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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Brahms and Tchaikovsky: A Lesson for All of Us


Two icons of classical music were born on May 7 — Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) and Peter Tchaikovsky (1840-1893).

In addition to sharing a birthdate, Brahms and Tchaikovsky shared a traditionalist approach to composing music that had their contemporaries placing them on the same side during the
Romantic “wars” of the late 1800s. They were both viewed by their defenders as standing in opposition to the "art of the future" coming from Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner.

Brahms and Tchaikovsky were also united by history in offering a lesson in how to separate "the person" from "the work." Although Brahms and Tchaikovsky had much in common as composers and liked each other personally, neither one liked the music of the other.

Tchaikovsky, especially, seemed to detest the music that Brahms composed.

“The other day I played over the music of that scoundrel Brahms. What a giftless bastard! It irritates me that this self-inflated mediocrity is hailed as a genius.... Brahms is a chaos of utterly empty dried-up tripe.” (1866)

“Brahms is a celebrity; I’m a nobody. And yet, without false modesty, I tell you that I consider myself superior to Brahms. So what would I say to him: If I’m an honest and truthful person, then I would have to tell him this: ‘Herr Brahms! I consider you to be a very untalented person, full of pretensions but utterly devoid of creative inspiration. I rate you very poorly and indeed I simply look down upon you.'" (1878)

Brahms' view of Tchaikovsky’s music was not as vitriolic, but was nevertheless critical. Brahms disliked Tchaikovsky’s
Orchestral Suite No. 1, except the first movement. History also provides a story stemming from Brahms’ attendance of a dress rehearsal of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony that, if true, provides evidence of Brahms’ indifference to Tchaikovsky’s music. According to legend, Brahms slept through the entire rehearsal. Legend or not (it may have been nothing more than a symptom of Brahms’ sleep apnea), it is true that Brahms later told Tchaikovsky he did not like the symphony.

In spite of these differences both men seemed to enjoy the company of the other.

They met only twice. The first time was in January 1888 when Tchaikovsky was on a tour of western Europe and attended a rehearsal of Brahms’
Piano Trio No. 3 in Leipzig. Tchaikovsky expected to meet a “conceited” celebrity, a man who was certain to behave with pomposity and arrogance. Instead, Brahms treated Tchaikovsky with warmth and kindness. In a letter to his publisher, Tchaikovsky expressed genuine admiration for Brahms, admiration that may have been enhanced by the alcohol they shared at a party after the rehearsal.

Photo of Brahms
Johannes Brahms

“I’ve been on the booze with Brahms. He is tremendously nice — not at all proud as I’d expected, but remarkably straightforward and entirely without arrogance. He has a very cheerful disposition, and I must say that the hours I spent in his company have left me with nothing but the pleasantest memories."

They met again the following year in Hamburg when Tchaikovsky toured western Europe a second time. After a rehearsal of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, the same rehearsal that may have put Brahms to sleep, the two men shared a meal. As they sat together, Brahms provided harsh criticism of the finale of Tchaikovsky’s symphony. In turn, Tchaikovsky confessed his aversion to Brahms’ compositional style. In spite of the mutually disparaging remarks, the two men seemed to have enjoyed each other’s company and parted as friends. Tchaikovsky even invited Brahms to visit him in Russia, a trip Brahms was never able to make.

Photo of Tchaikovsky
Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky

Is all this a contradiction? How could two men admire each other so much on a personal level, yet have such a low opinion of the other’s creative output? For me, their story is a great lesson in how to separate a person’s character from their productive work.

The same lesson can be found in looking at the relationship between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, two men who were hostile political opponents in the early years of United States history. Twice they ran against each other for president in bitterly contested elections, with Adams winning in 1796 and Jefferson in 1800. After Jefferson’s presidency ended, however, the two began a written correspondence in which they demonstrated a genuine admiration for each other in spite of their political and philosophical differences.

As a U.S. history teacher, I often used the Adams-Jefferson story to demonstrate how political and philosophical differences do not require us to demonize our opponents. It is possible, as I liked to tell students, not to sanction the product of someone’s public work and yet still enjoy their company socially — to like them as a person. I suppose the opposite is also true. We might approve of someone’s public work but not like them as a person.

Brahms and Tchaikovsky can be used to teach the same lesson.

Adams and Jefferson both died on the same day — July 4, 1826. Brahms and Tchaikovsky were both born on the same date — May 7. The stories of both friendships can by used as lessons in how human beings might live together, and even like each other, in spite of their differences.


Brahms, Symphony No. 1, Simon Rattle conducting the Berliner Philharmoniker


Tchaikovsky, Symphony No. 4, Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the San Francisco Symphony




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

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