Tuesday, May 3, 2016

My Fifth Favorite Symphony Composer

Who is it? You can guess right now, or you can wait a bit.

My fifth favorite symphony composer is certainly not Haydn. More and more, for me he is number one. Not only could he write a great symphony, he could do it over and over and over again, each time different. In fact, he did it one hundred and six times. Really, really well. Here is a sample, the "Drumroll" Symphony from the twelve he wrote to perform in London:

And he is not Mozart, either. Mozart couldn't manage as many great symphonies as Haydn, partly because he just didn't have the time. And some of those really early ones are not so great. But still, he did manage to write fifty symphonies and some of them are terrific, like the "Linz" that he wrote in four days. Mozart is number two.

Not Sibelius either. I got hooked on Sibelius early on with the Symphony No. 2 and though he wrote several other great ones, I still think that the first movement of the second is just wondrous and the last movement equally so. Sibelius is number three. Lenny and the Vienna Phillies:

Now it gets difficult so I've been listening to the last two side by side and I'm surprised to discover that my fifth favorite composer is also not Schubert, who comes in as number four. He only wrote eight symphonies (the Great C Major is not number nine because he never wrote a number seven), but the last two are just sublime and the earlier ones are pretty good too. Here is the "Unfinished" which only has two movements.

Which means, of course that my fifth favorite symphony composer is, wait for it, Beethoven! (Well, ok, I almost said Shostakovich,,,) Yes, I'm surprised as well. A few years ago I would have said that either Beethoven or Shostakovich were my favorite symphony composers, but I've changed my mind.

Mind you, when it comes to piano sonatas and string quartets, LvB is still number one.

I think...

What do you think?

UPDATE: I posted this too soon, forgetting to put up a Beethoven symphony and say why he is number five. Here is his Symphony No. 3 with Lenny and Vienna Phillies again:

The problem with Beethoven and this symphony in particular is that this is the moment when a lot of the things I dislike about the 19th century in music began: foremost are the bombast and the melodrama. I think that this is the piece in which they appear, pretty much for the first time, in symphonic music.


David said...

Bryan, you have set a tough challenge: fifth favourite composer? I'm leaning to one of Saint-Saens (there is more to his catalog than the famous 3rd), Tchaikovsky or Bruckner. You can probably see that my aesthetic is more open to bombast and drama.

In thinking about this, I got to wondering what impact one's first exposure to a composer's music has on your disposition to liking it. My first exposure to Bruckner was the classic Jochum/Dresden recordings. I think if it had been the thin gruel of Norrington/Stuttgart, I would have had a very different impression of the music.

Bryan Townsend said...

My post was rather an odd and convoluted inversion of the usual Top Ten list. I suppose it boils down to "why isn't Beethoven number one? Why is he only number 5?"

It's not drama that bothers me so much as melodrama! And I don't think we really had that in music before the 19th century.

I totally agree about the early exposure! It definitely has an effect.

The Bruckner on my shelf is Jochum with the Berlin Philharmonic. I didn't know that Norrington had some Bruckner out! Next we will have Stockhausen on original instruments.

David said...

Bryan, my guess, before I read down your list, was that the Finn would be your Fifth. I see he was higher up the list. No argument from me to counter your well reasoned ordering. I liked the "convolution". It made the reader think more than the conventional approach to rankings.

Jeph said...

My list will be limited to things I've actually played.

Yep, no Mozart. With all due respect and admiration, I haven't had a 'moving' experience yet with one of his. I had a great experience early on with the Tchai #4. Probably the first classical piece I really loved from start to finish. Doesn't get played enough! I can forgive Beethoven the bombast, even when he's overdoing it (9th), he knows how to control it. The #3 is the one I haven't played, so I'm not too familiar. But his 7th (apotheosis of the dance, per Wagner) does it ALL for me.

Bryan Townsend said...

@David: Isn't it interesting that some of the best and most engaging debates are about aesthetic value? If it were all relative we wouldn't bother debating, would we?

@Jeph: The finale to the 41st Symphony aside, it took me a long, long time to really get into Mozart, oddly enough. My favorite Beethoven symphony is also the 7th. Is your list from 1 to 5 or 5 to 1?

Jeph said...

1 to 5 Brahms is a close second.
I've also really enjoyed Sibelius 5, but I've never played any others....

Anonymous said...

Superb post;One may not agree entirely with the ranking,but your list is supported by clear rationale.
i think,many classical fans would find Beethoven at 5th place among symphonists to be sacrilege;but i get your point.Beethoven's intensity is what appeals to a lot of us,but it comes at the cost of elegance one associates with Haydn.Haydn accomplishes a lot with an incredible lightness of touch;In Beethoven's defence,i would say even while indulging in big gestures/bombast,Beethoven's finesse is in a league of his own.
Congratulations for running a comments section full of enlightening aesthetic debates.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Jack and welcome to the Music Salon!

For me it is not so much about what one's position or opinion is, it is rather how it is supported or defended. That's the interesting part. Yes, Beethoven's intensity does come at the cost of some of the elegance that Haydn (and Mozart) had, excellent point!

But I quite agree that Beethoven is in a league of his own. As I said, I think that his string quartets and piano sonatas have no real peers.

Jack, can I use your last sentence as a quote?

Anonymous said...

yes sure;pls go ahead and use it as a quote!


Bryan Townsend said...