Classical Tyro

A Beginner's Guide to Great Music

The 20 Greatest Symphonies

The September 2016 edition of BBC Music Magazine includes a ranking of "The 20 Greatest Symphonies of All Time." The ranking is based on a poll of 151 of the world's greatest conductors, including such notable maestros as Marin Alsop (São Paulo State Symphony), Sir Andrew Davis (Lyric Opera of Chicago), Alan Gilbert (New York Philharmonic), Zubin Mehta (Israel Philharmonic), Peter Oundjian (Royal Scottish National Orchestra), Sir Simon Rattle (Berlin Philharmonic), and Leonard Slatkin (Detroit Symphony Orchestra).

The conductors who took part in the poll are obviously well-acquainted with the greatest symphonies in the classical repertoire, which, for me, gives the results some credibility. In other words, it's more than just a popularity poll taken from classical music audiences. The conductors were asked to rank their top three symphonies in any order, and based on their selections here are history's 20 greatest symphonies.
  1. Beethoven, Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, “Eroica” (1804)
  2. Beethoven, Symphony No. 9 in D minor, “Choral” (1824)
  3. Mozart, Symphony No. 41 in C major, “Jupiter” (1788)
  4. Mahler, Symphony No. 9 in D major, “Farewell” (1909)
  5. Mahler, Symphony No. 2 in C minor, “Resurrection” (1894)
  6. Brahms, Symphony No. 4 in E minor (1885)
  7. Berlioz, Symphonie Fantastique (1830)
  8. Brahms, Symphony No. 1 in C minor (1876)
  9. Tchaikovsky, Symphony No. 6 in B minor, “Pathétique” (1893)
  10. Mahler, Symphony No. 3 in D minor (1896)
  11. Beethoven, Symphony No. 5 in C minor (1808)
  12. Brahms, Symphony No. 3 in F major (1883)
  13. Bruckner, Symphony No. 8 in C minor (1890)
  14. Sibelius, Symphony No. 7 in C major (1924)
  15. Mozart, Symphony No 40 in G minor (1788)
  16. Beethoven, Symphony No. 7 in A major (1812)
  17. Shostakovich, Symphony No. 5 in D minor (1937)
  18. Brahms, Symphony No. 2 in D major (1877)
  19. Beethoven, Symphony No. 6 in F major, “Pastoral” (1808)
  20. Bruckner, Symphony No. 7 in E major (1883)
Like all lists of this sort the rankings are not definitive, and the list should primarily serve as food for thought and a topic for entertaining discussion. In thrusting myself into that discussion I want to provide a few of my own takeaways from the list.

1.The ranking offers few surprises, containing a list of the traditional composers and pieces that I would expect. Beethoven leads the pack with five symphonies, followed by Brahms (four), Mahler (three), Bruckner (two), Mozart (two), Berlioz (one), Shostakovich (one), Sibelius (one), and Tchaikovsky (one). (Note that Brahms is the only composer on the list to bat a thousand — all four of his symphonies made the list.)

2. When I first heard about the project, I assumed Beethoven’s Ninth would earn the top spot on the list. I will say, however, that I am thrilled that Beethoven’s Third was chosen the “world’s greatest symphony.” I have taught classes deconstructing both the Third and the Ninth and find that I need much more time to explain what happens in the Third, a symphony that contains an abundance of musical content to analyze. It's a symphony that takes listeners on a journey through a complicated musical narrative that never fails to prompt great discussions after it's over. The first movement provides a roller coaster of edge-of-your-seat excitement, and the almost comic anarchy of the final movement gives listeners plenty to think about. The symphony’s message is abstruse and ambiguous, and it's difficult to imagine someone would listen to Beethoven's Third without wanting to hear it again and again and again.

3. I find personal validation in Mahler holding three spots in the top ten, beating out Beethoven and Brahms who each have two. For several years I’ve been tooting Mahler’s magic horn (!) in my music history classes, and now I have a list from BBC Music to validate my passion. I also love that Mahler’s Ninth is so high on the list, although I am not surprised. Mahler's Ninth juggles a variety of ideas and emotions that in the end become achingly silent. All music eventually goes silent, but only Mahler has ever connected music to silence so elegantly. For me, the end of Mahler’s Ninth sparks the sort of transcendent soul searching that can only come from music.

4. Although I have no significant complaints about the ranking, I would like to provide some of my own honorable mentions: composers and works that I would not have been surprised to see on the list. (I have decided to avoid listing additional works by the composers who already made the list.)
Regardless of how history's great symphonies are ranked, every symphony listed on this page is worth hearing — every one of them will provide a few of those nice moments that can only come from music.

Just for fun, here's an animated score of the breathtaking first movement of Beethoven’s Third. (The animation comes from the
Music Animation Machine and the recording comes from the Bezdin Ensemble.)



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The American Sound in Classical Music


When listening to Chopin’s
Polonaise in A Major we are told the music represents the sound of Poland. We are also told that Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 provides a musical slice of Hungarian culture, and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Overture takes us into the sound of Czarist Russia. But what classical composer best provides the sound of America? What is the sound that best represents the United States? These are not easy questions to answer.

Since the 1890s, when Americans were beginning to develop their own traditions in classical music, composers have recognized the dilemma of creating the American sound. In 1892 the Czech composer Antonín Dvořák became the director of the newly formed National Conservatory of Music in New York City and was paid a sizable wage to help create an American school of composition. The problem confronting Dvořák stemmed from the absence of a unified American culture. Quite simply, there were too many different types of people living in the United States to create a sound that was distinctly American. (Like Dvořák, Gustav Mahler, the great Bohemian composer and conductor, also believed the United States was too culturally diverse to be represented by one type of music.)

Dvořák’s solution to the problem can be heard in the cultural diversity evident in his
Symphony No. 9 in E minor ("From the New World"). The symphony includes original themes that sound somewhat like Stephen Foster tunes, African-American spirituals, and Native American music. Although From the New World has been accused of having too much of an eastern European accent to truly sound American, Dvořák did get the process of creating an American sound started, a process that has been forced to consider the diversity of American culture.

Antonín Dvořák, Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Fourth Movement (1893)


After Dvořák left the United States in 1895, various classical composers have been associated with the creation of an American national sound — most notably Charles Ives, Aaron Copland, and Elliot Carter.

Charles Ives (1874-1954) is best known for composing his memories of a pre-industrial, small-town America. Although his music ranks with the greatest composed by any American, the nationalism in his music did not acknowledge the tremendous ethnic, racial, and cultural diversity that defined the United States. Ives looked at America primarily through the eyes of someone who grew up in a small New England town in the late nineteenth century.

Charles Ives, Country Band March (1903)


Aaron Copland (1900-1990) is probably most associated in the public's mind with the American sound, creating music that defined an ideal America. Copland’s music romanticized the United States and celebrated the best in the American Spirit. In general, he also avoided the complexities and diversity of the American experience.

Aaron Copland, Appalachian Spring, "Simple Gifts" (1944)


The composer, in my opinion, who best captures the complexities of America — and therefore the true American sound — is
Elliot Carter (1908-2012). I make that declaration, however, with a confession that I don't always understand his music, and I cannot overstate the challenges of listening to his compositions.

Photo of Elliot Carter
Carter was an intellectual composer, and the music he created is among the most cerebral that any of us will ever confront. Although he composed in a variety of musical styles, he was best known for the masterworks that did not romanticize the American experience and seemed designed to avoid any desire to evoke emotional reactions from listeners. His music is best understood on a purely intellectual level.

What helps me understand Carter’s compositions is to think about the diversity of American culture and the reality of what that diversity should sound like when represented musically. I think about the “salad bowl” of humanity that defines the United States — the variety of religious, cultural, and philosophical beliefs, as well as the cultural gaps too often separate the American people according to their ethnic, racial, and other differences. I think about how America is home to almost all types of people. I then think about what all those various types of people would sound like if they were all expressing their differences at the same time.

That, in a nutshell, is how to think about Carter’s music. It’s a type of music that celebrates democracy, freedom, and diversity. It's classical music's version of Martin Luther King's "Beloved Community," a society in which people of all types live together in peace.

In describing the complexity of his music, Carter used these words to describe his
Variations for Orchestra:

I have tried to give musical expression to experiences anyone living today must have when confronted by so many remarkable examples of unexpected types of changes and relationships of character uncovered in the human sphere by psychologists and novelists.… The old notion of unity in diversity presents itself to us in an entirely different guise than it did to people living even a short while ago."

Carter's music may not be easy listening, but it challenges us to recognize the prodigious diversity that defines American culture.

Elliot Carter, Variations for Orchestra (1955)


Elliot Carter, Double Concerto for Harpsichord and Piano (1961)


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