symphonic desert island list

CK Dexter Haven is one of the classical blogosphere’s most respected bloggers, and he’s always got something interesting to say – and lots of inside scoop on the goings on at the LA Philharmonic. This past week, Mr. CKDH was on a long drive to the Santa Barbara wine country when he came up with a cool game – here are the rules from his post:

  • You can only pick one symphony per composer
  • You must choose numbered symphonies 1 through 9 only.  No Symphonie fantastique, Symphony of Psalms, Symphonic Dances, etc.
  • Once you choose a numbered symphony, you cannot choose another similarly numbered symphony by a different composer (i.e. no choosing both Beethoven’s 7th and Sibelius 7th).
  • Use only current numbering conventions; so if you were to pick the New World Symphony by Dvo?ák, you’d have to put it in the 9th Symphony spot, not the 5th Symphony where some folks 50 years ago may have put it.
  • Bonus point for including symphonies by composers who actually composed at least nine numbered symphonies.

As noted by Tim Mangan in his list, there have been a couple of adaptations of the ‘rules’. Alex Ross proposed no Beethoven symphonies. Tim Mangan suggested that compositions without numbers might be ok, too. I’m thinking of my choices as I type this post, so I’m not sure which rules I’ll abide by at this point…

So, without further ado, my picks:

  • Tchaikovsky – Symphony No. 1 I know, it’s a strange choice, but it’s a lovely symphony that one almost never gets to hear performed. I think I’ve only done it once in my 20 years with the Oregon Symphony, twice at most. I’d rather play it than 4, 5, or 6 any day, just because it still has a touch of the novel to it.
  • Ives – Symphony No. 2 I actually had to engage in an internal debate before I wrote this one down. I’m not a fan of Ives’ music, for which I don’t really have an intellectual basis. However, his 2nd really is a huge statement by a composer hitting his stride as he assimilates the European tradition (it really sounds a lot like Brahms, one must admit) and puts his own American stamp on the form.
  • Copland – Symphony No. 3 I have to admit, I have had a lot of ambivalence about Copland’s music after a surfeit of exposure during the first few years of my orchestral career. But there is something about the Third Symphony that haunts me. Its power, its delicacy, and the virtuoso demands it places on the ensemble. Plus, the Oregon Symphony is releasing its new recording of the Third on the Pentatone label on February 1st.
  • Vaughan Williams – Symphony No. 4 I have a soft spot for this angry and devastating work, as it was part of our critically-acclaimed Carnegie Hall debut concert at the Spring for Music festival back in 2011. At the Oregon Symphony we’ve so far played Nos. 4 and 5. I’m curious when our next encounter with RVW’s symphonies will take place…
  • Sibelius – Symphony No. 5 This symphony makes me cry every time I perform it. That magnificent ‘swan’ theme that bursts from the ground like a volcanic eruption at the work’s climax sends chills down my spine every single time. I just wish that the last chords of the piece didn’t so easily ruin an otherwise awesome performance. I pity any conductor that has to make sense of the ending and how to pace it. And audience members that clap one chord too soon…
  • Dvorak – Symphony No. 6 This symphony was a revelation to me when we first performed it with Carlos Kalmar in the past season or so. There is so much Dvorak that is so good, but not performed with any degree of regularity. I would happily put the Cello Concerto, Carnival Overture, and New World Symphony aside to play some of his lesser-known masterpieces, like this one.
  • Shostakovich – Symphony No. 7 Talk about a world within a symphony. Shostakovich plays cinema verité director in his harrowing description of the siege of Leningrad. It was hard to figure out which Shostakovich symphony to pick for which number, in the end I went with the one that I have not yet performed, in the hopes that it might hasten that coming to pass…
  • Schubert – Symphony No. 8 “Unfinished” Schubert’s symphonies suffer to almost the same degree as those of Dvorak. We only hear 8 and 9 with any regularity. His Nos. 4 and 5 are wonderful, classically-inspired works that are also a delight to perform. But the Unfinished is such a gem in its compressed form (which is a relief compared to the ‘heavenly’ length of the Ninth), and has such facile and heartbreaking melodies that I had to include it.
  • Mahler – Symphony No. 9 This is how one takes their leave of the world, with a sprawling, elegiac utterance of such depth and sincerity that it simply takes one’s breath away. It’s perhaps the only suitable bookend to Beethoven’s Ninth – putting resignation and sorrow in the place of triumph and joy.

My honorable mentions (omitted only because of the need to follow the rules): Beethoven 9, Shostakovich 8, Sibelius 4, Dvorak 7, Mahler 5, Mozart 39, Strauss Don Quixote, Lutoslawski 3.

This was a really fun mental exercise, and I must thank CKDH for his instigation of this blog meme! Well, done, Dexter!

5 Replies to “symphonic desert island list”

  1. Fun list! Everyone always talks about the ending of Sibelius 5 as problematic or even silly whereas it’s my favorite part of the whole symphony. Whether that’s because of the way Osmo paces it or just because I was at THIS concert , where these explosions of silence seemed 100% appropriate and fitting, I don’t know. (Ending starts about 6:00.) I also contemplated the Winter Dreams for my #1. I’m glad someone else put it on their list. 🙂

  2. Thanks for sharing. I’ve had a blast reading everyone’s lists and reasons for including (or sometimes not including) certain selections. I would have loved to have found/made room for Copland 3 or Lutoslawski 3 or 4, but just couldn’t fit any of them in without bumping something else I truly liked more and which I though brought something a little different to the collection as a whole.

  3. Great fun! I’ve always sought out too little-known symphonies by both the great and not so great. Here’s my list : Salvador Brotons – Symphony #1 , Piston – Symphony #2 , Harris – Symphony #3 , Arnold Bax – Symphony #4 , Honegger – Symphony #5 , Nielsen – Symphony #6 , Prokofiev – Symphony #7 , Vaughan-Williams – Symphony #8 , Shostakovich – Symphony #9 .

  4. I must revise my list I posted last night. Instead of the Shostakovich Symphony 9, I offer instead the Robert Simpson Symphony 9. It’s an amazing hour long,one movement symphony by a most neglected English composer who died in 1997. Look him and his music up; he was a very unique gentleman.

  5. This is a fun post, but those are tough constraints to abide by–rules out most of the really prolific composers, as well as Shostakovich 10, etc., and keeps me from selecting most of Vaughan Williams’s symphonic output. Nevertheless:

    1 – Johannes Brahms (or William Walton if I’m feeling more energetic)
    2 – Alan Hovhanness (or Johann Svendsen if I’m feeling particularly Norwegian)
    3 – Ralph Vaughan Williams
    4 – Arnold Bax (or Jean Sibelius on a brooding day)
    5 – Dmitri Shostakovich (consolation prize for not including the 10th)
    6 – Ludwig van Beethoven
    7 – Sergei Prokofiev
    8 – Anton Bruckner
    9 – Antonin Dvorak

    Subsequent days’ lists would likely be different…

    It would be interesting to do the same kind of list, but in each time period from the Classical Era (or perhaps even the “Rococo” Baroque, with the early Mannheim symphonists, the Bach sons, etc.) onward.

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