In 2015, the Southern California-based writer CK Dexter Haven posed the following question to the classical music blogosphere: “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?” This intriguing challenge quickly caught fire across the Interwebs as countless people weighed in with their own picks, ranging from KUSC’s Brian Lauritzen to New Yorker music critic Alex Ross. Some found that their favorite symphonies naturally fit into each corresponding slot. Others found it much more difficult. (On Twitter, Brian Lauritzen appropriately called the task “fun/impossible.”)
Fast-forward five years later. The COVID pandemic has graciously provided loads more time to listen to music (there’s a bright side for ya!), so I decided that it was time to take on Dexter Haven’s challenge. Throughout the month of August, I listened to many different symphonies—ones I already knew and loved, others that were less familiar, and some that were completely new. After working my way through over 60 pieces (!!), I considered possible outcomes and drafted up my own “desert island survival kit” of nine completely different symphonies by nine completely different composers. And let me tell you, it was not exactly a walk in the park.
There were a few additional rules to this challenge. In his original blog post, Dexter Haven states the following:
- “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.”
As you can see, this was an extremely tricky undertaking (and many, many wonderful symphonies got left out in the process), but it was loads of fun nonetheless and the perfect end-of-summer time waster. So, without further ado, here are my nine picks, followed by some additional thoughts at the end. Let’s do this…
1. William Walton: Symphony No. 1 in B-flat minor
For my opening slot, Walton’s First Symphony takes the crown (a rather appropriate metaphor for a British composer). This work is truly marvelous and sadly underplayed here in the States. It brims with both vivacity and heart-on-sleeve passion and features one of the quirkiest endings after Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony. Plus, this work has a special familial connection. While on the bus for a choir & orchestra tour back in 1985, my dad first laid eyes on my mom while listening to the Symphony’s gorgeous third movement on his Walkman. They’ve been happily married ever since. Awwww…
Honorable Mentions: Shostakovich, Mahler, Brahms, Corigliano, Mendelssohn, Price, Mathias, Still
2. Carlos Chávez: Symphony No. 2, “Sinfonía india”
Sure, this 12-minute work may not win an award for being the most “profound” symphony, but honestly, who cares? It’s a heck of a lot of fun! The music of Mexican composer Carlos Chávez deserves to be much better known than it is, and this piece is a great starting place. Set in a single movement with three distinct sections, Chávez quotes actual melodies from native-Mexican tribes and also requests that the percussionists use several indigenous percussion instruments. The result is a rollicking—yet respectful—celebration of Mexico’s native heritage, but with a decisively modern twist.
Honorable Mentions: Brahms, Sibelius, Mahler, Hovhannes, Schumann, Hanson, Rorem
3. Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, “Eroica”
When Alex Ross took this challenge in 2015, he decided to omit any Beethoven symphonies from his list. I toyed with this idea and almost went through with it (there are plenty of third symphonies that could’ve easily filled this slot), but I just couldn’t bring myself to give up Beethoven’s “Eroica.” At the risk of exaggeration, this work truly set the bar for what a symphony could do and inspired countless composers to experiment with the form for years to come. More simply, though, this Symphony is filled with so many incredible moments—the “wrong” horn entrance in the opening movement, the heartbreaking fugue in the funeral march, the boisterous Scherzo (heard in the clip below). If I had to pick only one Beethoven symphony to listen to for the rest of my life, this would be it.
Honorable Mentions: Ives, Brahms, Mahler, Nielsen, Copland, Pärt, Górecki, Lutosławski, Prokofiev, Honegger, Rachmaninoff, Harris
4. Dmitri Shostakovich: Symphony No. 4 in C minor
There are a surprising amount of great “fourths” in the repertoire—there’s Mahler at his most lyrical, Beethoven’s underrated Fourth, and a little-known gem from Ruth Gipps. In the end, though, I had to go with Shostakovich’s bitingly intense Fourth Symphony. Opening with an anguished scream and ending over an hour later in the quietest depths of despair, this work contains everything you’d want in a Shostakovich symphony and offers a glimpse into his conflicted mental state during the anxiety-ridden Stalin years. (The first movement also spotlights one of the most insane fugues in the symphonic repertoire. Watch the clip below for a taste.) This work is an exhilarating—and even exhausting—listen, but man is it worth the trip.
Honorable Mentions: Beethoven, Nielsen, Mahler, Martinů, Schubert, Brahms, Ives, Lutosławski, Tchaikovsky, Bruckner, Sibelius, Maslanka, MacMillan, Gipps, Diamond
5. Franz Schubert: Symphony No. 5 in B-flat major
This is a rather odd choice among a field of worthy contenders, but I just absolutely adore this Symphony and its easy-going, Mozartian grace. (Apparently, Schubert’s intention was to channel the style of Mozart.) Composed during the final gasps of the Classical era and before the expressivity of Romanticism fully took root, Schubert’s Fifth recalls the simplicity of a not-too-distant past, with a few twists of his own along the way. Just try to listen to this piece without a smile on your face—I dare you.
Honorable Mentions: Nielsen, Mahler, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Vaughan Williams, Sibelius, Rouse
6. Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6 in B minor, “Pathétique”
Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony continues the Beethovenian tradition of turning the symphonic form on its head, ending with the slowest movement rather than an upbeat finale. Add in a brooding opening and a delightfully wistful second movement (which features a waltz in 5/4 time!), and you have one of the most satisfying symphonies out there. Oh, and feel free to applaud after the barn-raising third movement. It’ll make the tears all the more apparent in the finale.
Honorable mentions: Mahler, Beethoven, Persichetti, Haydn
7. Jean Sibelius: Symphony No. 7 in C major
This is one of THE most perfect pieces in the classical canon. Period. Full stop. End of conversation. Every single note has a place and a purpose—there’s no extraneous or pompous “fluff” here. Mahler believed that a [four-movement] symphony, like the world, had to contain everything, but in his Seventh Symphony, Sibelius manages to encompass the world in the span of a single, 22-minute movement! Anchored by a magisterial trombone theme (which reoccurs throughout as a sort of “signpost” along the journey), the Symphony glides through sun-drenched pathways and shadowy forests before reaching a shockingly-abrupt conclusion in C major. Little wonder that Vaughan Williams once declared that “only Sibelius could make C major sound completely fresh.”
Honorable Mentions: Beethoven, Prokofiev, Rautavaara
8. Antonín Dvořák: Symphony No. 8 in G major
I hate to admit it, but for some reason I wasn’t really familiar with Dvořák’s Eighth before embarking on this challenge. Boy, what an oversight that was! While beloved for his famous Ninth (and rightly so), the Eighth radiates an unpretentious warmth and joy that can be difficult to find in symphonies post-Beethoven. (My personal favorite movement is the breezy, waltz-like third.) This Symphony is truly the perfect antidote for these uncertain times, as evidenced by the performance below, which was performed back in June by a socially-distanced Concertgebouw Orchestra.
Honorable Mentions: Mahler, Vaughan Williams, Bruckner
9. Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 9 in D major
There are plenty of great symphonic “farewells” out there, but this one tops them all. Mahler’s Ninth has everything, embracing solemnity, rustic charm, and existential terror with remarkable acuity and power. Plus, it ends with one of the most devastatingly beautiful finales in the entire repertoire—a 30-minute “rage against the dying of the light” as the last flicker of life is gradually snuffed out. As discussed in a previous post, I heard a stunning performance of this Symphony by Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic back in 2016. After the final, heart-wrenching notes faded away, Dudamel held the ensuing silence for a full minute before welcoming the audience’s much-deserved applause. Unforgettable.
Honorable Mentions: Shostakovich, Dvořák, Schubert, Beethoven
- Sadly, the “numbered symphonies only” rule caused two of my favorites to be left out of the running—Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements (his Fourth) and Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie (not really a symphony in the traditional sense, but hey…). I also decided to leave out the single symphonies of Bizet, Korngold, and Christopher Theofanidis. All are wonderful pieces, but alas, they are not numbered.
- Other favorites that got the short end of the stick: Mahler 6, Prokofiev 5, Ives 3, Brahms 1, Martinů 4.
- Slots 1 and 4 were the most difficult to fill. I almost picked Shostakovich’s astoundingly-confident First Symphony (composed when he was only 19!!) and Carl Nielsen’s Fourth (nicknamed “The Inextinguishable”), but ultimately went with Walton 1 and Shostakovich 4. I especially hated to leave out the symphonies of Carl Nielsen—his music is fantastic and also tragically underplayed in the U.S.
- In terms of getting “bonus points” for choosing composers who composed at least nine numbered symphonies, five out of the nine would be winners (Beethoven, Shostakovich, Schubert, Dvořák, and Mahler).
- While listening, I realized that some symphonies don’t really do it for me. Specifically, both Bruckner’s and Schumann’s are a bit too rambling and self-absorbed for my taste. Mendelssohn’s are also a bit “meh” compared to others written around the same time. (This is just my opinion; don’t @ me!) However, I do really like Mendelssohn 1, Schumann 2, Bruckner 4, and moments of late Bruckner (the Adagio of the Eighth is quite lovely). Opinions and tastes can change, of course, so I will keep revisiting them with an open mind.
- Interesting observation: besides winning the #9 slot, the rest of Mahler’s symphonies—except his Seventh—received an honorable mention. The reason? His Seventh is a pretty wonky piece that I’m still trying to “get.” (Again, my opinion.)
- I am fully aware that the diversity of my selections is terrible overall. Besides Carlos Chávez, no people of color won a slot—only William Grant Still and Florence Price received honorable mentions for their first symphonies. Additionally, only two women were credited overall (Price and Ruth Gipps). This is a total knowledge gap on my part that I am going to work to rectify.
- In this midst of writing this post, I also realized that I completely glossed over the symphonies of Philip Glass, none of which I’m really familiar with (oops…). There are plenty of other works that got a miss as well (it’s pretty much impossible to be comprehensive!), so it would be interesting to reevaluate my list a few years down the line.
- Here are the “pick nine” lists of CK Dexter Haven, Brian Lauritzen, and Alex Ross. And one more by the former music critic of the Orange County Register, Tim Mangan.