Symphonies We Love

Beethoven's Fifth? Mahler's Second? How about Alan Hovhaness's Symphony No. 66? (Ever been to Glacier Peak?)

In February Classical New England featured Symphonies We Love – the symphonies we ALL love, including you! Read our own choices below, and learn more about the Symphonies You Love.

Dvorak Symphony No. 9 - Kertesz

London Symphony Orchestra, Istvan Kertesz, conductor

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A Cherished Memory
Antonín Dvorák's Symphony No. 9, "From the New World"

When I was a young music student playing with the Denver Youth Symphony Orchestra, I studied privately with the principal horn player of the Denver (now Colorado) Symphony Orchestra. Once a year the principal players in the Youth Symphony joined the professional symphony in playing a large-scale work.

My opportunity came in 1984 during the Denver Symphony’s golden anniversary season. The concert’s feature piece was Dvorák’s 9th and I had the immense privilege of playing the majestic four-horn soli in the last movement—with my teacher and two of his colleagues to a full house at Boettcher Concert Hall.

There are more recordings of Dvorák’s 9th Symphony in my personal collection now (14 to be exact) than any other single piece. I love every one of them for their own unique qualities. And I will always go out of my way to hear that symphony performed live because of that one spectacular chance I had to play it myself in concert.

- Cheryl Willoughby, Music Director

Beethoven Symphonies - Karajan CD cover

Berlin Philharmonic, Herbert von Karjan, conductor

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A Rare Disagreement
Ludwig van Beethoven's Symphony No. 6, "Pastoral"

My husband and I have been married for more than 21 years, and truthfully, we rarely disagree on anything of substance: our values, politics, the arts, which in-laws we love most.  So I was shocked when we didn’t agree on our favorite Beethoven symphony! I picked the 6th, the “Pastoral” symphony.  He said… “No. Definitely the 7th.”  Wha??
The 6th depicts a day in the country. For me, there is simple charm in the original titles of the movements, beginning with "Awakening of cheerful feelings upon arrival in the country" to the final "Shepherd's song; cheerful and thankful feelings after the storm." The 6th is the first symphony Beethoven wrote after going completely deaf, and it's telling that this is a symphony of both visuals and feelings. For Beethoven, it wasn’t only an appreciation of the countryside. He shared the belief that by knowing nature, one could know God. There it is.
For my husband, on the other hand, Beethoven’s 7th is a “showcase of the composer’s abilities.”  Hubs, (a professional musician, by the way) asserts that Beethoven's 7th blends the decisive narrative from the composer's 3rd and 5th Symphonies, with the fluidity and lyrical sensibilities of his 4th and 6th.   In other words, a perfect balance from a man at the height of his musical abilities, despite his utter inability to hear.
I shared my "marital spat" story with Boston Pops conductor Keith Lockhart, who joins me every weekday morning on Classical New England for "Keith's Classical Corner."  But to my dismay Keith sided with my spouse -- and proceeded to repeat practically every word my husband had said earlier.  An informal poll of my male colleagues also showed a preference for the 7th.  But from my female colleagues, it was the 6th.  
Still, I love the 6th best of all Beethoven's symphonies. The 7th is great, too, as are all Beethoven's symphonies.  But now I’m wondering: Is it also “a guy thing?”

- Laura Carlo, host for weekday mornings and Baroque in Boston

Brahms Symphony No. 2 CD cover

Berlin Philharmonic, Simon Rattle, conductor

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Larger Than Life
Johannes Brahms's Symphony No. 2

The world of Brahms has always overwhelmed me. Even at the end of his life, in his most intimate intermezzos for the piano, he opens up a world that is colorful and rich in a wholly unique way – open-hearted and full of consolation.

The second symphony came far easier than the first. Brahms was vacationing and famously wrote that the “the melodies flow so freely here, one must be careful not to trample on them!” But he revels in the shadows as much as he does in the sunshine, and this is one of his hallmarks.

Part of the deep sense of fulfillment that comes with hearing Brahms comes from knowing intuitively that it is built, like we are, in a profoundly organic way. Three notes – D, C-sharp, D – open the second symphony and become the DNA for a sonorous world that understands sadness, courage, joy and love.

The slow movement unfolds and overlaps in ways that go straight to the heart. And how does he convey that thrilling sense of collective humanity in the finale? Plenty of pieces call upon a triumphant blaze of horns to close things out, but at the end of this miraculously developed piece, it makes us feel larger than life. We are beaming! What more could you ask of a symphony?

- Cathy Fuller, afternoon host and co-host for Boston Symphony Orchestra broadcasts

Kalinnikov Symphony No. 1 - Jarvi CD cover

Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Neeme Järvi, conductor

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Russian Soul
Vasily Kalinnikov's Symphony No. 1

Symphonies give us a chance to connect to places and people far away – both in time and geography. The template perfected by Haydn and Mozart has proven to be infinitely malleable, allowing composers to maintain the template while injecting their own thoughts, emotions, and cultural echoes.
Tchaikovsky’s six symphonies channeled a particular Russian voice through the form, but another, far less-known composer was equally successful. Vasily Sergeyevich Kalinnikov was a generation younger than his more famous colleague, and he explored the same kind of highly personal inner landscape in his music. But he also injected perhaps even more of the cultural landscape around him, taking on the character of composers like Rimsky-Korsakov and Mussorgsky.
Unfortunately, Kalinnikov lived in poverty and died too young, never fulfilling his potential role as a bridge between those Russian nationalists and the more western oriented Tchaikovsky. But the Symphony No. 1 in G minor can be seen as a brilliant attempt at creating that bridge.

- Brian McCreath, host of The Bach Hour and producer of Boston Symphony Orchestra broadcasts

William Grant Still Symphony No. 1 CD cover

Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Neeme Järvi, conductor

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A Symphony in Blues
William Grant Still's Symphony No. 1, "Afro-American"

His life was the American "melting pot" incarnate: Born in Mississippi, with a mixture of African, Spanish, Irish, Scottish, and Native American blood in his veins. He worked with W.C. Handy, "The Father of the Blues," collaborated with Langston Hughes, won a scholarship to study at the New England Conservatory with George Whitefield Chadwick, and later the French avant-gardist Edgard Varese. His career began on Black Broadway, and ended on Hollywood soundstages.

In short, William Grant Still (1895-1978) was an American original, the so-called "Dean of African-American Composers." His Afro-American Symphony is justifiably famous for being the first large-scale symphonic work by a black composer to be performed by a major orchestra when it was premiered by the Rochester Philharmonic in 1931.

What's less well known is that Still's symphony is also a groundbreaking work in its marriage of symphonic form with the African-American experience. The symphony opens with a 12-bar-blues progression, the first time that had happened in a symphonic work. The second movement (which Still titled "Sorrow" in his drafts) takes on the form of a Spiritual. And in instead of a Minuet or Scherzo for the the third movement, Still opts for a jaunty "Hallelujah," replete with a tenor banjo.

Not unlike the sonnets Antonio Vivaldi attached to each of his Four Seasons, Still's Symphony No. 1 has four accompanying epigraphs by the noted African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, the last of which is titled "Ode to Ethiopia:"

Be proud, my Race, in mind and soul,
Thy name is writ on Glory's scroll
In characters of fire.
High 'mid the clouds of Fame's bright sky, And truth shall lift them higher.
They banner's blazoned folds now fly,

Demonstrating that music has no natural color line, you are hard pressed to top the snap, fire, blues, and boisterousness of the Estonian-born conductor Neeme Jarvi's recording with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

- Benjamin K. Roe, Managing Director

Prokofiev Symphony No. 1 CD cover

Chamber Orchestra of Europe, Claudio Abbado, conductor

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Out of the Old Comes the New
Sergei Prokofiev's Symphony No. 1, "Classical"

Prokofiev was quite a rabble-rouser as a young man. He loved to shock audiences with his "modern" music.

But in the midst of the turmoil of the Russian Revolution, in the summer of 1918, Prokofiev went on a vacation, made sure there was no piano to distract him, and sat down to write a symphony in the style of Haydn.

I love the idea that this young man saw himself and his world on the brink of something completely new, and yet turned to older styles and older forms to express himself. And that he then adapted it and stretched it to suit his own style.

The Symphony No. 1 may have alienated some of his modernist friends in the process, but it remains as fresh and vibrant today as it was then.

- Alan McLellan, mid-day host and producer of Drive Time Live

Stravinsky's Symphony in C CD cover

Berlin Philharmonic, Simon Rattle, conductor

Purchase from ArkivMusic

"I just gotta be me!"
Igor Stravinsky's Symphony in C

I openly admit I’m not a big fan of symphonies – they’re too grandiose, there’s too much going on, and I vastly prefer the intimate and precise quality of chamber music. This is why I love Igor Stravinsky’s Symphony in C – a post-classical take on the classic symphony form.

Just in the first movement, fluffy flutes, a sinister oboe, and a persistent string section play off of each other, imitating and supporting each other like members of a string quartet. The conversation among characters continues throughout the next three movements.

I like to see this symphony as Stravinsky’s way of saying, “yes, I recognize that there’s something you’re expecting, but hey, I’ve gotta be me.” This symphony expertly blends Beethovenian symphony writing with Stravinsky’s knack for perfect discord.

- Rani Schloss, production assistant

Mozart Symphony No. 38 CD cover

Prague Chamber Orchestra, Charles Mackerras, conductor

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Prague's Embrace
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Symphony No. 38, "Prague"

In December 1786 Mozart had one of the greatest successes of his life: the opening of his opera Le Nozze di Figaro in the city of Prague. Everyone, from the royalty to the merchants to the musicians themselves, loved Figaro, with that deep love only a true popular hit can inspire. This love, in turn, inspired Mozart's love for a city that finally "got" him, and he expressed that love in a symphony written especially for Prague.

This love is evident in the music itself. The first movement, which foreshadows the sound world of Don Giovanni, is an expansive space you can inhabit and explore. The slow middle movement is a personal vehicle for the expression of emotions of profound depth, with an almost frightening sense of intimacy. The last movement, the first to be composed, has a kinetic energy that also invokes Don Giovanni and Beethoven with an undertone of seriousness that darkens its bubbly surface.

What I love about this symphony is that you're rarely conscious of its being a symphony - its form is so seamlessly embedded into its content that you're hardly aware of it. You don't think about what movement you're in or what's next - the work sweeps you along on its own terms.

The “Prague” symphony is an organic work that feels like a pure journey of real love, not the performance of love one encounters in the big Romantic symphonies, but what real love - with its mutual respect, deep appreciation, and the delights and dangers of being seen clearly for who one is - actually feels like.

- James David Jacobs, late night host and producer of Baroque in Boston


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