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Famous 19th Century Symphonies

Updated on May 12, 2020
John Sarkis profile image

I'm a pianist, composer, and writer, who enjoys classical music and classical literature.

Drawing Sketch of Beethoven


The Symphony

Franz Joseph Haydn is said to have been "The Father of the Symphony." Might have been etymology, since all he did was at one point in his life started calling "Orchestral Suites," "Symphonies." I just wrote an article about philology and the meaning of words, cultures, and how languages and meanings have changed over thousands of years.... The word "Symphony" is said to have first appeared in "The Gospel of Matthew" and implies unity and togetherness in the Greek Language. Which brings me to a poignant point: a piano solo composition can never be a 'symphony', because there's only one player. A solo piano composition or a composition for -- say -- solo piano and solo violin would then be called, "Sonata," derivative from the Latin word "Sound." However, one can play symphonies on the piano, but it'd then be a transcription of the perspective work in question. So, conclusion, 'symphonies' (together -- implying more than one...) are orchestral compositions, not solo piano compositions. Last, Haydn's London Symphonies are pretty well executed and influenced most, if not all of the composers in the 19th century.

Side note: a 'sinfonia' (symphony) is a work for multiple voices. 'Multiple voices', is a synonym for 'symphony' -- again -- implicates more than one performer, or in this case, more than one voice (polyphony). However, not a 'symphony'.

Beethoven's 9th Symphony

Beethoven's Symphonies

Beethoven, Haydn's most brilliant student (some would argue most brilliant musician of all times. A subjective statement which I happen to agreed with...), was a bit hubris, even if most would say there have been none like Beethoven before or after. Beethoven had mixed feelings about Haydn; he'd praise him on one hand and belittle him with the other. All said, it's safe to say that Beethoven's 1st, 2nd, 4th, and 8th Symphonies are for the most part parodies of Haydn's music -- even if really good music at that. Beethoven's 4th Symphony has much in common with Haydn's style of writing music, be it with excessively silly overtones. Nonetheless, Beethoven put his soul into every work he composed. What would Romanticism in Literature and Music have been without Lord Byron and Beethoven? It's a good thing we never found out. Haydn's Symphony No. 99 (my favorite...), has a lot in common with Beethoven's 4th and 8th Symphonies. Some have been bold enough to call Beethoven's 9th Symphony, the greatest musical composition of all times. Period. The work is phenomenal by any stretch of the imagination. It's in 4 Movements. Each of them embodying musical passion like never expressed before. The power of the work is exhilarating. Perhaps this is why Bernard Shaw referred to Beethoven as a mad god genius with uncontrollable emotions. This symphony is the quintessential symphony of all times. Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Dvorak, and others came musically close to Beethoven, but some would debate not close enough. All said, Beethoven's 3rd, 5th, 6th and 7th Symphonies are groundbreaking, exceptionally well written and arguably above intellectually to His 1st, 2nd, 4th and 8th Symphonies, but most scholars would agreed they all fall short to his 9th.

BB and AB -- Before Brahms and After Brahms

After Beethoven, many composers wrote symphonies. However, there were exceptional geniuses like Chopin, for whom the piano meant everything. Chopin didn't write symphonies; and, he pretty much shunned anything that wasn't piano music. Schubert, Mendelssohn, and Schumann all wrote symphonies. One exceptional work from this period is Berlioz' 'Symphonie Fantastique' aka 'Fantastic Symphony' and 'fantastic' it is. Berlioz was the father of program music, i.e., music which follows a story or related to narrative. In this 5 Movement work, Berlioz not only goes on a date, dances with her, goes on a picnic, kills her, gets his head cut for doing the crime, and then ends up being tortured by her in hell for eternity. -- Boy, these 'romantics' were something else!... A poignant point: Schubert's 'Unfinished Symphony' wasn't 'unfinished' because he died; Schubert's 'Unfinished Symphony' wasn't finished because he didn't feel like finishing it. Period. Like Berlioz, Schubert was brilliant; and, like Berlioz, Schubert was one of the greatest talents of the 19th century. Brahms was very industrious, focused and nitpicking. Which may explain why it took him almost 20 years to finally complete his 1st Symphony. All said, some have called it one of the greatest ever written after Beethoven's 9th. And, ironically enough, Brahms parodies Beethoven, just as Beethoven had parodied Haydn in some of his symphonies approx. 80 years prior.

Brahms' 1st Symphony

Tchaikovsky, Dvorak, Franck, and Mahler

Franck only wrote one Symphony, though it's exceptional, and that's an understatement. The writer Marcel Proust, felt Franck to be one of those rare genius birds which no one understands. Franck was not acknowledged during his lifetime. He lived to be almost 70 years old, and only a few months before he died did anyone ever have a kind word to say about his music. Like Brahms, Tchaikovsky was very industrious. And, just like Beethoven, Tchaikovsky improved after each one of his Symphonies, culminating with his 6th Symphony, which is not only his greatest Symphony, but his greatest work. Dvorak was arguably the greatest lyricist of the 19th century (only Chopin and Mendelssohn can stake a claim to my subjective proposition). Just like Beethoven, Dvorak wrote 9 Symphonies. Mahler was grandiose and all of his symphonies attest to this. He was the last of the Romantics and his music has traits of both romanticism and modernism. Mahler, like Beethoven, wrote 9 Symphonies; and, just like Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, Mahler also died in his 50's.

Tchaikovsky's 5th Symphony

Dvorak's 9th Symphony

Franck's Symphony in D Minor

Mahler's 1st Symphony aka "Titan"


The symphony is to classical music what the novel is to literature. Both very complex, involved and time consuming. However, these aforementioned composers were all very devoted to their art, and each composed monumental symphonies which have endured until the present day. These great works of musical art are still regularly performed worldwide.


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    • John Sarkis profile imageAUTHOR

      John Sarkis 

      12 months ago from Winter Haven, FL

      Hello Antonio,

      First, I wanted to thank you for reading my article and for your kind words.

      I'm familiar with the symphonies you've mentioned.

      I studied all of Haydn's "London Symphonies" whilst in college. They're masterful works, 99 being my personal favorite. I think 99 is also the one Beethoven emulated the most.

      Borodin is very great composer, but I don't think his Symphony No. 2 is that well known. Franck's 'Symphony in D Minor' isn't that much more well known than Borodin's No. 2, nonetheless, both are fine works of symphonic literature. You're right about Borodin being very Russian, both musically and spiritually. Tchaikovsky was more rigid and structured, reminiscent of the Germans. But Borodin was Russian thru and thru....

      Shostakovich is IMO the greatest composer of the 20th century -- '20th century' being the keyword. This article is about 19th century symphonies. That said, his Symphony No. 8, along with Prokofiev's No. 5, are two of the greatest symphonies of the 20th century. I'd recommend Shostakovich's Symphony No. 1, 5, 7, 8, 10, but all the others are fine examples as well.

      Take care!


    • Antonio Martinez1 profile image

      Antonio Martinez 

      12 months ago from Kearny, New Jersey

      Good morning John,

      I enjoy following classical music, and it happens to be my preferred genre of music. Over the past weeks, while being at home, I took some time to list to some of Haydn's London symphonies, and in particular, one of my favorite the "Military" symphony in G Major. The London Symphonies were some of the last works Haydn wrote, and if I am not mistaken, while in his sixties.

      I was interested in following this while first seeing excerpts of some movements from notable symphonies, primarily the London Symphony in D Major and "The Clock" also in D Major. I couldn't help but appreciate the genius of Haydn, and it is worth listening.

      One recommendation I would also like to share is another symphony from a composer I am not sure you covered. My interest in classical music also relies heavily on Russian music, and when I think of my favorite symphony, the first symphony that comes to mind is Symphony No. 2 from Alexander Borodin. If you ever the chance to listen, Symphony No. 2 is one of the most majestic pieces of music you could ever appreciate, particularly its fourth movement that has a progression of B Major - D Major - E-flat Major. I could argue that it exhibits the Russian spirit the nation was seeking (Borodin was part of a musical clique called the "Mighty Five," whose main leader was Mily Balakirev).

      I would also love your thought about more recent symphonies, particularly one Dmitri Shostakovich at a time during Stalin's shadow. Symphony No. 10 in E minor is the first major work in entirety I got to listen from the great Russian composer.

      Anyway, it is a great privilege to read this article.

    • John Sarkis profile imageAUTHOR

      John Sarkis 

      12 months ago from Winter Haven, FL

      Hi Reginald,

      Thank you for you kind words about my article. So glad you enjoyed it.

      Spot on about them being great pianists. Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Brahms, and Cesar Franck were great pianists; Mendelssohn and Franck were also great organists.

      Thank you.

    • profile image

      Reginald Thomas 

      12 months ago

      Hi John

      Very interesting article! Your thoughts on Haydn are nicely stated on spot on. I find your choice of composers great and compositions some of my favorites.

      Many people do not take into consideration that these great composers were great pianists (Beethoven).

      Great article!


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