Happy Birthday, Ludwig

This is intended as a postscript to my January 2020 blog post, “32 Thoughts about Beethoven (and his 250th Birthday.” Click here to check it out.

On January 27, 2020, I published a blog post entitled “32 Thoughts about Beethoven (and his 250th Birthday).” In it, I expressed my lifelong admiration for Beethoven and his music, but also my mixed feelings on the celebrations planned for his 250th anniversary year.

“Happy Birthday Jesus Beethoven. Sorry your party’s so lame.”

Turns out that most of it hasn’t aged well. In early March, a little under two months after publishing the post, the world shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Live performances with packed audiences became all but impossible, and one by one, individual concerts and even entire seasons were canceled in the interest of curbing the spread of the coronavirus. Now, nine months later, the situation has improved very little, even with a vaccine on the horizon. Any hope of an all-encompassing Beethoven celebration in 2020 has been extinguished, yet another casualty of this dumpster fire of a year.

Some people are lamenting the loss of the Beethoven year, while others are celebrating it. Personally, I feel somewhere in the middle. Yes, it’s absolutely true that Beethoven didn’t really need all the hubbub of this anniversary year in the first place. His music is performed so much already and would have continued to appear on concert programs either way, anniversary or not. The celebrations that were planned seemed, in some cases, overblown, unimaginative, and even a tad lazy. And of course, there was the very real possibility of it all becoming excessive. As Aesop allegedly said, “It is possible to have too much of a good thing.”

On the other hand, yes, it is a loss. Though I waffle back and forth in my opinions on Beethoven 9, there’s absolutely nothing like experiencing it live and I was greatly looking forward to hearing at least one performance of the work in August. I was also excited for other performances that juxtaposed Beethoven with newer or less-performed works, such as Brooklyn Rider’s striking program that was to pair Beethoven’s Heiliger Dankgesang Quartet (No. 15) with newly-commissioned works by contemporary women composers. The pandemic has made me—and millions of others—hungry for live performance, and though I may not have been enthusiastic about the idea of sitting through an all-Beethoven concert back in January, honestly, that sounds pretty great right now (even if it did include Wellington’s Victory!)

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Nine Symphonies

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.”)

Me making my “nine symphonies” list

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 in the 1980s, 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

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