Desert Island — Image via wikimedia.org

Desert Island Symphonies

I’ve been meaning for a while now to start using this blog for something other than reviews, and this week, along came a perfect opportunity: a challenge issued by Los Angeles blogger CK Dexter Haven to come up with a “desert island” list of nine symphonies by nine different composers, numbered one through nine.

It seemed like a fun exercise, but I hesitated a bit when I saw that Emily Hogstad at Song of the Lark already went and picked many of the symphonies I would have picked or been tempted to pick. In response, I’ve gone ahead and given myself the extra challenge of not duplicating any of her choices. (For the record, Walton’s 1st is a pretty amazing 1st, Farrenc’s 3rd should have entered the standard repertoire a long time ago, and I’m sure Mahler’s hammer blows of fate would be heart-warming on those lonely desert-island nights.) So with that extra touch of austerity, here it goes:

No. 1: Brahms

Not a very gutsy opening gambit, I know, but the man spent more than 20 years trying to get his first symphony just right, and he pulled it off. Plus there aren’t that many great 1sts. Walton was out, and I was briefly tempted to go with Schnittke, but then I listened to some bits of it and thought, better than Brahms? No. My only hesitation is that the big tune in the last movement will always remind me of Rod McKuen’s cheesy adaptation from the record my mom insists on playing every Christmas.

No. 2: Wellesz

Egon Wellesz — Image via universaledition.comFollowing one of my most conventional choices comes my most off-the-wall. To explain myself: There aren’t that many great 2nds either. I was going to try to claim that Schumann’s 4th is actually his 2nd, but then I went back to Haven’s post and found that that’s against the rules. Then I was going to go with Sibelius just because he didn’t make it anywhere else on my list. Then I remembered Egon Wellesz. His 2nd symphony, subtitled “The English,” is actually his stodgiest (a coincidence, I’m sure). Most of his music sounds like a mash-up of Bruckner and Schoenberg, but the 2nd throws in a little Bach, a little Schubert, a little Mahler — so basically it’s like five symphonies in one. Plus it’s full of great tunes. It may not be a masterpiece, but I do go back and listen to it quite a bit, and this is my list, so there.

No. 3: Lutosławski

Unlike Wellesz, Witold Lutosławski doesn’t really sound like anyone else, which is why he’s great. He’s another composer whom I considered putting in the No. 2 slot, but although his 2nd was groundbreaking, his 3rd is grander in scope, more exciting, and just a tad more accessible. Also this lets me have one symphony on my list that was written during my lifetime — though I was more into Sesame Street at the time.

No. 4: Shostakovich

It’s massive, unwieldy, and maybe a tad too grandiose for its own good, but it’s the first symphony I ever became obsessed with, plus the first one I ever heard performed live, and its last seven or eight minutes still give me chills. There are lots of great 4ths to choose from (Brahms, Bruckner, Ives, Mendelssohn, Nielsen, Schumann …), but there was never any doubt in my mind that mine would be Shostakovich.

No. 5: Beethoven

How very uncool of me. I mean, even people who don’t know anything about classical music know the first five bars of this one. It’s been referenced on The Simpsons at least twice, and probably five more times by now. If I really knew anything about Beethoven, I would go with the 7th or the 3rd. Or if I just wanted to be contrary, I would go with the 4th or the 8th. But as I was weighing all the possible trade-offs, this turned out to be the best place to put Beethoven. Truth be told, I’d pick Piano Sonata No. 32 before any of the symphonies, but I don’t get to do that. So for the 5th, Beethoven it is.

No. 6: Myaskovsky

Nikolai Myaskovsky — Image via classical.netHere’s another weird one. Nikolai Myaskovsky wrote 27 symphonies, and I’ve actually listened to all of them at least once, but I can’t claim any great familiarity with most of them. But the 6th is the biggest and most well-known, and it deserves to be better known. Plus it has a choral finale, so that adds some variety to an otherwise all-instrumental list. I mean, Bruckner, Dvořák, and Shostakovich wrote better 6ths, but they’re accounted for elsewhere. Mahler did too, but that would violate my personal rule. I probably should have picked Sibelius or Vaughan Williams. But I figured I might as well throw in one more composer most people haven’t heard of, either out of evangelism or pretentiousness; you decide.

No. 7: Dvořák

As we get up in numbers, we have fewer great symphony composers to choose from, and from here on in I’m mostly figuring out who goes where as far as composers who aren’t already covered. For Dvořák, it had to be the 7th or the 9th; I recognize the greatness of the 8th, but it’s never been one of my personal favorites. I decided to go with the 7th, which has that syncopated scherzo that I like so much.

No. 8: Bruckner

There are a number of Bruckner symphonies I could have chosen, as he pretty much found a sound and stuck with it, and it’s a sound I happen to enjoy. The 8th is a long one, but when I heard the Minnesota Orchestra perform it under the baton of Stanisław Skrowaczewski back in 2012, I wasn’t tempted to close my eyes once, and that’s saying something at the end of a long work week.

No. 9: Schubert

Here’s where I benefit from the rule on traditional numberings. Schubert never came close to finishing his 7th symphony, but in the English-speaking world, a number is almost always set aside for it anyway. That makes his last completed symphony the 9th, where it gets to round out my list. It’s the only symphony I chose in a major key, it’s got big wonderful melodies that go on forever, and it’s basically the perfect early Romantic symphony. Beethoven, Bruckner, Dvořák and Mahler all wrote great 9ths, but Schubert’s is “the Great,” and I feel pretty secure about putting it here.

So that’s my list: almost eight hours of music that I wouldn’t mind listening to over and over again. On the other hand, no Mahler, Mendelssohn, Nielsen, Prokofiev, Schumann, or Sibelius? That would be a shame. Also, my list consists entirely of white European males. I will now do penance by adding numbered symphonies by Grażyna Bacewicz, Isang Yun, and Florence Price to my YouTube playlist. Anyway, despite my being late to the party (Haven having posted his challenge almost a week ago), hopefully someone will enjoy reading my list as much as I enjoyed making it. Feel free to leave your own list in the comments.

Desert island photo by Lenish Namath

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Eric Prindle

administers Bad Entertainment. He is also an attorney who leads a team of legal marketing copywriters at FindLaw. He is not Eric Prindle, the mixed martial arts fighter.

2 thoughts on “Desert Island Symphonies”

  1. Nice choices. I have never heard the Wellesz. Truth be told, I’ve never even heard OF Wellesz. Part of the fun of reading everyone’s choices has been the opportunity to discover symphonies and even composers that are new to me. I look forward to learning more about Wellesz’s 2nd.

    Thanks for joining in the craziness!

    1. Thanks for kicking off the craziness! All of Wellesz’s symphonies have been recorded by CPO, that great patron of obscure composers. The 2nd is paired with the 9th, which displays more of his Schoenbergian side.

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