A symphony is a long orchestral work, usually with four movements and a particular structure within each movement. Sometimes it has a overall theme–or program, as it is usually called. For example, Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony is his “Pastoral Symphony” because it depicts life in the country, including a thunderstorm.
Below is my list of the five best symphonies that I have heard. My experience? I started listening to so-called classical music as a teenager. Among the first recordings that I owned were Beethoven’s Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony, and Mozart’s Fortieth. After that I collected others and listened to public radio and attended orchestra concerts. I started as a music major in college and took two semesters of music history. In that course, I was required to learn to recognize, among other things, the first and second theme of each movement of Beethoven’s nine symphonies. The professor would play something at random, and we would have to identify it and list details about it.
I admit that I have not heard every symphony ever composed, but I have heard more than the average person and have heard them more often, too. So here’s my list–
1. Symphony No. 9 in E-minor by Antonin Dvorak, also known as “From the New World”
I enjoy the melodies of the dramatic themes in this piece. They are simply beautiful. The fact that it was inspired by Dvorak’s visit to America makes it intriguing to me. You can definitely get a sense of Americanism in it.
2. Symphony No. 6 in B-minor by Peter Ilyitch Tchaikovsky, also known as the “Pathetique” Symphony
It is hard to find music with a more sweeping range of emotions–from optimism to despair to clam resignation. Tchaikovsky himself ran the gamut of emotions, which is something that I identify with.
3. Symphony No. 94 in G-major by Joseph Haydn, also known as “Surprise”
This one is rather light and cheerful and the surprise is always fun. It is from the classical period, therefore it is very straightforward and proper with a very firm structure.
4. Symphony No. 5 in C-minor by Ludwig van Beethoven
Seriously! In regard to form and thematic unity, it is one of the best, even though it is also the most popular. Sometimes things are popular because they are good.
5. Symphony No. 5 by Gustav Mahler
Mahler is a less well known and underappreciated composer. There has been a revival of interest in his works in the last fifty years, which is a good thing. This symphony starts and ends with trumpet fanfares. It is rousing but not just in the energetic sense; it rouses strong emotions on both ends of the scale. It was ahead of its time in employing close harmonies and dissonances, such as you might hear in modern movie scores.
What do you think? Agree? Disagree?
Have I inspired you to listen to these great works?