Music News & Info: Classical

Choosing nine symphonies (a puzzle/challenge/game of sorts)

Thinking-Man-RodinIf you had to pick nine symphonies — no more, no less — by different composers to include as part of a proverbial desert island survival kit, what would they be?  I asked myself this question just for grins over the recent Christmas & New Year’s break.

Nine has been a magical number of sorts for symphonies ever since Beethoven wrote that many and stopped.  Mahler wrote at least that many.  Bruckner kind of did.  Sibelius did too, as long as you count “Kullervo” in the mix.  Haydn, Mozart, and Hovhaness wrote a whole lot more than nine.  Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn, and many others didn’t come close.

So while driving up to Santa Barbara wine country, I decided to create a list of nine symphonies.  Just to make things a little more interesting, I created a few extra rules:

  • 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 Dvořák, 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.

It wasn’t as easy an exercise as I thought it would be.  After some consideration, here’s the list I came up with (with quick commentary included for each):

  • Corigliano:  Symphony No. 1 (My favorite “symphony” written while I’ve been alive)
  • Sibelius:  Symphony No. 2 (I’m a sucker for the mood changes in this)
  • Mahler:  Symphony No. 3 (The biggest, baddest, MoFo of a symphony in the standard repertoire, the first Mahler symphony I really loved, and one of my favorites overall)
  • Shostakovich:  Symphony No. 4 (Quirky in all the right ways)
  • Prokofiev:  Symphony No. 5 (One hell of a fun ride, full of great moments for all the sections of the orchestra)
  • Tchaikovsky:  Symphony No. 6, Pathétique (my favorite Tchaikovsky symphony, and I figured there needed to be at least one by him on the list; plus, there weren’t a lot of other Sixth Symphonies I gravitated towards)
  • Bruckner:  Symphony No. 7  (Yes, I’m as shocked as you are that I actually included a Bruckner Symphony; I guess I’m a sucker for bonus points)
  • Haydn:  Symphony No. 8, Le soir (Have loved this since the first time I heard it; thrilled to find a spot for the guy who basically invented symphonies)
  • Beethoven:  Symphony No. 9 (Because, well, it’s Beethoven’s Ninth, and you must have something triumphant and life-affirming to play on the aforementioned desert island)

Some additional thoughts:

  • I almost changed 1, 4, 5 to be:  Prokofiev 1st, Ives 4th, Shostakovich 5th . . . but didn’t
  • I also thought about doing Sibelius 1st and Ives 2nd instead, because in general I like more Ives than Corigliano, but I also like Sibelius 2nd much more than the 1st; including something written during my lifetime seemed like a nice bonus.
  • If I could break my own rules, I would find a place for Mozart’s 40th and/or 41st.
  • I’m a little surprised I didn’t end up with anything by Schubert.  Just a little.  The closest was putting the “Unfinished” in place of the Haydn, but that was a fleeting gesture.

Any one else want to pick their own set of nine?  Justifications optional, of course. . . .


53 thoughts on “Choosing nine symphonies (a puzzle/challenge/game of sorts)

  1. Pingback: Number 9, Number 9, Number 9…A Symphonic Revolution | Brian Lauritzen

  2. By adding another rule – that every selection should be different from yours – i made it too hard for myself since some of your choices were difficult to argue with, so i got stuck on number 6 because could not think of any that could be a worthy challenger to your champion. However, i believe i have managed to beat you in bonus points – 6 to 5!
    1 Shostakovich
    2 Brahms
    3 Schubert
    4 Tchaikovsky
    5 Mahler
    6 ???
    7 Dvorak
    8 Beethoven
    9 Bruckner


    • Many people seem to be having trouble with #6. If not the Tchaikovsky, then Haydn (“Le Matin”), Beethoven or Mahler, then “???” for sure. Alex Ross’s choice of Vaughan Williams 6th is rather interesting. If I were to go for something more obscure, perhaps I’d lean Milhaud?


    • 1. Samuel Barber symphony 1
      2. Howard Hanson symphony 2
      3. Mahler symphony 3
      4. Brahms symphony 4
      5. Shostakovich symphony 5
      6. Tchaikovsky symphony 6
      7. Beethoven symphony 7
      8. Roy Harris symphony 8
      9. William Schumam symphony 9

      Liked by 1 person

  3. 1 Berlioz — to begin by breaking a rule about no ‘non-numbered’ symphonies, but the Fantastique remains the most astounding symphonic debut by any composer.

    2 Beethoven — ever since I first heard the brazenly impish finale of the Beethoven 2nd as a kid (a Bernstein / NY Phil Columbia LP) I’ve loved this symphony. Most folks think the Eroica is the first ‘echt’ Beethoven symphony. It’s the 2nd.

    3 Brahms — could easily swap Beethoven / Brahms, 2 / 3. Adore the aching, yearning slow movement.

    4 Sibelius — am a huge sucker for ‘misterioso’ beginnings. In some ways, the Sibelius 4th opening is the most compelling, entrancing opening to any symphony I know.

    5 Prokofiev — I can’t hear the 2nd ‘scherzo’ movement without imagining some phantasmagoric Soviet-era 3-ring circus, with trapeze and marching bands and parading animals, all symbolic of the absurd political reality Prokofiev inhabited… I dunno, that’s just what this amazing music evokes for me.

    6 Tchaikovsky — did I mention I love mysterious openings? Also, maybe the most genuinely tragic, heartbreaking symphony ever written.

    7 ??? Kinda stumped. Mahler, certainly, but 9th trumps. Sibeilus, certainly, but 4th trumps. Bruckner, certainly, but 8 and 9 trump, maybe 5 too. I’m probably in the minority in *not* loving Beethoven’s 7th.

    8 Bruckner — probably gets my vote for ‘greatest symphony ever written, period.’

    9 Mahler — could have picked so many Mahlers, 3rd and 7th especially. But the 9th seems to me the most perfect music Mahler ever wrote, especially the gorgeous, elegiac first movement.

    10 Shostakovich — began by breaking a rule, end by breaking a rule. (and again with the mysterious openings!)


      • Thanks for the fun idea! Still can’t come up with a satisfying candidate for a 7th Symphony. Dvorak? I love the Dvorak 8th dearly, much more than the 7th, but nothing was going to elbow the mighty Bruckner 8th off my list…


  4. Great idea. I certainly take your point about Mozart 40 & 41 and other late ones–the problem with him is that the ones up through 9 are so unrepresentative.


  5. This is tricky but here goes:
    #1. Tchaikowsky. His symphonies are not my favorite music of his (give me the ballets or operas) but this is a gem.
    #2. Mahler. The big sloppy Resurrection Symphony used to be my teenage blast the stereo as loud as you could for friends music.
    #3. Lou Harrison. There’s hardly a piece of music he wrote that I don’t love.
    #4. Brahms. The Bruno Walter mono recording.
    #5. Sibelius. The old Leonard Bernstein recording, it’s a tricky piece to get right in live performance.
    #6. Haydn. The opening sunrise in “Le Matin” is some of the best music ever written.
    #7. Beethoven. Not a big fan of the composer, but this is his category and it’s a great work.
    #8. Shostakovich. Currently have a half-dozen favorite Shostakovich symphonies (including #11), but this is the loudest and wildest and possibly strangest of the first nine.
    #9. Schubert. Just heard an amazing performance of this live by the San Francisco Symphony under Herbert Blomstedt that made me finally appreciate it.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Pingback: My Nine

  7. Pingback: Nine symphonies | Classical Life

  8. Pingback: A Musical Puzzle: The 9 Symphonies | Mask of the Flower Prince

  9. Pingback: Nine Symphonies | Song of the Lark

  10. One of the saddest reflections on the state of musical education these days🙂 A glorious historical heritage of repertoire filtered by recording companies and even further by non-risk taking concert programmers. have a look for Sammartini, W.F.Bach, C.P.E. Bach, Wagsell, Stamitz, Dittersdorf, Mendelssohn, Spohr, Schumann, Franck, Stanford, Parry, Bantock, Chausson, Loeffler, Roussel, Hadley, Scriabin. D.G.Mason, Bloch, Szymanowski, Arnell, Honneger, Bernstein, Barber, Britten, Fricker, to name but a few… be bold, really, one new one per day…. have fun….


  11. Very cool challenge (and I love your choices)! Now I need to go find a recording of the Corigliano, I’ve never heard it before… Here’s my list, with 0 added for fun:

    Bruckner 0
    Prokofiev 1
    Sibelius 2
    Copland 3
    Mendelssohn 4
    Tchaikovsky 5
    Beethoven 6
    Shostakovich 7
    Dvorak 8
    Mahler 9


  12. Great (and fun) sudoku!! This is my choice:
    1. Prokofiev
    2. Brahms
    3. Schumann
    4. Mendelssohn
    5. C. Ph. E Bach (Wq 182)
    6. Haydn
    7. Bruckner
    8. Schubert (the “Unfinished” or the “Great in C major”, as you prefer: I love both of them)
    9. Beethoven

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Mahler 1 – youthful and brash, more of a striking debut than most First’s. I could put Mahler in several of the slots…
    Brahms 2
    Lutoslawski 3- love this, built my 9 partially around this choice which made things hard.
    Nielsen 4 – along with Beethoven and Mahler, I felt Nielsen slighted by this game. I like 3, 4 and 5
    Sibelius 5
    Prokofiev 6- 6 was the hardest number, almost went with “???”
    Bruckner 7. Not my favorite 7th, but the game forces a number of ‘Non-favorites” into slots, doesn’t it?
    Beethoven 8– with all the big, bold, revolutionary stuff Beethoven did, much respect for the concentrated charm in the 8th. Schubert’s 8th hard to pick against though
    Dvorak 9 – hard to go against Mahler 9 but I wanted to put Mahler 1 on the list. Personally have never been able to concentrate through all of Schubert’s 9th, but no disrespect intended!
    A fun exercise, thanks for posting and thanks to those responding.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Pingback: Desert Island Symphonies | Bad Entertainment, A Minneapolis-St. Paul Arts Blog

  15. Beethoven 9, Schubert 8, Dvorak 7, Tchaikovsky 6, Bruckner 5, Shostakovich 4, William Schuman Mahler 2, Mozart 1. All but one composed 9 Symphonies. All pieces are bad-ass motherfuckers that would POWER a desert island. If I could, for added wattage, I’d add Mahler 8, Ives 4, and Havergal Brian Symphony No. 1!

    Liked by 1 person

      • That symphony is certainly remarkable for an eight-year-old, but is so understandably immature and unsurprisingly derivative that it really does not belong anywhere near such outstanding works as are the rest of LPA’s solid list of choices. Seeing it right next to Mahler’s Second is, to be honest, rather silly.


  16. Yes. This is an interesting game, as long as one remembers it IS just a game. It excludes so many fine things, including most of the best of Haydn and Mozart, and all of Berlioz, Webern and Stravinsky, amongst others! And tricky, because no duplicates allowed.

    1. Mahler (the most astonishing symphonic debut)
    2. Brahms
    3. Nielsen
    4. Shostakovich
    5. Bruckner (his ‘meisterstück’)
    6. Prokofiev
    7. Sibelius
    8. Dvorak
    9. Beethoven (the iconic ‘Ninth’!)


  17. Pingback: Benjamin Coy — 9 Symphonies

  18. Thought about this for quite some time. Would consider number 10 as a wild card. I agree with Alex Ross, Beethoven is hors concours. Here goes:

    1. Brahms
    2. Mahler
    3. Schumann
    4. Mendelssohn
    5. Sibelius
    6. Tchaikovsky
    7. Bruckner
    8. Dvorak
    9. Schubert


  19. mine is a bit different
    1…. Prokofiev ‘classical’
    2…. Rimsky-Korsakov ‘antar’
    3…. Gliere ‘ilya mourometz’
    4…. Sibelius
    5…. Miaskovsky
    6…. Tchaikovsky ‘pathetique’
    7…. Vaughan Williams ‘sinfonia antartica’
    8…. Schubert ‘unfinished’
    9…. Dvorak ‘new world’


  20. This was fun! It was hard to narrow it down from a purely listenng perspective, so mine is based on how much I enjoy playing the symphonies.

    1 Brahms
    2 Rachmaninov
    3 Mendelssohn
    4 Schumann
    5 Prokofiev
    6 Beethoven
    7 Dvorak
    8 Mahler
    9 Schubert


  21. Pingback: Another Musical Puzzle: The EU Challenge | Mask of the Flower Prince

  22. This is an interesting list, but I’m sorry you’re leaving out single symphonies (i.e., composers who have written only one0, such as those by Chausson, Franck, Bernard Herrmann, E.J. Moeran, Wagner (he actually composed two, but very few know the incomplete second) and several others.

    That said, if I had to choose 1 through 9, and different composers? A tough call, but…here goes:

    #1 – Vaughan Williams (aka “A Sea Symphony”)
    #2 – Mahler
    #3 – James Barnes (for concert band)
    #4 – William Grant Still
    #5 – George Lloyd
    #6 – Tchaikovsky
    #7 – Dvorak
    #8 – Bruckner (which edition? 1890 Nowak, but also favor 1887 version)
    #9 – Beethoven

    And the runner-ups? Nielsen’s 1st and 4th, Glazunov’s 2nd, Tchaikovsky’s 3rd, Sibelius’ 4th, Vaughan Williams’ 5th and 6th, Havergal Brian’s 7th, Shostakovich’s 8th and Bruckner’s 9th (either three or four-movement version)


  23. So here goes, far more difficult than I thought:

    1. Dutilleux
    2. Sibelius
    3. Copland
    4. Brahms
    5. Nielsen
    6. Norgard
    7. Rautavaara
    8. Dvorak
    9. Mahler

    Now that I see it on the page it seems excessively eclectic and scandinavian! The 2nd, 4th and 5th places were the only ones that were “no brainers” for me, the 1st was a toss up with Prokofiev, the 3rd spot could of gone to Roy Harris, Lutoslawski, Gorecki or of course Beethoven.Tchaikovsky’s 6th was the popular choice, Valentin Silvestrov’s 6th was the hipster choice but both just got edged out by Per Norgard. On any given day Beethoven would wrestle 7th spot from Rautavaara. Eighth was difficult, maybe Schnittke, maybe Schubert. And then there is the 9th…..


  24. I played the game on NewMusicBox yesterday and added the additional restriction that all pieces had to be by American composers since we are, after all, the web magazine from New Music USA. But I cheated a bit in that I picked more than one for each (I hate playing favorites) and I went past nine since quite a few American composers did with great results (e.g. Alan Hovhaness, Gloria Coates, etc.) Anyway, here goes:


  25. In my continuing quest to challenge myself by creating new requirements in addition to the basic rules of this game, i came up with the following list of outstanding symphonies that are not only written by different composers and are numbered 1 through 9, but are also well known by their different titles or nicknames:
    Prokofiev, Mahler, Beethoven, Nielsen, Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, Schubert, Dvorak.


  26. Pingback: The Australian Symphony – In search of Australia’s 9 ‘Greats’ | musicyoudontknow

  27. My humble list

    1 Mozart
    2 Rachmaninov
    3 Brahms
    4 Pärt
    5 Shostakovich
    6 Tchaikovsky
    7 Prokofiev
    8 Schubert
    9 Beethoven

    A lot of people have left Schubert out of the list…which is a pity as his last two numbered symphonies are legend. Also…no Pärt (his 4th is obscenely lovable). Who can forget the Tutti beginning of Mozart’s 1st? I allowed myself one cheesy symphony and Rachmaninov’s second is the stringiest kind. Prokofiev’s 7th…for children…is warm beautiful fantasy. Finish it off with the 30 second long cadence at the end of Beethoven’s 9th.


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