Classical Tyro

A Beginner's Guide to Great Music

Saint-Saens

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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