I spent the other day listening to some of the greatest symphonies ever recorded, courtesy of Medici.TV. In the middle of Mahler’s Second, I thought about how you would go about drafting symphonies by number, assuming that you could pick a composer only once. Here is what I came up with for 1-9.
Symphony No. 1: Only one choice here. Berlioz‘s Symphonie Fantastique. Has a first symphony ever made such an impact? Here, in 1830, Berlioz introduces the first real Romantic symphony and plants the flag for Paris as the new capitol of music.
Symphony No. 2: A bit more competition here, but the easy choice is Mahler. His Resurrection might just be my favorite symphony of all time.
Symphony No. 3: Here’s where the competition really starts. But the answer has to be Beethoven. His Eroica might not just be his best, but also the best symphony ever composed.
Symphony No. 4: Brahms. It’s his best, I think. And the competition isn’t so fierce here.
Symphony No. 5: With Beethoven off the board, that clears the path for Shostakovich, whose Fifth Symphony ranks among the most complex thematically of his massive symphonic output.
Symphony No. 6: An easy choice again. Tchaikovsky, whose Pathetique proved to be his final symphonic work.
Symphony No. 7: There is something about seventh symphonies. So many great ones to choose from. This was frankly the closest call on the list and it goes to a dark horse: Sibelius. Such a haunting work, narrowly edging out Dvorak.
Symphony No. 8: An easy choice with Mahler off the board. Has to be Bruckner, whose Eighth Symphony is easily his best.
Symphony No. 9: The cursed symphony, which proved to be the finale for so many composers after Beethoven. While Dvorak’s From the New World holds some appeal here, for me it can be only Schubert. On the merits, my favorite Ninth Symphony of all. The Great ranks among my favorite music ever.