I have been browsing these top ten lists for the best symphonies ever composed, and I’m starting to get a little annoyed. Many of the symphonies picked are inferior works to even works from the same composer, and many of the phenomenal symphonies that should not be forgotten do not make an appearance anywhere. So what would any music nerd do in such a situation? Why, he would build a list of his own, of course!
These are in no particular order, by the way.
Aaron Copland, Symphony No. 3
I am completely baffled as to why this NEVER makes it on ANY top ten list. It is a towering masterpiece that I would almost name #1 if I were ranking these. You liked Fanfare for the Common Man? He makes it better here:
That’s from the last few minutes of the piece, and it never fails to tear me up. On top of that, there’s a gorgeous, dynamic first movement:
With a fun, bustling second movement:
And a contemplative third:
Johannes Brahms, Symphony No. 2
This was actually a very difficult decision because I absolutely adore all four of his symphonies. They all contain such amazing moments that if I could create an aggregate symphony with various movements from all four, it might well be too much awesome to handle. But I must judge each work as a whole, and this one takes the cake. Everything from the delicious, flowing lullaby in the first movement:
To the third movement that begins so pastoral and then suddenly:
To the epic conclusion:
This symphony perfectly encapsulates why the man was dubbed the second coming of Beethoven.
Camille Saint-Saëns, Symphony No. 3 (Organ Symphony)
Here’s another one that boggles the mind. Even without part II, it would deserve a place here. The variations on the main theme are superb. Even the exposition is epic:
But of course, this piece also contains the best writing for organ outside of Respighi’s tone poems I’ve ever heard:
This symphony is riveting from beginning to end. How anyone can hear this piece and not auto-include it is beyond me.
Hector Berlioz, Symphony Fantastique
This symphony is precisely how it describes itself. It is one of the most evocative symphonies I know, with the greatest narrative ever. Who can resist the story of a man who falls in love, has an opium-enduced dream of killing his beloved and being given the guillotine only to find himself in hell where witches, demons and more give infernal chase? The sheer number of musical representations of grotesque dogs, snakes, laughing skeletons, demons and the like are enough to make this list by itself.
But we also have the idée fixe, one of the earliest examples of a leitmotif. This lovely little melody represents the character’s beloved, be it a fleeting thought of her or her actual appearance. This served a dual purpose as well, because Berlioz wrote this symphony in the hopes of wooing his own fair maiden. Note the heartbeat-like pulses from the lower strings during its first use:
Also don’t forget one of the most powerful uses of the Dies Irae:
And one of my personal favorite movements ever, the March to the Scaffold. Note how the heavy percussion/brass hit depicts the slam of the guillotine, and the subsequent pizzicato from the strings represent the head bouncing into the basket. Ta-da! Glorious.
Serge Rachmaninoff, Symphony No. 2
The quintessential romantic symphony, this should never be left out of any “greatest symphony” list. Each movement boasts unmatched romantic melodies,
as well as strife and dance-like groves to balance things out.
In addition, the third movement has an achingly beautiful clarinet solo…probably the best one in music history.
Ludvig van Beethoven, Symphony No. 9
Just like Brahms, several runners-up made this a difficult choice. Though in spite of what I’m sure you thought, 5 was not among them. Yes, his development of a simple four-note motif is brilliant in that one, but so is his development of a simple rhythm in the first movement of the 7th that extends throughout the whole movement like a perpetual motion machine. Plus in that one, you have the wonderfully expressive Allegretto and a far more dynamic scherzo, and a thundering finish that puts the boring 5th’s to shame. But why is 9 better as well? How about the best scherzo ever written next to Chopin’s four masterpieces for solo piano?
And while 7, 6 and 3 were giving me trouble, in the end you can’t argue with an enormous choir shouting the Ode to Joy, nor with the first movement dripping with Beethoven’s own particular brand of passion.
So you essentially have the best of both worlds here (classic Beethoven and epic choral) in one package. Nice.
Dmitri Shostakovitch, Symphony No. 5
There really aren’t very many other symphonies that capture pure, righteous fury at injustice than this one. The whole thing mocks and rages against his own government at the time, and as such you have some of the angriest music imaginable here.
And some distraught soul-searching that even Mahler would have found difficult to best…
And yet, it still has a grace, a class that doesn’t allow it to get bogged down. This guy was a genius, and this symphony is a perfect demonstration of that genius.
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Symphony No. 5
I saw a lot of his 6th and 4th on these ridiculous lists. The 4th didn’t surprise me…it’s a good symphony that is very popular with classical music lovers. 6 surprised me. There is indeed a glorious theme in the first movement and some beautiful parts, but as a whole this symphony outshines all of his others. Just listen to this inspired introduction:
And this gorgeous horn solo:
And the triumphant return of the theme from the first movement in the last:
This is easily the peak of the man’s work.
Gustav Mahler, Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection”
I grappled a little while with 1 and 5 initially, but this one is the epitome of epic symphonies. It feels like a particularly amazing opera without the length, and has a better finish than most operas, too. Even from the very start, you can tell you’re in for one hell of a work.
This symphony also has such an amazing fourth movement with solo alto that I actually forget how much I tend to dislike wailing voices every time I hear it. Nothing short of sublime.
And see, a lot of people think Mahler is too busy and too bombastic. Nobody remembers moments like these, that have such quiet reverence that it moves you to tears:
Of course, it does get pretty bombastic, too.
And of course, this piece contains possibly the best climax of a Symphony that there ever has been.
So now you see that through sheer scale and emotional range, this needs to be on every top ten list.
Bella Bartok, Concerto for Orchestra
What’s that? This isn’t a symphony? I disagree. It’s got five movements and doesn’t actually feature one soloist over any other. That’s the whole joke: it’s so damn difficult to play that he called it a concerto for everyone instead of a symphony. There’s even some sonata-allegro form worked in here, as well as some allusions to other symphonies. At any rate, there’s an amazing brass round in the first movement:
A quirky, cute little second movement:
And even a fun little parody built into the Intermezzo (4th) movement! See how he sticks his tongue out at Shostakovitch’s Leningrad Symphony?
Dvorak’s best work because of the first and third movements alone. Especially the third. I’d dance to that every day if I didn’t have anything better to do.
I adore his 7th because it isn’t quite in a symphonic form. It’s a little more organic, a little more cohesive than most of the other symphonies out there simply because it exists only in one movement and morphs into various sections. And some of these transformations are made that much more powerful as a result. It’s a very interesting symphony, and I’m sorry I didn’t have room for it.
It was down to either this or Shostakovitch 5, and of course the latter won out owing to the fact that Shostakovitch’s work had a bit more range. It’s anger was angrier, it’s anguish was more powerful, and its beautiful moments more beautiful. This symphony has all the traits that the man himself had – a little rough around the edges, but most definitely compelling.
I’ve actually been studying this one lately and even got a chance to conduct it recently! But more than that (and the strengths described above), this thing has some killer french horn parts.
Why did I pick the 9th again?
This one really gave Resurrection a run for its money, and it is undoubtedly more famous/iconic with its opening trumpet solo, and its stunning, complex adagietto, layered with so many shades of emotion.
Of course, a personal disclaimer here: I haven’t heard all symphonies by Stravinsky, Ives, Strauss, Hovhaness, Arnold or any of the other contemporaries. As such, I expect my list to change over time. But even in its current form, I think it does much better than most I’ve seen. What do you think?