Ten great Symphonies

drawing of Beethoven
drawing of Beethoven | Source

Famous Symphonies

The word 'symphony' in Greek means “agreement or concord of sound”; a symphony is typically an orchestral composition - some symphonies employ as little as 15-20 performers; and, there are symphonies like Mahler's 8th aka 'Symphony of a Thousand, which require enormous forces to perform; I'll be discussing Mahler's 8th Symphony later on in this article. The symphony is different from the sonata form as being a work for full orchestra, as opposed to the sonata form which is typically a work for solo instrument or small chamber ensemble. Nonetheless, both the symphony and sonata contain the very rigid “Sonata Allegro Form,” the most complex and structured of all musical forms.

Ten great symphonies - this list will include some of the most famous symphonies ever written. The symphony stands alone as the greatest and most complicated of all musical genres. The symphony form is to music what the novel, epic poems and plays are to literature. Nonetheless, there have been giants of music such as Chopin who had trouble with larger musical forms and did not excel in them.... All said, when Haydn initially introduced the symphony form back in the mid 18th century, it wasn’t as complex as it would later become later on towards the end of the 19th Century.

The composers discussed in this article all excelled in this difficult and strenuous musical form

Mozart Symphony No. 41 aka 'Jupiter', composed 1788

Mozart was Haydn’s younger contemporary, so after Haydn introduced the symphony form, Mozart decided to give it a try. And a good try he did by composing forty one symphonies in his short lifetime. Mozart's 41st Symphony aka 'Jupiter' is considered to be one of Mozart's greatest musical accomplishments,- and that says a great deal considering he wrote many great works. Rumor has it that the title 'Jupiter' was given to the work by someone other than the composer. The Romans had equivalent for Greek deities and 'Jupiter' is 'Zeus' Roman counterpart.

Here's a performance of this fine work under the baton of with Nicolaus Harnoncourt.


Harnoncourt conducts Mozart Symphony No. 41

Haydn Symphony No. 102, composed 1794

Haydn is credited with having been the father of the symphony - he was the first composer that stopped calling it an overture and/or orchestral suite, which is what it used to be called during the Baroque Period. Most people mention other Haydn symphonies and usually omit the 102; nevertheless, the Symphony No. 102 was the first symphony composed which had the horns slightly muted in its second movement - an exceptional work which oftentimes goes unnoticed. Some critics have said that this is one of Haydn's greatest symphonies even if it isn't as famous as the 100, 101, or 103.

Here's a performance of this work under the baton of Giuseppe Sinopoli

Beethoven Symphony No. 9, composed in 1824

No famous symphony list is complete without this one. Perhaps the greatest symphony ever written - some are bold enough to say 'greatest musical composition of all times', period. Take your pick! In the same way every writer has attempted to outdo Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton and Goethe, likewise every composer has tried to outdo Beethoven,- and fallen short! The first movement is groundbreaking for the minor key. The second movement is a futuristic scherzo. The third movement is by itself one of the greatest and most profound compositions ever composed - stands unique. The “big tune finale” is nice, though pales by comparison in depth to the third movement - nonetheless - say what you will - arguably the greatest and most influential composition of all times.

Here's a classic performance under the baton of Leonard Bernstein

Bernstein conducts Beethoven's 9th

Berlioz Symphony Fantastique, composed in 1830

The father of program music, as he’s oftentimes called, was responsible for this prophetic and cutting edge work. The composition is really the product of his obsession over a young and beautiful Shakespearean actress named Harriet Smithson. Rejection is a powerful thing, so what does Berlioz do after she utters to him those famous words which most males don't like hearing - "no!" He takes opium, obsesses over her, and finally kills her - his mind experiences all of this under the effect of opium, although none of it is literally taking place. He then decides to tell his story, but instead of using his native French language, as some may have done, he uses the language of music, and in doing so becomes one of the greatest composers of all times!

And, here is a performance of this prophetic work under the baton of Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos

Burgos conducts Berlioz's Fantastic Symphony

Brahms' Symphony No. 2 in D major

Brahms has been rightfully called the greatest symphonist since Beethoven. He was a master of musical form and structure - two components needed in order to write a good symphony. This symphony is a must hear/study for any student of composition - its tightly knighted structure and exceptional thematic material can only be the product of a genius like Brahms; he was one of the undisputed giants of 19th Century music. All said, Brahms, like Mendelssohn, was something of a 'musical polyglot' (a term I just coined) - he was Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Rococo and Romantic all rolled up into one, as it's evident from listening to the different moods he exhibits in most, if not all of his musical compositions.... This work is a contrast to the previously aforementioned - the French are typically free and uninhibited, whereas the Germans are structured and very rigid; nonetheless, these two great cultures brought different perspectives to the so called 'table of 19th Century European music'...

Here's a classic performance of the work under the baton of Bernstein - only someone like Bernstein who does justice to Beethoven can likewise do justice to Brahms!

Bernstein conducts Brahms' 2nd Symphony

Franck Symphony in D minor, composed in 1888

One of the most groundbreaking works of the 19th Century. A work which foreshadows 20th Century compositional techniques. Rumors abound Franck and his unusual and unconventional ways, not only as a person but also his approach to composition. Some have said that the composer Vincent D' Indy thought he was the equal to Beethoven; some have said that the great writer M. Proust hired an ensemble to perform Franck's piano trio everyday for an entire year while bedridden and right up until his death. All said, no one knows how valid these rumors are, but know this: Franck was one of the greatest and most innovative composers of the 19th century. Again, just as the previous work is the product of a German composer, this work is the product of a French composer, and as such unconventional and esoteric, to say the least. Sources show that other musicians made fun of Franck all of the times. Two heads of the Paris Conservatory reported to have said, "an English horn solo accompanied by harp in II movement...would Haydn have done this (laughing)?"...

Here's a pretty good performance of this great work under the baton of Emmanuel Krivine



Dvorak Symphony No. 9 aka "From the new World," composed between 1892-1895

Is Dvorak’s magnum opus, as well as one of the greatest and most famous symphonies of the 19th Century. The work was composed during Dvorak’s visit to the USA. The work shows Dvorak’s exceptional gift for writing beautiful melodies, coupled with his knack for brilliant orchestration. Dvorak was a unique composer; he was not ethnocentric in anyway; however, he did incorporate folk idioms (songs) from his native Bohemia in most of his works. No one who knew him had one unkind word to say about him. He was friends with different composers who did not get along with each other - Brahms, Wagner, and Tchaikovsky; he was a personal friend of Brahms. Dvorak had been a pupil of Smetana and loved him like a father. After he graduated from the conservatory (taught by Smetana), Dvorak took on the world playing his instrument, the viola, in a symphony orchestra until he was able to establish himself as a first rate composer; he eventually became one of the highest paid composers in the history of classical music, period. And yet, there was nothing Dvorak loved more in this world than to kickback at home (Bohemia) surrounded by his wife and umpteen children.... It was difficult for him to leave his beloved homeland to come to New York, USA, but for the money they offered him - few would have refused!

Here's this work of magnificent melodic invention performed under the baton of Gustavo Dudamel

Mahler Symphony No. 8 aka Symphony of a Thousand, composed in 1906

Mahler called this work: His Symphony No. 8 in E flat major; nevertheless, the work is mostly known by its nickname "Symphony of a Thousand," because of the enormous orchestral and vocal forces required to perform it. Furthermore, some critics might argue that Mahler’s Symphony No. 5, 6, 7 and 9 are more original and groundbreaking than this one is. The second part of the symphony is a futile, though very bold attempt to stage Part II (very end) of Goethe’s Faust - right around 200 instrumentalist and 800+ choir totalling 1000+ performers to stage the work. Goethe was a deist and wanted to convey the power of God to forgive mankind, as opposed to punishing. In doing so, he goes against the Christian doctrine and creates a narrative in which God forgives Faust for doing the one unforgivable and most virulent of all sins: selling your soul to Satan - millions of angels (hence the reason the work requires such large forces) manage to steal Faust's dead body from Satan, and then proceed to take him up to Heaven and plead to God to forgive Faust's sin, which God does....

Here's what some have called most passionate finale in the history of music (though others have called it most exaggerated....) under the baton of Simon Rattle - a must for those who like grandiose finales

Simon Rattle conducs finale of Mahler's "Symphony of a Thousand"

Shostakovich Symphony No. 8, composed in 1943

Is one of the greatest symphonies of the 20th Century. Just as all great writers of the 20th Century have emulated the literary giants from the past, so did Shostakovich emulate all of the past musical giants. This work couldn't have been without Beethoven, Berlioz, Brahms, and above all Mahler's influence, Shostakovich's favorite composer; many orchestral and compositional techniques Shostakovich uses in his symphonies he learned from Mahler. One poignant point, because Shostakovich was an atheist and communist, he had little use for Mahler's ideas of the Christian faith, and or any other elated emotions which Shostakovich considered to be related to religion. All said, Shostakovich could be emotional at times in his compositions, and this no doubt has helped his rising popularity with the public - in contrast to Prokofiev who was much more emotionally restraint than he was. Shostakovich is one of the greatest composers of the 20th century! This symphony is a must listen for any student of composition and orchestration.

Here's Vladimir Ashkenazy conducting this work's very popular 2nd movement



Ashkenazy conducts Shostakovich's Symphony No 8, 2nd movement

Prokofiev's Symphony No. 5, composed in 1944

Prokofiev was very intellectual, refined and polished composer - much more so than even the most inhibited composer of his day. His works are at times not very 'ear friendly' and can be quite a feat to listen to, especially to those with little to no musical education. How then did he manage to write a dainty little tune like this one?; he finally learned how to relax in life; and yet, this work, like most of his others, still manages to be complex and intellectual - especially in its orchestration and compositional structure.

Here's a pretty good performance of this famous work under the baton of Yannick Nezet-Seguin


Seguin conducts Prokofiev's Symphony No. 5

Final thoughts

The symphonies mentioned here are amongst the greatest and most famous ever composed. Whether you're new to classical music, or don't much about the subject, these symphonies are a must know....

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Comments 8 comments

billybuc profile image

billybuc 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

All of your efforts are paying off, John. I've actually heard of three of these. :)


John Sarkis profile image

John Sarkis 2 years ago from Los Angeles, CA Author

Hi Bill, and thanks for stopping by.

I'd love to know which three. Let me take a wild guess, Beethoven is one of them?

Take care and see you around

John


Ruchira profile image

Ruchira 2 years ago from United States

wow! this was an extensive research and well done indeed!

I had heard of beethoven and mozart :)

Sharing this across!


John Sarkis profile image

John Sarkis 2 years ago from Los Angeles, CA Author

Ruchira, thank you so much. Always a pleasure hearing from you.

Take care and see you around.


Twilight Lawns profile image

Twilight Lawns 2 years ago from Norbury-sur-Mer, Surrey, England. U.K.

An amazingly well written and researched hub. Thank you. I am a Beethoven fan primarily, but also love the control; of Mozart. And how could not love Brahms. i am always amazed when i see that large male figure and wonder at the beautiful and delicate themes that run through those massive passages.

I know little of Franck, but remember hearing him once and not knowing him at all but thinking I was listening to a Beethoven symphony I wasn't aware of. Ah, but I was in my late teens or early twenties, so must be forgiven for that.

I must say I prefer Classical Music as opposed to some of the more modern styles, but then again, Beethoven was the last of the classical composers but the First of the Romantics. What a sweeping statement. We are all subjects of our education, no matter how limited.

You have made me want to buy the complete Mozart Symphonies, but you must have realised that I have the complete Beethoven set already.

Thank you again, I am going to come back to your hub and relish all the examples you have used, and brought to our ears (!).

Thank you again


John Sarkis profile image

John Sarkis 2 years ago from Los Angeles, CA Author

Hi Twilight Lawns, and thank you for reading my hub, and also for compliment; I appreciate both!

Brahms is one of my personal favorites. I'm ashamed to admit that I'm not a big fan of Mozart. I never understood some of the 'god connotations' that people made about him until I heard the 'Queen of the night's' aria from act I of Magic Flute. Afterwards, I understood why many consider him 'god of music.' But still, I'll take Beethoven over Mozart any day of the week.

You take care and great hearing from you.

John


Twilight Lawns profile image

Twilight Lawns 2 years ago from Norbury-sur-Mer, Surrey, England. U.K.

John, I just returned to enjoy your choice of Leonard Bernstein conducting Beethoven's 9th Symphony. What a stunning recording.

Thank you.


John Sarkis profile image

John Sarkis 2 years ago from Los Angeles, CA Author

Twilight, few can rival Bernstein's 'conducting passion'; he's one of my favorite conductors of all times.

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