Continuing what has magically turned into a series that I didn’t intend to start, we’re counting down the 10 Best Symphonies no. 3. The field is more crowded than ever, probably uncomfortably so. I had a hell of a time sifting through all these amazing works, and some pieces that I really love got left off altogether. The most interesting trend I noticed in compiling this list was the startling amount of quality Symphonies no. 3 by American composers; it is very clearly a lucky number. Ives, Copland, Schuman, Rorem, Harris, Bernstein, Cowell, Diamond, Ward, Glass, Hanson, Hovhaness, Mennin, and Sessions all contributed strong entrants to the field (clearly I should have just made a list of Symphonies no. 3 by American dudes). Which of these made the cut? Here we go…
Honorable Mention: Symphony no. 3 by James MacMillan
MacMillan’s Third Symphony is a powerful and emotionally jarring work based on the 1966 novel “Silence” by Shusaku Endo. At its core the novel is about the silence of God in the face of tragedy and the feeling of abandonment that this creates in even the most ardent followers (in this case a Jesuit priest in 17th-century Japan). According to notes from MacMillan:
“For Endo, though, this silence is not absence but presence. It is the silence of accompaniment rather than “nihil”. This is a notion that has many musical analogies. Music itself grows out of silence. The emptiness and solitude of a composer’s silence is nevertheless pregnant with the promise of possibility and potency. The immateriality of music points to the reality of different types of existence. Music is not a physical reality in the sense that we are, or any other thing is. You cannot see, touch or taste music, but its powerful presence always makes itself felt.”
Much of MacMillan’s work touches on religious themes, and the Symphony no. 3 eloquently captures the feeling the composer attempts to convey. There is plenty of brute force in the shrieking violins and winds, pounding percussion, and strident brass, and the dissonances are strong throughout, but sometimes hidden beneath these dense textures there is music of profound simplicity and reverence. The painful sense of unrest pervades the entire work, and in the end we do not find solace or even resignation, but simply unresolved tension: it is up to us to find comfort.
Recommended recording: There are not very many recordings to choose from…alright, there’s only one. I’ll recommend that if you want to hear this work, you should listen to the one commercial recording available, with the composer conducting the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra.
# 10: Symphony no. 3 by Hugo Alfven
Hugo Alfven is one of my favorite characters in all of music; an incredibly gifted composer, a fine painter, and author of an autobiography that is four volumes (seriously, how great it must feel to like yourself enough to have three volumes of an autobiography and say to yourself, “it’s not quite there yet.”). Musically, he is a bit of an impressionist (as opposed to an Impressionist). His sound is a blend of distinct elements coalescing into a new and different whole, sort of like espresso. You may hear splashes of Mahler or Respighi or Debussy here and there, but Alfven melds all of these varietals into a 92 point wine (espresso and wine references in one paragraph? Now, can I compare his music to Brie de Meaux? God, I’m sophisticated). If Scandinavian countries are to be musically represented by one composer, Alfven narrowly edges Stenhammar for the honor to wave Sweden’s aural flag.
The Symphony no. 3 comes from 1905, the same year as La Mer and Salome. While it may not possess the history-altering force of either of those works, it does possess an effortless joy that few works can match. It was conceived on a trip to Italy with his future ex-wife Marie Triepcke, and the good vibes generated by being in a beautiful country with a good woman are evident throughout the score. Alfven said of his Third: “The symphony has no programme, it depicts neither concrete nor abstract. It is an expression of the joy of living, an expression of the sun-lit happiness that filled my whole being.” This symphony is that annoying friend you have on Facebook who never posts anything negative, so it seems like their life is totally perfect and yours is garbage, even though you and I both know they have a drinking problem.
The striking orchestration style of Richard Strauss is in effect throughout this symphony. Aside from Strauss, no other composer can make the French horns sound like such heroes. Take, for example, the ridiculous (albeit short) horn solos in the gorgeous 2nd movement…it’s the kind of writing that would make even elderly symphony patrons throw their panties on stage. The first movement and scherzo both have a Dvorakian bounce to them, but they incorporate Alfven’s masterly control of color throughout. The real gem of the work is the finale, which sounds like a perfect blend of Khatchaturian and Offenbach: an energetic romp that could just as easily represent a night ride on horseback as theme music for a midget wrestler. It’s incredibly entertaining, and it’s obvious that Shostakovich must have either known some Alfven or mystically learned it through magical composer osmosis. All in all, Alfven remains an unjustly neglected composer, and this is one of the coolest things he ever wrote.
Recommended recording: Niklas Willen has six discs of Alfven’s orchestral works with several orchestras on the Naxos label. The disc featuring the Third Symphony is with the Royal Scottish Orchestra, and it is dynamite. Terrifically inspired playing by the band, and an engaging reading from Willen. It doesn’t hurt that it’s paired with the Dalecarlian Rhapsody, a piece that I have now referenced in two posts in the last week.
# 9: Symphony no. 3 by Aaron Copland
The Symphony no. 3 of Aaron Copland is, in some ways, the American equivalent to Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 5, an all-encompassing group hug amongst a nation that has cast aside ideological differences to embrace the elemental spirit of pride in one’s homeland (both composers shared an interest in music’s all-time group hug champion, Gustav Mahler). In the case of Shostakovich, the feeling of triumph in the coda of the finale is not entirely voluntary, a sarcastic overindulgence of rejoicing just the way Joe Stalin liked it. For Copland, there is no faking; this piece is a symbol of America’s unfathomable potential after its rise to the top of the world after WWII (Copland completed the score in 1946).
The music itself is largely an exploration of three themes, all of which are outlined in the first movement. The composer William Flanagan suggests that Copland is deliberately economical with his treatment of these themes so as not to spoil their re-appearances in later movements, and this seems spot-on; what start as suggestions become declarations as the symphony progresses. None of these is more striking than the use of Copland’s own Fanfare for the Common Man of 1942, which is merely hinted at in the previous three movements, but shines in all its radiant glory in the finale. When the Fanfare returns to cap the symphony, it is a solemn and proud chest-bump for Americans throughout history: this music still resonates so strongly today, reminding us of what we once were and what we could once again become.
Recommended recording: God Bless ArkivMusic for their ArkivCD selections, which have resurrected some really worthwhile recordings over the years. This recording of Leonard Slatkin conducting the St. Louis Symphony is one of them; a terrific reading (on a par with the famous Bernstein, IMO), and paired with the Copland rarity “Music for a Great City.”
# 8: Symphony no. 3 by Jean Sibelius
Sibelius’ Third Symphony marked a significant turning point in his evolution as a symphonic composer. His first two symphonies, both of which remain immensely popular, certainly contain elements of Sibelius’ distinct musical personality, but the full-scale exploration of musical compression that culminated in the note-perfect Symphony no. 7 began in earnest with the 3rd. It is a bridge work if there ever was one, an almost even synthesis of the grand Second Symphony and the remote Fourth. Sibelius began the composition of the Third shortly after the completion of his home at Ainola (the house he would spend the next 50 years in) in 1904. He set it aside for a time, and took a trip to England where he was squired about town by Sir Granville Bantock and met with Henry Wood. The premiere was promised to Wood, but Sibelius didn’t finish the piece in time (Sibelius never toyed with a conductor ever again, with the exception of every relevant conductor in the world in the 1930’s). It was completed in 1907, dedicated to Bantock, and premiered in Helsinki in September of that year. Presumably because of his jaunt to the Big Island, Sibelius’ Symphony no. 3 has been called his “English” Symphony, although when considering that in England in 1907 they were introduced to The Wand of Youth and In the Fen Country, perhaps we shouldn’t draw any conclusions about Sibelius’ actual soundscape from that moniker.
The opening movement is probably the most classically formal movement in Sibelius’ symphonic output. A light and bouncy theme beginning in the low strings and building through the orchestra gives way to woodwind calls and a brief climax on three chords led by the brass before ushering in the second theme in the cellos. The development section is expertly crafted from these two ideas, and the transition into the recapitulation is one of the best in all of music. The coda sounds like it could (should?) have been used in Lord of the Rings; a noble hymn led by the horns and flutes with brief recollections of what has come before and closing with a rich and warm ‘Amen’ cadence. The second movement is gently flowing music, sounding like a waltz being danced in mists and veils, the air of mystery never far. This gentle flow is only interrupted by a rapturous chorale in the cellos and woodwinds, but the pulse returns and we dreamily dance until the low strings finally call a halt to the proceedings with a few heavy legato brushstrokes. The finale is sort of two movements in one: a scherzo and a finale that Sibelius referred to as “the crystallization of chaos.” This movement is a study in the harnessing of musical energy every bit the equal of Bolero; there are not necessarily formal themes to speak of, mostly just bits and pieces of material that ultimately coalesce into the relentless freight train that comprises the second section. The theme finally emerges in the strings under the final gasps of the 6/8 scherzo figurations, a broad and refined theme that will dominate the remainder of the piece. This theme leaps about the orchestra above rushing strings, growing in intensity, picking up nostalgic responses from the winds, still growing in intensity, and ultimately climaxing on an assertive and powerful C-major triad.
The Third shares many similarities to the immensely popular Fifth, and suffers unjust neglect, at least in part, because of it. While I’m happy to have all of Sibelius’ symphonies to appreciate, the Third is the most indispensable for me. While he does not achieve the condensation of form that he eventually did in the Seventh, Sibelius has written a work that is unapologetically upbeat, a tuneful journey in a new direction. His musical goals were perhaps loftier than what he accomplished in the Third, but the balance of architectural design and musical inspiration are right on point, and it is a joy to experience.
Recommended recording: Is anybody really surprised that I’m recommending Alexander Gibson and the Scottish National Orchestra? It’s Sibelius…go Gibson.
# 7: Symphony no. 3 by Roy Harris
Harris’ “quintessential American Symphony” is only this low because of the numbers game; this is an amazing work that needs to be played more. Written in 1939, it was originally commissioned by the cellist/conductor Hans Kindler, but ultimately it was premiered by Serge Koussevitsky and the Boston Symphony (I wonder what the percentage of great music written between 1920 and 1950 that WASN’T premiered by Koussevitsky is). The popularity of this piece has waned significantly over the last several decades, but it really shouldn’t have, because it’s a compact demonstration of everything that’s great about the “American” compositional style (open harmonies, unusual and wide textures, rhythmic vitality, etc.).
Cast in one movement, Harris outlined a basic structure in five sections: Tragic, Lyrical, Pastoral, Fugue Dramatic, Dramatic Tragic. The music has a very dramatic scope, from the long and beautiful cello theme that begins the work to the volcanic fury of the final bars with their pounding percussion. The music really has a heightened sense of momentum throughout; the intensity of the fugue is palpable, and yet the final minutes eclipse it with sheer expression and passion, culminating in a vengeful G minor chord that sounds like Jules Winfield’s Ezekiel 25:17 speech. Regardless of what Harris’ inspiration may or may not have been, the Symphony no. 3 is a striking summation of one of the darkest periods in history.
Recommended recording: Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic, in part because it also comes with a great performance of the William Schuman Symphony no. 3 as well.
# 6: Symphony no. 3 by Robert Schumann
Schumann suffered from a variety of mysterious ailments throughout much of his adult life, the worst breakdown coming in his 30′s when he couldn’t compose or even listen to music because “it cuts into my nerves as if with knives.” By 1854, Schumann complained of being tormented by devils and visited by angels who apparently sang to him in E-flat; the affliction was enough to cause Schumann to attempt suicide by jumping in the Rhine. Soon after, he was institutionalized for what would be the remainder of his life. Ironically, one of the composer’s greatest works was a symphonic tribute to the river, and it had been premiered only three years earlier.
The Rhenish is less an attempt to paint a natural landscape than an attempt to recreate the feelings associated with the landscape. In that context, Schumann succeeds beautifully. The opening Lebhaft features one of music’s most majestic themes, a sprawling fanfare-like idea that dominates the movement. The Scherzo is not a typical Beethovenian scherzo brimming with energy and drive, but instead a relaxed and flowing ländler. After a delicate and calm slow movement, the Feierlich begins with a hauntingly serene chorale in the trombones, builds in complexity and momentum, and bursts into a noble chorale (which was inspired by an experience Schumann had in a cathedral in Cologne). The finale reasserts the triumphant spirit of E-flat and the symphony ends in a blaze of tonic chords.
Schumann’s Third Symphony is a groundbreaking work, and the influence on the symphonies of Brahms and Mahler is not difficult to see. In spite of the inevitable comparisons to Beethoven’s Eroica and Pastoral symphonies as well as Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, Schumann’s Rhenish is a wholly unique and original conception, and it’s impact on music history is in many ways equally, and more subtly, as important as its more famous predecessors.
Recommended recording: Everyone knows the old saying, “Friends don’t let friends record the symphonies of Schumann paired with those of Hans Gal and not recommend them;” the upcoming Avie Records release with Kenneth Woods conducting the Orchestra of the Swan will sound like a million bucks if the first edit was any indication. A very compelling performance (the 2nd movement in particular rocked my socks off)…coming very soon.
# 5: Symphony no. 3 by Johannes Brahms
The Rhine is clearly someplace cool to check out, because it is not only the namesake of the previous entry, but it also served as an inspiration for the current entry. Brahms notoriously took 20 years to complete his First Symphony, but the Third emerged from his rented crib in Wiesbaden in less than four months (Brahms had plans to vacation in Bad Ischl, but he cancelled them when the impetus for the symphony came to him), essentially written in one fell swoop.
Perhaps it is because of this unique (at least for Brahms) compositional approach that the symphony contains a unique (at least for Brahms) cohesion, with thematic unity unlike anything else he ever wrote. The first four measures tell much of the story: a rising three-note motive of F-A-flat-F, followed by falling thirds that include A-natural. The shift between A-flat and A-natural (and by extension F minor and F major) is a constant throughout the work, with Brahms not tipping his hand as to which mode will win the day until the final moments.
Brahms is renowned for the unparalleled craft of his compositions, and the Symphony no. 3 might be his finest creation. The sense of equilibrium and proportion is unrivaled in symphonic form. The relentless forward momentum of the opening movement is balanced perfectly by the tranquil stillness of the tender second; the grand sweep of the third movement by the uneasy tension of the finale. The arc of the piece is a remarkable display of dissolving musical energy in a powerful way. By the time the falling thirds return to bring the symphony to a hushed close, it is like the final contented sigh before a good night’s sleep, one last reminder of a day of trials conquered, the peace of unconsciousness a moment away.
Recommended recording: In spite of less-than-ideal sound quality, I’m going with Barbirolli/Vienna. I’m not entirely sure I have a favorite Brahms 3, but I can think of a lot of good ones (Abendroth, Levine, Abbado, Jansons, Suitner, Haitink, and on and on and on). The Barbirolli is one of them, and it might not be the first one you think of, and more people ought to hear it, so that’s enough for me.
# 4: Symphony no. 3 by Camille Saint-Saens
The history of music is littered with geniuses of the highest order. Saint-Saens is the smartest of the bunch. He was a math expert, he wrote poetry, he wrote articles about science, he had a telescope custom-made to his own specifications, he excelled in astronomy, botany, geology, lepidoptery, philosophy, and archaeology. He abandoned his wife on a vacation in 1881 and never saw her again (they never divorced). He spent his last years indulging his troubling and decadent affection for Algerian boys. He also wrote some of the finest music of the Romantic period, with the Organ Symphony being widely regarded as his crowning achievement.
The beauty of the symphony is in its balance between restraint and excess, a balance mirroring Saint-Saens’ own compositional philosophy. Early in his career, he revered the Wagner school, but as he matured, he turned against that model in favor of a more traditional approach with emphasis on form and structure. The influence of Liszt is everywhere (especially the thematic transformation that Liszt is still the grand champion of), and the piece is, in fact, dedicated to him.
The restraint comes from Saint-Saens’ use of the organ; it only appears in the second half of each of the two movements. Those expecting the raw power the organ possesses are sure to be shocked by its delicate and supportive role in the achingly gorgeous slow movement, a gentle set of variations on a grand and rich theme that will serve as a perfect test to see if your tear ducts still work. The organ’s great outburst doesn’t arrive until the “finale,” when it explodes in an Incredible Hulk-style gamma ray of C major. The momentum of the movement builds until a massive coda with machine-gun trumpet fire and pounding timpani that is in the running for the “Most likely to generate audience shouting before the music actually stops” award. This is as good as music gets: soulful, powerful, engaging, and just bloody well-written.
Recommended recording: Perhaps the only rival to Charles Munch in kick-ass French repertoire, the massively underrated Paul Paray leads his Detroit Symphony in a sparkling performance with an assist from the great Marcel Dupre. The almost-uncomfortably-live sonics of Mercury Living Presence are a big winner here, too.
# 3: Symphony no. 3 by Gustav Mahler
There are nature symphonies, and then there are NATURE symphonies. Mahler’s Symphony no. 3 isn’t entirely about nature, but it isn’t not about nature, either. Anyone who has made it this far in the countdown is well aware of the famous discussion about the symphony that Mahler and Sibelius had in 1907. In the words of Sibelius:
I said that I admired [the symphony's] severity of style and the profound logic that created an inner connection between all the motifs… Mahler’s opinion was just the reverse. ‘No, a symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything.’
Spoken like a guy who wrote a symphony that has six movements and take an hour and forty minutes to perform…AFTER he cut a movement from his conception (which would go on to be the finale of his next symphony). It may be long, but Mahler’s Third is not short on ideas.
Mahler initially had descriptions for each of the movements:
1) “Summer Marches in”
2) “What the Flowers in the Meadow Tell Me”
3) “What the Animals of the Forest Tell Me”
4) “What Night (Man) Tells Me”
5) “What the Morning Bells (Angels) Tell Me”
6) “What God (Love) Tells Me”
Even though he abandoned the descriptions before publication, the music is still highly reflective of the concept. The opening movement is a massive creation dominated by marches, both funereal and militaristic. The sheer sonic impact of this movement cannot be overestimated: it pulverizes, terrorizes, and energizes, and while it is well over half an hour on its own, nothing is wasted, and the experience is exhilarating. The second movement is a graceful minuet that Benjamin Britten liked enough to streamline into an individual piece; Mahler’s unparalleled orchestration is on full display, particularly in the winds. The scherzando is perhaps as sprawling as the gargantuan first movement, if not in minutes and seconds, then in breadth and scope. A rolling, chipper, rambunctious main theme is contrasted with an ethereal solo for the posthorn that evokes a great stillness; the posthorn barely penetrates the texture like the invisible hand of God, but it is one of Mahler’s most beautiful creations. In the coda, there is a violent outburst from the orchestra that quickly subsides, but the music then picks up steam again in a hurry, rushing forward in a sort of rhythmic crescendo to the finish. The fourth movement is a mysterious and eerie solo for contralto with text from Nietzsche’s Also Sprach Zarathustra, complete with ghostly shrieks in the oboe and English horn that send chills up my spine. The fifth movement brings a children’s chorus to the party to evoke the sound of bells, and the music is unabashedly joyful, save the brief interjection from the contralto soloist, who sings music that we will hear again in Mahler’s future. In the truly grand and elevated style befitting this symphony, the finale is a broad Adagio, the first of many great Adagios that Mahler would compose (and that the folks at Decca thought would be a good idea to compile and release in a two-disc set). It begins as a sort of chorale, a wordless love song of immense beauty and peace. There are moments of pain, but ultimately we are taken to an exalted place, culminating in a last chord that is immaculately scored (I swore there was an organ the first 30 times I heard this…I still do, frankly). It’s not a short journey by any stretch of the imagination, but it is arguably the most rewarding musical journey in history, from the earthly to the sublime.
Recommended recording: There are a very, very small number of recordings out there that tower over every other effort in the catalog (the Kleiber/Vienna New Year’s Concert 1989, for example, or the Tallis Scholars Allegri Miserere). In my opinion, the Bernstein/NYPO Mahler 3 on Deutsche Grammophon is one of them. Bernstein is at his most interventionist, which can be annoying, but it’s just an incredible document of an incredible event. I can try to talk myself into all sorts of other performances (including the recent Pittsburgh Symphony broadcast), but the Bernstein is just on another level, even though I’m not in love with Christa Ludwig’s contribution. This is an incredible experience.
# 2: Symphony no. 3 by Arthur Honegger
I know what you’re thinking: “Honegger at number two? That’s insane!” Perhaps. But this piece deserves to be awfully high…I consider it to be one of the five best pieces of the entire 20th century. Honegger was the ultimate marriage between the compositional sensibilities of France and Germany. His music features many Impressionistic colors and harmonies, but also the capacity for brute force best illustrated by someone like Berg, and he is one of the finest contrapuntalists in the history of music. Do you know Les Six? That was him…and five other guys.
Honegger composed his Symphony no. 3, subtitled ‘Liturgique’ because of its movement titles bearing inscriptions from the Catholic Mass (a sort-of cousin to the Britten Sinfonia da Requiem, I suppose), on the heels of World War II. He had been a part of the French Resistance, but the war depressed him, and this symphony is no small reflection of the resentment Honegger felt. The Symphony no. 3 was dedicated to Charles Munch, who premiered the work in Switzerland in 1946. This is music that takes the listener on an emotional journey unlike anything else, from the manic fury of the first movement, the uneasy comfort of the second, and the unwavering stampede of the beginning of the third, to the complete destruction and rebirth of the closing pages.
Honegger himself wrote notes on the music, and they are fascinating because of their cynicism and vitriol. Of the first movement, Dies Irae, Honegger wrote that it suggests “human terror in the form of divine wrath…Day of Wrath! There is a rapid succession of violent themes…there is not time to breathe, no time to think, the hurricane carries everything before it, sweeps everything away. Blindly, furiously…” The 2nd movement, De profundis clamavi, is “the painful mediation of man forsaken by divinity — a meditation which is already a prayer…And how hard it is to put inside human mouths a hopeless prayer!” The finale, Dona nobis pacem, represents “collective stupidity as a heavy-footed march (supposedly depicting…wait for it…”robots marching against civilized man”) for which I wrote a deliberately idiotic theme…a feeling of rebellion dawns in the ranks of the victims…a huge clamor thrice repeated breaks from the oppressed throats…a song of peace soars above the symphony as the dove soared in the old days above the immensity of the ocean.”
This music is still intensely relevant today. Much of the events and actions that inspired Honegger’s masterpiece still resonate with us in the 21st century, and while robots may not be marching against us, we also may not be civilized. The end of Liturgique powerfully suggests that there is only one way to undo the damage caused by humanity: blow it all up and hope there’s something out there willing to grant us peace. And that’s why this piece is this high: of all the music composed in the last 100+ years, I don’t think anything captures the perilous and contemptible unraveling of humankind as forcefully as Honegger’s Third.
Recommended recording: Karajan is known (or wanted to be known) for the big-boned Austro-German repertoire, even though his recordings tend to lag behind those of others, including his contemporaries. Ironically, it is the repertoire for which you would never think of Karajan that he shines most: a killer La Boheme with Pavarotti and Freni, a tremendous Sibelius 4 & 5, powerful performances of the Liszt tone poems. But I find it no exaggeration to say that this recording of the Liturgique (and the 2nd Symphony, too) is the high point of Karajan’s career. It’s terrifying, enthralling, and beautiful.
# 1: Symphony no. 3 by Ludwig van Beethoven
I could wax on yet again about the Eroica, but I’m just going to post the link to the program notes I wrote about the piece. Suffice it to say, it is still the foundation upon which symphonic music rests, and it will stay that way as long as there are human beings.
Recommended recording: I will offer my own recommendation, and in fact will offer three. One is a complete guilty pleasure, a searing performance with Gunther Herbig conducting the Royal Philharmonic, available with a bunch of other balls-out Beethoven performances in one of those Quadromania sets. For a “historically-informed” performance, the Orchestra of the 18th Century conducted by Frans Bruggen is the best, IMO. For a more “Romantic” approach, I’ve always enjoyed the Fricsay/RIAS Berlin performance, available with some other Fricsay goodies.
Down the line, time permitting (his time, not mine!), I’m turning this space over to Deryk Barker, who has more recordings of the Third than I have points scored on the SAT. I would love to hear his thoughts, because he’s smarter than I am, and that’s what life is all about: horning in on the work of smarter people.
Wow, this is going to be a long list of apologies. Huge apologies to Bruckner, Ives, Lutoslawski, Myaskovsky, Prokofiev, Roussel, Scriabin, Magnard, Tschaikovsky, Alwyn, Bax, Nielsen, Rorem, Berwald, and Mendelssohn. Slightly less huge apologies to Bernstein, Glazunov, Rachmaninov, Martinu, Piston, Schubert, Shostakovich, Enescu, Vaughan Williams, Simpson, Sessions, Rochberg, Penderecki, Hovhaness, Henze, and Gorecki. What a tribute to our list to survive this gauntlet of good music.