If 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. . . .