Thursday, September 22, 2016

The 20 Greatest Symphonies

The September 2016 edition of BBC Music Magazine includes a ranking of "The 20 Greatest Symphonies of All Time." The ranking is based on a poll of 151 of the world's greatest conductors, including such notable maestros as Marin Alsop (São Paulo State Symphony), Sir Andrew Davis (Lyric Opera of Chicago), Alan Gilbert (New York Philharmonic), Zubin Mehta (Israel Philharmonic), Peter Oundjian (Royal Scottish National Orchestra), Sir Simon Rattle (Berlin Philharmonic), and Leonard Slatkin (Detroit Symphony Orchestra).

The conductors who took part in the poll are obviously well-acquainted with the greatest symphonies in the classical repertoire, which, for me, gives the results some credibility. In other words, it's more than just a popularity poll taken from classical music audiences. The conductors were asked to rank their top three symphonies in any order, and based on their selections here are history's 20 greatest symphonies.
  1. Beethoven, Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, “Eroica” (1804)
  2. Beethoven, Symphony No. 9 in D minor, “Choral” (1824)
  3. Mozart, Symphony No. 41 in C major, “Jupiter” (1788)
  4. Mahler, Symphony No. 9 in D major, “Farewell” (1909)
  5. Mahler, Symphony No. 2 in C minor, “Resurrection” (1894)
  6. Brahms, Symphony No. 4 in E minor (1885)
  7. Berlioz, Symphonie Fantastique (1830)
  8. Brahms, Symphony No. 1 in C minor (1876)
  9. Tchaikovsky, Symphony No. 6 in B minor, “Pathétique” (1893)
  10. Mahler, Symphony No. 3 in D minor (1896)
  11. Beethoven, Symphony No. 5 in C minor (1808)
  12. Brahms, Symphony No. 3 in F major (1883)
  13. Bruckner, Symphony No. 8 in C minor (1890)
  14. Sibelius, Symphony No. 7 in C major (1924)
  15. Mozart, Symphony No 40 in G minor (1788)
  16. Beethoven, Symphony No. 7 in A major (1812)
  17. Shostakovich, Symphony No. 5 in D minor (1937)
  18. Brahms, Symphony No. 2 in D major (1877)
  19. Beethoven, Symphony No. 6 in F major, “Pastoral” (1808)
  20. Bruckner, Symphony No. 7 in E major (1883) 
Like all lists of this sort the rankings are not definitive, and the list should primarily serve as food for thought and a topic for entertaining discussion. In thrusting myself into that discussion I want to provide a few of my own takeaways from the list.

1.The ranking offers few surprises, containing a list of the traditional composers and pieces that I would expect. Beethoven leads the pack with five symphonies, followed by Brahms (four), Mahler (three), Bruckner (two), Mozart (two), Berlioz (one), Shostakovich (one), Sibelius (one), and Tchaikovsky (one). (Note that Brahms is the only composer on the list to bat a thousand — all four of his symphonies made the list.)

2. When I first heard about the project, I assumed Beethoven’s Ninth would earn the top spot on the list. I will say, however, that I am thrilled that Beethoven’s Third was chosen the “world’s greatest symphony.” I have taught classes deconstructing both the Third and the Ninth and find that I need much more time to explain what happens in the Third, a symphony that contains an abundance of musical content to analyze. It's a symphony that takes listeners on a journey through a complicated musical narrative that never fails to prompt great discussions after it's over. The first movement provides a roller coaster of edge-of-your-seat excitement, and the almost comic anarchy of the final movement gives listeners plenty to think about. The symphony’s message is abstruse and ambiguous, and it's difficult to imagine someone would listen to Beethoven's Third without wanting to hear it again and again and again.

3. I find personal validation in Mahler holding three spots in the top ten, beating out Beethoven and Brahms who each have two. For several years I’ve been tooting Mahler’s magic horn (!) in my music history classes, and now I have a list from BBC Music to validate my passion. I also love that Mahler’s Ninth is so high on the list, although I am not surprised. Mahler's Ninth juggles a variety of ideas and emotions that in the end become achingly silent. All music eventually goes silent, but only Mahler has ever connected music to silence so elegantly. For me, the end of Mahler’s Ninth sparks the sort of transcendent soul searching that can only come from music.

4. Although I have no significant complaints about the ranking, I would like to provide some of my own honorable mentions: composers and works that I would not have been surprised to see on the list. (I have decided to avoid listing additional works by the composers who already made the list.)
Regardless of how history's great symphonies are ranked, every symphony listed on this page is worth hearing — every one of them will provide a few of those nice moments that can only come from music.

Just for fun, here's an animated score of the breathtaking first movement of Beethoven’s Third. (The animation comes from the Music Animation Machine and the recording comes from the Bezdin Ensemble.)




Visit the Official Website of BBC Music Magazine at


Sunday, September 18, 2016

David McCullough's Five Lessons from History Every High School Student Should Learn

What American history buff does not know about David McCullough? He has hosted American Experience on PBS and narrated numerous PBS documentaries. Every time he writes a new book it hits the bestseller list. He has won the Pulitzer Prize (twice), the National Book Award, and has received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. 

In September 2011 McCullough attended the National Book Festival and was asked this question: “What are five lessons from history that our students need to know before they graduate from high school?”

A summary of his answer is provided below and then followed by the embedded video of McCullough's complete answer to the question.

David McCullough’s Five Lessons from History (with a Coda)
  1. What matters in history is knowing what happened and why, not memorizing dates and quotes.
  2. American history did not begin with the Declaration of Independence. Americans had hundreds of years of history before the Declaration. Students should, in particular, examine the history of Native Americans.
  3. Students should learn history through means other than books and teachers. Music, plays, art, and architecture can teach students much about history.
  4. Students should learn history through the “lab” technique. History should be a “hands on” experience, in which students reach conclusions on their own. When students figure it out for themselves, they will never forget it.
  5. Students should have an opportunity to work with original documents and travel to the places where history happened. Students should be given an opportunity to experience a connection with people from the past. 
  6. Coda: Attitudes about history are “caught not taught.” If a teacher is excited about the subject, students are more likely to be excited.
From National Book Festival, September 25, 2011






Thursday, September 15, 2016

Ubiquitous American Music

As a supplement to my presentation to U.S. history teachers on classical music, I have embedded three pieces of music by American composers that are ubiquitous in concert halls around the world. For those not attending my presentations, I simply ask that you take time to enjoy the music. By any measure, these are three masterworks.

George Gershwin, Rhapsody in Blue (1924)

Maxim Eshkenazy conducting the Symphony Orchestra of the Bulgarian National Radio
Andrew Armstrong (piano) 

Samuel Barber, Adagio for Strings (1938)

Leonard Slatkin conducting the Detroit Symphony Orchestra

Aaron Copland, Appalachian Spring (1944)

Seikyo Kim conducting Symfonieorkest Vlaanderen

As a bonus, here’s a piece not heard often in concert halls but discussed at length in my presentation. In brief, it’s a piece that celebrates the democratic ideal — the uniqueness of the individual, as well as the responsibility of the individual to contribute to the community. (Keep in mind that Carter composed music designed to challenge the intellect rather than evoke emotion.)

Elliot Carter, Double Concerto for Harpsichord and Piano (1961)


Saturday, September 10, 2016

Maurice Ravel and the Destruction of the Waltz

World War I represents a breakdown in civilization that might lead some to think of the national leaders who caused it as “marching morons.”

In August 1914 the nations of Europe stumbled into a four-year conflict that killed over 16 million people. In one battle alone, the Battle of the Somme, over one million soldiers died, and the combatants of that battle might have been hard-pressed to explain what they were trying to achieve.

World War I can be seen as even more disastrous considering the decades of relative peace and prosperity that preceded it. (I stress the word “relative.”) For Europe, the late nineteenth century was a time of tranquility and economic growth that fostered much scientific and artistic innovation (think Darwin and Monet). Then came  World War I, the war that achieved little beyond causing a second world war and the deaths of another 60 million people. They called World War I the “war to end war.” Marching morons, indeed.

Countless works of art, including many films and literary works, have attempted to describe the insanity and destructiveness of World War I. A piece of orchestral music that many put into that category is Maurice Ravel’s La Valse, a piece composed in 1919 that some hear as a tone poem depicting European civilization descending into barbarism. Ravel denied this interpretation and stated, "This dance may seem tragic, like any other emotion pushed to the extreme. But one should only see in it what the music expresses: an ascending progression of sonority, to which the stage comes along to add light and movement."

Ravel completed La Valse shortly after World War I, and it's easy to see how some might have heard the brutality of the war in Ravel's "ascending progression of sonority." In composing music that clearly portrays the decay and destruction of the Viennese waltz, Ravel created what many can't help but hear as a metaphor for what happened in Europe from 1850 to 1918.

Follow the time indicators listed below and listen to how the elegant Viennese waltz heard at the beginning of La Valse moves through several episodes before deteriorating into confusion and despair. Even though Ravel said he did not intend to describe what had happened to Europe during World War I, it's easy to hear how some people might have heard it that way. (After listening to the orchestral version, don't forget to listen to the encore embedded at the end — a terrific version of La Valse for solo piano by Steven Osborne.)


Myung-Whun Chung conducting the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France

0:00 – The Mist
The music begins with a rumbling in the basses as an elegant Viennese waltz slowly emerges from the fog.

2:05 – Viennese Waltz
The waltz, played in its purest form, is introduced by the violins and eventually taken over by the full orchestra. The waltz then evolves through several episodes of its development, from graceful, sweet, and gentle to joyful and grandiose

2:49 – Episode 1
4:01 – Episode 2
4:32 – Episode 3
5:02 – Episode 4
5:52 – Episode 5
7:33 – Episode 6

8:03 – The Mist
We return to the fog from the beginning (a rebirth of the waltz) that takes us toward …

8:20 – Confusion, Part 1
A variety of instruments playing fragments of the Viennese waltz. Each fragment is played with unexpected modulations and instrumentation.

9:50 – Confusion, Part 2
The waltz begins to whirl out of control.

10:09 – Despair, Part 1
The waltz turns gloomy and gradually builds toward …

11:09 – Despair, Part 2

12:15 – Coda
The waltz dies as the music changes from three beats per measure (waltz time) to two beats per measure (march time).

As an encore, here's a version of La Valse for solo piano.

Steven Osborne, piano


© 2011 James L. Smith

Friday, September 9, 2016

Beethoven, Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, First Movement (1804)

With the two E-flat major chords that begin this symphony Beethoven started a revolution in music. This first movement alone was almost as long as entire symphonies of the time, the traditional third movement minuet became a scherzo, and, unlike previous symphonies, this symphony follows a dramatic narrative through all four movements. In my music history classes I normally place this symphony in the “Classical” category but could easily tag it as “Romantic.”


Gustavo Dudamel conducting the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra

Thursday, September 8, 2016

The Composer Who Killed Himself Conducting

Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687) is credited with founding French opera and developing the French Baroque style in music. His service in the court of Louis XIV made him the most famous musician and composer of his time, and his work as a musician was much appreciated by the king who turned a blind eye to his homosexuality and protected him from the Catholic church. 

In music history, however, Lully is too often best known for how he died. Poor Jean-Baptiste was conducting his own composition, Te Deum, and while keeping time by pounding the floor with a wooden staff he hit his own toe. After gangrene set in, he refused to have his toe amputated and died on March 22. Weird, but true.


Lully, Te Deum (William Christie conducting Les Arts Florissants)

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Top 5 Suggestions for Teaching

“The best schools are the ones where administrators create an atmosphere where good teachers can thrive, giving teachers some autonomy and trusting them as professionals to do what’s best for students.”

And that is how I am quoted in the book Teacher Top 5 by Nick Ip. The book profiles teachers from across the nation and includes their Top 5 suggestions for successful teaching. Nick Ip honored me as one of the 25 teachers chosen for the book. (Imagine that!)

In a nutshell, here’s my Top 5 suggestions:
1. Never Enter a Classroom Unprepared.
2. Find a Way to Motivate and Inspire Students.
3. Never Quit Learning and Growing as a Teacher.
4. Bring a Sense of Playfulness into the Classroom.
5. Have Faith in Youth.

The book includes longer explanations of how I describe those Top 5, as well as some information about my career and what inspired me to become a teacher.

In short, I believe that it sometimes matters little to students what subject their we are teaching or how that subject is being taught. However, it will always matter why we are teaching. Students have a sixth sense for whether their teacher cares about them and whether their teacher is dedicated to the profession. Above all, it will matter to students who their teacher is as a person. Students will work hard for a teacher they respect, and they will always remember their best teachers as the one who never gave up on them.


More information about the book Teacher Top 5 is available at www.teachertop5.com, and the book is available in paperback from Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Teacher Top 5: Strategies for Successful Teaching

“You need one person to believe in you in your entire life, just one. Often, that one person is a teacher.”

That quote comes from a Spirit magazine headline for a 2011 article about America’s Best Teachers, and I share the quote via T. Nick Ip’s book, Teacher Top 5. Ip spent fifteen years in finance and strategy before becoming an elementary school teacher to “find the poetry in his life.” Ip’s book, which is obviously a labor of love, has certainly found the poetry in those who have dedicated their lives to teaching.

Teacher Top 5 profiles twenty-five nationally recognized teachers and their Top 5 strategies for successful teaching. The book includes chapters on teachers who have been recognized as members of the National Teachers Hall of Fame, National Teachers of the Year, State Teachers of the Year, and numerous other awards. Each chapter in the book profiles individual teachers, exploring their backgrounds, their reasons for becoming a teacher, their desire for changes in the educational system, and, of course, their Top 5 recommendations for successful teaching.

The book should serve as a guiding light for young teachers and experienced teachers looking to revitalize their careers. Public education might also be well-served by placing Ip's book in the hands of administrators and policy makers attempting to standardize and centralize how good teaching should be measured. Standardization and centralization of curriculum are destroying the art of teaching and strangling the creativity and innovation that allows good teaching to thrive. I hope that people making educational policy would recognize this after reading Ip's book.

As the book makes clear, the nation's best teachers went into the profession for reasons of the heart, and they certainly remain in the profession for reasons of the heart. Policy makers might learn from Ip's book how they can avoid cutting the heart out of the art of teaching.

Ip’s book is accompanied by a website at www.teachertop5.com, which contains information about teachers profiled in the book. If you are a teacher, you can also share your Top 5 strategies for successful teaching and possibly be featured on the website.

The website also offers a means of purchasing Teacher Top 5. As one of the twenty-five teachers profiled in the book I can send a percentage of the sales price to an organization of my choice. If you purchase the book through my referral, 10% of the sales price will go to the Arts Program at Canutillo ISD in Canutillo, Texas. For your donation to help promote an arts program in public education, you will need to purchase the book from www.teachertop5.com and enter a referral code — JSTT5NM — in the “Order Notes” section during checkout. (I make no personal profit from sales of the book.)

Teacher Top 5 is also available from Amazon and Barnes and Noble.




Sunday, September 4, 2016

The Elements of Teaching

I have not found a better description of what it takes to succeed in the classroom than what I first read almost twenty years ago in The Elements of Teaching  by James M. Banner and Harold C. Cannon.

According to Banner and Cannon, good teaching contains eight essential elements.

1. Learning: A good teacher loves learning. They have mastered the subject, and their love of learning for the sake of learning is infectious.

2. Authority: A good teacher has authority in the classroom, an authority that comes from the knowledge and character of the teacher. If the teacher is not respected, the teacher’s desire to help students learn is pointless.

3. Order: A good teacher has effective classroom management skills. Good classroom management takes many forms: routine procedures, high expectations, reasonable rules of conduct, realistic expectations, equitable rewards and penalties. An orderly classroom is the place where good teaching begins.

4. Ethics: A good teacher is an ethical person who understands the responsibilities of the profession. An ethical teacher is one who puts the needs of the students before anything else. An ethical teacher is one who is sensitive to the beliefs and culture of every student.

5. Imagination: Good teachers are imaginative. They possess the ability to approach their subject in a way that captures the attention of their students and enhances learning. Good teachers find a way to engage students.

6. Compassion: Good teachers care about their students. They care about making the world better.

7. Character: Good teachers are good people. Good teaching stems from the character and personality of the teacher.
  • Good teachers are authentic human beings. They are the author of their own words.
  • Good teachers are consistent.
  • Good teachers are emotionally stable. Students allow little tolerance for moodiness or emotional outbursts from their teacher.
  • Good teachers are willing and able to acknowledge mistakes.
  • Good teachers are able to strike a balance between being a student’s friend and maintaining an icy detachment from students.
8. Pleasure: Good teachers make learning enjoyable. They find joy in being with students and helping students learn. Good teachers bring a sense of playfulness and fun into the classroom.

Teaching is not an easy job to conquer, and I applaud the teachers who go to work every day doing their best to create a better future for our children and our nation.



© 2012 James L. Smith

Friday, September 2, 2016

The Empathic Civilization

Several years ago I attended a presentation at Rice University on nanotechnology. During a fascinating discussion about the most recent research on that subject, a Rice professor identified what he thought were the top ten problems facing humanity in the next fifty years.
  1. Energy
  2. Water
  3. Food
  4. Environment
  5. Poverty
  6. Terrorism and War
  7. Disease
  8. Education
  9. Democracy
  10. Population 
He then explained that the solutions to most of those problems could be traced directly or indirectly to energy. He also explained that many of the solutions to the energy problem would come from nanotechnology. Addressing the young people in the audience he said, “Be a scientist and save the world.”

I have spent my professional life in the humanities — music, art, and history are my forte. I don’t know enough about science to comment on what I learned that day about nanotechnology. However, I liked the tone of the presentation. I liked hearing someone encouraging young people to get into science, into any field for that matter, with the goal of trying to make a difference. I see no harm in spreading a little idealism and asking young people to do something to “save the world.”

In any case, I hope the people who promote science never forget the humanities. The humanities, after all, add a little empathy to scientific pursuits. 

And I am not alone in thinking this. The merging of empathy and science has its proponents, as can be seen in the video I have embedded below, a video that features Jeremy Rifkin speaking about the “The Empathic Civilization.” (Rifkin is president of the Foundation on Economic Trends and has written books about the impact of scientific and technological changes on the economy, the workforce, society and the environment.)

According to Rifkin, “[Our brains] are soft-wired to experience another’s plight as if we our experiencing it ourselves.”

That quote from Rifkin describes what teachers in the humanities are trying to achieve every day in the classroom. The challenge of teaching students to appreciate great art, music, or literature may be little more than trying to help them learn to see the world through someone else’s eyes. 

By teaching students to avoid “presentism,” to understand the past by divorcing themselves from the world in which the live, humanities teachers help students get inside the minds of people from 2000 years ago, 200 years ago, or 20 years ago. Students who do this well can learn to understand people today who are different from them — people living on the other side of town or the other side of the world. In other words, the humanities help students, for a time, leave the world in which the live and learn to understand others, promoting Rifkin’s idea of an “empathic civilization.”

"For kids of a certain age, home is everything, the center of the world. But over the rainbow, dimly guessed at, is the wide earth, fascinating and terrifying. There is a deep fundamental fear that events might conspire to transport the child from the safety of home and strand him far away in a strange land. And what would he hope to find there? Why, new friends, to advise and protect him. And Toto, of course, because children have such a strong symbiotic relationship with their pets that they assume they would get lost together. … They're touching on the key lesson of childhood, which is that someday the child will not be a child, that home will no longer exist, that adults will be no help because now the child is an adult and must face the challenges of life alone. But that you can ask friends to help you. And that even the Wizard of Oz is only human, and has problems of his own."
– Roger Ebert, writing about The Wizard of Oz






© 2013 James L. Smith