50 Greatest Symphonies

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50 greatest symphonies
“The symphony, and how it changed our world.”
Selections taken from: The Guardian website: Author: Tom Service




Symphonie Fantastique: Berlioz


3rd Symphony (‘Eroica’): Beethoven


6th Symphony (‘Pastoral’): Beethoven


Faust Symphony: Liszt


9th Symphony (‘The Great’): Schubert


41st Symphony (‘Jupiter’): Mozart


29th Symphony: Mozart


4th Symphony: Brahms


6th Symphony: JC Bach


1st Symphony: Brahms


8th Symphony: Beethoven


31st Symphony (‘Paris’): Mozart


1st Symphony: Tchaikovsky


10th Symphony (‘Unfinished’): Schubert


8th Symphony: Dvořák


102nd Symphony (‘The Miracle’): Haydn


8th Symphony: Bruckner


1st Symphony: Mahler


2nd Symphony: Schumann


6th Symphony: Haydn


38th Symphony (‘Prague’): Mozart


5th Symphony: Beethoven


I hope what will come over is the sense that the development of a supposedly abstract musical structure isn't simply about compositional invention or experimentation, but about how we hear ourselves and our place in the world: from the courtly entertainment of the early Rococo symphony to the world-changing idealism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Brahms, Bruckner, and Mahler; from a social order bounded by conventions and their transgressions in the 18th century, as in the music of Haydn and Mozart, to a more recent age of creative freedoms and limitless possibilities, the symphonies by Berio (yes, that's what his Sinfonia actually is!), Peter Maxwell Davies, Oliver Knussen, or Per Nørgård.
But before all that comes the most basic question of defining my terms: what is a symphony? It's usually how we refer to the multi-movement form that evolved in the early 18th century in central Europe (from the Baroque suite and the operatic overture) as a self-contained work of purely instrumental music, and which went on to become the single most prestigious expression of musical architecture in the late 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, the highpoint of many composers' ambition and achievement.
But it's much, much more than that. A symphony isn't just a structure, a musical formula, or a set of containers - three or four movements of contrasting speeds and characters - that composers merely had to fill in to qualify as "symphonic" writers. The symphony is really a way of thinking about what music actually is, what it's really for.
Because if you accept the idea that instrumental music is capable of "saying" anything at all, then it's in the symphony that that power is released most grandly, most extravagantly, and most directly. The symphony is the ultimate embodiment of the idealist notion of music being the "highest of the arts", a place beyond words or representative images in which transcendent feelings were given pure, unadulterated expression. As we'll find out, the crucible of those ideas is the way Beethoven's symphonies have been thought about and performed: such music as the Third (the "Eroica"), the Fifth, or the Ninth - even if that piece was the first symphony to use a choir, and a text.
But the problem with thinking of the symphony as idealistic transcendence is that you lose sight of how it communicates and who it communicates to. A symphony is always public: in terms of who it's written for, in the ever-changing and ever-expanding orchestral forces that composers have been able to call on, and who hears it, from private aristocratic gatherings at the end of the 18th century, bourgeois entertainments in the 19th, to today's huge auditoriums. The story of the symphony from Haydn's genre-defining pieces that were composed for his handful of musicians at the court in Esterhazy to Mahler's symphonies, with their forces of hundreds is a drama that's as much social as it is musical. It's about who paid the composer and the musicians, about what the symphony was heard to represent, and about what role composers were supposed to fulfil in society.
It's often said that the story of the symphony is bounded by historical time, and that we're now living in a post-symphonic age. That's because a symphonic frame of mind, with its associations of order and coherence doesn't fit with our more fractured and fractious sensibilities. What I hope you might hear in exploring the 50 symphonies over the next 12 months is rather the opposite: the extremities, disturbances, and strangenesses at the heart of the symphonies of the 18th and 19th centuries, and the urge to create some kind of order from chaos in the works of the later 20th and 21st.
Other threads I hope we'll pick up along the way: the paradox of pieces that aren't called symphonies but which really are "symphonic" in the musical language they speak - Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde is only the most obvious example. And then there's astonishing range of ways of playing the canonic symphonies of Mozart, Brahms, Bruckner, Mahler - and everyone else! - that we can all now instantly hear at our fingermousetips. That's a phenomenon that amounts to much more than Wilhelm Furtwängler taking longer over a Beethoven slow movement in the 1940s than John Eliot Gardiner in the 1990s. The difference is actually a revelation of two completely different views of what the "same" piece of music means. That's a process of renewal that continues any time these great pieces are properly, intelligently, passionately played -

which means that Beethoven's 5th Symphony, for example, isn't a fixed work so much as a palimpsest of musical histories that only gets richer and richer each time it's played, heard, and thought about.

Symphonie Fantastique: Berlioz
Symphony guide: Hector Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique
The most innovative symphony of the 19th century was born from diabolical passions
Delirious desire … Berlioz’s passion for Irish actor Harriet Smithson inspired the Symphonie Fantastique. Something a little different this week: our symphony is Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, a piece that lays legitimate claim to adjectives such as “revolutionary”, “radical” and “unprecedented” perhaps as much as, or even more than any other piece in this series so far. This jaw-dropping work was made by a 26-year-old composer who had already become a famous, indeed notorious, figure in Parisian musical life. But Hector Berlioz also happened to be one of the most brilliant writers on music; and in his letters he reveals the genesis of this diabolically and passionately inspired work.
The following is a collection of vivid fragments from Berlioz’s own words, and some contemporary commentators, which chart Berlioz’s state of mind just before he was writing the piece, his musical ambitions, his personal hopes and dreams, and the reality of putting on this uniquely challenging symphony. (A performance planned and rehearsed in May 1830 was cancelled, so its premiere had to wait until December.) A couple of ideas to bear in mind when you’re reading these blazing bits of Berlioziana: this music is simultaneously the most subjective symphony ever composed, in writing out Berlioz’s hallucinogenically morbid fantasies and unrequited love for the actress Harriet Smithson (whom he married thanks to a later performance of the Symphonie, but at the time of its composition was only an object of faroff longing and terrible desire). Yet it’s also one of the most objective, since Berlioz is capable of analysing his emotions with all the cold-hearted dispassion of a scientist observing life forms through a microscope, as his biographer David Cairns puts it. I’m indebted to Cairns’s still-essential biography, and to Michael Rose’s brilliant Berlioz Remembered for the following extracts:
11 January 1829. The composer, writing to a friend about his hopes for Harriet – and for the new musical discoveries that are inseparable from his feelings for her:
“Oh if only I did not suffer so much! … So many musical ideas are seething within me … Now that I have broken the chains of routine, I see an immense territory stretching before me, which academic rules forbade me to enter. Now that I have heard that awe-inspiring giant Beethoven, I realise what point the art of music has reached; it’s a question of taking it up at that point and carrying it further – no, not further, that’s impossible, he attained the limits of art, but as far in another direction. There are new things, many new things to be done, I feel it with an immense energy, and I shall do it, have no doubt, if I live. Oh, must my entire destiny be engulfed by this overpowering passion? … If on the other hand it turned out well, everything I’ve suffered would enhance my musical ideas. I would work non-stop … my powers would be tripled, a whole new world of music would spring fully armed from my brain or rather from my heart, to conquer that which is most precious for an artist, the approval of those capable of appreciating him.
Time lies before me, and I am still living; with life and time great events may come to pass.”
Three weeks later:
“For some time I have had a descriptive symphony … in my brain. When I have released it, I mean to stagger the musical world.”

19 February, to his father (he still hasn’t started work on the piece):
“I wish I could … calm the feverish excitement which so often torments me; but I shall never find it, it comes from the way I am made. In addition, the habit I have got into of constantly observing myself means that no sensation escapes me, and reflection doubles it – I see myself in a mirror. Often I experience the most extraordinary impressions, of which nothing can give an idea; nervous exaltation is no doubt the cause, but the effect is like that of opium [which Berlioz, in all probability, knew directly!].
Well, this imaginary world is still part of me, and has grown by the addition of all the new impressions that I experience as my life goes on; it’s become a real malady. Sometimes I can scarcely endure this mental or physical pain (I can’t separate the two) … I see that wide horizon and the sun, and I suffer so much, so much, that if I did not take a grip of myself, I should shout and roll on the ground. I have found only one way of completely satisfying this immense appetite for emotion, and this is music.”
A fortnight later, to the pianist and composer Ferdinand Hiller:
“Can you tell me what it is, this capacity for emotion, this force of suffering that is wearing me out? … Oh my friend, I am indeed wretched – inexpressibly! … Today it is a year since I saw HER for the last time … Unhappy woman, how I loved you! I shudder as I write it – how I love you!”
And yet, six weeks after that letter, he has exposed and expunged his passion in writing the first version of the symphony: those weeks must have been an extraordinary torrent and torment of activity for Berlioz. He tells another close friend, Humbert Ferrand, what the symphony is about:
“I conceive an artist, gifted with a lively imagination, who … sees for the first time a woman who realises the ideal of beauty and fascination that his heart has so long invoked, and falls madly in love with her. By a strange quirk, the image of the loved one never appears before his mind’s eye with its corresponding musical idea, in which he finds a quality of grace and nobility similar to that which he attributes to the beloved object. [This is the symphony’s idée fixe, the melody that appears in all five movements.]
After countless agitations, he imagines that there is some hope, he believes himself loved. One day, in the country, he hears in the distance two shepherds playing a ranz des vaches to one another; their rustic dialogue plunges him into a delightful daydream. [This is the ‘Scene in the country’, which we now know as the third movement; at this stage, Berlioz had his hero go to the country before ‘The Ball’, which we now know as the second movement.] The melody [of the beloved] reappears for a moment across the themes of the adagio.
He goes to a ball [now the second movement]. The tumult of the dance fails to distract him; his idée fixe haunts him still, and the cherished melody sets his heart beating during a brilliant waltz.
In a fit of despair he poisons himself with opium [the fourth movement, the March to the Scaffold]; but instead of killing him, the narcotic induces a horrific vision, in which he believes he has murdered the loved one, has been condemned to death, and witnesses his own execution. March to the scaffold; immense procession of headsmen, soldiers and populace. At the end the melody reappears once again, like a last reminder of love, interrupted by the death stroke.
The next moment [and the fifth movement, the Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath] he is surrounded by a hideous throng of demons and sorcerers, gathered to celebrate Sabbath night … At last the melody arrives. Till then it had appeared only in a graceful guise, but now it has become a vulgar tavern tune, trivial and base; the beloved object has come to the sabbath to take part in her victim’s funeral. She is nothing but a courtesan, fit to figure in the orgy. The ceremony begins; the bells toll, the whole hellish cohort prostrates

itself; a chorus chants the plainsong sequence of the dead [the Dies irae plainchant], two other choruses repeat it in a burlesque parody. Finally, the sabbath round-dance whirls. At its violent climax it mingles with the Dies irae, and the vision ends.”
Friedrich Zelter, composer and Mendelssohn’s teacher, presents one side of the critical opinion of Berlioz’s work: he’s talking about Berlioz’s Huit scènes de Faust, which the composer had sent to Goethe, and Goethe passed to Zelter for his assessment.
“There are some people who can only make their presence felt and call attention to their activities by means of noisy puffing, coughing, croaking, and spitting. One such appears to be Herr Hector Berlioz. The smell of sulphur surrounding Mephistopheles attracts him, so he must needs sneeze and snort till all the instruments of the orchestra leap around in a perfect frenzy – only not a hair stirs on Faust’s head … I shall certainly find an opportunity when I am teaching to make use of this poisonous abscess, this abortion born of horrible incest.”
Zelter’s opinion of the Symphonie Fantastique is not recorded, but the composers and musical luminaries in the audience for the first performance of the piece, when it finally happened on 5 December – including Meyerbeer, Spontini and the 19-year-old Franz Liszt – were entranced. As was this anonymous reviewer.
“I accept that this symphony is of an almost inconceivable strangeness, and that the schoolmasters will no doubt pronounce an anathema on these profanations of the ‘truly beautiful’. But for anyone who isn’t too concerned about the rules I believe that M. Berlioz, if he carries on in the way he has begun, will one day be worthy to take his place beside Beethoven.”
There could be no higher praise for Berlioz; the wild alchemical mixture of Faustian diabolism, his extension and expansion of Beethovenian sonic possibility, the unflinching, opiate extremity of his musical imagination, and the essential catalyst of his incomparably intense emotional life, made – and still make – the Symphonie Fantastique an experience that turns all of us into its exalted, executed and eviscerated hero.

3rd Symphony (‘Eroica’): Beethoven
Symphony guide: Beethoven's Third ('Eroica') The story of the dedication of Beethoven’s Third is the stuff of symphonic legend. Whatever the truth, the victory at the end of the piece doesn’t just stand for Napoleon, or Beethoven, but for the possibilities of the symphony itself
Imagine if events hadn’t intervened, and Beethoven had stuck to his original plan, and his Third Symphony had been called the “Bonaparte”. Imagine the reams of interpretation and analysis that would have gone into aligning the piece with the Napoleonic project, its humanist ideals and its all-too-human historical realisation. Yet that is what Beethoven wanted the piece we know now as the Eroica symphony to be: this piece, during its composition and at its completion in 1804, and even when he was negotiating its publication, was a piece for and about Napoleon. Beethoven designed the piece as a memorial to the heroic achievements of a ruler who he hoped would go on to inspire Europe to a humanist, libertarian, egalitarian revolution. That’s why the piece, you could say, describes Napoleon’s heroic struggles (the huge first movement), then narrates the sorrow of his death in grand public style (the funeral march slow movement), and, with the open-air energy and teeming imagination of the scherzo and finale, demonstrates how his legacy and spirit were to have lived on in the world.
Instead, the story of how the piece’s original dedication to Bonaparte was defaced by Beethoven is the stuff of symphonic legend, based on Ferdinand Ries’s memory of what happened when he told the composer that Napoleon had styled himself Emperor in May 1804. With that Napoleon became, for Beethoven - as Ries reports the composer saying - “a tyrant”, who “will think himself superior to all men”. (In fact, it’s even more complicated than that, since Beethoven the apparently great revolutionary was also willing to change the symphony’s dedication in order not to jeopardise the fee due from a royal patron.) Yet that scrawling out of Napoleon’s name doesn’t change the specificity of Beethoven’s inspiration in writing this symphony, the longest and largest-scale he had ever been composed, and the profound human, philosophical, and political motivations behind the musical innovations of this jaw-dropping piece.
And it’s those novelties that usually inspire the panegyrics with which the Eroica is often described: the shattering dissonances and rhythmic dislocations of the first movement, the expressive grandeur and terror of the funeral march, the ludicrously challenging horn writing of the scherzo, the gigantic expressive range – from comic to tragic to lyrical to heroic – in the fourth movement, a set of variations that in one fell swoop reinvent the symphonic finale in a way that arguably only the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth comes close to.
And yet, these musical revolutions are not so - well, revolutionary as they might at first seem. In this piece as much as anything he composed, Beethoven didn’t want to compromise his music’s communicative power. For his music to sound its message of change, to inspire audiences to consider a new world-view just as they are also asked to participate in a new scale of symphonic drama, Beethoven needed to make sure he was taking his listeners with him. Which is why this vastly complex piece is also completely clear in its structure and in its extreme states of expressive character.
Think about the first movement: yes, its scale of thought and ambition are unprecedented when you consider the whole structure, but on the level of its themes and their working out, Beethoven’s music is built on simple, graspable ideas: those two E flat major thunderbolts with which the symphony opens (Beethoven’s initial thought was actually to start with a dissonance, as he had done at the start of his First Symphony), and the undulating arpeggio in the cellos that starts out so serenely but which soon introduces a

foreign note, a C sharp, the grit in the oyster that signals this movement’s emotional and harmonic ambition. The most radical moments are shocking when heard in isolation, like the grinding harmonic clash at the centre of the movement which seems to bring the music to a shrieking, shuddering impasse; or the enormity of the movement’s coda, turned by Beethoven into another opportunity to develop and explore his themes rather than simply to tie the room together with a handful of clichéd closing gestures. And there’s also a moment that made Hector Berlioz – otherwise Ludwig van’s greatest admirer – splutter with indignation that “if that was really what Beethoven wanted … it must be admitted that this whim is an absurdity”; the passage when the horn seems to announce the return to the main theme a few bars early. It is what Beethoven “really wanted”, but Berlioz’s comments remind us just how weird it actually is.
Yet when you hear a performance such as Frans Brüggen’s with the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century, or Otto Klemperer’s with the Philharmonia (strange bedfellows, you might think – one a period instrument guru, the other a big-band maestro of the old-school - but both create a mighty, granite-hewn first movement) it’s not so much the individual moments that take your breath away, but the cumulative momentum that builds from the first bar to the last. That’s the real revolution in the first movement of the Eroica symphony, and the fact that this implacable musical force should have been inspired by the representation of a great man’s works only makes it more remarkable: this movement is the definitive symphonic alchemy of musical structure and poetic meaning.
As is the rest of the symphony. One thought to guide you through the next three movements from the funeral march to the explosion of joy in the final bars: this music is simultaneously rigorously symphonic yet novel in its cavalcade of dramatic and expressive characters. The achievement of the Eroica is not that Beethoven “unifies” all of this diversity, but rather that he creates and unleashes a symphonic energy in this piece that both frames and releases this elemental human drama. It’s that mysterious momentum that is the true “heroism” of this symphony, so that the victory at the very end of the piece doesn’t just stand for Napoleon, or Beethoven, but for the possibilities of the symphony itself, which is revealed as a carrier of new weight and meaning as never before in its history. What started out as a (pre-) memorial to a great man and his humanist ideals turns into an essential embodiment of symphonic life-force.
6th Symphony (‘Pastoral’): Beethoven
Symphony guide: Beethoven's Sixth ('Pastoral') Beethoven's Pastoral is no musical cul-de-sac, writes Tom Service. It's a radical work, and in its final movement is music more purely spine-tingling and life-enhancingly joyful than almost anywhere else in his output
This week, Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, his Sixth. Well, it does what it says on the tin, doesn’t it? A sentimental romp through the Viennese countryside, a programmatic sideline to the central sweep of Beethoven’s development, a gentle counterpart to the fire and brimstone of the Fifth Symphony and the bacchanal of the Seventh.
But that’s only because history, and music history in particular, likes its battles to be epic, its progress to be heroic, and its most important leaps of imagination to be noisy, radical, and aggressive. It’s as if the Fifth Symphony is the “real” Beethoven – Beethoven as all-conquering hero – whereas the Pastoral is a sort of musical and biographical cul-de-sac. And whatever its veracity, the image of Beethoven the nature-loving

hippy has proved a much less enticing idea for historians to appropriate than Beethoven storming the gates of revolution in a blaze of C major glory, as he does at the end of the Fifth.
Yet Beethoven wrote this F major Symphony in tandem with the Fifth. It was premiered at the same, overambitious concert in December 1808, and as the symphonic yin to the Fifth’s yang, the Sixth Symphony is just as “radical” as the Fifth – in some ways, more so. I think both pieces are experiments in symphonic extremity, because both are pushing completely different musical boundaries to their limits, and beyond. The realisation that Beethoven was composing both symphonies at the same time is simultaneously baffling and astounding – and it’s proof that there ain’t just one Beethoven. On one hand, there’s the scowling man-ofthe-people fomenting musical revolution and purging his inner demons through proto-minimalist compression and white-hot energy (that’s the Fifth, by the way!), and on the other, there’s the composer content to luxuriate in an early kind of musique concrète by transcribing birdsong into a symphony, who has time to allow his imagination to flow and fly, apparently unfettered by the constraints of formal convention or symphonic concision (that’s the Pastoral). They’re both wildly different, but they’re still only two sides of the nine-sided coin that is Beethoven’s symphonies.
But in lieu of (m)any other metaphors to riff on, I want to show how Beethoven creates a new kind of symphonic rhetoric in the Pastoral, a universe in which lulling repetition rather than teleological development is what defines the structure, on the small and large-scales, and in which the patterns, continuities, and disturbances of the natural world that Beethoven knew (above all in music’s most violent storm, up to this point of world history, in the Pastoral’s fourth movement!) are transmuted into the discourse of a five-movement symphony.
Take the central section of the first movement, for example, a passage that’s dominated by a single rhythm – the one you’ve originally heard in the second bar of the piece. It’s like looking at a landscape that changes slowly with the lengthening of the shadows and the deepening of the light, in which time is virtually suspended. That’s a remarkable reversal of symphonic polarity: this place in the first movement of a big symphony is supposed to be full of driving drama and incident, not static contemplation. (Compare this central section with the hell-for-leather momentum of the similar place in the Fifth Symphony). That’s nothing, though, next to the slow movement, the Scene by the Brook (the movements’ titles are all Beethoven’s own), in which Beethoven starts to spin what becomes a nearly continuous stream of semiquavers over a hypnotically repetitious harmonic background and collection of melodic motives in the woodwind and strings – until, that is, the stream reaches a still pool, and a chorus of birds attract our attention, as wanderers through Beethoven’s symphonic stream-scape. The Scherzo’s dances would and could jollily repeat into the infinite were it not for the Storm, which interrupts these “Merry Dances of the Countryfolk”, and cuts across the rest of the symphony both dramatically and temporally. It’s a shocking slice of verticality across the horizontal languorousness of the rest of the symphony. Storms, by their very nature, are protean, non-repeating, violent explosions, and that’s what Beethoven’s music is like too, with some wild rhythmic and textural effects: the churning of four against five in the double-basses and cellos, and electric currents of piccolo, timpani, and trombone. Just as suddenly as it has arrived, this lacerating music subsides, and gives way, without a break, to the most deliriously repeat-laden music in the symphony in the final “Shepherd’s Song: Thankful Feelings after the Storm”.
And it’s in this movement where Beethoven achieves something more purely spine-tingling and lifeenhancingly joyful than almost anywhere else in his output. It’s this place, the climax of the whole movement, and the symphony. This music is also a consummation of the symphony’s spirals of time and pattern: this is the last in the sequence of ever-more intense unfurlings of the movement’s main melodic idea, and Beethoven takes both extremes of orchestral register – high and low – to their utmost extreme, and then resolves a magnificently aching dissonance through a long, slow, descent in pitch, dynamic, and emotional intensity. It’s a moment that works expressively because of its sheer intensity, but which also is the apex of

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50 Greatest Symphonies