It’s a classic rags to riches story. From humble beginnings in the Baroque period the symphony has grown in size and influence, becoming a badge of honour among composers clamouring for recognition.
Haydn used it as a vehicle of emotion, which intensified when Beethoven took on the symphony. To this day his symphonies are viewed as brilliant models of how music can express the most powerful of human feelings, in ways that even words can’t emulate. How did the symphony so rapidly become capable of this?
The answer lies in how composers quickly developed a habit in their symphonies of pitting one theme against another, weighing the relative merits of each, then pulling their conclusions together. This closely mirrored the processes of debate and interaction used in human communication, and it struck a chord deep in audiences.
But which of the thousands of symphonies written over the centuries is the greatest? To find out, we asked 151 of today’s leading conductors to name the three symphonies they consider to be the greatest. We counted up the votes, and, where there were tie-breakers, gave the deciding vote to our trusted critics.
20) Bruckner – Symphony No. 7 (1883)
Bruckner pays homage to his hero, Richard Wagner, in a work of great hope and light
Hailed as a masterpiece after its Leipzig premiere in 1883, Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony became his first (and only) instant success. From the yearning opening cello melody to the dramatic hunting horn motif that begins the third movement, the Seventh is full of striking moments, none more so than the brilliant finale, in which shimmering strings and heroic horns surge upwards to a euphoric close.
Recommended recording: Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Bernard Haitink Decca 478 5690
19) Beethoven – Symphony No. 6 (1808)
Beethoven’s ground breaking pastoral masterpiece is the ultimate hymn to nature
Cast in five titled movements, Beethoven’s Pastoral takes us on a tour of the countryside, complete with birdsong and a sense of bucolic joy. Where the Fifth progresses inexorably, the Sixth meanders and lingers. Until, that is, the Storm, which rips through this peaceful idyll with extraordinary violence.
Recommended recording: London Classical Players/Sir Roger Norrington Virgin 083 4232
18) Brahms – Symphony No. 2 (1877)
Brahms hits his symphonic stride with a work of surface serenity and dark undercurrents
Written in the summer of 1877, this is on the surface a sunny, serene work. It’s even been dubbed Brahms’s Pastoral. Yet, as ever with his music, a darkly elegiac tone is never far away, set up in the opening movement by timpani, trombones and tuba. No wonder it went down well at the premiere, with the critic Eduard Hanslick declaring it an ‘unqualified success’.
Recommended recording: London Philharmonic Orchestra/Vladimir Jurowski LPO LPO0043
17) Shostakovich – Symphony No. 5 (1937)
The Soviet composer tapped into a deep well of public emotion with his mighty Fifth
It was in the teeth of official denunciation of his opera Lady Macbeth of Mstensk that Shostakovich composed what appeared to be one of his most conventional works. The symphony sounds a lament in its third movement, expressing what was too dangerous to be said during Stalin’s ‘Great Terror’. Many of the audience at its premiere were reduced to tears by this movement, and the work received a half-hour standing ovation.
Recommended recording: BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Mark Wigglesworth BIS-CD-973/974
16) Beethoven – Symphony No. 7 (1812)
Beethoven’s ‘return to life’ – a bubbling cauldron of exuberance and vitality
Beethoven’s Seventh is a restless beast, full of driving, unnerving energy – less about melody, more about rhythm and orchestration. For sure, it teeters on the edge of obsession, in the hypnotic repetitions of the ambiguous Allegretto (the work’s only ‘slow’ movement) and the syncopated, wayward rhythms of the final Allegro that pushes the orchestra to its absolute limits.
Recommended recording: Staatskapelle Berlin/Daniel Barenboim Warner 256461890-2
15) Mozart – Symphony No. 40 (1788)
A 35-minute miracle that blends elegance and tragedy, and confounds expectations
No. 40 combines elegance and unease, its dark opening yielding to calmer waters, only to return to despair. Mozart explores this pattern again in the Andante, harmonic clashes, falling motifs and rhythmic twists gently poisoning its bucolic charm. A stately, stormy Minuetto precedes the brilliant, fizzing finale which has at its heart a moment of baffling brilliance.
Recommended recording: Scottish Chamber Orchestra/Sir Charles Mackerras Linn CKD308
14) Sibelius – Symphony No. 7 (1924)
In his final symphony, Sibelius paints a broad, shifting landscape that beguiles with unexpected, twisting paths
Scored in one 22-minute-long movement, originally christened Fantasia sinfonica, Sibelius wrote his Symphony No. 7 at night, aided by substantial amounts of whisky. Extraordinarily, though, the work is among his most lucid and profound musical statements. It would be his last symphony before a 30-year musical silence – its closing bars, a major seventh B rising to a burnished C major chord, were described by conductor Sir Colin Davis as ‘the closing of the coffin lid’.
Recommended recording: Lahti Symphony Orchestra/Osmo Vanska BIS BIS-CD864
13) Bruckner – Symphony No. 8 (1887/1890)
A synthesis of Bruckner’s symphonic genius – majestic, sensuous and conflicted…
The Austrian’s cathedral-sized Eighth is the apogee of his symphonic achievements. Although Wagnerian in character and scope, chorale-like themes and harmonies flow through all four movements as Bruckner brings his skill as an organist to bear on this grandest of masterpieces.
Recommended recording: Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Riccardo Chailly Decca 466 6532
12) Brahms – Symphony No. 3 (1883)
Written during a happy summer near the Rhine, Brahms’s concise Third was inspired by the motto ‘free but happy’
From contentment to passion, emotion wells up and subsides in music of yearning, bittersweet beauty and each movement ends quietly – rare for symphonies of this time. It also pays homage to Robert Schumann, echoing the Rhenish Symphony in the violins’ first melody, and when Brahms sent the score to Clara Schumann, she said it was a ‘wonderful work.’
Recommended recording: Gewandhaus Orchestra/Riccardo Chailly Decca 478 7471
11) Beethoven – Symphony No. 5 (1808)
The Fifth blazes from turbulence to triumph, its structure unfolding from a single motif
Beethoven gives the entire work a remarkable cohesion by referring to that opening rhythmic motif at key moments, for instance by the horns in the penultimate Scherzo movement, recalling it in the finale. In another inspired touch, Beethoven uses the rhythmic motif as a subdued timpani pulse which links the Scherzo to the glorious blaze of the finale’s opening.
Recommended recording: Vienna Philharmonic/Carlos Kleiber DG 447 4002
10) Mahler – Symphony No. 3 (1896)
All of nature and human existence in Mahler’s most ambitious symphony
A century on, the progressive despoliation of the planet is sharply evident, and the relatively benign relationship in the Third between human beings and their environment has drastically deteriorated. Mahler loved the natural world, and all the creatures in it: the Third Symphony encapsulates that profound attachment, in music of life-enhancing physicality and wresting melodic beauty.
Recommended recording: Bamberg Symphony Orchestra/Jonathon Nott Tudor TUDOR7170
9) Tchaikovsky – Symphony No. 6 (1893)
A wretched struggle between life and death that ultimately ends in abject despair
What really marks this work out is the brilliant way in which Tchaikovsky manipulates the emotional argument and brings a new, frightening dimension to symphonic thinking, the unifying factor a sequence of descending scales that mirrors the Symphony’s long-term narrative of a descent into the abyss.
Recommended recording: Leningrad Philharmonic/Evgeny Mravinsky DG 477 5911
8) Brahms – Symphony No. 1 (1876)
With his First Symphony, Brahms proves himself a worthy successor to Beethoven
When Brahms came to compose his own First Symphony, pressure was extreme. The work’s creation took him 20 years of on-off struggle, but the achievement was stellar.
Recommended recording: Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique/Gardiner SDG SDG702
7) Berlioz – Symphonie Fantastique (1830)
The French composer takes the symphony into a new realm of reverie and imagination
The storm in the Pastoral Symphony certainly goes some way beyond Haydn, but no one before 1830 had come close to writing the note clusters for four timpani that produce such an extraordinary sound at the end of the ‘Scene in the Fields’ – not to mention the bizarre alternations of D flat major and G minor towards the end of the ‘March to the Scaffold’.
Recommended recording: Mahler Chamber Orchestra/Marc Minkowski DG 474 2092
6) Brahms – Symphony No. 4 (1885)
A visionary masterpiece combining the spirit of JS Bach with Beethovenian energy
Brahms’s Fourth baffled even his friends: sombre, austere with a Baroque passacaglia – it appeared willfully unfashionable. There’s something almost intimidating about the Fourth’s formal perfection: its thematic integration, economy, richness of variation, fusion of polyphony with sonata form.
Recommended recording: London Philharmonic Orchestra/Marin Alsop Naxos 8.570233
5) Mahler – Symphony No. 2 (1894 rev. 1903)
Symphonic form disturbed, distorted – and finally renewed and redeemed
From the ‘titanic struggles of a mighty being still caught in the toils of this world’ which the composer said fired the first movement, to redemption and resurrection in the choral finale, Mahler couldn’t resist describing his C minor Symphony in programmatic terms.
Recommended recording: Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Mariss Jansons RCO Live RCO 10102
4) Mahler – Symphony No. 9 (1909)
An epic work from the dying embers of the Austro-German Romantic tradition
Scored for vast orchestral forces – huge woodwind and brass, with a percussion section that includes timpani, bass drum, side drum, triangle, cymbals, tam-tam, glockenspiel and three deep bells – the most striking thing about its soundworld is Mahler’s exquisite handling of sonorities.
Recommended recording: Berlin Philharmonic/Herbert von Karajan DG 474 5372
3) Mozart – Symphony No. 41 (1788)
A triumph of structure, crowned with one of music’s most dazzling fugal finales
The miracle of the work is its immense design, with a mixture of celebratory fanfares, cascading scales and yearning figures. The main body of the movement has climaxes in which stunning descending passages alternate and then combine with tremendous upward thrusts; while the centre of the movement enters areas of dense conflict from which there seems no escape. There is no greater or more exhilarating feat than this, nor could there be.
Recommended recording: Orchestra Mozart/Claudio Abbado DG 477 7598
2) Beethoven – Symphony No. 9 (1824)
The symphonic game-changer which has both terrified and inspired composers ever since
Had audiences in 1824 heard anything more elemental than the Ninth’s opening bars? And it was a stroke of genius to place the slow movement not second but third, enabling its climactic profundity – something Gustav Mahler learnt from. So the first three movements clinch the Ninth’s greatness – but then comes Schiller’s utopian Ode to Joy, set to a once-heard-never-forgotten tune that everyone wants as an anthem. Thanks to that, the Ninth today still has a growing cultural significance. It casts a long shadow – had it never been written we would surely have far more symphonies to talk about. But would you give up Beethoven Nine for a chance to hear them? Of course not.
Recommended recording: Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment/Charles Mackerras Signum SIGCD254
1) Beethoven – Symphony No. 3 (1803)
A trailblazing, mammoth masterpiece, glorifying the life of a great heroic figure
It had to be the Eroica.
From those first two electrifying orchestral chords to the final victorious timpani flourishes it never puts a toe wrong. Architecturally it’s stunning. The whole thing is wrought from the brilliantly simple notion of a not-quite-finished tune (first heard on cellos) that continually strives for completion, and each time goes off in some fascinating new direction.
Music that stirs, challenges and delights, a sense of vibrant musical form which ensures coherence yet remains elastic enough to admit the most acute human drama – surely that’s enough? But the Eroica also outlines what Jung what call an ‘archetypal’ pattern. Many of the world’s great myths tell of a hero/heroine who strives, fails, dies and then miraculously returns. There is, Jung would argue, a universal human truth contained in that story. Because Beethoven’s Eroica tells that story in music, not words, it presents that truth in its purest, most universal form. But you don’t have to know any of that to be thrilled by what Beethoven forged from it: by democratic consent, the greatest symphony ever composed.
Recommended recording: Chamber Orchestra of Europe/Nikolaus Harnoncourt Warner 2564637792
- Listen to our 20 Greatest Symphonies of all time playlist
This article first appeared in the May 2016 issue of BBC Music Magazine.