Joseph Haydn was a starving artist. He had been poor for most of his youth and was ill-fed and often humiliated by his dirty clothes. He was a choir boy in Vienna, motivated to sing at the finer places of the aristocracy, as they served refreshments at those types of places. After his voice had matured past the point of use in a children’s choir he was sent to the streets where he attempted free-lance work for the next 8 years. He was a street singer, a music teacher, and a valet. He was extremely gifted musically but had received little training in composition and musical theory to this point. Soon, he was discovered by a friend of the family and trained. Not long after, he developed a reputation for his works and in time, received a highly sought musical director post in the court of Count Morzin. It was here, that he began to expand on his work and also the size of the instrumentation of the work; having a profound effect on the trends of Western music in Europe.
The word symphony has its origins in ancient Greek; meaning harmony or concord of sound. In Latin, it meant multi-sounding instrumentation. Isidore of Seville, the great scholar and archbishop of the Spanish church in the 6th century, referred to the two-headed drum as the Symphonia and the word became associated through the centuries as any multi-faceted instrument or instrumentation. In 18th century France, stringed instruments were referred to in this way. Music always had a home in the palaces of the elite, but it was at this time that it became a major competitive force in Europe. Noble families wanted the best music in their courts and at their estates. The music director was a highly coveted and thoroughly curated opportunity. At this time, small groups and string ensembles were the norms. Soon though, given the accommodating size of many of the palaces, the orchestrations grew. Instruments were added and musicians doubled, tripled, etc.
Haydn was not the first to compose what we now know as the Symphony, but he was certainly the one to expand and spread it. He composed some 100 plus symphonies and mentored the young Mozart in Austria. The symphony took form at this time and became the predominant style of music in those years.
Mozart took the symphony to new levels, expanding on the depths of it while maintaining its form but it was Beethoven who blew all the doors open in the 19th century with his tour de force works. His mastery brought the art form to a pinnacle that has left a high bar for everyone else through the years. The symphony went from an everyday thing, where prolific artists cranked out 50 to 100 symphonies in a lifetime, to something artists sought to create 1-10 original works a lifetime. Composers sought the great masterpiece instead of the court-pleasing high volume work. The symphony soon became a high art work of emotional self-reflection meant for the self and the people rather than the nobleman.
After Beethoven, many outstanding artists have cracked the surface with their own unique voices. There have been many masterpieces since, and artists have constantly sought to find new ways to reimagine the great symphonies of the past in their own expression.
Here are 10 great symphonies worth an uninterrupted listen. I recommend a nice set of headphones, a quiet place and an hour of time for each journey.
Ten Great Symphonies
1. Beethoven’s 9th Symphony
The way this symphony starts alerts you that you are in for something really heavy. Slow and deliberate, the opening movement suddenly breaks open and you are already on another planet. To me, there is no greater piece of music in history than this epic. It’s music’s “War and Peace” or “Les Miserables.” In fact, the choral piece “Ode to Joy” from the 4th movement was adapted as the European Union’s anthem.
After the opening movement and a short but exciting 2nd movement, the 3rd movement takes your breath away with nearly fifteen minutes of excessive and rule-breaking beauty before the famous 4th movement explodes into the choral thrill of “Ode to Joy.”
2. Tchaikovsky’s 6th Symphony (Pathetique)
Pathetique, Tchaikovsky’s last and tortured symphony was premiered days before his mysterious death. Some believe his death was a careless mistake while many believe it to be suicide. Whether it was an accident or not, his pain is all over the symphony. Alongside his pain, are moments of joy and dissonance and always beauty. By the time you reach the final five minutes of the last movement, the listener is exhausted emotionally And clearly so was the composer. The symphony ends in near silence with complete collapse. It stretches on and you feel it like the last beats of a heart as life departs.
3. Mahler’s 2nd Symphony (Resurrection)
There are few words to explain the journey Mahler takes you on here. This symphony is long; ninety minutes in fact. It’s ambitious and huge. It takes you through the many moods of love, life, death and grief concluding with a chorus and a finale full of horror and joy.
4. Beethoven’s 7th Symphony
In the Seventh, there are many interesting rhythms and moments of happiness. It’s deep and dramatic without dwelling too long on anything. The Adagietto is slow, dark and memorable and is answered by the jovial final movements; a very complete symphony.
5. Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Symphony
The words melancholy and romantic can be applied to almost all Rachmaninoff’s work, but certainly to his 2nd symphony. Written ten years after his disastrous 1st symphony, he had lost his confidence in the barrage of bad press and a hurtful comment from the great writer Leo Tolstoy. Like most great art, this one came out of triumph through the pain. It’s beautiful and intense.
6. Dvorak’s 9th Symphony (New World Symphony)
Sometimes an outsider can have the clearest perspective. When Dvorak came to New York in 1892 to lead up the National Conservatory of Music, he was surprised to find that American music seemed to be looking towards Europe for its future when African American music was ever-present . At that time, American composers mostly imitated the great composers of Europe. Dvorak, a hit in Europe, was tasked with encouraging American composers to find their own voice. What he discovered was that the roots of American music were inseparable from the musical traditions of African American culture. He hired an assistant, who was black, who introduced him to many spirituals and so moved was Dvorak that he composed the “New World Symphony” for America. From this great piece, came the second movement which later was made into the well known spiritual “Goin Home.”
7. Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique
Ever feel like your passion, doubt and obsession for your partner are so intense and sweltering that you want to write a five-part epic symphony evoking your infatuation, jealousy, loneliness and describing a vision of poisoning yourself that leads to nightmares of you killing your partner and then subsequently being executed and seeing her dismembered body as you die? No? Well, Berlioz did. And it’s amazing.
8. Shostakovitch’s 5th Symphony
Soviet composer Shostakovitch lived constantly with the fear of breaking the balance of what is allowed and what he wished to express. Under Stalin’s government, he was forced to walk the line. One wrong move and it’s over. Fellow compatriots had mostly fled. Rachmaninov left years prior on a sled to Finland. With his opera “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk,” he fell out of the good grace of Stalinist authority. His next piece, the 5th Symphony was so brilliant it pleased everyone and his grace was restored.
9. Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony
The Russian composer’s beautiful symphony came ten years after his poorly received 4th Symphony. The stakes were high and the artist was deeply depressed. Out came this gorgeously melodic symphony, but it also was met with a cool reception. This remains one of my favorite pieces of music, the melodies are unforgettable and it is yet to show the severe despair heard soon after in his 6th Symphony.
10. Mozart’s 41st Symphony (Jupiter)
Counterpoint. Brilliance. Joy. Beauty. This work, Beethoven’s last symphony reveals all his genius. Woody Allen called the slow 2nd movement “proof that God exists.”