I enjoy classical music throughout the year but winter is a particularly good season to listen. Fewer daylight hours and colder weather limit my time outside. I usually have something classical playing in the background as I read. Beginning with the holidays in December and so far into 2016, I have listened to and reacquainted myself with a number of symphonies.
Of course, as I posted before, Shostakovich's Great Tenth is always on my playlist this time of year. Russian sensibilities seem well-suited for cold cloudy or rainy days. Listening to Tchaikovsky's Great Sixth around Christmas brought back to mind my 12-part series (written between early 2010 and early 2013) on my favorite full-orchestra masterpieces. It occurred to me as I listened to other symphonic works that several of these compositions deserved to be mentioned in the series. Just for fun, I decided to create an "honorable mention" category so that a few additional "great" symphonies could be placed in context with the other "greats" I already wrote about.
I originally mentioned that John Corigliano deserved consideration when I reviewed Alan Hovhaness. So it is really with Corigliano that this whole idea of honorable mention originated. Corigliano is a contemporary composer I have followed for years. His Symphony No. 1 (1988), is a rich, modern piece with definitive classical influences. It is an emotionally charged symphony, wandering over 40-minutes through anger, fear, melancholia, love and sincerity. The brass section is loud and heavy in the traumatic first movement. This alternates with moments of lyrical reflection, best illustrated by the subtle use of piano underneath the strong string sections.
The second movement is an angry struggle for sanity and is more challenging, though rewarding, to hear.
The third movement features some beautifully accentuated cello and piano, while the orchestra toys with 12-tone variations. The final movement returns to the key of the first after exploring a lively march-rhythm and a sonic explosion carried mostly by brass again. I own the original CD release of Corigliano's Great First and have enjoyed listening to it for probably 25 years. It deserves to be acknowledged as a masterpiece though I do not consider the work to be preferred over any of my previous Great First choices.
I do not have honorable mentions for every symphonic category in my canvassing of the art form. Witold Lutoslawski's Great Fourth is next on my honorable mention list. Lutoslawski is probably my favorite overall modern classical composer of symphonic music. His 20-minute Fourth was finished in 1992, and is his last full-scale composition. It is a symphony in two movements performed without pause mimicking the continuous presentation of his Great Third symphony.
There are an enormous number of solo parts featured throughout this comparatively brief work. Almost all wind and brass instruments are featured individually along with more esoteric ones such as bongos and marimba. This is a sonic soundscape that has many textures, many unions and disruptions, and moments of melodic ease in what I perceive to be Lutoslawski's distinctive style. The symphony works itself into a magnificent, pulsating finish which makes me go "wow" every time I listen to this splendid, short but densely packed work.
My next honorable mention goes to Franz Schubert, who composed his Great Fifth symphony in 1816. It is steeped in the classical tradition of Haydn and Mozart. It is actually not as innovative and distinctive as some of the other symphonies mentioned in this post. Yet it is highly rewarding to hear this 26-minute masterpiece. The first movement is upbeat, proud with several catchy flourishes of orchestral lightheartedness. The second movement is beautiful and slightly melancholy. The third is a highly traditional, energetic minuet. The finale is lively and morphs into the happy mood of the symphony's beginning. It is all technically precise, emotionally precise, its construction is the most traditional symphony mentioned in this post. Yet, because it is so comfortable and sounds so familiar, it warms the listener and sentimentally quiets all anxiety with bright optimism.
I have two honorable mentions for the Great Unnumbered symphony category. The first is a reworking by John Adams of the primary orchestral pieces in his Doctor Atomic opera. His Doctor Atomic Symphony (2007) is a joy to hear and proves that great classical music is still being composed today. I have previously reviewed this Great symphony here. This is a highly entertaining 25-minute symphony though it is merely the exploration of musical possibilities contained within the opera.
The other Great Unnumbered honorable mention goes to Georges Bizet. Bizet composed his Symphony in C (1855) when he was only 17. This 35-minute work is a superb composition and has undertones of Schubert and Mozart but in a distinct mid-romantic style. For me, the best part of this composition is the second movement's wonderful oboe solos following an upbeat opening movement. The third and fourth movements are happy and energetic leading to a lilting finale. The work was forgotten during Bizet's lifetime and only performed after his death. It is highly accessible and can easily be appreciated by the most casual music listener. Yet it is a more sophisticated work than it might first seem and qualifies as a masterpiece.
One thing leads to another in often unexpected ways. So as I was listening and contemplating these honorable symphonies, I wondered how the individual composers stacked up comparatively through history according to my original reviews. As an entertaining mental exercise, who are my choices for the greatest symphonic composers?
To make things a bit more interesting I am going to assign 3-points to the “winning” composer of each of my original posts and 1-point to any other symphony reviewed as part of the series. The honorable mentions I just added receive no points. While I truly enjoy all of them, none are superior to the selections I have previously made. The point system is problematic for the Great Sixths. Since that is considered by me as a three-way tie for first I will award each composer 3-points. Considering the numerous symphonies of Haydn and Mozart also presents some challenge in terms of assigning points. I arrived at those numbers rather subjectively with each composer racking up 3-points and 1-point from the various symphonies I mentioned.
How does it all add up? Who is the greatest symphonic composer of all time and what is his margin of victory?
Let’s begin at the bottom of the ladder with all the composers who did not win a category and are only mentioned once throughout the series. They receive 1-point each. Here they are in alphabetical order (with the corresponding symphony in parenthesis): Samuel Barber (1), César Franck (U), Philip Glass (8), Henryk Gorecki (3), Franz Liszt (U), Witold Lutoslawski (3), Felix Mendelssohn (4), Sergei Prokofiev (2), and Robert Schumann (3). Hector Berlioz (U*) is the only other symphonist mentioned but once. He gets 3-points, however, for winning the Unnumbered category.
Antonín Dvořák is mentioned twice (2, 9) so he comes in behind Berlioz with 2-points. Asterisks (*) represent first-place in my series.
Jean Sibelius is mentioned three times (2, 5, 7) so his 3-points places him in a tie with Berlioz in terms of total score. Above that we have three Great composers who score 4-points each: Johannes Brahms is noted twice (1, 3*), as is Franz Schubert (8*, 9), while Anton Bruckner is mentioned four times (4, 7, 8, 9). So, I would place these three composers in the middle-tier of giants of symphonic composition.
Alan Hovhaness comes in next with 8-points, which is probably controversial as he is clearly one of the weaker composers considered. Still, his prolific output and his frequent mastery of solo pieces within his compositions is deserving of distinction, though I personally would not rank him artistically above most of the previously mentioned composers. I give him 3-points for his Great 50th symphony and 1-point for each of the other five symphonies mentioned. So, he is a bit of a surprise. Pyotr Tchaikovsky is no surprise, however. He also receives 8-points on a far less extensive body of work compared with Hovhaness. Tchaikovsky was reviewed six times (1, 2, 4, 5, 6*, U).
Joseph Haydn stands a notch above with 10-points for the several symphonies mentioned in my post on his compositions. His amazing 104 symphonies are reflective of an immense and highly qualified body of work almost unmatched in cultural history. Dimitri Shostakovitch composed 15 by comparison but the Russian matches Haydn in total points while also being noted six times (1, 5*, 7, 8, 10*, 15).
That leaves just three composers mentioned in this series. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (various mentioned) and Ludwig van Beethoven (3*, 5, 6*, 7*, 9*) are tied with 13-points each. Mozart has the distinction of superb work over the course of 40-plus symphonic compositions. Beethoven has the distinction of finishing with four first-place symphonies, more than any other composer in my reviews.
Finally, at the summit, is Gustav Mahler with three wins and 16-points all total. His work is reviewed far more frequently than anyone throughout my posts, ten times all total (1*, 2*, 3, 4, 5, 6*, 7, 8, 9, U). Somewhat ironically, his Great Ninth is perhaps the greatest of all his compositions and yet it has to finish second to Beethoven in that category due to the fact that Beethoven’s Great Ninth outshines every other symphony, period.
Nevertheless, there are no inferior Mahler symphonies and I recognize all of his completed compositions (his Tenth was unfinished) as a body of work that surpasses everyone, even the prolific mastery of Haydn and the consistent supremacy of Beethoven, as the greatest symphonic composer in history. You cannot go wrong listening to a Mahler symphony. They are all brilliant, each in its own way, and are as vibrant and complex and modern sounding today as when they were first conceived.
So my (unplanned) top five composers of all-time turn out to be:
Beethoven, 13-points (first-place in four categories)
I do not pretend this to be an exhaustive list of high symphonic achievement. There are many, many other symphonies in my music collection that I don't mention at all anywhere in this series. I enjoy listening to these excellent symphonies, some could possibly be considered as Great. But, I am sure my favorite symphonies have all been mentioned somewhere in my classical music posts to date.
They are here arranged in some order of comparison, not necessarily the degree to which I listen to them. Beethoven's Great Ninth is the greatest of all symphonies but that does not mean I listen to it more than others. I don't. I listen to Lutoslawski's Great Third far more often, for example. I rank Hovhaness very high but I don't really listen to him much. My personal tastes are, therefore, strictly an intimate, often instinctual connection with the music and has little to do with the music's true historic significance.