“Knowing the Canon” or “A Personal Symphonic Cycle”

It’s been such a long time since I wrote a blog post that I thought I would get back into the swing with a fairly uncontroversial topic. For those who aren’t interested in the canon of great orchestral music but who want the educational message, you may want to skip to the end. Following Christopher Cook’s advice I have restricted myself to fewer than 600 words.

A couple of years ago I found a forum which asked the following: What is your personal symphonic cycle? You can choose nine symphonies (lots of composers wrote nine) but one composer’s first symphony, another’s second and so on. You are allowed numbered symphonies only. No repetition of composer and no substitutions.

For all but the most eccentric this rules out composers like Mozart and Haydn who only hit their stride when they were well beyond number nine but it includes all the major symphonists from Beethoven onwards. Now we can’t just do this on a whim you understand, it must be taken seriously. First, here are the candidates for my favourite symphonies:

1 – Candidates – Brahms, Elgar*, Mahler, Sibelius

2 – Candidates – Mahler*, Rachmaninov*, Sibelius*, Vaughan Williams

3 – Candidates – Beethoven*

4 – Candidates – Brahms*, Bruckner, Mendelssohn*, Tchaikovsky*

5 – Candidates – Beethoven, Mahler, Prokofiev*, Shostakovich*, Sibelius, Tchaikovsky, Vaughan Williams*

6 – Candidates – Tchaikovsky

7 – Candidates – Beethoven, Bruckner, Mahler, Shostakovich

8 – Candidates – Bruckner, Dvorak, Mahler

9 – Candidates – Bruckner*, Dvorak*

An asterisk means it is my favourite by that composer. You see that I’m having particular problems with 2, 4 and 5, where a lot of composers hit their stride. My list changes (slightly) quite frequently but for now, here is my personal symphonic cycle:

1: Elgar 2: Rachmaninov (listening to it while I type) 3: Beethoven 4: Brahms 5: Sibelius (makes it for Thor’s hammer alone) 6: Tchaikovsky 7: Bruckner 8: Mahler 9: Dvorak

This is now one of my favourite questions for musicians and enthusiasts; if I am stuck in conversation I will ask this and we can normally go for hours. I have been directed to pieces and composers I have never heard before simply through this question.

Education/non-musicians start reading here: last time I interviewed candidates for a music teacher post at KEGS I asked this question (I gave them a couple of hours’ notice that I was going to ask it too). I wanted to find out what they knew about the classical canon and to find out their interests as musicians. Alas, I was disappointed with many of the responses. Apart from the successful candidate, none could name a single symphony with confidence. All had good music degrees from good universities. All were musicians. I can still hardly believe it. Every music teacher I have spoken to who is my age or older loves answering the question. The best student teachers I have had (both in the last two years) have loved it. Many of my sixth formers (and some younger) can answer it. Non-musician (but enthusiast) friends have been able to answer it.

So what I ask you, my readers, is: was my expectation unreasonable? Should music teachers know the classical canon, or have I got it horribly wrong? Will anyone know as many as nine symphonies in 20 years’ time if the budget for music hubs keeps being cut with barely a murmur in the press? But most importantly, what is your personal symphonic cycle and what do you think of mine?


3 thoughts on ““Knowing the Canon” or “A Personal Symphonic Cycle”

  1. If you really want to “find out their interests as musicians”, why not ask them to share 3 significant pieces of music that represent them as musicians because of their interactions with these pieces of music. I think requiring teachers to share their favourite symphonies (and I don’t actually see symphonies here – just symphonic composers) then you have significantly limited what you will learn about your interviewees.

  2. Ok, can’t resist.

    1. Elgar/Brahms/Havergal Brian
    2. Schumann/Bruckner/Beethoven
    3. Beethoven
    4. Pass
    5. Bruckner
    6. Bruckner/Mahler
    7. Beethoven
    8. Bruckner
    9. Mahler/Beethoven/Schubert

  3. Never made it as a music teacher but I’d love to be asked this at any interview!

    Tough question though. Let’s see..

    1. Got to be Havergal Brian, because I like a bargain and that’s a bumper valu pack of a symphony.
    2. Elgar ought to be in there somewhere, and this is the last real chance, but honestly I’d rather have the Tippett.
    3. OK, this is tricky. A lot of 3s I really dig, Mendelssohn, Schubert, Beethoven, RVW, Brian, Rutland Boughton, Part and Gorecki. And Prokofiev’s 3rd is as good as he gets in my opinion. But on the basis that Mahler merits a mention for how many times he rewrote and repackaged his symphony, and for the trippy bit with the animals and the ding dongs, Mahler it is.
    4. Another tough choice. Sibelius edges it, over RVW, Ives, Tippett, Schmidt and Tubin.
    5. 5ths tend to be in the ‘heroic/ obsessive’ mode. Not a fan of most of these, but I like how Nielsen takes both sides of the hero-complex to the absolute blazing extreme.
    6. Last chance to include Martinu and I love this one. Sorry Beethoven.
    7. Prokofiev’s going out too, and his last symphony is lovely.
    8. Vaughan Williams, for the daring orchestration and the gem of a slow movement.
    9. Tempting to name-drop Langgaard here, but it’s only in the teens that his get really interesting.. So what the heck, Vaughan Williams again.

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