen, Arnold, Alwyn, Weinberg, Sessions, Dutilleux, Schmidt, Prokofiev or a good many others. As for the all but complete omission of the great 19th Century classics (LvB, Brahms, Schubert, Dvorak, Schumann, Mahler), I love them all, but they can take perfectly good care of themselves without any intercession on my part – in each list, Tchaikovsky and Bruckner respectively can stand for all of them!

    List 1, which I compiled off the cuff:

    1. Bax: the overlooked great 1st symphony, in my view. All 7 of Bax’s symphonies are extraordinary, but no.1 hit me like a punch to the gut on my first encounter, so in it goes!
    2. Tubin: a truly ghostly, even macabre work, with one of the most harrowing funeral processions lying at its dark heart. Not for the faint-hearted!
    3. Schnittke: the Russian composer’s mind-blowing commentary on the German symphonic tradition.
    4. Tchaikovsky: I fell in love with it as an infant, and only in recent years I’ve begun to realise just what a marvellously conceived and constructed work it is once you get past the white-hot emotions that seethe and rage through it.
    5. Simpson: there may be quite a few symphonies from the UK that rivals this for sheer demonic intensity, but I can’t think of one that surpasses it on that count.
    6. Schuman: THE Great American Symphony. Finally got to hear it live in Chicago this past Easter 30 years after getting to know it from Ormandy’s ancient recording. Did not disappoint!
    7. Henze: Maybe the last of the great German symphonies. Henze was never one to do anything by halves, and this work left me incapable of speech for hours afterwards when I first heard it live in London.
    8. Shostakovich: DSCH has been one of my gods from my early teens, and Symphony 8 stands for his entire output (I could just as easily have put no.4 on this list, though, for exactly the same reason)
    9. Myaskovsky: especially for its slow movement: haunting and haunted in equal measure.

    Here’s my alternate list, over which I took longer to compile. Call it my more “considered” list:

    1. Rachmaninoff: what I said about the Bax above applies with just about equal force here. If ever there was a Russian symphony that was a worthy successor to the Pathetique, this is it!
    2. Elgar: I’ve known this work from my early teens, and every time I hear it live or on record, I’m left borderline incoherent!
    3. Harris: One of those works that encapsulates my idealised view of America – a country full of strength, character, endurance, optimism, vision. All aspects of a country I love enough to visit twice a year, and which nowadays seem in danger of being lost, for far too many reasons to enumerate. The Harris always seems to convey to me what could have been. Could STILL be.
    4. Martinu: for me, his is the music most ready to break into a smile, and nowhere more so than in no.4. I always seem to walk a few inches above the ground after listening to this one.
    5. Sibelius: Well, I left him out of the first list, so he HAS to come here, considering that he is the first 20th Century composer I fell for big time as a child. And no.5 still stirs me like no other.
    6. Piston: All the qualities I listed with Harris above are here too, with a healthy dose of wit thrown in for good measure.
    7. Vaughan Williams: this stands for all the VW symphonies, but I could just as easily put in any of the other 8. Antarctica, though, has always exerted a special fascination for me, I must admit.
    8. Havergal Brian: the dark horse, this one. A real enigma that I’ve spent the last 35 years trying to decipher. At this point, it seems like a series of preludes in search of a slow movement, which it reaches halfway through. And when that happens, WOW! And then, it retreats back into its opening inscrutability, as if that wonderful efflorescence was no point of arrival, but just another enigma wrapped inside this weird symphonic conundrum. One of those symphonies where one finally has to conclude that it isn’t the point of arrival that’s the point, so to speak, but the journey itself. And the journey goes on after the end having left the listener behind, none the wiser……..
    9. Bruckner: another one I couldn’t bring myself to leave out, and it has to be the 9th. And I prefer it in the “unfinished” 3-movement version, though one or two of the completions in circulation are certainly convincing (the one Simon Rattle recorded in Berlin especially so)

    So there you have it. And yet, I look at all the ones that have been left out which could make many more equally plausible lists for me (Borodin 2, Prokofiev 3, Mennin 7, Bolcom 4, any of the Kalevi Aho symphonies), and it’s all I can do to resist the temptation to take this any further than I already have! Best to stop while I’m behind, right?! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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