A week or so ago I was signing on to the blog to write something and I caught a glimpse of the top search results for that day. Topping the list was “ten best symphony movements.” Now, that is exactly the type of search that I would assume might lead people to this space, what with the endless rankings of arbitrary musical entities that comprise a good deal of the material here. But I had never actually written anything breaking down the ten best symphony movements. Why? Because it’s not only beyond pointless to separate a single movement from the work it is a part of, it’s also impossibly difficult to whittle a list down to just ten movements out of the entire symphonic repertoire.
And then I re-read that last sentence I just wrote and said to myself, “if ever there was something that you, in all your inane glory, are qualified to do, it’s plumb the depths of the symphony and make this list a reality.” I can’t stress enough how utterly insane this is: what’s the point of the first movement of Beethoven 5 without movements two through four to codify the ideas into coherent greatness? But the more I think about it, it’s also a hell of a lot of fun and the chances of me listening to a shitload of great music in the process of creating this list are unequivocally 100%. If ever this blog had a calling, this is it.
The criteria are very simple: it has to be from a symphony. That’s it. I’m not going to rely on its context within its respective whole as a mechanism to rate it. Beethoven 5-1 is bad ass of its own accord, and you don’t need to see its connection to the rest of the symphony to enjoy the hell out of it.
DISCLAIMER to any casual symphonic listeners: In an ideal world, these movements would be heard in context. They’re better that way. By a wide margin. But good music is good music, and these movements are awesome enough to stand all on their own and make motherfuckers recognize.
My plan for this is to lay these out one at a time, because a case is going to have to be made for how in God’s name the scherzo of Beethoven 9 or the finale of Brahms 1 didn’t make the list. Obviously a great deal of this is personal taste, but that’s sort of the beauty of the entire endeavor. Hopefully, like with any countdown on this blog, it sparks some sort of conversation and leads to further listening on the part of everyone. At the end of the day, that’s really the goal: talk and listen. A little controversy always helps spur that on. I should hope that the conversation might spill into the comments section a bit so we can hear from the world at large what movements should make the cut.
I’ll kick things off right now with a brief rundown of the movements that just missed the cut. My God this is going to be entertaining.
Cesar Franck – Symphony in D minor, mvt. 1
Why not start with a symphony that must be heard as a whole because it’s cyclical? Let’s just to leap right into the sacrilege guns blazing! Franck’s Symphony has fallen off the face of the earth in recent decades for no good reason. It’s a brilliantly constructed work with tons of color and a bunch of great melodies. None is better than the beautiful simplicity of the second theme of the first movement, a gently syncopated ray of sunshine that works both in its full orchestral splendor as well as in its tranquil setting for solo winds. The structure and pacing of the movement are masterful, pushing and pulling throughout and building to a killer finish on a modified statement of the principal theme that ends with the sheen of a thousand Charlies.
Ralph Vaughan Williams – Symphony no. 5, mvt. 3
It’s just so God damn beautiful. It’s everything you love about the Tallis Fantasia with the added color of wind instruments.
Anton Bruckner – Symphony no. 8, mvt. 4
I guess I sort of feel a compulsion to try and mix things up a bit with this list, because really you could just make the entire list Bruckner movements and call it a day. But that wouldn’t be quite as fun, so I’ll be a little pickier. You could theoretically put any of the finales of the 4th, 5th, 8th, and 9th symphonies in a hat and draw one and have it be the right answer, but I’ll go with the 8th because it’s got the highest degree of bad-assness. It’s really a series of balanced episodes, ranging from the achingly gorgeous horn/Wagner tuba chorales to the volcanic eruptions from the brass, but at the end of the day you could just listen to the first 10 seconds and know it belongs on any list relating to fucking awesomeness.
Sergei Prokofiev – Symphony no. 5, mvt. 2
The quintessential “wait, this isn’t in 3” scherzo, this movement is a perfect synthesis of Prokofiev’s style in one 9-minute romp. A furiously energetic toccata with little flashes of color everywhere framing a slightly off-kilter peasant dance trio with rich harmonies and a jaunty little swing. I had the trio stuck in my head for literally 2 weeks after hearing it at a concert recently.
Johannes Brahms – Symphony no. 4, mvt. 2
This is what I imagine Brahms’ soul would sound like if it were translated into sound. It’s absolutely beautiful, but it’s an austere, distant beauty that we can never truly appreciate because of its sheer gravitas. It’s Brahms inputting the necessary data to churn out a masterpiece of emotional weight and power. By the way, I mean all of this as a compliment. Brahms is a fucking machine, in all that entails. What he lacks in raw Beethovenian emotion he makes up for in complete technical mastery of every element of musical composition. It’s all in here: tender wind chorales, cello harmonies, soaring violin lines, a balls-to-the-wall climax, the works. It’s just empirically amazing music.
Carl Nielsen – Symphony no. 5, mvt. 1
Two words: side drum, motherfuckers. This is such a fascinating work in general, but the first movement is particularly interesting, essentially culminating in a war between the entire orchestra and a snare drummer on Tyrone Biggums levels of crack. This is without question unlike anything else in the literature.
There are, of course, literally thousands more that didn’t even crack the honorable mention list, and I already feel a sharp pain in my stomach at leaving them off. But this is the best of the best of the best, and while there are no losers, there can be only one winner. Stay tuned to find out who it is.