19 Symphonies To Feast Your Ears Upon
Ah, the symphony. Often the 'main event' of a traditional orchestral concert and most certainly the longest part, the symphony is something which provides a chance for the orchestra to showcase its skills as well as something meaty for the audience to appreciate. That said, symphonies can often be overwhelmingly long and are not always easily accessible. Normally presented (but not always) in multiple movements (usually 4, with a dance and slow movement making up the middle 2, but again, not always), the musical content can be really varied even within the same piece. There is some variation as to whether the movements are connected, usually through recurring themes (especially in later pieces) or sometimes through having no gaps between movements at all. Each composer has their own unique style, but there's lots to take away from a symphony if you're willing to give one a good listen. The thing that really freed me up from being overwhelmed by the 'stuffiness' of music such as this is realising that the composer was writing their music so that the listener could *feel* things - it's all about emotional nourishment, when all is said and done.
Here are 19 symphonies in no particular order that I think have something quite special to say, all from different composers, and really can be enjoyed. They show off the best aspects of the composer who wrote them and each have their own unique way of telling an emotional and musical story. Other people might prefer other pieces, or want to add more to this list - but this is just to get you started and curious!
1. Haydn - Symphony No. 101 in D major, Hob. 1/101 ('The Clock') (1793-1794)
Often dubbed 'the father of the symphony' Haydn used this form of musical writing to express a great deal of joy and fun. The introduction of this classical form introduced history to one of its first major types of abstract art. Despite having a nickname, this piece isn't 'about' anything, although it clearly has expression and direction. While it is restrained in a sense, as in classical era music, there is great fun to be had within that.
2. Tchaikovsky - Symphony No.6 in B minor, Op. 74 ('Pathéthique') (1893)
Possibly my favourite piece ever written, this symphony showcases symphonic writing at perhaps its most emotional (look at how far symphonic music had come in just 100 years), pathétique here meaning passionate, not pathetic. Tchaikovsky's final symphony shows his daring to create even more complex, hard hitting moments and break down barriers. For example, the 'grand finale' actually comes in the third movement, while the fourth brings something much more emotional. This music also contains some of the most beautiful melodies ever written (in my humble opinion).
3. Beethoven - Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67 (1804-1808)
With possible the most famous opening moments of any piece of music, Beethoven's fifth really does pack a punch. Beethoven had begun to move music away from the restraint of Haydn to something much more forceful and passionate. The way that he develops just a very simple, short motif in the first movement is incredibly exciting. There's much more to this symphony than it's opening movement, though. The movement to pure joy throughout the symphony is really quite uplifting, with some incredible moments along the way.
4. Nielsen - Symphony No. 4, Op. 29 FS 76 ('The Inextinguishable') (1916)
Composed to illustrate the inextinguishable nature of life itself, this piece is a real tour de force, with powerful melodies and orchestration. The final movement boasts two sets of timpani at opposing ends of the stage, almost doing battle. There are also some serene and beautiful moments too. It's almost like Sibelius meets The Rite of Spring.
5. Dvorák - Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 95 B. 178 ('From the New World') (1893)
Dvorák's travels to America inspired much of this piece, and he arguably 'appropriated' some native American melodies in the music. The piece again contains a particularly famous movement, but has great moments beyond that too. The final movement culminates themes from all over the symphony, creating a dramatic piece that's full of wonder. Considering it was written in the same year as the Tchaikovsky above, its style is remarkably different.
6. Shostakovich - Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Op. 47 (1937)
Written almost as an apology for being too subversive towards Stalin's regime, this symphony is equivocal with both its seeming proud 'Russian' feel as well as its satire and persistent subversive little twists. Listen out for clashes and unexpected moments, as well as a sense of serious comedy, something Shostakovich does remarkably well. There is pure darkness here too, and the third movement is one of the most expressive and sorrowful symphonic movements ever to be written.
7. Mozart - Symphony No. 40 in C major, K. 551 ('Jupiter') (1788)
Another prolific classical symphonist (many composers wrote 9 or fewer symphonies in their lifetimes), Mozart's musical genius is on full display here. Exquisite beauty is crafted carefully with memorable melodies. There are some great journeys through different keys, and the final movement presents a complex, stimulating and enthralling fugue.
8. Mahler - Symphony No. 2 ('Resurrection') (1888-1894)
This symphony has arguably the greatest and most atmospheric opening of any symphony and almost certainly has the best ending of any symphony. Mahler liked to take things to the next level, with an enormous orchestra and choir and works that were relatively long. Incredibly, however, they are never boring. The piece creates a vast and varied epic world of its own, pushing symphonic music to its absolute extremes.
9. Mendelssohn - Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Op. 56 ('Scottish') (1829-1842)
For a composer that was supposedly composing off the back of the classical era, this is an incredibly expressive piece. Mendelssohn was another one of those child prodigies, as Mozart was. As ever, this music is genuine and heartfelt as well as truly joyous. It's hard to come out of this piece without a smile on your face as well as feeling genuinely moved.
10. Prokofiev - Symphony No. 5 in B-flat major, Op. 100 (1944)
Composed during the second world war, Prokofiev described this piece as symbolising the grandeur of the human spirit. There certainly is a lot going on here, it's striking, fun and dark - sometimes all at the same time. The second movement is a particular favourite of mine. Prokofiev's master of orchestral 'colour' really is on display here.
11. Brahms - Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 73 (1877)
Brahms only started composing symphonies later on in his career, and only managed four. But his symphonies showcase his ability for true depth. His melody lines and phrases are often incredibly long, with instruments of the orchestra working together on different melody lines to take the listener on a profound musical journey. He also loved to play about with cross rhythms, and his writing is reminiscent of counterpoint and more classical structures, in a newly heartfelt way.
12. Rachmaninoff - Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Op. 44 (1935-1936)
While his second symphony is perhaps more famous, I much prefer Rachmaninoff's third. It has been described to have 'a greater economy of utterance' compared to its predecessors, meaning the textures are far less thick, with just enough going on to be able to hear the melodic development, rather than being lost in 'waves' of music with no clear leading line. The result in this arguably much more mature work is something far more accessible, exciting and demonstrative showcasing the greatness of what Rachmaninoff can do. This is a great one for listening for how the opening theme is developed throughout. Would you believe this was completed a year before Shostakovich's 5th, as above?
13. Schubert - Symphony No. 8 in B minor, D. 759 ('Unfinished') (1822)
Schubert didn't die while writing this piece, but rather simply stopped composing it after two movements. There are arguments to suggest that he would have finished it, but I quite like the idea that he stopped because what needed to be said had been said. The two movements take the listener on an extremely varied and emotional musical path, with complex and beautiful melody lines which predate Brahms by almost half a century, yet still feel just as accomplished.
14. Atterberg - Symphony No. 4 in G minor, Op. 14 ('Sinfonia Piccola') (1918)
In four movements, but even shorter in length than Schubert's unfinished, Atterberg's fourth symphony is a real gem of a piece. It's packed with energy and heart as well as some beautiful orchestration and colour. As ever, Atterberg's second movement is truly beautiful, with the third being extremely playful and full of personality. I struggle to see how this composer isn't more well known.
15. Górecki - Symphony No. 3, Op. 36 ('Symphony of Sorrowful Songs') (1976)
With lyrics found in Polish concentration camp as well as from traditional songs about mothers losing children in war, this piece is far from uplifting. It is, however, extremely beautiful and transcendent. The first movement is an enormous canon, with the same material repeated endlessly with staggered starts moving upwards in pitch. The eventual result, I feel, is breathtaking. Repetition and minimalism are key to the music, and I think this is rather unlike any other symphony you will hear.
16. Schumann - Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, Op. 97 ('Rhenish') (1850)
Another symphony representing the awe of a landscape or place, Schumann's third was inspired by a trip to the Rhineland. Consisting, perhaps rather unconventionally, of five movements, this work showcases a lot of might with its four horns (compared to only two of other wind and brass parts). The music goes from majestic to heartfelt to sorrow extremely effectively. Schumann had, in my opinion, a gift for writing memorable and meaningful yet relatively simple melodies.
17. Bruckner - Symphony No. 9 in D minor, WAB 109 (1887-1896)
I never used to be a fan of Bruckner until it was pointed out to me that he was a front runner in terms of using minimalism and repetition to access something greater. His symphonies are long, but build expertly and beautifully. This unfinished work, dedicated to God, uses repetition as a means of accessing the divine through music. This is Bruckner at his most epic, yet also at his most pure. It's a great one to listen to holistically, really relishing in the trajectory of the music.
18. Elgar - Symphony No. 1 in A-flat major, Op. 55 (1908)
Elgar's music is so full of complexity yet also somehow incredibly accessibly. His melodies are extremely memorable and, such as here, he enjoys bringing initial themes back in resplendent glory towards the end of pieces. Far from pomp and circumstance, this music may be determined, but it is also vulnerable and beautiful, with profound musical developments and refined developments reminiscent of Brahms.
19. Sibelius - Symphony No. 5 in E-flat major, Op. 82 (1915-1919)
The rise and fall of landscapes and emotions are always apparent in Sibelius' music, and his fifth symphony combines some of his finest serenity with some of his most cutting drama, as well as his most iconic melodies. The final movement may imitate the song of a swan, with a finale that both cuts the music short and yet seems grand and fitting. The final home chord feels well earned after a journey of epic proportions.