The rich musical form of the symphony is renowned throughout the western classical world. Composers the world over have added their personal touch to symphony compositions, communicating to the listener a degree of interpersonal depth and intimacy.
Over the years, the symphony has undergone monumental and dramatic innovation. Prolific composers have integrated stylistic elements, musical flourishes, and deep storylines to evoke a variety of reactions from the listener.
While it’s no easy task to rank the best musical pieces, we’ve nonetheless put together a list of the more famous symphonies to give you a sense of what’s out there.
1. Tchaikovsky – Symphony No. 6 Pathétique
Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 has been interpreted as a battle between life and death, culminating in utter despair. Tchaikovsky introduces forcefully emotive dimensions to the piece, ending with a narrative descent which is intended to mirror the experience of entering an abyss.
Symphony No. 6 premiered a week before the composer's death in October 1893. This composition, more than any other by Tchaikovsky, sweeps across the emotional spectrum with a dramatic flourish.
Listening to it, one enjoys a joyful upswing at one moment only to be ushered into a gloomy mood the next. Tchaikovsky's brother, with the composer's permission, dubbed the symphony 'Pathétique.' This moniker alludes to the pathos of the piece, which is undeniably present.
2. Beethoven - Symphony No. 9 Choral
Without a doubt, Ludwig van Beethoven's innovative 9th Symphony is one of the greatest compositions in the classical music repertory. The famous hymnal theme to this symphony's climax, known as 'Ode to Joy,' has come to symbolize optimism, unity, and fellowship for nearly 200 years, across boundaries and conflicts.
Beethoven's 'Choral' is undoubtedly one of the finest symphonies ever composed. It has been described as the pinnacle of his successes and a talented musical celebration of humanity. This phenomenal work uplifts the spirit of those who hear it–ironic, considering Beethoven himself was nearly deaf when he composed it.
This long and intricate symphony makes use of a solo voice throughout the piece. This symphony was Beethoven's last and is perhaps his longest and most intricate work. This brilliant classical composition is also considered by many to promote the ideals of peace, solidarity, and freedom among European states.
3. Rachmaninov - Symphony No. 2
This hour-long, second symphony by Rachmaninov has enjoyed popularity and seen many concert performances. Despite its growth in popularity, this symphony was poorly received at first and even caused some controversy for Rachmaninov. However, this slow-moving melody has endured and grown on listeners over time and with each rendition.
This classical piece is popularly known for its sweet and romantic feel. Rachmaninov composed the symphony in Dresden, where he lived with his family, during a trying time in his life. While in Russia, he identified himself more as a composer than as a musical conductor.
The symphony’s initially poor reception drove Rachmaninov into a deep depression. Following this ordeal, he lost faith in his ability as a symphonist. Despite his depression, he persevered, revising and completing the second symphony several months later. At its premiere in the 19th century, the work received great applause and high accolades from audience members.
This symphony is not an easy listen and requires focused concentration on the part of the listener in order to truly appreciate its beauty and essence.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart produced many beautiful and long-lasting classical and instrumental pieces. Mozart certainly had time on his side, seeing as his first piece premiered when he was only nine years old, with several other pieces of music following his first in quick succession. This earned him several nicknames, including "Jupiter" among others.
Some Mozart symphonies that earned him his fame include;
Symphony No. 6 in F Major
When Mozart wrote Symphony No. 6, operas were still quite popular in Vienna. For this reason Mozart drew inspiration from the theme of an opera he wrote earlier in 1767. Listeners of the piece often state that the symphony contains elements that are similar to an opera overture.
The symphony is presented in four movements of vibrant sounds. Figaro's piece, which would come several years later, shares some similarities.
Symphony No. 41 in C (Jupiter)
The majestic blaze of Mozart's 'Jupiter' cobbles together the best features of Mozart's style, fitting them together in a fantastic five-movement musical jigsaw puzzle. A pinch of playful naivety, a dash of European grandeur, and a hint of operatic humor thrown in for good measure make this piece what it is.
The C major blaze of Mozart's ‘Jupiter’ follows Mozart's eclectic approach to composing, as it shifts with each movement. The charmingly simple French horn in his first symphony reappears here, but this time as the centerpiece of the finale, as if to show the world how far he's come.
Symphony No. 40 in G minor
Mozart's symphony No. 40 is a classic piece of classical music. This work is perhaps most commonly known for its frequent use in TV shows and movies. With features uncommon to Mozart's previous works, this composition begins with an unusual note that diverges from his more frequent use of upbeat keys.
The symphony’s first movement is known for its popular use as a mobile phone ringtone in the 1990s. Arguably Mozart's most popular piece to date, it was also quite popular during Mozart's lifetime as well. Audiences and composers alike found the symphony’s movements catchy and engaging. Beethoven was said to have been inspired by the last movement in this piece while composing his own Symphony No. 5.
5. Hector Berlioz - Symphonie Fantastique
This particular piece is considered by many to be much more than a simple symphony. It transcends the usual 4-movement structure with 5 distinct movements, and the symphonic fantasy adds a novel dimension. This strange and artistic piece was said to have been composed by Berlioz after he had consumed opium.
The premiere of Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique took place in 1830, three years before his tumultuous marriage, and during Berlioz's intense infatuation with a young woman named Harriet. The piece is said to be a musical statement of his love for Harriet, told through the eyes of a struggling artist who, despite his obvious talent, remains depressed, yet manages to find solace while his cries of longing go unheeded.
From Reveries in the first movement to the Dream of Witches' Sabbath in the final movement, and the March to the Scaffold in the penultimate movement, the subject matter becomes increasingly bizarre. Keep an ear out for the booming chord in the finale, which supposedly represents the artist's head being cut off and dropping to the ground.
6. Beethoven's 'Choral Symphony' - Symphony No. 9
A proverbial giant in his field, Beethoven made enormous contributions to the development of western classical music and the symphony genre. His final symphony, Symphony No. 9, is one of the most astonishing works of classical music ever produced.
The inclusion of a large chorus and soloists to what had traditionally been an instrumental style left audiences, composers, and reviewers reeling for years. In particular, the piece’s well-known 'Ode to Joy' climax sent listeners over the edge at the time.
What made the symphony even more remarkable was that at this point his deafness had progressed to the point where he could barely hear the thunderous applause he received at the premiere.
7. Sibelius- Symphony No. 2
Sibelius’ second symphony is a joyful and timeless classical piece with the clarity and charm that is common to Sibelius’ compositional style. This piece in particular is said to embody the Finnish soul with touches of the pastoral wandering and weaving throughout.
These can be gleaned from the rippling of water and chirping oboes in the first movement, the busy scurrying of the third, and in the finale which culminates with a rousing, heroic theme.
Although Sibelius rejected the notion that his piece contained political undercurrents, contemporary scholarship notes that the piece captured the hearts of the Finnish people, as it has since become an emblem of Finnish national pride.
8. Shostakovich - Symphony No. 10
Shostakovich's symphony No. 10 contains undercurrents of political unrest. His tenth symphony is a lengthy, laborious trip, much like his tumultuous time spent living under Soviet rule. The symphony was produced after Stalin's demise in 1953, although it's unknown where it was written.
The beauty of this symphony lies in its uncomfortable nature. Its apparent desperation, terror, and rage make for difficult listening at times, yet the unbound emotion of Shostakovich's composition distinguish this work as a deeply profound and moving piece.
9. Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 - Eroica
Beethoven's 'Eroica' is regarded as a groundbreaking musical work that permanently changed Western classical music.
In 1803, Beethoven created a work that was legendary and revolutionary in every sense, just like the individual who inspired the piece, who Beethoven dedicated it to. We’re referring to Napoleon. There are simply no words to describe the astounding inventiveness and overwhelming musical skill that earned this symphony the title of "greatest symphony ever written." A simple listen should be enough to convince any listener of this fact.
10. Brahms - Symphony No. 4
Brahms makes multiple references to Beethoven in his final symphony. While heavy criticism from other musicians was leveled against the old guard of composers, Brahms ignored most of what was going on around him and looked confidently back in time for inspiration.
This is why the Symphony No. 4 has such a classical symphonic sense to it. It's full of excursions and explorations, with elements of Bach and Beethoven. The last movement begins with a reference to one of Bach's Cantatas, casting it in gloom.
11. Mahler's - Symphony No. 2
When Gustav Mahler, an eccentric with ambition and a penchant for bluster, composed his second symphony, it became clear early on that this piece would be appreciated beyond the composer’s lifetime.
There are numerous reasons for this, but the most notable is its magnanimity. Additionally, this piece also happens to be gloomy. In fact, it's quite moody. Part of what makes this piece compelling is how Mahler switches characters every few movements.
The piece carries on in a distinct fashion, with each of its five parts ranging widely. In this manner, Mahler wanted to emphasize life and death in all its discomforts and fatal woes.
12. Henryk Górecki - Symphony No. 3 (Symphony of Sorrowful Songs)
This piece gained immense popularity due to its evocative second movement, which portrays an eighteen-year-old girl's request etched on the wall of a Gestapo prison in 1944.
Henryk Górecki, the Polish composer who created the piece, holds a special place in the pantheon of composer’s of famous symphonies. The Symphony of Sorrowful Songs was received with an ovation at its premiere and the piece immediately soared in popularity among classical music aficionados.
Outside of classical music circles, Górecki was nearly unknown at the time, and the piece’s popularity was unexpected. The work captivated the British people, and for months it was the most popular classical piece in the country.
The work's original recording, which featured soprano Dawn Upshaw and the London Sinfonietta led by David Zinman, has sold over a million copies since its release.
Following the composer's death in 2010, there has been an increased interest in his work.
13. Antonin Dvoák - Symphony No.9 (New World Symphony)
Dvoák's New World Symphony was completed in 1895 while living in America. This piece is considered one of his greatest and most recognized compositions.
In it there is much to be discovered if one ventures past the second movement's entrancing and well-known theme. The dramatic scherzo moves at breakneck speed, transitioning into a fiery climax, in which the force of the orchestra reintroduces theme material in an impressive and theatrical manner.
With so many famous symphonies, distinguishing timeless classical pieces is never an easy task. However, this list is a good representation of some of history’s favorite and most highly regarded symphonies that we’ve hand-picked from across time and from a variety of composers, new and old.
If you found this piece interesting, you should definitely check out our other pieces on classical music, which will help guide you through this refined and beloved genre.