The conductors who took part in the poll are obviously well-acquainted with the greatest symphonies in the classical repertoire, which, for me, gives the results some credibility. In other words, it's more than just a popularity poll taken from classical music audiences. The conductors were asked to rank their top three symphonies in any order, and based on their selections here are history's 20 greatest symphonies.
- Beethoven, Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, “Eroica” (1804)
- Beethoven, Symphony No. 9 in D minor, “Choral” (1824)
- Mozart, Symphony No. 41 in C major, “Jupiter” (1788)
- Mahler, Symphony No. 9 in D major, “Farewell” (1909)
- Mahler, Symphony No. 2 in C minor, “Resurrection” (1894)
- Brahms, Symphony No. 4 in E minor (1885)
- Berlioz, Symphonie Fantastique (1830)
- Brahms, Symphony No. 1 in C minor (1876)
- Tchaikovsky, Symphony No. 6 in B minor, “Pathétique” (1893)
- Mahler, Symphony No. 3 in D minor (1896)
- Beethoven, Symphony No. 5 in C minor (1808)
- Brahms, Symphony No. 3 in F major (1883)
- Bruckner, Symphony No. 8 in C minor (1890)
- Sibelius, Symphony No. 7 in C major (1924)
- Mozart, Symphony No 40 in G minor (1788)
- Beethoven, Symphony No. 7 in A major (1812)
- Shostakovich, Symphony No. 5 in D minor (1937)
- Brahms, Symphony No. 2 in D major (1877)
- Beethoven, Symphony No. 6 in F major, “Pastoral” (1808)
- Bruckner, Symphony No. 7 in E major (1883)
1.The ranking offers few surprises, containing a list of the traditional composers and pieces that I would expect. Beethoven leads the pack with five symphonies, followed by Brahms (four), Mahler (three), Bruckner (two), Mozart (two), Berlioz (one), Shostakovich (one), Sibelius (one), and Tchaikovsky (one). (Note that Brahms is the only composer on the list to bat a thousand — all four of his symphonies made the list.)
2. When I first heard about the project, I assumed Beethoven’s Ninth would earn the top spot on the list. I will say, however, that I am thrilled that Beethoven’s Third was chosen the “world’s greatest symphony.” I have taught classes deconstructing both the Third and the Ninth and find that I need much more time to explain what happens in the Third, a symphony that contains an abundance of musical content to analyze. It's a symphony that takes listeners on a journey through a complicated musical narrative that never fails to prompt great discussions after it's over. The first movement provides a roller coaster of edge-of-your-seat excitement, and the almost comic anarchy of the final movement gives listeners plenty to think about. The symphony’s message is abstruse and ambiguous, and it's difficult to imagine someone would listen to Beethoven's Third without wanting to hear it again and again and again.
3. I find personal validation in Mahler holding three spots in the top ten, beating out Beethoven and Brahms who each have two. For several years I’ve been tooting Mahler’s magic horn (!) in my music history classes, and now I have a list from BBC Music to validate my passion. I also love that Mahler’s Ninth is so high on the list, although I am not surprised. Mahler's Ninth juggles a variety of ideas and emotions that in the end become achingly silent. All music eventually goes silent, but only Mahler has ever connected music to silence so elegantly. For me, the end of Mahler’s Ninth sparks the sort of transcendent soul searching that can only come from music.
4. Although I have no significant complaints about the ranking, I would like to provide some of my own honorable mentions: composers and works that I would not have been surprised to see on the list. (I have decided to avoid listing additional works by the composers who already made the list.)
- Haydn, Symphony No. 102 in B-flat major, "The Miracle" (1794)
- Schubert, Symphony No. 9 in C major, "Great" (1828)
- Saint-Saëns, Symphony No. 3 in C minor, “Organ” (1886)
- Franck, Symphony in D minor (1888)
- Dvořák, Symphony No. 9 in E minor, “New World” (1895)
- Prokofiev, Symphony No. 1 in D major, “Classical” (1917)
- Vaughn Williams, Symphony No. 3, “A Pastoral Symphony” (1922)
- Stravinsky, Symphony of Psalms (1930)
- Britten, Simple Symphony (1934)
- Copland, Symphony No. 3 (1946)
- Gorecki, Symphony No. 3, "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs" (1976)
Just for fun, here's an animated score of the breathtaking first movement of Beethoven’s Third. (The animation comes from the Music Animation Machine and the recording comes from the Bezdin Ensemble.)
I often play Death and Transfiguration by Richard Strauss in my music history classes, using it to demonstrate the characteristics of romanticism and define the concept of a tone poem. It’s a piece of music that my students — whether they are teenagers or adults — seem to enjoy.
How could they not enjoy it? In portraying the transfiguration of a human soul and the metaphorical “white light” that comes after death, it provides orchestral music that might best be described as “spiritual.” It’s guaranteed to raise a few goose bumps and moisten the eyes.
In any case, one of my students recently pointed out that before anyone became too enamored with Strauss's music they should know he cooperated with German Nazis in the 1930s. He dined with Adolf Hitler, socialized with Nazi officials, and served as president of the Reich Music Chamber. Strauss’s defenders point out that he was a reluctant Nazi who was generally apolitical and did not share the Nazi Party’s most disgraceful ideas. In 1935 he was even forced to resign from the Reich Music Chamber for his lack of Aryan loyalty. This defense does little to mollify the victims of Nazism.
Richard Strauss (1864-1949)
And Strauss was not the only notable composer guilty of objectionable behavior or beliefs. Beethoven’s deranged behavior drove his nephew to attempt suicide. Berlioz attempted to kill the fiancé of his lover. Saint-Saëns enjoyed the companionship of adolescent males and reportedly said, “I am not a homosexual, I am a pederast.”
Fortunately, none of these personal transgressions appear in the music these composers created. Their music has brought beauty and inspiration to generations of concert goers. People’s lives have been transformed by listening to their compositions.
And then there’s Richard Wagner — what a lousy, no good human being. He was greedy and ruthless. He ran from debts and had affairs with his friends' wives. He was racist and viciously anti-Semitic. He regarded himself as a god and once said, “I am not made like other people. I must have brilliance and beauty and light. The world owes me what I need.”
Despite his shameful legacy as a human being Wagner’s music dramas are filled with messages of the redemptive power of love. His work has moved music lovers to believe in the possibility of personal transformation through love and the purity of the human heart.
Richard Wagner (1813-1883)
So what should I make of all this? Should I never again listen to or enjoy the music of Strauss or Wagner? Should I quit playing music by Saint-Saëns, the pederast, in my music history classes? Should I enjoy works of art created by such misguided, unpleasant, and sometimes evil human beings?
If I decided not to listen to their music, I would only be denying myself some of the greatest music ever composed. And where would I draw the line? Should I abandon Brahms due to his habitual transactions with prostitutes? Should I not be inspired by the Beatles’s recording of “All You Need is Love” because John Lennon mocked people with physical disabilities? Should I avoid music (or any other art) created by someone whose personal behavior or philosophy I find despicable?
I think not. Life is short, and I see no profit in denying myself great music because the person who created it was vile or corrupt. Music not only helps me make it through the day, it sometimes serves as my only salvation during those inevitable dark nights of the soul. If I require my composers to be good and decent human beings, I’m not left with much, if any music, to serve my needs. I must accept that some composers are flawed, imperfect, and sometimes odious creatures who nevertheless can create works of exquisite beauty.
This Sunday (May 22) is Wagner’s 203rd birthday, and I have no desire to commemorate the memory of that loathsome man. I will, however, spend time on the day after his birthday listening to the Overture to Tannhäuser and Isolde’s “Love-Death” from Tristan and Isolde. No doubt I will enjoy the music, even if it was composed by an abhorrent human being.
Tannhäuser, Overture (Zubin Mehta conducting the New York Philharmonic)
Tristan and Isolde, "Love-Death" (Waltraud Meier under the direction of Daniel Barenboim at Scala Milan)
© 2011 James L. Smith (originally posted on SonataForm.blogspot.com)
"My aim really is to teach the world to listen. That is my only real aim in life." – Dame Evelyn Glennie
According to Evelyn Glennie's biographical information on her Facebook page, she is "the first person in history to successfully create and sustain a full-time career as a solo percussionist." What her Facebook bio does not mention is that she has been profoundly deaf since she was twelve years old. She claims to hear with parts of her body other than her ears and performs barefoot to help feel the music. In this TED talk from 2003, Glennie not only provides a great musical performance (beginning at 27:15), she also offers a new and more mindful way of listening to music. As a bonus to the TED talk, I have embedded a video of Glennie performing Piazzola's Libertango.
Evelyn Glennin, TED Talk, February 2003
Astor Piazzola, Libertango, perfromed by Evelyn Glennie
Longinius intended to describe how good writing and persuasive rhetoric can affect us, but its message might also apply to music. Great music does not “persuade” us, it transports us, providing us with moments of elevation.
Roger Ebert described moments of elevation as a “welling up of a few tears in my eyes, a certain tightness in my throat, and a feeling of uplift.” All of us have experienced uplifting moments in books and movies that move us and fill our hearts. Even great athletic feats in a sporting event or stories of heroism in a local news report can bring us a moment of uplift.
For me, nothing provides more moments of elevation than music. Something that touches me emotionally while I’m reading a book or watching a movie might catch me off guard, but moments of elevation in music almost never catch me off guard. I expect them.
I also don’t know how to describe why those moments happen in music.
In most cases I can describe the reason something touches me emotionally in a film. I know, for example, why I am moved by the young chess player named Josh in Searching for Bobby Fischer. Josh is a good and ethical soul. He makes unselfish choices and cares how others feel. I am touched by his goodness.
But why does music affect me so much? Why does the transition from the third to the fourth movement in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony provide me with a moment of elevation?
I have no idea.
All I know is that the beginning of the fourth movement touches me at a visceral level, sometimes making me smile, sometimes moistening my eyes.
Roger Ebert wrote that he was most moved by “generosity, empathy, courage, and by the human capacity to hope.” That explanation works well for what I might read in a work of literature or see in a film. It might even work well in describing something that moves me in a sporting event or news report.
No words, however, can describe what I feel when listening to the transition from the third to the fourth movement in Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.
Here's how I might describe that transition in technical terms.
The transition begins with an ostinato in the kettledrum and the reduction of the dynamic level to triple pianissimo. This section is then followed by a crescendo that leads to a phrase played forcefully in C major, completing the attacca between the third and fourth movements.
I wouldn't be surprised if that description leaves you cold. Quite simply, words are inadequate for describing moments of elevation in music.
What do they say? Talking about music is like dancing about architecture.
The transition from the third to fourth movement in Beethoven's Fifth Symphony is embedded below. The ostinato in the kettledrum begins at 22:45. The moment of elevation comes at the beginning of the fourth movement, which begins at 23:23.
Turn up the volume and enjoy!
Chung Myung-Whun conducting the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra
– Oliver Sacks, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain
Two days ago, in a blog titled “Music and the Doctrine of Ethos,” I wrote, “music has the power to magnify emotions.” As a follow-up to that blog, I have embedded two film clips below that show how powerfully the memory of music is imprinted in our minds.
The first clip shows an old man named Henry reacting to music from his past. Henry is an Alzheimer’s patient who has spent over ten years in a nursing home. He is depressed and normally unresponsive when people speak to him. He comes alive, however, when listening to music. As seen in the film, music has the power to liberate Henry's memories more than any other form of therapy.
The clip I have embedded comes from Alive Inside, a documentary about the power of music and the social worker who uses it to help patients with dementia and Alzheimer's.
Man in Nursing Home Reacts to Music
“[Music] gives me the feeling of love, romance! … The Lord came to me and he made me a holy man, so he gave me these sounds.” – Henry
The second film clip comes from ABC’s Nightline and shows U.S. Representative Gabby Giffords finding her voice through music. In January 2011, Giffords was shot in an assassination attempt. Although the bullet passed through her head, she has recovered some of her ability to walk, speak, read, and write. She owes her life and partial recovery to many talented doctors and physical therapists. I have embedded this clip to show how music therapy was a large part of her recovery.
Gabby Giffords Finds Her Voice Through Music
2500 years ago the Greeks believed that the right kind of music had the power to heal the sick and shape personal character in positive ways. In modern times the doctrine of ethos seems to have modern science on its side.
Notice how music is used in films to exaggerate the drama, horror, or comedy in a story. It might be tragic enough to see an innocent child die in a film, but if the death is accompanied by the right music, the film can make you sob until you are honking like a goose.
A belief of the ancient Greeks held that music had a magical power to speak directly to human emotion. In what has come to be known as the doctrine of ethos, the Greeks believed that the right kind of music had the power to heal the sick and shape personal character in a positive way. The Greek philosopher Aristotle believed that when music was designed to imitate a certain emotion, a person listening to the music would have that emotion.
"We accept the division of melodies proposed by certain philosophers into ethical melodies, melodies of action, and passionate or inspiring melodies, each having, as they say, a mode corresponding to it".
– Aristotle, Politics, Bk 8, Pt 7
In Aristotle’s mind, someone listening to the wrong type of music would become the wrong type of person. Certain instruments and modes would take one toward either the logos (rational) or pathos (emotional), and it was essential to raise children with the right kind of music.
"Shall we argue that music conduces to virtue, on the ground that it can form our minds and habituate us to true pleasures as our bodies are made by gymnastics to be of a certain character?"
– Aristotle, Politics, Bk. 8, Pt. 5
In a similar manner, many people in modern times believe music can be used to help educate children and promote good health.
According to the American Music Therapy Association, music can be used to "promote wellness, manage stress, alleviate pain, express feelings, enhance memory, improve communication, and promote physical rehabilitation."
In an article posted on the Huffington Post," Therese J. Borchard, who is the author of the Beyond Blue column, writes that music can be used as therapy. “Everything with a beat moves my spirit,” writes Ms. Borchard. “I can't get enough of Bach, Beethoven and Mozart, because I think so much better when these guys are playing in the background.”
I recommend reading what Ms. Borchard has written and then listen to the pieces I have embedded below to get a sense of what she is saying. Both pieces are referenced by Ms. Bochard in her article “Music Therapy: Got the Blues? Play Them."
Whether we call it music therapy or the doctrine of ethos, the concept is simple to grasp. At its best, music has the potential to affect our emotions so deeply that it can cleanse our soul and connect us with something that might only be described as “spiritual.”
Sarah Brightman singing “Music of the Night” from Phantom of the Opera
Rachmaninoff, Prelude in C-sharp minor (Ruslan Sviridov, piano)
Take a look at the seven-minute video below and see how illustrations can serve as an introduction to music history. (A little better than dancing about architecture, I'd say.)
I'm amazed at how many styles of music and significant composers the video found time to include.
Embedded in this posting is a must-see TED talk by Benjamin Zander, the conductor and music director of the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra.
I hope Zander's lecture will give tyros a reason to give classical music a chance. His moving performance of Chopin's Prelude in E Minor should be enough to persuade people to begin the journey.
The term "classical" refers to the type of music I will discuss on this site. The term is often misused, and I will provide a precise explanation in the future. Until then, readers should know that I will be using the term in a general sense to describe a type of cultivated music that has stood the test of time. Even though Bach and Mozart have been dead over 200 years, people still enjoy listening to their music. For me, that's "classical."
The term “tyro” refers to a person who is trying to learn something new, someone who has only recently become acquainted with a subject. The term comes from medieval Latin and describes a young soldier, a recruit. I’m hoping that’s the audience I will find with this blog — people who are willing to become recruits to the world of classical music, people who will become soldiers for a type of music that can feed their souls and improve their lives.
And there it is. This blog is for people who are new to classical music. Read the blog and learn how Bach’s music differs from the music of Mozart and Beethoven. Learn how a concerto differs from a sonata. Learn about the structure of a symphony and why it matters whether the symphony was composed in C major or C minor.
If you know nothing or very little about the music of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, you have come to the right place. If you are unsure about the meaning of the terms “concerto,” “sonata,” “symphony,” “major,” or “minor,” I will eventually describe all of that and more.
I hope you enjoy the journey.