A symphony is defined as: an elaborate instrumental composition in three or more movements, similar in form to a sonata but written for an orchestra and usually of far grander proportions and more varied elements. Everyone has their favorites, as do I. I’ve decided, as the title would allude to, to make a top 10 symphonies list. I’ve also decided to let it be changeable. I figure, periodically I’ll make a new list when I feel my tastes/opinions have changed. This is entry one. The criteria are a combination of my personal tastes and historical influence. I’ve also limited it to one symphony per composer, so that it doesn’t end up just being Mahler and Shostakovich. These are my opinions, so they are irrefutable. Don’t argue it.
10) Messiaen “Turangalila”
Any symphony that has a cartoon character named after them (Turanga Leela of Futurama) has to be automatically great. Also any symphony with 10 movements, and an ondes martenot is pretty cool too. Messiaen got the commission from the Boston Symphony, and there were no requirements. It was premiered by Bernstein, which for whatever reason seems weird to me. Turngalila is derived from two Sanskrit which roughly translates to “love song and hymn of joy, time, movement, rhythm, life, and death.” Messiaen called it a love song, and this is no ordinary love song, lasting about 80 minutes. The work is cyclic, meaning it has several themes which are reused in the different movements (Spoiler Alert: this won’t be the last symphony on this list with recurring themes). Messiaen’s music is so different from everything else; the rhythm is different, the harmony is different, the color is different. This is one of the few “modernistic” works I like. It’s not an easy listen, but from the first time I heard it, I knew it was something great, and man is it great. The real highlights of the work are the exuberant 5th (named “the joy of the blood of the stars.” It seems right), and 10th movements (less interestingly named “finale”). Listen for: all the crazy percussion. There is so much percussion, and I love percussion.
9) Nielsen 5
The work defies the whole idea of a symphony needing three or more movements. Consisting of two extended movements, we the listeners are taken on a spectacular journey from two repeated notes in the viola to a huge earth shattering conclusion. The journey is not always pretty. I’ve seen the climax of the first movement described as one of the most harrowing passages in music. Building from the two repeated viola notes, the music gradually build, with instrument groups adding in and building. Nielsen writes some really nasty hard woodwind stuff, especially for the clarinet. Nielsen has such a distinct sound. If you haven’t heard his music, you need to. It’s sort of like Mahler, but very different, and very Dutch. He also gives good parts to the percussion. Listen for: the renegade snare drum. It’s meant to try to stop the orchestra’s progress, and man it makes the music.
8) Hovhaness 2 “Mysterious Mountain”
This is the only work of Hovhaness that any one really knows, but man, if that was all he wrote, he still would hold a big place in the heart of many music people. Most of his music is eastern influenced, but this one isn’t. He wasn’t pleased that this was the work he is best known by. Hovhaness wrote some 500+ works, and 60 odd symphonies, so it definitely is not a representative picture. Consisting of three movements, “Mysterious Mountain” is full of lush harmony, and mixed time signatures, notably the opening 10/4 chorale. Hovhaness’ music is so different from everything else, even in this work. It is so peaceful, which is very much against the whole 20th century feel. The second movement is a double fugue (a form he was very interested in) which would make Bach proud. The third is like the first, rich harmony, and wonderful woodwind writing. The title came as an afterthought, but it fits so feel. The work has the feel of being shaped like a mountain with its peaks and valleys and woods and rivers. Listen for: all the parallel chords. It would make Debussy proud.
7) Maslanka 4
Here’s another definition defy-er. Only one movement. But in that one movement we are taken through all the ranges of human emotion and expression. I think this may have been the first work where Maslanka’s interest in the Bach chorales came through. This is the only symphony on the list written for band. You may not have heard of him, but David Maslanka is a band god. I don’t care if you like any concert band stuff, listen to him. The 4th is probably his most popular work, and with good reason. The work is influenced by the urge to jump for the joy of life, and the life and death of Abe Lincoln. I listened to it on the way home from seeing “Lincoln” and it fits so well. There are gorgeous horn solos, a Bach chorale played with disassembled clarinets, a jazz freak out section, and so much more. Again, there’s quite a bit of percussion. It’s almost religious. I’ve never had the experience of wanting to jump out of my seat and just scream for joy, but this piece changed that. It has so much power and the closing bars are disturbingly powerful. Listen for: the disassembled clarinet part. That is supposed to be representative of some babies in Faust, but I don’t really care, it just sounds really creepy.
6) Kalinnikov 1
Here’s another composer you probably have never heard of, and with good reason. He died a very early death, leaving this world a very small set of works. In this small oeuvre he had written two symphonies, both of which, in my opinion, are masterworks. They are set in the classical tradition, but have all the romantic harmony, and a strong sense of Russian nationalism. What more could you expect from a guy who had friends like Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Rachmaninoff. The first symphony is full of magnificent Russian sounding melodies, lively rhythm, and rich harmony. The second movement has one of the most beautiful melodies that have ever graced my ears. This work is cyclic, having several earlier ideas return in the finale. The conclusion of the work sounds to me like the gates of heaven opening. If you want to fell like your life is worth something, listen to this work by a man who literally spent most of his life dying. The only trouble with this work, is that there are few good recordings. Good luck though. Listen for: the reappearance of the second mov. theme in the finale. That just rocks. The only time I’ve ever had an audience clapping before the work was over, was this finale.
5) Berlioz “Symphonie Fantastique”
Here’s another work with recurring themes. I’m a sucker for that kind of stuff. I’ve written about this work before, so I won’t say a whole lot. While at times showing some long winded-ness (notably in the third movement) the work as a whole is gripping. No one has written a better closing movement in my opinion. The witches sabbath is so exciting that it just grabs you and takes you along. I still contend that this is the first really Romantic symphony. There are such a wide variety of moods, from the melancholy that opens the work, and the joy of the waltz, to the emptiness of the third, and the wild march to the scaffold. It is, and always will be one of the great works in the orchestral rep. Listen for: the idee fixe, and all its different guises. I love how it turns up in the waltz.
4) Shostakovich 10
You know it’s a crowded field when my boy Dmitri is coming in at 4. While the 10th may not be my personal favorite, it is Shostakovich at his very best. None of his other symphonies really compare. The 5th is close, but still. The opening is one of his most finely crafted movements, full of ominous bass lines, pauses, and quirky wind melodies, it grips you until the last piccolo note fades into nothingness. The scherzo is the most satanic and hell-bent thing you will ever hear. It is 4 minutes of insanity, grabbing you by the balls, even if you don’t have any, and not letting go until the last rip. It is in Bb, a tritone away from the work’s central key, E, which fits with the whole idea that the scherzo represents Stalin. The odd third movement is like a nocturne, notable for the first presentation of the DSCH theme, Shostakovich’s musical representation of himself, and the Elmira theme, representing one of Shostakovich’s friends. At the climax the two themes call out to each other, which is pretty dramatic if you know what the two parts mean. And the finale, the finale is perfect. I don’t need to say much more. Listen for: The DSCH motive, and the scherzo. Fun stuff.
3) Bruckner 8
This is the most overwhelming work a I know. From it’s tremolo string opening, you’re hooked. There is no note that is not dripping with intensity. The 8th is Bruckner’s summation of everything he’s done, and it was the last symphony he was to complete in his life. The first movement is oddly concise for Bruckner, and by concise, I mean it lasts 16 minutes, but still. It utilizes the Bruckner rhythm (quarter – quarter – quarter note triplet). His two most well known works, the 4th and 8th, make good use of this rhythm, so it must be his money maker. The scherzo is one of the longest I know of, only trumped by one which is coming up later. The adagio is one of the most gorgeous thing ever written, and the finale is awe inspiring in its conception. It is a terrifyingly huge work, everything about it is big. It moves at Bruckner’s slow pace, but it never stop moving. It’s sort of like a moving train; not the fastest thing, but by far the hardest thing to stop. Listen for: the adagio. My god, so rapturous. Heaven.
2) Mahler 5
Like the Shostakovich, this isn’t my favorite Mahler symphony, but I think it is the best. It’s also very difficult. There are some interpretations out there that make me want to reconsider putting it on the list; they just don’t make sense, but those versions that get it right, this symphony is one of the greatest things out there. The first movement is Mahler’s best funeral march, complete with the most famous trumpet excerpt of all time, and cries of despair. When I die, I want this played. It is very bleak, but leaves sets the stage for one of the most remarkable symphonic trips you can get. This was the gigantic scherzo I was alluding to earlier. I think that movement is the make or break of the work. It’s hard to get your head around it, but once you get that good interpretation, it is so great. It also has some wicked good solo horn stuff. The adagietto is the adagietto, massively beautiful, and finale is one of counterpoints greatest romps. Listen for: the opening trumpet solo. There’s a ton of dynamic stuff marked in there, that a lot of trumpeters don’t get in.
1) Beethoven 9
Okay, I hear the arguments that say this isn’t Beethoven at his best, and I get it. The reason for it being at number 1, is it’s influence. There are few works that have been revered as this one here. It influenced Berlioz, Wagner, Liszt, Mahler, Bruckner, and it left it’s mark on Shostakovich’s 5th. Every Romantic composer idolized it. It became for them, the symphonic model. Mahler could use voices in his symphonies because of it, Bruckner could start his symphonies with string tremolos. I don’t need to say too much about it, everyone knows how it goes. Brotherhood and all. I love the finale, and I don’t care what anyone else says about it. Listen for: the timpani in the scherzo. I think that is cool.