Today’s Top Ten
Picking the best symphonies is a highly subjective assignment. Yet when I think of my favorites, I consider what it is about them that brings me back to listen over and over again. The strongest reason is that they work, first note to last, in a cohesive gestalt that strikes a powerful emotional response in me.
For me the symphony is the highest form of musical expression. The magical unity of dozens of musicians performing together to create the composer’s vision, and bring that vision to our ears and minds, when it works, is exhilarating and fills me with wonder. I feel like a participant in the process, not just an observer.
Here then are my top ten, listed chronologically by composer’s birth. A few of my choices may seem unorthodox. All are worth a listen and none are for the beginner. That’s another story. Many great works and composers are missing, but space is limited. My apologies to Brahms, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Copland, Saint-Saens, Prokofiev, Bruckner, Vaughan Williams, Tchaikovsky and all the rest.
Haydn, Symphony No. 94 (1791). Though he did not invent the symphony, Haydn is called its father. He gave it form, defining a regular pattern for others to follow, in an output of some 104 symphonies. Picking one is, at best, impossible. I choose the Surprise because, tired of seeing the audience drift off during the quiet movement, Haydn strikes a sudden loud chord just to keep them listening.
Mozart, Symphony No. 35 (1782). Mozart gave the symphony grace. His output topped 47 – again hard to pick one over the rest. But the Haffner is as complete and cohesive, and elegant, a work as ever penned in the Eighteenth Century.
Beethoven, Symphony 5 (1805). He gave the symphony its pathos, its soul, its relevance. After him, the symphony became something grand and important, a crowning achievement for its composer – a statement. The Fifth wins out over the Ninth because of its inherent drama that begins with the famous fate motif and is topped by the contrasting, playful cascading of the final two movements.
Berlioz, Symphonie Fantastique (1830). He gave the symphony a program, a story to tell in so many notes, which others sometimes followed, sometimes not. This freed the symphony to be whatever the composer said it was. He also gave it the ide fixe, or leitmotif, or running theme to identify a recurring element in the story – in this powerful, full throated exploration of a man’s passion that leads to attempted suicide, murder, his own execution and a funeral like none before or since.
Dvorak, Symphony No. 9 (1893). A postcard from the New World but not of it, this may well be the most perfect and beautiful symphony ever written. Homesick while a guest in America, Dvorak recalled Slavic themes to create this masterpiece.
Mahler, Symphony No. 1 (1888). One of the world’s most complete and unified scores, with the funeral march third movement a total delight. Mahler once told Jean Sibelius, My symphonies are like the world. They must encompass everything.
Sibelius, Symphony No. 2 (1901). Jean Sibelius loved to dismantle music and present his themes inside out, letting fragments build into unity and then dissipate again, as he does in the beautiful first movement of the Second. But it is the drive and energy of the last two movements and the power of the coda that propels me to listen again and again.
Nielsen, Symphony No. 4 (1916). Born the same year as Sibelius, Carl Nielsen never attained the international fame, but the Great Dane had a unique voice in music. His work can be both dreamlike and stark, lilting and overpowering. He once said, If I strike a rock and sparks fly, to me that is beautiful. This symphony was his expression that, despite the ongoing horrors of World War One, life was inextinguishable. The stunning transition between movements three and four and the dueling timpani in the finale will take your breath away.
Antheil, Symphony No. 4 (1944). George Antheil once was the bad boy of the 1920’s musical scene, but settled into a varied and successful career composing for films and the concert hall, writing and even as an inventor. Written in 1942, while news on all fronts during World War Two was dire, this score is at once poignant, powerful, breathlessly fast and utterly American – a lost treasure.
Shostakovich, Symphony No. 10 (1953). His Fifth was the scream of an individual protesting his personal uniqueness at the risk of his life in the deadly conformity of Stalin’s Russia. Written in 1951 but performed only after Stalin’s death, the Tenth is that same man looking back, a survivor of Stalin’s crushing boot, both sad and joyful to be alive after so many close friends were lost. All my symphonies are tombstones, Shostakovich once wrote. Even in joy is sadness, even in beauty is dissonance – but even in despair is hope.