Music Potpourri

The 20 Greatest Symphonies

The September 2016 edition of BBC Music Magazine included a ranking of "The 20 Greatest Symphonies of All Time." The ranking was 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 Oundijan (Royal Scottish National Orchestra), Sir Simon Rattle (Berlin Philharmonic), and Leonard Slatkin (Detroit Symphony Orchestra).

The conductors who took part in the poll were obviously well-acquainted with the greatest symphonies in the classical repertoire, which, for me, gave the results some credibility. In other words, it was 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 is 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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Visit the Official Website of BBC Music Magazine at http://www.classical-music.com

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.

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 — a lousy, no good human being. He was greedy and ruthless. He ran away from his 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.

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 Beethoven, Berlioz, or Saint-Saëns 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.

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


Tristan and Isolde, "Love-Death" (Daniel Barenboim conducting Waltraud Meier at Scala Milan)

An Illustrated History of Music

There's an old saying that talking about music is like dancing about architecture, which makes me wonder whether the person who first said it ever considered using drawings to "talk" about music.

Take a look at the seven-minute video below and see how illustrations can serve as an introduction to music history. (A little better than dancing about architecture, I'd say.)

I'm amazed at how many styles of music and significant composers the video found time to include.

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)

Longinus tells us that good writing and persuasive rhetoric can affect us, but his message might also apply to music. Great music, however, does not necessarily “persuade” us. Instead, it transports us and provides 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, and I don’t know how to describe why those moments happen.

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

Emotional Baby

This baby's emotional reaction to a song captures the way so many of us feel when we listen to great music.

Stephen Malinowski and the Animation of Music

Some people claim to see colors when they hear music. I’m not one of them. I wish I were. 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 does not evoke color in my mind’s eye.

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

I have always enjoyed following printed 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 the shapes and colors in Malinowski's videos has changed how I hear music. Malinowski helps me understand what it must be like to have some form of synesthesia and be able to see colors when hearing music. If synesthesia meant that music would 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 thirteenth anniversary of that event. Although Malinowski has posted well over 500 videos, that first video has remained his most popular, receiving over 28 million views on YouTube. (That's right, 28 million!)

Malinowski 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 tenth 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 2015 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.

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



Follow the links below for a sampling of what you can find at Malinowski's YouTube Channel. 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)

Vivaldi, Flautino Concerto in C major, 1st movement

Beethoven, the Beatles, and Electricity

Contrary to what we hear from many critics, classical music activity in the U.S. is certainly greater today, by any tangible measure, than it was 20 years ago.

– Douglas Dempster, 2000


Some people are lucky enough to live in the midst of a rich musical culture — Vienna, New York, New Orleans. I’m not one of those people. I was born in a small town in Arizona and raised in a small town in southern New Mexico. I still live in New Mexico and have spent my entire life in a literal and cultural desert.

If not for my hometown’s high school band (about 60 members in a good year), I would have known nothing about live music when I was growing up. I was dependent on radio, television, vinyl records, 8-track tapes, and the local library to teach me about music. From Jimi Hendrix to Leonard Bernstein, the recordings I heard at home and in my car taught me what great music sounded like.

In
Listen to This, music critic Alex Ross has included a chapter titled “Infernal Machines: How Recordings Changed Music.” Ross addresses the issue of whether technology has destroyed classical music or helped it thrive. Ross points out that he discovered too much of his favorite music through LPs and CDs to lament technology’s impact on classical music.

I’m in the same camp. Like Ross, I can’t believe that recordings have destroyed classical music. What else could a desert dweller think? For me, technology turned a cultural backwater into sanctuary for great music. I’ll concede that recordings may rob music of the spontaneity of a live performance. However, I will always be grateful for electricity and the technology it powered because that's how I learned about Beethoven and the Beatles.

Technology has provided an easy and relatively inexpensive way to access the greatest musicians in the world performing the most beautiful and enduring music ever created. I'm not one to complain that recordings have destroyed music.

For several years I taught a high school humanities class with music history as a central element of the curriculum. I learned from teaching the class that we should have no reason to wring our hands about the death of classical music. Almost every day I spent teaching high school students I was a witness to the truth of
Benjamin Zander’s TED Talk proclamation, “everybody loves classical music, [some people] just haven't found out about it yet.” I was rarely discouraged about the future of classical music when I was explaining it to teenagers.

After learning a little about the language of music, my students generally liked the pieces they heard. Once my students understood both the content and historical context of the classical pieces I played for them, few left my class disliking what they heard. It shouldn’t be difficult to help young people appreciate the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony or the last movement of Berlioz’
Symphonie Fantastique — and it wasn’t.

Before we lament the perceived decline in the audience for classical music, we should remind ourselves to give the world's greatest music more credit for its power to endure. The music created by master composers such as Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven contains enough beauty and power to survive a long time. As a desert dweller, if I had not had the benefit of the recordings that make music ubiquitous, I may have never known about the great music that could turn a dusty, gritty small town in New Mexico into a oasis.

* * *

For an explanation of why we should not bemoan the death of classical music I recommend an article by Douglas Dempster titled “Wither the Audience for Classical Music?” The article was published in 2000, and some of the data Dempster provides may be out of date. I suspect, however, that Dempster's central point is as true today as when he wrote the article.

Alive Inside: The Power of Music

"The imagining of music, even in relatively nonmusical people, tends to be remarkably faithful not only to the tune and feeling of the original but its pitch and tempo. Underlying this is the extraordinary tenacity of musical memory, so that much of what is heard during one’s early years may be ‘engraved’ on the brain for the rest of one’s life."

– Oliver Sacks, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain

As a follow-up to a blog I posted two days ago titled "Music and the Doctrine of Ethos," I have embedded two film clips below that show how powerfully the memory of music is imprinted in our minds.

The first clip shows an old man named Henry reacting to music from his past. Henry was an Alzheimer’s patient who had spent over ten years in a nursing home. He was depressed and normally unresponsive when people spoke to him. He came alive, however, when listening to music. As seen in the film, music had the power to liberate Henry's memories more than any other form of therapy.

The clip I have embedded comes from
Alive Inside, a documentary about the power of music and the social worker who used it to help patients with dementia and Alzheimer's.

Man in Nursing Home Reacts to Music


“[Music] gives me the feeling of love, romance! … The Lord came to me and he made me a holy man, so he gave me these sounds.” – Henry

The second film clip comes from ABC’s
Nightline and shows U.S. Representative Gabby Giffords finding her voice through music. In January 2011, Giffords was shot in an assassination attempt. Although the bullet passed through her head, she has recovered some of her ability to walk, speak, read, and write. She owes her life and partial recovery to many talented doctors and physical therapists. I have embedded this clip to show how music therapy was a large part of her recovery.

Gabby Giffords Finds Her Voice Through Music


2500 years ago the Greeks believed that the right kind of music had the power to heal the sick and shape personal character in positive ways. In modern times the doctrine of
ethos seems to have science on its side.




Music and the Doctrine of Ethos

Music magnifies emotion.

Notice how music is used in films to enhance the drama, horror, or comedy in a story. It might be tragic enough to see an innocent child die in a film, but if the death is accompanied by the right music, the film can make you sob until you are honking like a goose.

In the ancient world the Greeks believed music had a magical power to speak directly to human emotion. In what has come to be known as the doctrine of
ethos, the Greeks believed that the right kind of music had the power to heal the sick and shape personal character in a positive way. The Greek philosopher Aristotle believed that when music was designed to imitate a certain emotion, a person listening to the music would have that emotion.

"We accept the division of melodies proposed by certain philosophers into ethical melodies, melodies of action, and passionate or inspiring melodies, each having, as they say, a mode corresponding to it".

– Aristotle, Politics, Bk 8, Pt 7

In Aristotle’s mind, someone listening to the wrong type of music would become the wrong type of person. Certain instruments and modes would take one toward either the logos (rational) or pathos (emotional), and it was essential to raise children with the right kind of music.

"Shall we argue that music conduces to virtue, on the ground that it can form our minds and habituate us to true pleasures as our bodies are made by gymnastics to be of a certain character?"

– Aristotle, Politics, Bk. 8, Pt. 5

In a similar manner, many people today believe music can be used to help educate children and promote good health.

According to the
American Music Therapy Association, music can be used to "promote wellness, manage stress, alleviate pain, express feelings, enhance memory, improve communication, and promote physical rehabilitation."

In an article posted on the Huffington Post," Therese J. Borchard, who is the author of the
Beyond Blue column, writes that music can be used as therapy. “Everything with a beat moves my spirit,” writes Ms. Borchard. “I can't get enough of Bach, Beethoven and Mozart, because I think so much better when these guys are playing in the background.”

Listen to the pieces I have embedded below to get a sense of what Ms. Borchard is saying. Both pieces are referenced by Ms. Bochard in her article “
Music Therapy: Got the Blues? Play Them."

Whether we call it music therapy or the doctrine of
ethos, the concept is simple to grasp. At its best, music has the potential to affect our emotions so deeply that it can cleanse our soul and connect us with something that might best be described as “spiritual.”

Sarah Brightman singing “Music of the Night” from Phantom of the Opera


Rachmaninoff, Prelude in C-sharp minor (Ruslan Sviridov, piano)

Benjamin Zander on Music and Passion

“Everybody loves classical music, they just haven't found out about it yet.” – Benjamin Zander

Embedded in this posting is a must-see TED talk by
Benjamin Zander, the musical director of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra and Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra. Zander's moving performance of Chopin's Prelude in E minor should be enough to persuade everyone to begin a journey into the world of classical music.