A musical scavenger hunt of sorts.
“He’s making a list… he’s checking it…” oh, only about half a billion times.
This is essentially an exercise in musical sudoku. There is ZERO inherent quality that a first symphonies of multiple composers would have in common, save it being the first one they wrote. Prokofiev’s first as a kind of musical caricature is so different from the ambitious first symphonies of Brahms or Mahler or Rott (his only, as I know, thanks in part to Brahms). So comparing second (or third or fifteenth) symphonies of different composers (obviously written at different times in different places) is entirely arbitrary and has nothing to do with the style or development or quality of the music. This kind of exercise is just that: a mental exercise to force one to expand his listening habits and come to learn more about other composers.
That being said, I love making lists, and this kind of overly analytical, comparative exercise is just the kind of thing that gets the wheels spinning.
Have a look at this.
Symphony cycle: Favorite symphonies, one for each symphony number, no repeated composers
- Nielsen (apologies to Mahler, Sibelius, Rott, Brahms, Bruckner, Melartin, and Prokofiev)
- Mahler (apologies to somewhat distant second Rachmaninoff and more distant second Sibelius)
- Sibelius (apologies to Beethoven, Brahms)
- Tchaikovsky (all the way)
- Shostakovich (apologies to Beethoven, Mahler, Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky)
- Dunno (Beethoven? Meh. Mahler’s is great, but he’s already in #2, Sibelius is also taken).
- Prokofiev (apologies to Sibelius, sort of)
- Schubert (apologies to Beethoven, Dvorak)
Honestly, there are
so many options for number 1, considering it’s the symphony
most people write… a few didn’t get past that, many didn’t get past three or four. This means that the later symphonies are harder to ‘fill in’ for, especially if you don’t allow for duplicates.
As you may have noticed, about half of those in the list (well, more than half, considering two are still blank) are symphonies I’ve written about in the past. I learned about them and they stuck with me. I’m still getting around to writing about Schubert’s ninth, and that Nielsen 1 is still rather tenuous.
In speaking about this idea in this much detail, it begins to feel like the lists that grade school kids make about their favoritest
super heroes or who is the bestest
this or that: it’s arbitrary and just as meaningless, but again, it’s an exercise in familiarization. So then, if it’s entirely arbitrary and feels even a bit childish to write something like this up, what’s the purpose?
Well, I could talk about how I like Mahler’s first more than I like Nielsen’s first, but Mahler already takes #2 by a LONG shot (although Sibelius’ second is one of my favorites of his, Mahler’s second still takes the cake). As much as I recognize the significance of Brahms’s first as the passing of the torch on from Beethoven, I tend to like Nielsen’s first more. I like Beethoven’s fifth more than his third, but I like Shostakovich’s fifth more than Beethoven’s. Again, while I like Beethoven’s third and recognize it as a hugely significant work, Sibelius’s piece here speaks to me more.
I could talk about all those things, but again, it’s arbitrary, so why the mental exercise? Because it’s just a way to learn more. In going on this musical scavenger hunt for a sixth or a third or a ninth symphony I like, I was forced to consider different symphonies, different composers, and different eras. I learned a lot about each individual era (if not something about each individual symphony) of many of these composers, and have developed a more defined taste in classical music. While I like Sibelius’s first two highly romantic symphonies (mostly the first movement of each), it seems he really came into his own and developed a truly unique voice with his third symphony, and it is his symphonies like this one and six and seven that I find more intriguing if not entirely more enjoyable than his earlier works. While it’s not on this list, and is often overshadowed by the third, fifth, seventh, ninth, etc., I love Beethoven’s first! It took me by surprise, and I find it thoroughly enjoyable, even exciting.
Working within these confines to do something this arbitrary does have its benefits. While I still haven’t found a sixth or eighth symphony from composers not yet represented that truly cuts to my soul, there are candidates that I know are decent enough to be symphonies I like (Beethoven’s sixth and Dvorak’s eighth), so I have learned that.
And that, to me, is what’s so fascinating about classical music: exploration and discovery and expanding one’s horizons. Whether it’s music that teaches you about one individual’s experience and outlook on life (Mahler), the human experience (Bruckner), the plight of a nation of people (early Sibelius? Shostakovich), or a rich history of musical education and style (Beethoven 1, Brahms 1), it’s like a good novel. Sitting back and listening to an old favorite like one of the ones above, or deliberating about which new symphony to give a first listen to, it’s an experience, but one that can be relived time and again, or one that may change. It’s a never-ending exploration. All of the symphonies in the list above have something about them that really gets to me, speaks to me in some way, the last of which being the Nielsen. I chose it because it’s less standard than the most commonly-seen repertoire. Beethoven’s first may be a better candidate, but in any case… each of them has something that is strong and moving that I find fascinating, not just a symphony I like. I like Beethoven’s fifth; it is deeply, satisfyingly genius and pleasant, but I don’t feel a personal attachment to it. Schubert’s ninth has a phenomenal, unbelievable kind of regal glory to it, from beginning to end, everything is in it’s perfect place and it carries such import; it feels like it was meant to be his last, and I absolutely love it.
ALL of that being said, developing a style and a knowledge and some insight into classical music may take some time, but when you begin to know something about it, that’s when you can talk about it and when you know what you’re looking for, and sometimes it’s when you find what you’re not looking for that it surprises and delights you.