The Power of Three



Ok: so those of you who reached the end of last week’s blog will know that this week’s random theme is a list of  the greatest 3rd Symphonies.  If you’re new to the world of classical music and want to find out more, it’s as good a jumping off point as any other.   Why 3rd symphonies?  Well no real reason at all, but it just so  happens that 3 different things inspired me towards this subject – such is the power of three..

Reason To Make a List of Reasons to Write About Third Symphonies Number 1:   Everyone loves a list.  The internet in particular loves a list, so it seemed only appropriate that this blog should join in on the online world’s mania for list-making.

Reason To Make a List of Reasons to Write About Third Symphonies Number 2:   The prestigious and popular music blog written by top conductor and friend, Ken Woods, also likes a list occasionally.  A recent post of his on the seemingly arbitrary subject, The Greatest Symphonies in the Key of D minor, caught my eye.  Ken’s blog posts show real passion, insight and an in-depth knowledge of his topic as well as plenty of humour. No one seems to have picked up on the cheeky Spinal Tap reference in this post:

If Ken’s essays come from a position of knowledge and insight, this blog is more of a pub conversation. A few ‘facts’ tossed about, not too much emotional engagement, some crisps (top ten crisp flavours anyone?)  Well, it would be if blokes sat around in pubs discussing favourite symphonies instead of the Premiership. Err, that’s football – right?

Reason To Make a List of Reasons to Write About Third Symphonies Number 3: My wife’s concert this weekend with the Manchester Beethoven Orchestra. They are playing a pair of great 3rd symphonies by Sibelius and Brahms.  Now, Sibelius is a composer who can do no wrong in my eyes so I can heartily recommend that one.  Brahms, I tend to admire as a  composer rather than love, but there is certainly much to enjoy in this lyrical work.

But, if you decide that 3rd symphonies is your thing, what else is out there?  Below, a list of popular choices, a couple of more obscure offerings that deserve, in my opinion, to be more well known, and also a couple of outings by composers that usually do much better….

So here goes:

Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony “The Eroica”

This is one of the all time greats of the classical repertoire, a game changer when it came to symphonic writing, etc etc – and I’m a little embarrassed to say I find it a little bit long and boring….except for that cool bit with the french horns in the scherzo, obviously.  But what do I know – this is my list and we’re all free to make up our own minds.  What I do love is the history and background surrounding some pieces of music.  For instance, the photograph at the top of this post is the title page of the manuscript score of the Eroica.  That hole in the paper is where Beethoven has vigorously tried to rub out his dedication to Napoleon following his disgust at him declaring himself Emperor. Pretty cool huh?

Mahler’s 3rd Symphony

Now this is more like it.  Mahler generally wrote extremely long symphonies, often concerned with fun topics like death, the inexorable march of fate, life’s profound mysteries – that sort of thing.  An oft repeated quote of Mahler’s is that the symphony should be like the world and this is certainly the case with the 3rd.  He pretty much throws the kitchen sink at this piece.  But unlike some of his works, this is really quite lighthearted and optimistic.  And funny.  If orchestras aren’t playing it vulgar, they aren’t playing it right.  I reckon it’s really quite an easy listen, and not a bad piece to try if you find the world of the symphony a little daunting.  It is, however, very long….

Extremely long…

Not as long as the first act of an average Wagner opera, mind you.

Or a Peter Jackson film.



Vaughan Williams’ 3rd Symphony – “A Pastoral Symphony”

English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams is one of those composers who manages to be simultaneously both under- and over-rated.  A number of his pieces always tend to appear near the top of the Classic FM favourites chart, but there has been a tendency in the past for some critics to dismiss his music as all a bit landscapey, picture postcardy – famously quoted as  the musical equivalent of “a cow looking over a gate”.  This is blatantly untrue if you start to listen to his prodigious output of symphonies, concertos, operas and choral works.  However a little background does help with regards to the interpretation of the Pastoral to help banish the memory of the aforementioned cow.  Now, there’s nothing wrong with the view that a piece of music should be it’s own thing and be able stand up on it’s own without explanation.  After all, music doesn’t tell a story in any real sense.  It is just a bunch of notes on a page, instructions for musicians to make sounds – an abstract art- form.  But, as with the Mahler above, an understanding of the background and intentions of the composer can provide a significant “in” to this somewhat impenetrable art form.  Many people will happily purchase and listen to a modern film soundtrack, often consisting of atonal and dissonant musical techniques but will baulk at the idea of listening to contemporary “difficult” music.  So, in a similar way, once we understand that Vaughan Williams was inspired, not by the English countryside, but the fields of Normandy and the graves of WW1 soldiers left behind, this charming melodic music takes on a much deeper significance.

Rachmaninoff’s 3rd Symphony

Rachmaninoff is another of those composers who “serious” musicians are a little suspicious of.  How can anyone who writes such memorable tunes actually be any good?!  The 2nd symphony is the one that gets performed the most, but in many ways this is the superior piece.  It’s shorter and edgier than it’s predecessor.  It still contains the romantic melodies we would expect, but just feels all together more spikey and modern.

Saint-Saens 3rd Symphony – “The Organ Symphony”

Probably the most well known of all the pieces on my list, particularly the wonderful climax when the organ kicks in.  This was famously used as the theme music for everyone’s favourite movie about a talking pig, “Babe”.  There’s much more to it than that famous climax though.  Symphonies by French composers are a somewhat rare occurance and it’s wonderful  to feel the warm sensuality and joie de vivre associated with the country come through in this delightful piece.

babeA pig – yesterday.

Prokofiev’s 3rd Symphony

I probably liked this when I heard it.




Now a few more obscure choices which, to my mind, could certainly do with a revisit.


Scriabin’s 3rd Symphony – “The Divine Poem”

Why is so little of this composer’s output performed?  We should definitely be performing more Scriabin.  He might have been a bit of a fruitloop with a God complex who spouted lots of pretentious guff about the human spirit aspiring to divinity, but his music is gorgeous and epic.  And he’s out of copyright, so it’s not even too expensive a risk for orchestras to take!

Fun fact about Scriabin: he had Synesthesia (saw colours in response to different sounds) and he invented an instrument called a Colour Organ (sounds like the name of a sex toy) so everyone else could see what he saw.

Less fun fact about Scriabin: he died at the age of 43 after a sore on his top lip went septic.  Thank Fleming for antibiotics….

Bax’s 3rd Symphony

I like Bax.  He’s got a great name. Not many composers out there with 3 letter names (Cui?)  We should definitely be performing more Bax.  He writes lovely lovely music.

If I’m honest, I would struggle to tell one of his symphonies from another.

Or remember any of the tunes.

Or really be able to tell if it was Bax at all.

But it really is lovely lovely music!

Honegger’s 3rd Symphony “Symphonie Liturgique”

Honegger is generally known for his light hearted witty pieces and his association with the collective of  Paris-based composers known as ‘Les Six’, but he was also a prolific symphonist.  La Liturgique is influenced by the 2nd World War and is a chilling depiction of the horrors of mechanized warfare.


Finally, a couple of composers whose 3rd symphonies aren’t quite up to their usual standards…


Tchaikovsky’s 3rd Symphony

Now, I’ll be honest, I’ve only heard this once on the radio and I’m afraid, to my ears, it seemed a bit meandering and repetitive, with none of the usual melodic invention or passion that you would usually expect from the Russian master.  It has to be said that all of Tchaikovsky’s other symphonies are regular visitors to the concert hall, so it seems that even geniuses have the occasional off day…

Shostakovitch’s 3rd Symphony “The First of May”

In terms of structure, it’s hard to say if this really should be called a symphony at all.  It feels more like a sort of experimental tone poem with a choir singing a revolutionary anthem tacked on at the end.  It’s not a particularly satisfying listen.


The symphonies of Shostakovitch (15 of them) provide an intriguing backdrop to the turbulent history of the USSR over the entire twentieth century, from Shostakovitch as a young idealistic communist, through the horrors of the Stalin years, the War and finally, reflection on the Soviet Union’s place in history.  In this respect even Shostakovitch’s lesser works deserve our attention.  As with my discussion of the Vaughan Williams symphony above, a lot of these works are phenomenal listens in their own right.  With an understanding of the environment in which they were written, they’re mindblowing.

Listen to them all.


Gig Guide

I’m playing for the Wilmslow Symphony Orchestra next Saturday 14th February.  I talked a little about the programme in the last blog which includes Rimsky Korsakov’s Easter Festival Overture and Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini’s (or The South Bank Show for those of a certain age).  In rehearsals, though, the real revelation has been learning Rachmaninoff’s 1st symphony.  It’s another of those pieces that’s very rarely done, but unjustly so.  Apparently it had an awful first performance (due to a drunk conductor) and was  lost when Rachmaninoff got out of Russia.  It was then reconstructed from rediscovered parts after his death and in many ways is a more sophisticated work than his later efforts.  Well worth a listen!

4 thoughts on “The Power of Three”

    1. Sadly I’ve only played it once, with a fairly ropey band – definitely needs to be performed more often… enjoying playing his 1st symphony at the moment, really different from his later stuff, in many ways far more sophisticated than his later pop output.

  1. I used to go through every Stockport Symphony programme draft correcting every ‘most well’ to ‘best’. Happy days. With you on Skryabin though – there should totally be more. With Colour Organs!

  2. I thought I might get some moans about the pieces I’d missed out, not my grammar! Fwiw, my B list would have been Schumann, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Copland, Harris, Arnold… and a load of stuff I should probably get round to listening to…

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