PLAYLIST - A list of grand and epic classical orchestral symphonies that you should (re)discover post-haste!
A playlist by France Musique, using our own exclusive video archive of concert and studio recordings.
Gustav Mahler once declared that ""The symphony must be like the world – it must embrace everything". Often works of colossal size, writing a symphony is no small affair, even on occasion taking a heavy toll on the composer's health in the case of certain artists. Thus, symphonies are often works of great consequence and importance in a composer's repertoire. Though some composed dozens, (looking at you, Joseph Haydn), others never managed to get past 9 (poor Ludwig van Beethoven), spawning a popular curse around the number 9, best described by Arnold Schoenberg:
"It seems that the Ninth is a limit. He who wants to go beyond it must pass away. It seems as if something might be imparted to us in the Tenth which we ought not yet to know, for which we are not ready. Those who have written a Ninth stood too close to the hereafter."
Other composers only composed one single symphony (and that's ok!), and some composers never even took the plunge! Only one thing is certain, each symphony is unique and worthy of closer consideration. Without further ado, here are 10 fantastic symphonies that are absolutely worth (re)discovering!
Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique (1830)
A legendary work in the symphonic repertoire, Berlioz's _Symphonie Fantastique, s_ubtitled An Episode in the Life of an Artist, in Five Parts, is a self-portrait of its composer, an emotionally tortured artist whose love goes unrequited and the epitome of the Romantic ideal. Haunted by the vision of the perfect woman, described by Berlioz as "a woman who unites all the charms of the ideal person his imagination was dreaming of", the music depicts the longing and despair of the "artist" across five movements as he slowly descends into madness, with an idée fixe appearing throughout, an obsessive musical motif representing the artist's inexhaustible love. The artist finally hallucinates his own decapitation and the ghastly funeral that follows, attended by sorcerers and monsters.YouTube - France Musique
Tchaikovsky: Symphony no.6 "Pathétique" in b minor, conducted by Daniele Gatti
A profoundly subjective and enigmatic work, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's Symphony no.6, subtitled Патетическая (Pateticheskaya - The Passionate Symphony), is a masterpiece of Romanticism and one of the composer's finest works, a sentiment shared by the composer himself: "I have composed a new symphony which I certainly shall not tear up!"
Often associated with the sudden and tragic death of its composer on 6 November 1893, barely a week after the premiere of his work, the Symphony no. 6 is often considered as an expression, intentional or subconscious, of the composer's depressed state of mind, possibly marred by the fear of a brewing scandal surrounding his hidden homosexuality. Indeed, many have taken the symphony's unusually sombre closing as an indication of the composer's prescient knowledge of his demise. Rejecting the usual tradition of an energetic and glorious finale, the symphony closes in on itself with a Finale: Adagio lamentoso - Andante, a dark and sombre finish to a powerful work depicting the dance of life and death, the musical testament of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Regardless of such rumours, the work was of paramount importance to the composer: "Without exaggeration, I have put my whole soul into this work".
Mahler: Symphony no.1 “Titan” in D major (Neeme Järvi)
Appointed director of the Royal Hungarian Opera in Budapest in 1888, Mahler used this opportunity to perform several of his own works, notably his Symphony no.1 “Titan” in D major, initially described as a symphonic poem or tone poem. Though the name "Titan" was added to the work for the first two performances, supposedly in reference to the eponymous work by the German writer Johann Paul "Jean Paul" Friedrich Richter, the composer later removed this title, hoping to avoid any programmatic influences; however, the name had already became associated with the work.
Though Mahler drew great influence from previous composers such as Bruckner, Wagner, and Grieg, the work was poorly received following its premiere in 1889, deemed too modern, dense, and progressive by audiences. Interestingly, the work is today considered to be one of Mahler's lighter and more accessible works, certainly in comparison with his later symphonies.
Beethoven: Symphony no.6 "Pastoral" in F major (Daniele Gatti)
Undoubtedly one of the most important composers of the classical genre, the music of Ludwig van Beethoven remains to this day a force to reckoned with, and in particular his symphonies, each recognised as an important milestone in musical history.
Beethoven's Symphony no.6, known as the "Pastoral" symphony, is a veritable "ode" to nature. The opening movement, subtitled "Awakening of cheerful feelings on arrival in the countryside" is a musical expression of the composer's unbridled love for the country, using a musically popular sonority and traditional rural melodies love the composer holds for nature. Then comes the "Scene by the brook", with an uncanny representation of birdsong in the coda, the quail mimicked by the flute and the cuckoo by the clarinet. The "Merry gathering of country folk", a dancing scherzo depicting the revelling locals of the countryside through the repetition and development of a motif, before the arrival of the "Thunder, Storm", rumbling in the lower strings and the pizzicato raindrops from the violins, and the thunderous percussion, and finally the "Shepherd's song. Cheerful and thankful feelings after the storm", a simple and pleasant rondo sonata returning to a peaceful a pastoral scene.
Brahms: Symphonie no.4 in e minor (Emmanuel Krivine)
A composer with a great interest in the past, Johannes Brahms drew considerable influence from Ludwig van Beethoven, eventually even considered as his musical successor. So in awe of Beethoven was Brahms that he did not compose his first symphony until the age of 43! "I shall never write a symphony! You have no idea how it feels to hear behind you the tramp of a giant like Beethoven." Composed in 1876, the symphony was nicknamed "Beethoven’s Tenth" due to the subtle 5-note reference to Beethoven's "Ode to Joy". 19 years later, Brahms wrote his fourth and final symphony, a surprisingly traditional and classical work in terms of structure and form, though innovative in terms of rhythm and instrumentation, notably writing for the natural horn. Perhaps most surprising of all, the symphony ends in the opening key of e minor, subverting the symphonic tradition of a glorious and uplifting major finale.
Bruckner: Symphony no.9 in d minor (Bernard Haitink)
Another final symphony by another composer heavily influenced by the symphonic legacy of the great Beethoven. Dedicated by the composer to none other than God himself, the work was conceived as a synthesis of all of the composer's talents and musical creativity, going so far as to claim: "The Ninth will be my masterpiece. I just ask God that he’ll let me live until it’s done." Unfortunately, this was not to be the case, and Anton Bruckner passed away in 1896, leaving his magnum opus unfinished. Only seven years later, in 1903, was the work finally performed for the first time, conducted and completed by Ferdinand Löwe and one of Bruckner's students.
A somewhat austere work with moments of poignant musical lyricism and unbridled energy, the symphony displays great harmonic and stylistic audacity, one that would influence countless works and composers throughout the following 20th century.
Dvořák: Symphony No. 9 “From the New World” (Marzena Diakun)
A celebrated composer throughout his native Czech Republic and indeed Europe, Antonín Dvořák was named director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York City. The discovery of American culture, and musical culture in particular, had a profound impact upon the Czech composer. Dvořák drew inspiration from the Native American and Afro-American musical styles and traditions he encountered whilst living in America, proclaiming shortly after his arrival: "I am convinced that the future music of this country must be founded on what are called Negro melodies. These can be the foundation of a serious and original school of composition, to be developed in the United States. These beautiful and varied themes are the product of the soil. They are the folk songs of America and your composers must turn to them."
The first work composed by Dvořák in this new and fascinating land was also to be one of his greatest, his final symphony, its spirit drawn “From the New World” through the use of traditional rhythms and harmonies from these native melodies and spirituals. Premiered in Carnegie Hall in 1893, the work was met with unprecedented success and quickly performed in other countries. Though figures such as Leonard Bernstein claimed that the symphony was "multinational" in its influences, displaying European and Czech musical traditions, the work nonetheless came to be considered as a quintessential musical representation of America.
Mendelssohn: Symphony no.4 "Italian" in A major (Myung-Whun Chung)
At the peak of his career, Felix Mendelssohn was considered to be one of the greatest living European composers. An undoubtedly prodigious young musician, his status as a talented pianist and composer spread rapidly throughout his native Germany. A mandatory experience for all young gentlemen of respectable social standing, Mendelssohn embarked upon a "Grand Tour" of Europe in late 1829, visiting England, Scotland, Wales, Austria, Italy, Switzerland, and France. These voyages inspired countless works, including Mendelssohn's famous "Scottish" and "Italian" symphonies. Though the specific subtitle was intentionally added by the composer, the symphony is not necessarily of an Italian style of composition but rather a musical expression of the sentiments felt during his visit of the country's finest cities. Though the second movement, Andante con moto, contains various subtle references to melodies of an Italian style, it is not before the final movement, the Saltarello (a typically Italian folk dance), that the country's flavour is fully revealed. Though the work ends in a minor key, this does not detract from the work's joyful and energetic nature, one that the composer himself acknowledged: “_The ‘Italian’ symphony is making great progress. It will be the jolliest piece I have ever done, especially the last movement._”
Messiaen: Turangalîla-Symphony (Susanna Mälkki)
Described by the journalist Maurice Brillant (for the Epoque newspaper) as "Messiaen's Rite of Spring", the Turangalîla-Symphony was Olivier Messiaen's first and only symphony. Considering the colossal means required for its performance, this is perhaps a good thing! Commissioned by Serge Koussevitzky in 1945 for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Messiaen was told simply to "choose as many instruments as you desire, write a work as long as you wish, and in the style you want." Messiaen did not disappoint, creating a ten-movement symphony 75 minutes in length, calling for a large symphony orchestra with twelve woodwinds, thirteen brass, a glockenspiel, celesta, vibraphone, two keyboards, including the ondes Martenot, and an impressive string section.
Combining the Sanskrit words turanga (meaning time, rhythm, and movement like a galloping horse) and lila (meaning to play or dance), the symphony's name hints at a song of love, a hymn to joy, religion, mysticism, time, movement, rhythms, life and death, with references even to the tale of Tristan und Isolde. Much like the title, the work itself is a union of two elements, notably the orchestral power of the late Romantics with the orchestral colours of the early 20th century impressionists, with great use of keyboard instruments influenced by the gamelan tradition of Javanese music.
Shostakovich: Symphony no.15 in A major (David Afkham)
A composer in poor health, Dmitri Shostakovich's final symphony was composed in 1971 in Repino, near St. Petersburg. Despite its bizarre nature and almost humorous musical riddles, such as the quotes from Rossini's William Tell Overture in the opening and from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde and Ring cycle in the final movement, the symphony is without a doubt one of Shostakovitch's darkest works. Though audiences have long sought to understand the reasons behind some of the symphony's more puzzling references to Rossini, Wagner and even composers such as Mikhail Glinka, Gustav Mahler, and even Schoenberg's serialism, the composer himself was unable to fully explain their existence: "I don't myself quite know why the quotations are there, but I could not, could not, not include them!" Though perhaps reductive, Shostakovich's last symphony may be considered as an enigmatic musical retrospective of music history, and indeed his own life and musical influences.
Interestingly, the symphony later served as inspiration to David Lynch whilst writing the script of his film Blue Velvet. When talking to his composer and arranger Angelo Baladementi, Lynch is said to have described his vision in great detail: "[The music has] gotta be like Shostakovich, be very Russian, but make it the most beautiful thing, but make it dark and a little bit scary". Beautiful but dark and scary... what better way to describe the music of Dmitri Shostakovich?
BONUS - Stravinsky: "Symphony of Psalms" (Kristjan Järvi)
It's impossible to stop at just 10 symphonies! We have therefore added a bonus and unique symphony, or rather a psalm-symphony: as Stravinsky himself noted, “it is not a symphony in which I have included Psalms to be sung. On the contrary, it is the singing of the Psalms that I am symphonizing.” The name symphony is indeed a misnomer, as Stravinsky eschewed the traditional multi-movement formal design of the symphony, dividing instead his psalm-symphony into three distinct sections: Exaudi orationem meam / Expectans expectavi Dominum / Laudate Dominum.
The psalm-symphony was commissioned in late 1929 by Serge Koussevitzky (16 years before his commission to Olivier Messiaen). Though Stravinsky is said to have disliked Koussevitzky professionally, he accepted nonetheless for financially-motivated reasons but also for the opportunity to finally develop his long-considered idea of bringing the musical psalm into the context of an orchestral symphony. At its core, the work is an attempt by Stravinsky to unite voice and instrument in perfect balance, homophonic voices and the heavily contrapuntal texture of the instruments.
A victim of his own unique style of composition, Stravinsky's spiritual Symphony of Psalms was not immediately well received by audiences in November 1930, though critics attributed this lack of immediate success to the fact that "its originality is too great for it to have instant popular appeal". In 1999, Stravinsky's psalm-symphony was named best classical piece of the century by Time magazine, proving right the work's critics almost 70 years later.