A home for my thoughts.

Discovering classical music in 2023

John Williams is a gateway drug to classical music. His scores are tremendously enjoyable right away and each is inseparably connected to the emotional drama of the movie it accompanied. However, after enough time, you want to explore the greater world that inspired Williams and so you naturally go back to the classical composers like Tchaikovsky, Wagner, Beethoven, etc. However, this world is challenging to navigate and so it’s always good to start with a ‘Best of’ list. At the start of 2023, I found a list of the 45 best symphonies of all time as judged by four-thousand random internet users on As a small side-project I committed to listening to every symphony in its entirety (starting at #45) to introduce me to works I’ve been missing but would love.

Let’s cut to the chase:

Beethoven’s 9th Symphony (‘Ode to Joy’) came in first.

At the start of this project, I rolled my eyes at this. It felt so pedestrian to have one of the world’s most recognizable symphonies be the top pick—as if all the people voting had such varied tastes that the only single thing they could agree on was that they all sort of liked the 9th and so that put it on top. But it was only after listening to the other 44 symphonies first that when I finally got to Beethoven’s 9th I could really appreciate it for the first time. A symphony, to be a symphony, follows a structure of four movements. You know what you are getting with every performance. What made Beethoven’s 9th so enjoyable is that the first three movements contain very distinct melodies and personalities…but the fourth movement first reflects on each preceding movement, literally the brass playing each theme, the cellos rejecting each theme, and then finally the cellos suggesting their own melody: the most famous notes in all of music…the instantly recognizable ‘Ode to Joy’. Because we know what’s coming, the very timid introduction of the famous melody is tremendously exciting. The cellos and double basses introduce the melody so softly that you need to lean in to hear it. As the piece goes on, everything builds until, over ten minutes in, it culminates in a dramatic tidal wave of orchestra and chorus. If you take your kids to see it as their first classical music concert, they will like it. I know, because I did. The ritual of dressing up, standing in line, filing to your seats, sitting in perfect silence between each movement then finally the audience’s outpouring of gratitude at the end of the fourth movement—it’s like a church. This, combined with the fact that a microphone cannot truly capture the richness of a symphony and choir puts this performance in a class of things that must be experienced in person.

What else did I discover in this list?

It turns out I really like Gustav Mahler—an artist I may have heard here and there but never really connected with. Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 came in fifth place and it immediately catches your attention. If you were listening to the playlist of all 45 symphonies, you would know right away when you hit Mahler’s 2nd. I visualize a movie or a drama with each symphony—and Mahler’s 2nd reminds me of a dark action movie whose inciting event is a murder. The rest of the symphony moves along the same way this dark movie that I visualized might: murder, a chase, capture. It’s exciting stuff. I won’t enumerate every artist or symphony that I loved or hated, but I will reflect that the experiment was worth my time. Media today is directly intentioned, and I infrequently stumble across fresh paths to explore. Best of lists are an excellent remedy.