Classical Tyro

A Beginner's Guide to Great Music

The 20 Greatest Symphonies

The September 2016 edition of BBC Music Magazine includes a ranking of "The 20 Greatest Symphonies of All Time." The ranking is based on a poll of 151 of the world's greatest conductors, including such notable maestros as Marin Alsop (São Paulo State Symphony), Sir Andrew Davis (Lyric Opera of Chicago), Alan Gilbert (New York Philharmonic), Zubin Mehta (Israel Philharmonic), Peter Oundjian (Royal Scottish National Orchestra), Sir Simon Rattle (Berlin Philharmonic), and Leonard Slatkin (Detroit Symphony Orchestra).

The conductors who took part in the poll are obviously well-acquainted with the greatest symphonies in the classical repertoire, which, for me, gives the results some credibility. In other words, it's more than just a popularity poll taken from classical music audiences. The conductors were asked to rank their top three symphonies in any order, and based on their selections here are history's 20 greatest symphonies.
  1. Beethoven, Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, “Eroica” (1804)
  2. Beethoven, Symphony No. 9 in D minor, “Choral” (1824)
  3. Mozart, Symphony No. 41 in C major, “Jupiter” (1788)
  4. Mahler, Symphony No. 9 in D major, “Farewell” (1909)
  5. Mahler, Symphony No. 2 in C minor, “Resurrection” (1894)
  6. Brahms, Symphony No. 4 in E minor (1885)
  7. Berlioz, Symphonie Fantastique (1830)
  8. Brahms, Symphony No. 1 in C minor (1876)
  9. Tchaikovsky, Symphony No. 6 in B minor, “Pathétique” (1893)
  10. Mahler, Symphony No. 3 in D minor (1896)
  11. Beethoven, Symphony No. 5 in C minor (1808)
  12. Brahms, Symphony No. 3 in F major (1883)
  13. Bruckner, Symphony No. 8 in C minor (1890)
  14. Sibelius, Symphony No. 7 in C major (1924)
  15. Mozart, Symphony No 40 in G minor (1788)
  16. Beethoven, Symphony No. 7 in A major (1812)
  17. Shostakovich, Symphony No. 5 in D minor (1937)
  18. Brahms, Symphony No. 2 in D major (1877)
  19. Beethoven, Symphony No. 6 in F major, “Pastoral” (1808)
  20. Bruckner, Symphony No. 7 in E major (1883)
Like all lists of this sort the rankings are not definitive, and the list should primarily serve as food for thought and a topic for entertaining discussion. In thrusting myself into that discussion I want to provide a few of my own takeaways from the list.

1.The ranking offers few surprises, containing a list of the traditional composers and pieces that I would expect. Beethoven leads the pack with five symphonies, followed by Brahms (four), Mahler (three), Bruckner (two), Mozart (two), Berlioz (one), Shostakovich (one), Sibelius (one), and Tchaikovsky (one). (Note that Brahms is the only composer on the list to bat a thousand — all four of his symphonies made the list.)

2. When I first heard about the project, I assumed Beethoven’s Ninth would earn the top spot on the list. I will say, however, that I am thrilled that Beethoven’s Third was chosen the “world’s greatest symphony.” I have taught classes deconstructing both the Third and the Ninth and find that I need much more time to explain what happens in the Third, a symphony that contains an abundance of musical content to analyze. It's a symphony that takes listeners on a journey through a complicated musical narrative that never fails to prompt great discussions after it's over. The first movement provides a roller coaster of edge-of-your-seat excitement, and the almost comic anarchy of the final movement gives listeners plenty to think about. The symphony’s message is abstruse and ambiguous, and it's difficult to imagine someone would listen to Beethoven's Third without wanting to hear it again and again and again.

3. I find personal validation in Mahler holding three spots in the top ten, beating out Beethoven and Brahms who each have two. For several years I’ve been tooting Mahler’s magic horn (!) in my music history classes, and now I have a list from BBC Music to validate my passion. I also love that Mahler’s Ninth is so high on the list, although I am not surprised. Mahler's Ninth juggles a variety of ideas and emotions that in the end become achingly silent. All music eventually goes silent, but only Mahler has ever connected music to silence so elegantly. For me, the end of Mahler’s Ninth sparks the sort of transcendent soul searching that can only come from music.

4. Although I have no significant complaints about the ranking, I would like to provide some of my own honorable mentions: composers and works that I would not have been surprised to see on the list. (I have decided to avoid listing additional works by the composers who already made the list.)
Regardless of how history's great symphonies are ranked, every symphony listed on this page is worth hearing — every one of them will provide a few of those nice moments that can only come from music.

Just for fun, here's an animated score of the breathtaking first movement of Beethoven’s Third. (The animation comes from the
Music Animation Machine and the recording comes from the Bezdin Ensemble.)



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Separating the Composer from the Music


I often play Death and Transfiguration by Richard Strauss in my music history classes, using it to demonstrate the characteristics of romanticism and define the concept of a tone poem. It’s a piece of music that my students — whether they are teenagers or adults — seem to enjoy.

How could they not enjoy it? In portraying the transfiguration of a human soul and the metaphorical “white light” that comes after death, it provides orchestral music that might best be described as “spiritual.” It’s guaranteed to raise a few goose bumps and moisten the eyes.

In any case, one of my students recently pointed out that before anyone became too enamored with Strauss's music they should know he cooperated with German Nazis in the 1930s. He dined with Adolf Hitler, socialized with Nazi officials, and served as president of the Reich Music Chamber. Strauss’s defenders point out that he was a reluctant Nazi who was generally apolitical and did not share the Nazi Party’s most disgraceful ideas. In 1935 he was even forced to resign from the Reich Music Chamber for his lack of Aryan loyalty. This defense does little to mollify the victims of Nazism.

Richard Strauss
Richard Strauss (1864-1949)

And Strauss was not the only notable composer guilty of objectionable behavior or beliefs. Beethoven’s deranged behavior drove his nephew to attempt suicide. Berlioz attempted to kill the fiancé of his lover. Saint-Saëns enjoyed the companionship of adolescent males and reportedly said, “I am not a homosexual, I am a pederast.”

Fortunately, none of these personal transgressions appear in the music these composers created. Their music has brought beauty and inspiration to generations of concert goers. People’s lives have been transformed by listening to their compositions.

And then there’s Richard Wagner — what a lousy, no good human being. He was greedy and ruthless. He ran from debts and had affairs with his friends' wives. He was racist and viciously anti-Semitic. He regarded himself as a god and once said, “I am not made like other people. I must have brilliance and beauty and light. The world owes me what I need.”

Despite his shameful legacy as a human being Wagner’s music dramas are filled with messages of the redemptive power of love. His work has moved music lovers to believe in the possibility of personal transformation through love and the purity of the human heart.

Wagner
Richard Wagner (1813-1883)

So what should I make of all this? Should I never again listen to or enjoy the music of Strauss or Wagner? Should I quit playing music by Saint-Saëns, the pederast, in my music history classes? Should I enjoy works of art created by such misguided, unpleasant, and sometimes evil human beings?

If I decided not to listen to their music, I would only be denying myself some of the greatest music ever composed. And where would I draw the line? Should I abandon Brahms due to his habitual transactions with prostitutes? Should I not be inspired by the Beatles’s recording of “All You Need is Love” because John Lennon mocked people with physical disabilities? Should I avoid music (or any other art) created by someone whose personal behavior or philosophy I find despicable?

I think not. Life is short, and I see no profit in denying myself great music because the person who created it was vile or corrupt. Music not only helps me make it through the day, it sometimes serves as my only salvation during those inevitable dark nights of the soul. If I require my composers to be good and decent human beings, I’m not left with much, if any music, to serve my needs. I must accept that some composers are flawed, imperfect, and sometimes odious creatures who nevertheless can create works of exquisite beauty.

This Sunday (May 22) is Wagner’s 203rd birthday, and I have no desire to commemorate the memory of that loathsome man. I will, however, spend time on the day after his birthday listening to the Overture to
Tannhäuser and Isolde’s “Love-Death” from Tristan and Isolde. No doubt I will enjoy the music, even if it was composed by an abhorrent human being.


Tannhäuser, Overture (Zubin Mehta conducting the New York Philharmonic)


Tristan and Isolde, "Love-Death" (Waltraud Meier under the direction of Daniel Barenboim at Scala Milan)






© 2011 James L. Smith  (originally posted on SonataForm.blogspot.com)

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Stephen Malinowski: Celebrating 10 Years of Music Animation on YouTube

Some people are synesthetes and claim to see various colors when they hear music. I’m not one of them. I would like to be. I would love to be able to visualize the tapestry of sound that so easily sets fire to my emotions. I would love to see what it looks like when my emotions change from sorrow to joy with a single key change. Music affects how I feel, but it doesn’t evoke color in my mind’s eye.

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Fortunately, I have Stephen Malinowski and his Music Animation Machine to help me with that. Malinowski creates animated graphical scores for great pieces of music, and I faithfully follow his YouTube channel, waiting for his newest creations.

I have always enjoyed following printed musical scores while listening to music. Knowing what’s in a score brings music to life. I can see individual notes and voices as they weave together, generating music’s magic. Following a printed score helps me understand how a piece of music is organized and grasp the musical narrative.

Malinowski’s animated scores serve the same purpose — and they do it with much more power and excitement than printed scores. His videos allow me to see what I am hearing and anticipate what is coming. The persistent forward motion of beautiful shapes and colors in Malinowski's videos has forever changed how I hear music. Malinowski helps me understand what it must be like to have some form of synesthesia, a condition for which I would seek no cure. If synesthesia would cause music to conjure up colors in the manner of a Malinowski video, I would welcome the diagnosis.

Malinowski published his first YouTube video — a recording of Bach's
Toccata and Fugue in D minor — in December 2005, and I am posting this blog in celebration of the tenth anniversary of that event.

Although Malinowski has posted over 365 videos in the last ten years, that first video has remained his most popular, receiving over 25 million views on YouTube. (That's right,
25 million!) Malinowski recently told me via email that his first video of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue was “crude and the recording was poor.” He recorded the music for that video on a synthetic pipe organ and decided to celebrate its anniversary with the creation of a new version. His first choice for the new recording was organist Hans-André Stamm, and Malinowski was thrilled when Stamm agreed to collaborate.

Here's how Malinowski described his newest version of
Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor. (The video he is describing is embedded below. The toccata begins at 0:05 and the fugue begins at 2:26.)

“Since 2005, I've been developing tools and techniques for visualizing music, but for this video, I decided to keep it relatively simple (as a tip of the hat to the simple original video) and not distract from Stamm's performance: I use balls for the fast-moving parts of the toccata, rectangles for the toccata chords, and octagons for the fugue. The three-note motif that is the seed of the piece is highlighted in red."

Thank you, Stephen Malinowski! Thank you for bringing so much pleasure to those of us who love classical music and for introducing millions of people to classical music who might never have listened to it without you.


Performed by Hans-André Stamm on the Weyland organ in the Catholic parish church
Heilig Kreuz in Köln-Weidenpesch Cologne (Köln), ca. 1992.


As an encore, I invite everyone to follow the links below for a few of my favorite videos from Malinowski's Music Animation Machine. Enjoy!

Beethoven, Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Second Movement

Debussy, Syrinx (for solo flute)

Satie, Gymnopédie No. 1

Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring, Part 1

Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring, Part 2

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Moments of Elevation in Music

“The effect of elevated language upon an audience is not persuasion but transport.” – Longinus, On the Sublime (1st century CE)

Longinius intended to describe how good writing and persuasive rhetoric can affect us, but its message might also apply to music. Great music does not “persuade” us, it transports us, providing us with moments of elevation.

Roger Ebert described moments of elevation as a “welling up of a few tears in my eyes, a certain tightness in my throat, and a feeling of uplift.”  All of us have experienced uplifting moments in books and movies that move us and fill our hearts. Even great athletic feats in a sporting event or stories of heroism in a local news report can bring us a moment of uplift.

For me, nothing provides more moments of elevation than music. Something that touches me emotionally while I’m reading a book or watching a movie might catch me off guard, but moments of elevation in music almost never catch me off guard. I expect them.

I also don’t know how to describe why those moments happen in music.

In most cases I can describe the reason something touches me emotionally in a film. I know, for example, why I am moved by the young chess player named Josh in
Searching for Bobby Fischer. Josh is a good and ethical soul. He makes unselfish choices and cares how others feel. I am touched by his goodness.



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I can also describe the reasons I experience moments of elevation during sporting events. I once watched an NFL playoff game between the Dolphins and Chargers that went into overtime. The Charger tight end Kellen Winslow (#80) played a heroic game, catching 13 passes, even though he was treated during the game for a pinched nerve in his shoulder, dehydration, severe cramps, and a cut on his lower lip that received three stitches. Teammates had to help him off the field after the game. Such grit and resolve is inspirational.

But why does music affect me so much? Why does the transition from the third to the fourth movement in Beethoven’s
Fifth Symphony provide me with a moment of elevation?

I have no idea.

All I know is that the beginning of the fourth movement touches me at a visceral level, sometimes making me smile, sometimes moistening my eyes.

Roger Ebert wrote that he was most moved by “generosity, empathy, courage, and by the human capacity to hope.” That explanation works well for what I might read in a work of literature or see in a film. It might even work well in describing something that moves me in a sporting event or news report.

No words, however, can describe what I feel when listening to the transition from the third to the fourth movement in Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.

Here's how I might describe that transition in technical terms.

The transition begins with an ostinato in the kettledrum and the reduction of the dynamic level to triple pianissimo. This section is then followed by a crescendo that leads to a phrase played forcefully in C major, completing the attacca between the third and fourth movements.

I wouldn't be surprised if that description leaves you cold. Quite simply, words are inadequate for describing moments of elevation in music. 

What do they say? Talking about music is like dancing about architecture.

The transition from the third to fourth movement in Beethoven's
Fifth Symphony is embedded below. The ostinato in the kettledrum begins at 22:45. The moment of elevation comes at the beginning of the fourth movement, which begins at 23:23.

Turn up the volume and enjoy!


Chung Myung-Whun conducting the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra
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Beethoven, Symphony No. 9 in D minor (1824)

Here it is, a performance of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” with a choir of 10,000. (That’s not a typo.)

According to
CBS News, the Japanese affection for Beethoven’s Ninth began during World War I when German POWs performed it for the first time in Japan. The piece then evolved into an end-of-year tradition for the Japanese. What I’ve posted below is a performance from December  2011 when the Japanese were recovering from the earthquakes and tsunami that had hit their nation nine months earlier. My recommendation: Jump forward to about 6:30 and crank up the volume. 

"If you want to end war and stuff you got to sing loud.” – Arlo Guthrie

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Beethoven, Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, First Movement (1804)

With the two E-flat major chords that begin this symphony Beethoven started a revolution in music. This first movement alone was almost as long as entire symphonies of the time, the traditional third movement minuet became a scherzo, and, unlike previous symphonies, this symphony follows a dramatic narrative through all four movements. I have placed this piece in the “Classical” category but could easily have tagged it as “Romantic.”


Gustavo Dudamel conducting the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra
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