A few years ago, some friends and I devised an NCAA-style bracket tournament to determine the greatest composer of all-time through a rigorous series of discussions. The overwhelming majority of humans would likely declare that arguing over who was better/more important between Ravel and Schoenberg is a pointless waste of time. Just because they’re correct doesn’t mean it still can’t have benefits; talking about music, no matter how unusually, is far from pointless.
It is with that same general spirit in mind that I invite you into my world of randomly ranking things like best symphonies based solely on their number. It probably seems like a ridiculous idea, and it is, but it still gets you thinking about great music, and ultimately that’s good. Read this and think about it. Even better, listen to the music and rate for yourself. Think of me as a cult leader and classical music as the cyanide Kool-Aid. Do it now.
Honorable Mention: Symphony no. 5 1/2 by Don Gillis
Originally intended to be his Sixth Symphony, Gillis ended up going halfway because of the light-hearted nature of the work. He even satirized the symphonic form in the movements’ titles: Perpetual emotion, Spiritual?, Scherzophrenia, and Conclusion! This is as un-serious as music gets, but PDQ Bach it is not. Gillis has that stereotypically “American” sound down to a science, and his flair for rhythm is on full display. I can’t figure out why this piece is performed so never. It’s like Baby Bear’s porridge…just the right amount of pretty much everything.
Recommended recording: David Alan Miller and the Albany Symphony Orchestra
10) Symphony no. 5 ‘Reformation’ by Felix Mendelssohn
This was actually the second symphony Mendelssohn wrote, but it wasn’t published until a year after its composer’s death, so it got numbered last. Mendelssohn, the grandson of one of the most noted Jewish philosophers of all-time, was himself somehow a devout Lutheran, and so the 300-year anniversary of the Augsburg Confession proved a worthy reason to compose a symphony in honor of Martin Luther (who, like pretty much everyone else at the time, was an anti-Semite…you can’t make this stuff up). Stay tuned down the road for the list of my ten favorite articles of faith from the Augustana…
The symphony itself is an expressive masterpiece. From the strains of the “Dresden Amen” in the first movement to the full orchestra crushing Luther’s own chorale “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” at the end, the piece runs the gamut of emotions. And it’s a piece that seems to encapsulate the spirit of Romanticism as a whole: a converted Jew writing programmatic music in praise of a historical figure triumphing over struggle? Where I have I heard that hundreds of times before?
Recommended recording: Lorin Maazel and the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra
9) Symphony no. 5 by Ralph Vaughan Williams
Vaughan Williams’ Fifth Symphony shares a couple interesting things in common with the Fifth Symphony of Dmitri Shostakovich, a piece which (SPOILER ALERT!!!) we’ll see on this list later. Both sound vastly different to the symphonies that immediately preceded them. Both are now associated with what we think their composers’ “sounds” are. The emotional core of both is in the slow movements. That’s pretty much it, but I literally just thought of that. Deal with it.
Much of the music in this symphony is tied in with Vaughn Williams’ opera The Pilgrim’s Progress, which eventually premiered almost a decade later. There are a lot of things to like about this symphony: a gorgeous slow movement, a sort of Surprise-Symphony-on-crack vibe to the scherzo, and the always enjoyable passacaglia form. Plus, there’s a “Dresden Amen” in the first movement! I promise the Dresden Amen will not appear again, unless they renamed Parsifal “Symphony no. 5” while I was typing this.
Recommended recording: It’s hard to go wrong with Barbirolli here. Might as well make it this one that includes the Serenade to Music and Toward the Unknown Region conducted by Malcolm Sargent.
8) Symphony no. 5 by Franz Schubert
Apparently the number eight followed by a parenthesis means smiley wearing sunglasses. Thanks, internet. Moving on…
Schubert owes a great big tip of his hat or a hug or something to Haydn and Mozart (and yet when I try to hug them, accusations are suddenly thrown around) for establishing the models for this symphony. There’s nothing wrong with taking successful franchises and updating them for your own purposes. Think of Schubert 5 as the new Batman movies without Christian Bale’s completely insane Batman accent, but still with the witticisms of Michael Caine.
I am particularly fond of the second movement, which sounds so much like Haydn that Haydn should upgrade his identity theft protection to Code Blue. This Andante has a wonderful arc to it, complete with the modulations that would characterize Schubert’s late works (although he died at 31, so late is a pretty relative term). Likewise, both the outer movements have the rhythmic energy that would bloom in full force in the Schubert’s 9th Symphony, which is pretty Great.
Recommended recording: It’s no mystery here that I have a filthy bias towards Otmar Suitner, but you really owe it yourself to hear his Schubert, because it is fucking awesome. This disc coupled with the Unfinished is probably not worth the $80 it apparently costs new, but there are used copies, and they are reasonable.
7) Symphony no. 5 by Sergei Prokofiev
Prokofiev wrote his 5th Symphony in about a month during the summer of 1944, which I believe was a very peaceful time in Soviet Russia. It was actually about as safe as it could be for Prokofiev, who had returned a decade earlier to Russia after living abroad. Like everything else during this time, it was subject to the censorship laws enforced by the Stalin regime, and reading Prokofiev’s own words on the symphony, that it was intended as
a hymn to free and happy Man, to his mighty powers, his pure and noble spirit…I cannot say that I deliberately chose this theme. It was born in me and clamoured for expression. The music matured within me. It filled my soul.
definitely give off that creepy forced vibe that the white guy in this Ride the Train video has or that male actors have when they have a makeout scene with Seabisc…I mean Julia Roberts. I could just be viewing those comments with my Shostakovich glasses, but don’t they sound forced?
No matter. One thing Prokofiev and Shostakovich do have in common is that the music speaks volumes on its own. Prokofiev’s 5th indeed reflects that nobility and triumph in a typically inventive Prokofiev fashion. The hallmark of the piece for me is the ending, with Morrisette-like irony that is as sarcastic as anything Mahler ever wrote, especially on the heels of the frenetic energy that precedes it. But don’t sleep on the slow movement, which has one of the most gut-wrenching climaxes in the symphonic repertoire.
Recommended recording: Normally I would recommend a Russian conductor and orchestra, and I do like Rozhdestvensky here as well, but something about this George Szell/Cleveland Orchestra recording has always pleased me. The Concerto for Orchestra that’s with it is probably part of that.
6) Symphony no. 5 by Jean Sibelius
You know it’s a crowded-ass field when Sibelius 5 comes in at number six. Sibelius gets the 1st ever Everything But The Music “I Don’t Give a Shit” award for contributions to looking at the musical landscape surrounding him and being like “fuck it” and doing whatever feels right to you. I don’t have a trophy made yet, but I’m sure they’ll display it in Finland. With the onset of twelve-tone, neo-classicism, and all the other early 20th century styles, Sibelius had a little bit of an identity crisis, especially on the heels of the poorly received Symphony no. 4. The 5th, though, once he had finished revising it, is arguably his single most popular work, and one of the great symphonies, period.
This symphony has many characteristic features, including Sibelius’ freaky obsession with compressing the symphony. This compression was still evolving, and the tempi in the 5th form, essentially, a giant arch with little resemblance to the traditional symphonic tempo structure. But so many of the details of the piece are typical Sibelius, and if the gorgeous “swan” theme in the finale doesn’t take your breath away, you don’t deserve to breathe and should have your breath taken away through other measures. I’m listening to it as I type this, and I’m starting to see stars and can no longer feel my eyeballs. Also, the ending is CRAZY.
Recommended recording: Everyone will try to tell you Barbirolli, and his recording with the Halle is indeed great, but look no further than the most underrated Sibelius interpreter out there, Alexander Gibson, and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. In fact, just get the box set if you can find it, because Gibson is a beast in Sibelius.
5) Symphony no. 5 by Pyotr Ilyich Tschaikovsky
The first of our “fate” 5th symphonies, and the greatest of Tschaikovsky’s output (stop staring at me Pathetique!) The symphony features a recurring motto theme that appears in all four movements and the transformation of the theme from sorrow to triumph is as easy a trajectory to hear as there is in music, which is part of its appeal. Tschaikovsky himself actually found the symphony a failure, and critics tend to point to the finale as the symphony’s weak point, but frankly, that isn’t any different than any other Tschaikovsky symphony (ROAST!).
This symphony has some flat-out breathtaking music in it, though. Take the short string chorale after the big upward surge in the orchestra…that is as profound a musical moment as anything ever written. Take the second movement’s second theme…everyone goes nuts over the John Denver-esque horn solo, which is lovely, but that second theme in the woodwinds is a perfectly constructed melody and is scored to perfection. And whatever faults the finale may have, and however insincere the ending may be perceived to be, it is still a stirring and dramatic conclusion (my friend James says it sounds like graduation music, and he is correct. Next time you listen to it, say your friends’ names out loud and discover the magic). In short, it has flaws, but when it gets it right, it really, really, REALLY gets it right.
Recommended recording: Most of the recordings I like of this piece are broadcasts. There’s an amazing performance from my boy Walter Weller and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, and a wonderful performance from way back when with George Szell conducting the New York Philharmonic. But for available recordings, there is a really nice interpretation with Antal Dorati leading the London Symphony, with a nice Eugene Onegin Polonaise included as filler as well.
4) Symphony no. 5 by Anton Bruckner
(Insert something about Bruckner’s music being constructed and sounding like a cathedral). Seriously, everyone says Bruckner’s is the “master builder of cathedrals in sound.” That analogy makes sense in the sense that Bruckner spent as much time in a cathedral as I spent in casinos growing up (neither of us really did well with the ladies, either…right now, I think the only difference between us is that I am alive, and he is one of the greatest composers of all-time), but it sort of implies a lack of forward momentum (i.e. “just stand there and soak it all in”), which is completely untrue. Bruckner’s music moves like that movie There Will Be Blood: it may be going slowly, but it never drags and the pace ends up being its greatest asset. Bruckner is the master of tension and release, and the 5th symphony is a remarkable illustration of this.
According to WikiPedia, this symphony is occasionally referred to as the “Tragic,” “Church of Faith,” or Pizzicato” symphony. I have heard it referred to as any of those exactly never times. But I have heard it referred to as awesome, because it is. Just start playing it…if you’re telling me that you’re not completely gripped by the rumbling pizzicatos and ominous string sounds leading into the orchestral explosion that follows, you don’t have a soul and you need to get that checked out. A typically expansive and gorgeous Bruckner adagio (with one of his most beautiful melodies to boot), a bad ass scherzo, and a massive finale with as weighty an ending as exists seal the deal. The 5th may live in the 4th’s shadow in popular appeal, but it outshines it in sheer epic-idity and pathos.
Recommended recording: I’m a sucker for Takashi Asahina’s Bruckner recordings, and this live recording with the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra is the most readily available, although it’s an mp3 download. In the much more available department, get this DVD of Gunter Wand conducting the NDR Symphony. Both these guys know how to shape Bruckner to a T without it taking 4 months to get through a performance (I’m looking at you old version of Celibidache in Munich).
3) Symphony no. 5 by Dmitri Shostakovich
I wrote about Shostakovich 5 not too long ago, which clearly means I’m thinking about it too much if I’m thinking about it again. Everybody knows the story behind the music, and it’s fascinating or whatever, but just take a second to remember that music. It’s amazing. There isn’t a note out of place.
The unsung hero of the 5th is the 3rd movement. With music of such dramatic intensity flanking it on all sides, it is somehow the most peacefully uneasy or uneasily peaceful slow movement out there. Anytime you can make the climax of your movement use punishingly strident xylophone, you have to do it, and Shosty did. Throw in the irreverent scherzo and the “your business is rejoicing” coda and you have the stuff of legend.
Recommended recording: If you’re gonna listen to Shostakovich, you might as well go Russian. Mravinsky, Kondrashin, Svetlanov, Rostropovich, whoever. Personally, Kondrashin is one of my favorite conductors in general, and his reading of the 5th, while not quite as raucous and insane as the Mravinsky on Erato, is still pretty wild, but with much better detail, balance, and momentum, IMO. It might only be available in the complete set in the US, but just do it. You have the resources.
2) Symphony no. 5 by Gustav Mahler
And you thought just because Mahler is my God now that I would have his Fifth at #1, didn’t you? Mahler 5 is a crowd favorite the world over now, which is pretty amazing when you consider where Mahler’s music was 70 years ago. The Fifth is probably the most popular of all Mahler’s symphonies, and not just because of the famous Adagietto.
Few works can match Mahler’s Fifth for sheer “enjoy the journey as much as the destination” magic. To go from one of the most intensely dark and brooding funeral marches to one of the most contrapuntally dazzling happy jaunts in the repertoire requires lots of skill, fortitude, and three interior movements. The Adagietto may get all the publicity, but the real gem of the symphony is the gargantuan scherzo, and I don’t say that as a horn player but as a fan of good music. I can’t think of a better movement anywhere when it comes to transforming the mood and atmosphere of a piece. You can literally feel the metamorphosis of the work taking place.
The finale shows Mahler in the midst of his Bach phase, eager to show everybody that he could write counterpoint, too. And he does. And when he brings back the chorale from the 2nd movement, it’s like God him-or-her-self is making an appearance at your dinner party. Add in a frantic dash to the finish line that all but guarantees one of those great audience reactions where like 20 people out of the 2500 in attendance let out a big scream to get everyone else energized. I’m usually that guy, for what it’s worth. And few pieces make it easier to do than Mahler 5.
Recommended recording: To say this is a crowded field is like saying that crystal meth is bad for your teeth. There are so many bloody recordings out there, it’s hard to sort through the morass to find a really great one. But with Mahler, when in doubt, go with Bernstein.
1) Symphony no. 5 by Ludwig van Beethoven
It’s not really THAT great, besides being the most perfect piece of music ever composed and the cornerstone of Western music. Where to begin? I guess with the most famous musical utterance in recorded history and a first movement that is the poster child for development. Or maybe the beautiful and rollicking second movement. Or maybe the bounding scherzo. Or perhaps the unswervingly triumphant finale. It doesn’t matter. Pick a measure. Pick a note. Pick a rest. Everything is where it ought to be.
Beethoven’s Fifth is one of those things that simply cannot be denied, no matter your personal feelings. If I could start a basketball team with any player from history, I’d pick Magic Johnson. But is he the best basketball player of all-time? Not really, no. If I could only listen to one pop musician from the 80’s, it would be Prince and it wouldn’t be close. Is he better than Michael? Probably not. So it is with Beethoven’s Fifth. I actually like Eroica the most out of the symphonies, but the 5th is simply better. Everything that’s great about Eroica has been harnessed, refined, streamlined, and put together with pulverizing force. Not only does Beethoven 5 top this list, it tops every list.
Recommended recording: People will try to tell you it the Kleiber, but I actually prefer Karajan. Karajan is willing to seemingly make the wind section 47 times bigger than indicated in the score, and that’s a hell of a lot of fun. There are definitely some more classically proportioned performances out there that are phenomenal (including two recent ones, Jarvi/Bremen and Vanska/Minnesota). But there’s something about the unadulterated joy of possibly destroying your speakers in the finale that makes the Karajan the gold standard for me.
Apologies to: I don’t really owe anyone an apology, honestly. Maybe Dvorak, whose 5th is certainly underrated, but when Mendelssohn Reformation comes in at 10, it’s a tough nut to crack. I could probably toss an apology to Bax and Glazunov as well, and maybe Nielsen. Penderecki’s 5th Symphony is subtitled ‘Korean’ which is cool. Maybe George Rochberg? Forget I said anything. I don’t owe any apologies. You can quibble the order if you want, but I don’t think you can quibble the content. So there.