Symphonies in the The Hottest 100 20th Century

Yesterday, I made some suggestions for the Hottest 100 countdown of the “classical” music of the 20th Century. I received the highest ever reader numbers for one of my classical music blogs, so I’m pretty happy about that – as well as nice compliments. However, I also received questions – such as, which symphonies do I think will make it? I realised that the first post was a bit rushed – so here are some predictions as to the symphonies. This is the century that too the “symphony” and bent it completely out of shape – to wonderful effect.

1. Mahler. I think his 5th, 8th and 9th Symphonies are pretty certain for inclusion – they are pretty popular works that made the Hottest 100 Symphonies. Mahler 5 will go near the top, I suspect, because of the Adagietto, which is breathtaking –

I don’t think his 6th or 7th will appear, probably because the 6th is a grumpy old thing (I once characterised it as the work Keating put on after a particularly bad day, ready to write one of ranty speeches) and the 7th, which is just plain weird. Which is why it’s my favourite Mahler.

2. Rachmaninov. I think his second symphony might appear, again because of the slow movement, which is one of the most sensual pieces of music going around. Never fails to move me in various ways…

3. Elgar and Vaughan Williams. For reasons best known to my childhood, I can’t separate these two, even though they wrote at different times. Elgar’s Second Symphony may make the list, by dint of earlier times when Australians listened to British classical music a lot.  Listening to it is a bit like walking through treacle for me.

I do hope, though, that some Vaughan Williams makes it – like his Sinfonia Antartica or A London Symphony, which was the first work I saw the Sydney Symphony perform inside the Opera House. I still think it’s wonderfully evocative of a London I have never visited but seen in films and on TV.

4. Shostakovich. Being my favourite composer of all time, I hope a lot of Shostakovich makes it. But I think the symphonies that will make it are Numbers 5, 10 and possibly 8 and 7 – even though 7 – the “Leningrad” is a bit rubbish, partially because I think it was intended to be.  Here are some interesting performances – the conductor of the premiere performance, Mravinsky conducting the deliberately slow, methodical pace that Shostakovich wanted vs  Leonard Bernstein, the eternal showman (listen from the 8 minute mark of the Bernstein for the comparison)

And his 10th is a cracker – this movement is said to be a musical representation of Stalin’s activities. But it’s also good for those days when the world really has picked you up and dumped you somewhere else and you have no idea how it happened.

And there’s the 8th, which is a pretty good representation of both war and the relentless passage of Stalin. But also, I find, good music to get me to wake up in the morning, ready for getting in the machine that moves me along into Sydney’s absurd traffic. In this version, look at the conductor’s cheeks. They are great.

Enough of Shostakovich. But I will conclude by saying that you really don’t need to know much of the Shostakovich “story” or “secret agendas” to enjoy his work. For me, they show a brittle, sardonic response to what was a frenetic, anxiety filled century – and not just in the Soviet Union.

5. Prokofiev. I suspect his 5th Symphony might make it (in addition to Romeo and Juliet and the 3rd Piano Concerto), but I don’t see it pop up as much on programs or the radio as those of Shostakovich. That’s probably because there isn’t as clear a “secret agenda” being played out. But it’s a still one of the best symphonies of the century – the rhythms are fantastic and I like his orchestration.

6. Messiaen. I don’t really know what music of Messiaen will make it – probably the Quartet for the End of Time, composed in a Nazi prison camp. But I also think his fantasmagoria, the Turangalila Symphonie, complete with that electronic marvel, the ondes martinot (an instrument used by Radiohead at one stage), should be there.

7. Gorecki. His Symphony No. 3, the “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs” made the popular music charts in the 1990s, even copping a mention in my barely read history thesis.  Its popularity of the time was put down to the way it encompassed a lot of sadness around and I think it still holds that position with people – this is why I think it will feature highly on the list.

8. Sibelius and Nielsen. I completely forgot the Scandinavian duo yesterday, despite my admiration for a number of their works. I definitely think Sibelius will appear – with his Violin Concerto a near certainty. I also suspect his Symphony No. 5 will appear.

I also think Carl Nielsen might appear – with the 4th Symphony, The “Inextinguishable” being the favourite – perhaps if for no other reason than it has a name.

9. Martinu. I mentioned Martinu yesterday – but I do wonder if anything of his will appear. You don’t hear his music that much on the radio or in concert halls – I have only ever heard his Oboe Concerto live.  But I rate him as one of the century’s best, with his mix of insanely busy music with optimism and despair. A true original.  Here is his Sixth – music to match a crazy old Saturday night in Sydney.

10. Carl Vine. Australian composers haven’t gone that much into symphonies – they seem to like the 15 minute work. This could be put down partly to the fact that John Hopkins, the  Head of Music at the ABC, commissioned a lot of orchestral works from Australian composers in the 1960s and 1970s – and Hopkins told the composers that audience attention spans weren’t much longer than 15 minutes.  Even Carl Vine’s symphonies aren’t long – running at or a bit longer than 15 minutes. And I haven’t a single youtube link of one of his works being played.  But he might make it.

There’s 10. I have missed other symphonies, no doubt – and I’ll probably be wrong. But the century did create a lot of them.

In a footnote, I mentioned to my partner that I’d composed a blog about the Hottest 100 and she mentioned Rhapsody in Blue. And I’d completely forgotten about it. It will probably hit the Top 10 and I had blanked it. Some out there would probably like to blank it permanently, but I like it.


One thought on “Symphonies in the The Hottest 100 20th Century

  1. elissamilne says:

    I am loving these posts! Wonderful, personal recommendations and reflections as to what might move the multitudes.

    Now: I’d love to know which string quartets, piano trios and other assemblies of the chamber variety you want to see/hope to see/think we’ll see in the Classic 100 20th Century list! If time is too short, thank you so very much for these two fabulous posts you’ve already crafted for us!

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