Playing the numbers game with the great symphonies

The Times ran an article yesterday that might have seemed dull to some but was pure delight to a classical music geek like me. They asked nine different writers to name their favourite numbered symphony – each writer having just one number.  Nine, of course, is the magic symphonic numeral after Beethoven’s monumental canon of symphonies. Schubert wrote nine too – or eight and a half if you feel his Unfinished sounds, well, unfinished. Mahler, neurotic in most things was positively frenzied over the thought that he would die, like Beethoven, after finishing his 9th so he called his real 9th, The Song Of The Earth, a song cycle and then wrote what we call his 9th and, well naturally, he died before finishing his 10th – just like Ludwig Van.

Well, I can’t resist a musical game so I had a go myself and toughened up the rules by saying that you can only have a composer once in your list of nine symphonies. Inevitably things had to go mostly because the greatest symphony composers wrote a lot more than one great symphony and, also, Haydn and Mozart  didn’t get going until they got to double figures but hey, it is only a game.

So here it is, my list of nine symphonies I would never want to live without allowing for the fact that there are a whole lot more out there  as well:

1)  Walton – Symphony No. 1 in B flat minor, Op 11

2)   Elgar – Symphony No. 2 in E flat, Op 63

3)   Beethoven – Symphony No. 3 in E flat Op 55 (Eroica)

4)   Brahms –  Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op 98

5)   Sibelius – Symphony No. 5 in E flat, Op 82

6)   Tchaikovsky – Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op 74 (Pathetique)

7)  Shostakovich – Symphony No. 7 in C, Op 60 (Leningrad)

8)   Schubert – Symphony No. 8 in B minor, D.759 (Unfinished)

9)   Mahler – Symphony No. 9 in D minor

Now it’s your turn – send me your list and we can compare, er, notes.


  1. Ranking was difficult, and on a different day might differ. However, I settled on this (with top-ranked first): Beethoven 6, Mahler 1, Shostakovich 5, Lutoslawski 1, Brahms 4, Schubert 8, Mozart 40, Tchaikovsky 6, Haydn 103. If I were allowed an un-numbered symphony, I'd have chosen D'Indy's Symphony on a French Mountain Air on its own merit, but also because of the happy memory of my first hearing in the class of a favorite professor.

  2. Thanks Margaret but I cannot allow your list! You can't have the Mozart or the Haydn as they are not within the range 1 – 9. you can have the d'Indy though as single works count as number ones. Also you don't need to rank them by preference just by number. You need to add numbers 2, 3, 7, and 9 and you will have to choose between Mahler and d'Indy. Sorry to be such a harsh task-master but games are deeply serious! I am dying to see your next list.

  3. Oh my, this is much harder. Let's go with this line-up: D'Indy (1), Mahler 2, Lutoslawski 3, Brahms 4, Shostakovich 5, Beethoven 6, Tchaikovsky 7, Schubert 8, Dvorak 9.
    I'm happy to include D'Indy officially, and Mahler's 2 is a fine substitute for the more familiar 1. Mozart and Haydn are O-U-T because I'm not familiar with their childhood works and therefore will not endorse them. Lutoslawski's 3 was my entree into his oeuvre, so that's a good fit. I had forgotten Dvorak first time out, so I'm pleased to include him now.
    Have I now satisfied the stringent terms of this game?

  4. Brilliant Margaret! Full marks for the interesting list and a bonus point for the quick turn-round. Champion mentalities always win through! Lovely to have the Lutoslawski in there and the Dvorak (I tried to squeeze him in and failed). We agree, I see, on the Brahms and the Schubert.

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