Number 9, Number 9, Number 9…A Symphonic Revolution


What if there were only nine symphonies? That’s the question CK Dexter Haven over at All is Yar asked himself over the holiday season, while on his way to Santa Barbara wine country. (Ah, the things we ponder while pursuing wine…)

“Nine has been a magical number of sorts for symphonies ever since Beethoven wrote that many and stopped,” CKDH wrote. (There’s also that whole curse of the ninth thing.) So, CKDH proposed making a list of nine he couldn’t live without. His ground rules included:

  • Only one symphony per composer
  • Only symphonies numbered 1-9.  No names either: e.g. Symphonie fantastique, Symphony of Psalms, Symphonic Dances, etc. (Or even Harmonielehre, even though that’s totally a symphony no matter what John Adams says.)
  • No duplicate numbers. In other words, one Sym #1, one Sym #2, one Sym #3, etc.

CKDH called this a “puzzlechallengegame of sorts.” And then he challenged me to come up with my own list.

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My response?

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And “fun/impossible” is exactly what it turned out to be. Nevertheless, I have done it…for now…and I absolutely reserve the right to change any or all of these at any time in the future, because I’m *not* stuck on a desert island, damn it! At least, not yet.

Okay…deep breath.

Symphony No. 1 – Sir William Walton. In some ways, this one was the hardest because of quantity and quality. There are more First Symphonies to choose from than any other number. There are also a lot of great First Symphonies. CKDH made a great choice with the Corigliano Symphony No. 1, which (when Gustavo Dudamel and the LA Phil played it recently) is one of the only pieces of music to leave me physically shaking, breathless, with my heart pounding out of my chest. In the end, I decided to go with a dark horse symphony inspired by getting dumped by a cheating girlfriend. (Notable snubs: Mahler, Brahms, Schumann, Prokofiev, and many others.)

Symphony No. 2 – Leonard Bernstein. Really, Rachmaninoff should go here. And I’m not entirely certain why he isn’t here. Except for the fact that every time I hear those jazz riffs in the middle of Bernstein’s Symphony No. 2, “The Age of Anxiety,” I fall in love with this unjustly neglected masterpiece all over again. Don’t know it? Here:

(Notable snubs: Rachmaninoff, Mahler, Ives, Hovhaness, Barber.)

Symphony No. 3 – Ludwig van Beethoven. Another difficult choice here, because I don’t love *all* of Beethoven’s 3rd. But the second movement is some of the best music he wrote–that funeral march gets me every time–and what the piece represents politically means a lot to me too. (Notable snubs: Mahler, Sibelius, Bruckner, Roy Harris, Scriabin, Mendelssohn, Górecki, Copland, Saint-Saëns, Lutosławski, Schumann, Arvo Pärt.)

Symphony No. 4 – Carl Nielsen. I mean, come on, it’s called “The Inextinguishable,” for goodness sake! I absolutely love this symphony. It doesn’t mess around: it sprints out of the gate like Usain Bolt and finishes strong like Kobe Bryant (used to). Take special note of the extreme-to-the-max timpani parts in the finale.

(Notable snubs: Sibelius, Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Mendelssohn, Mahler, Schumann.)

Symphony No. 5 – Franz Schubert. More snubs here. Lots and lots of snubs. Because it seems by the time composers got to five, they really hit their stride. For example, a 19-year-old Schubert, who here teaches us that a symphony can sing a poignantly and poetically as any lied. (Notable snubs: Beethoven, Mahler, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Sibelius, Vaughan Williams, Tchaikovsky, and many others.)

Symphony No. 6 – Peter Tchaikovsky. Almost went with Mahler here because of The Hammer, but Tchaikovsky’s 6th prevailed. It is an intensely personal testimony and, if not exactly a suicide note as some would suggest, at least a tragic manifesto from a composer who had been told by society that who he was as a human being was not acceptable. I always weep through the last movement of this symphony. Always. (Notable snubs: Mahler, Beethoven, Haydn, Philip Glass.)

Symphony No. 7 – Dmitri Shostakovich. Could’ve gone with Beethoven here, since his 7th is my favorite Beethoven symphony. But that would’ve meant I couldn’t include the greatest crescendo in the history of western music. As the German army marches on Leningrad (first heard in the distance on a single snare drum), the music grows louder and more intense until everything finally explodes. (Go with this for about 11-12 mins, or from 6:51-18:33ish.)

(Notable snubs: Beethoven, Mahler, Dvořák, Bruckner, Prokofiev.)

Symphony No. 8 – Einojuhani Rautavaara. The greatest Finnish composer to follow Sibelius (and one time composition teacher of Esa-Pekka Salonen) has been writing really wonderful symphonies for nearly 50 years. His first came in 1956. No. 8, called “The Journey,” is his most recent, from 1999. With 15 years passing since his last symphony, you don’t want to start thinking about adding his name to the list of composers who succumbed to the “curse of the ninth,” but he is 86 and in pretty frail health. We’ll be thankful for what we have from this incredible composer.

(Notable snubs: Mahler, Dvořák, Bruckner, Schubert.)

Symphony No. 9 – Gustav Mahler. With all the great ninth symphonies out there, this decision wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be. Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 has everything. He pours every single human emotion into his music. He strongly believed in the curse of the ninth and even tried to avoid it by calling is first ninth symphony Das Lied von der Erde. He survived that, so the coast was clear for the second ninth, right? Wrong. He wrote it, started No. 10, and died before 10 was done. If you’ve never heard the ninth, I strongly recommend against grabbing a recording and putting it on the old turntable. It’s worth waiting until there’s a live performance near you that you can attend. It’s such a great symphony that, chances are, you won’t have to wait very long. (Notable snubs: Beethoven, Bruckner, Dvořák, Vaughan Williams, Philip Glass, Sessions, and many others.)

Thanks again to CKDH at All is Yar for challenging me to do this. It was very difficult and a whole lot of fun! I’d love to see what’s on *your* list of 9. Leave it in the comments…or post them on Twitter and tag me in it.

A few random additional thoughts:

  • Both Brahms and Schumann got snubbed off my list. It’s not fair, but then I’m not much of a Brahm(sm)an.
  • Sibelius also got shut out. In case you’re wondering, I love his 3rd, the original version of his 5th (without those silly silences at the end), and 7th in that order.
  • The closest calls were Symphony No. 2, which as I mentioned, could have easily gone to Rachmaninoff…and…Symphony No. 5, which very nearly went to Vaughan Williams, whose Fifth Symphony I adore.
  • Yes, Mahler is always a snub. His symphonies are all amazing.
  • CKDH also noted this: why aren’t there very many great Symphonies No. 6?
  • My favorite symphonies that got snubbed? Ives 2, Pärt 3, Scriabin 3, Saint-Saëns 3, Shostakovich 4, Schumann 4, Vaughan Williams 5, Mahler 6, Prokofiev 7, Dvořák 7, Glass 9.)
  • You’re wondering about that Arvo Pärt Symphony No. 3, aren’t you? Here you go. You’re welcome.

7 thoughts on “Number 9, Number 9, Number 9…A Symphonic Revolution

  1. I just happened on this intriguing post and the ensuing comments. My personal rule was no two symphonies by the same composer or the same conductor. I’ve also included some rather less well-known/expected conductors
    1. Walton – Previn LSO
    2. Schumann – Dohnanyi KRSO . I’m actually stumped here – this is the best stereo performance I have at hand (found on the net – happy hunting), but an old radio performance with Celibidache conducting – I think – the SWR would be my choice if only you could find it on CD, one of the most exciting performances of anything I’ve ever heard…but Celi is ruled out anyway because he’s conducting #5.)
    3. Brahms – Furtwängler BPO 1949 (live) – despite the coughing!
    4. Nielsen – Martinon CSO
    5. Sibelius – Celibidache Swedish RSO
    6. Tchaikovsky – Golovanov All-Union Radio and Central TV Great Symphony Orch. (Russia)
    7. Pettersson – Dorati Stockholm Philharmonic Orch.
    8. Beethoven – Casals Marlboro Festival Orch.
    9. Mahler – Ancerl CPO

  2. You chose some excellent works, but I am going to name a nice alternate bunch of symphonies, so here goes:

    No. 1 – Havergal Brian. Better known as the Gothic, a monumental work that many either call a towering masterpiece or a monumental mess, or both! My runner-ups are William Grant Still’s Afro-American Symphony (officially his first), Ture Rangstroem, Richard Rodney Bennett and Bernard Herrmann (yes, he did write a symphony back in 1941, but very few people hear it in spite of two recordings!!)

    No. 2 – There are so many good seconds, and your choice of Bernstein is excellent since no one hears it, but I’ll go with Mahler. It is one of the finest works from his pen!

    No. 3 – James Barnes. Never heard of him? No one else has unless you’re a band geek, yet this epic symphony, commissioned by the USAF Band, is one of the finest American symphonies written in the last thirty years. Written as a memorial upon the death of his infant daughter, Barnes does channel some major influences – Shostakovich, Vaughan Williams, Prokofiev, Mahler, Bruckner and even Max Steiner(!) – but this symphony is powerful and emotional, especially the third movement, a searing elegy that recalls the last three composers I mentioned. This work made me realize that there was more serious band works than I thought. I do hope to conduct it someday. Runner-up? I’ll go with Roger Sessions’ thorny and powerful third, Nielsen’s Espansiva, Havergal Brian’s epic work for two pianos and orchestra, and Vaughan Williams’ Pastoral.

    No. 4 – Sibelius. I concur with you on Nielsen – it’s a masterpiece of the highest order, but Sibelius’ personal journey of darkness can’t be taken for granted. Runner-ups are the same as your “snubs”, but I will also add David Maslanka’s fourth for concert band, which is quite a piece if you’ve never heard it, and William Grant Still’s fourth, which I find to be his finest symphony of the five he composed.

    No. 5 – George Lloyd. If you know of him, great, and if not, you’re in for a treat. This was one of two symphonies that this Englishman composed while recovering from PTSD (His ship was sunk by a wayward torpedo during a conflict in World War 2), and while the symphony recalls music of a bygone era (Lloyd’s musical idols are Berlioz, Verdi, Tchaikovsky and Elgar, and in his youth he detested Vaughan Williams and Bax), its colorful orchestration spells the 20th century big time. For me, this is the place to start with Lloyd’s symphonies (He composed twelve of them). Runner-ups? The same as yours, but I will also add James Barnes’ epic fifth, subtitled “Phoenix” and Arnold Rosner’s fifth, a neo-baroque work written in 1972 using the ordinary of the Mass as its wellspring, and dedicated to George McGovern when he ran for president against Richard Nixon. Rosner is a real find of a composer, someone who melds music of the past with certain aspects of contemporary music.

    No. 6 – Mahler. Yes, Tchaikovsky’s is magnificent, and wicked to conduct (I did it in Bulgaria back in 2000), but Mahler’s sixth is a mind-blowing powerhouse that defies everything rational in its path. The only runner-ups I can list are Vaughan Williams, Beethoven and Havergal Brian.

    No. 7 – Vaughan Williams. I love his score for Scott of the Antarctic, and this symphony, culled from the music for that film, is brilliant. Breathtaking and powerful is the best way I can describe it. Runner-ups? Beethoven, Dvorak, Roger Sessions, Shostakovich and Havergal Brian (Somehow his earlier symphonies are quite good for my money!)

    No. 8 – Bruckner. It always grips me, and I do prefer the 1890 Nowak edition over Haas’ version combining passages from the 1887 version with the 1890. I also like the original 1887 edition. The runner-ups for me are pretty much the same as yours, but I will also add Maslanka’s eighth for concert band.

    No. 9 – Beethoven. All others are simply excellent!

    And finally, a note about Mahler’s Tenth, my personal favorite of his canon save the Second and the Sixth. He did complete the work in its sketch form – far more detailed than what many detractors will have you believe – but you still needed to fill in the blanks, primarily in the last two movements. Of the nine current performing editions currently available, I like Deryck Cooke’s version, but also those of Clinton Carpenter (It took me a long time to warm up to it) and Yoel Gamzou. I am curious of your thoughts on the Tenth.

  3. Can’t wait to use this list for a proper symphonic education! Already love Tchaikovsky’s 6th. Most of the others will be new to me.

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