“Imagination creates reality.”
Though beauty is an absolute reality, we human beings see through a glass darkly, and the space between objective beauty and our own personal taste can be fuzzy. Any list that seeks to rank the most beautiful works of any kind is thus going to be subjected to fierce debate. All this, I suppose, is an attempt to inoculate myself against the harshest of criticism, which I will undoubtedly receive, for the attempt below to rank the ten most beautiful symphonies ever composed.
In picking my top ten, I evaluated pieces largely on their mysterious ability to touch the deepest part of the soul. Only pieces that have great melodies can do this. Though melody is only one component of musical composition, it is the bone on which a piece is built, “the essence of music,” as Wolfgang Mozart put it. Melody largely went out of fashion as the twentieth century wore on, as lesser composers incapable of writing a decent tune tried to turn the concept of beauty on its head by creating new standards for composition and by mocking the masters of melody as vulgar populists. The great villains here at those three stooges of atonality, those emperors without clothes of the Second Viennese School: Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, and Anton Webern.
In addition to melody, of course, great and beautiful symphonies must display a mastery of structure and orchestration, a command of tone color and harmony, and an expertise in developing musical ideas.
Joseph Haydn and Mozart were the greatest, earliest exponents of symphonic form. Their symphonies and orchestral works, however, were generally intended to entertain, to dazzle and not to plumb the depths of the soul. Haydn may never have aimed to create works with this end in mind, and for Mozart it was within the dramatic structure of opera that he would attempt such feats. These great composers therefore do not appear on this list, despite their seemingly inexhaustible ability to generate wonderful melodies.
Symphonic works began to aim at expressing the deepest emotions during the so-called Romantic period, which developed in the early 1800s and ended in the mid-twentieth century. Beethoven helped birth the Romantic period, and the era saw its final great exponents in Sergei Rachmaninoff and Gustav Mahler. The compositions on this list come from this period.
10. Erich Wolfgang Korngold: Symphony in F sharp major, op. 40
It is a shame that Korngold is thought of mainly as a film composer (having written the musical score for, among other films, several Errol Flynn swashbucklers and Bette Davis dramas), for he composed plenty of “serious” classical compositions as well, most significantly his sole symphony (composed in 1952). It is a mighty creation, its ominous opening grabbing the listener’s attention immediately. After a first movement that is both mysterious and beautiful follows an energetic scherzo, then a meditative adagio, and a jaunty finale. Indeed, Korngold’s symphony is the last great work composed in this genre.
9. César Franck: Symphony in D minor
Written in 1888, Belgian composer Franck’s symphony was largely ridiculed after its premier by French critics, who thought it both simplistic in concept and overblown in execution. But the work was instantly popular in the rest of Europe and in the United States. Though it slowly fell out of favor with the public as the twentieth century progresses, it deserves a revival in the concert hall today, as it is both beautiful and brilliant. Arranged in three movements (instead of four as was the case with most late-Romantic symphonies), the symphony combines a French cyclic thematic structure—with the central motif, based on the famous “Muss es sein?” theme of Beethoven’s last string quartet—with Germanic orchestration. In the wake of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871, such a musical fusion was politically incorrect—another factor in the work’s initial unpopularity. The first movement opens mysteriously, then soars dramatically; the second, is lugubrious, with pizzicato strings and a haunting theme played on cor anglais; the third movement is one of tremendously high spirits that introduces a new, ebullient theme, and at the same time summarizes earlier themes. “They do not return as quotations, however,” the composer explained. “I have elaborated them and given them the role of new elements.” Franck’s symphony fulfills the definition of a great artistic creation in that it innovates, but only organically from musical tradition.
8. Franz Schubert: Symphony No. 9 in C major, D. 944
Though some may argue for his famous “Unfinished” symphony (No. 8) instead, Schubert’s Ninth is a mighty ninth indeed, full of majesty and power. If it lacks that one searing melody that burns through to the soul, it compensates by a sheer hour of unabated excitement, from the fetching horn call of its opening, through the galloping syncopations of the first movement, to the mysterious tread of the second movement and the chrysalis-like undulations of the third, and at last to the unrivaled high spirits of its finale. In listening to this work, one feels himself a giant striding the tallest mountain peaks, breaking through the enigmatic fog, and stretching towards the very outskirts of eternity.
7. Felix Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 2 (“Hymn of Praise”) in B flat major, Op. 52
Despite its numbering, the “Lobgesang” (“Hymn of Praise”) is actually the the fourth of five symphonies composed by Felix Mendelssohn and is something of a hybrid symphony-cantata. Its clear model is Beethoven’s great Ninth Symphony; both works begin with three purely orchestral movements followed by a massive finale with soloists and chorus, which recalls themes from the earlier movements. Whereas Beethoven used words from Friedrich Schiller’s poem “Ode to Joy,” Mendelssohn—a Jewish convert to Protestantism, whose surname was officially changed to Mendelssohn-Bartholdy—set words of Scripture to music. The “Hymn of Praise” was commissioned to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press and was first performed in 1840. Its opening, noble theme, played on trombones, is unforgettable, and its return at the beginning of the finale, followed by the initial outburst of the chorus singing words from Psalm 150, is positively thrilling.
6. Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 6 in A minor
Known mainly for its dreadful opening march and the hammer-blows of fate that conclude the piece, Mahler’s generally turbulent Sixth contains one of his most heart-rending passages. With the lilting, pastoral tune of the third movement (sometimes placed second, as Mahler himself pondered whether to do this), complete with cowbells, we are suddenly wandering in Elysian fields and through the passages of mountains whose high peaks seem to reach to Heaven itself. Storms and judgment loom on both sides of us, but for this interlude at least, we are at peace with the Creator.
5. Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125
Though sometimes dubbed the “Choral” symphony, Beethoven’s mighty Ninth is technically a symphony with voices in the fourth and final movement; both soloists and chorus sing the words of Friedrich Schiller’s poem, “Ode to Joy.” The theme of that movement is the most famous melody in the work, yet it is the sublime third movement that wins the Ninth a place on this list. This is not Beethoven storming the Heavens, as he did so often, but carrying us gently upwards into Elysium.
4. Antonín Dvořák: Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 95, B. 178 (“From the New World”)
An argument can be made that his Seventh and Eighth Symphonies are greater than his final essay in that form, but there is no denying that the second movement of the “New World Symphony” contains one of Dvořák’s most gorgeous tunes. This is claiming quite a bit, for the Czech composer was one of the greatest geniuses of melody in the history of music. A Nationalist like his compatriot, Smetana, Dvořák spent three years in America, conducting in New York and residing for a summer with the Czech community of Spillville, Iowa. Dvořák sought to incorporate traditional American tunes and idioms, including those of Native and African Americans, in the music he composed for his host country. In so doing, he created a music for America greater than that of any native-born composer.
3. Jean Sibelius: Symphony No. 5 in E flat major, Op. 82
Jean Sibelius was sometimes derided in his day (the late nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth) for being too conservative, an observation that is probably not true, and if it is, hardly constitutes a criticism. Critics were largely jealous of his ability to write brilliantly and melodically within established symphonic forms—a feat that may be more difficult than achieving radical originality. “Never pay any attention to what critics say,” Sibelius was reported to have said. “Remember, a statue has never been set up in honor of a critic!” Sibelius’ symphonic oeuvre contains many wonderful melodies, but it is his Fifth Symphony that probably tops them all. It begins right away with a gorgeous tune, like the sunrise over a wintry, Scandinavian landscape, and it concludes with a pulsating melody that seems to cast its light across that landscape and into every dark corner of the world. “I begin to see the mountain that I shall surely ascend,” Sibelius said as he composed this work. “God opens his door for a moment and His orchestra plays the Fifth Symphony.”
2. Sergei Rachmaninoff: Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Op. 27
If ever a great composer was wrongly derided for his supposedly superficial ability to spin tunes, it was Rachmaninoff. Though he may not have excelled in every genre of music composition at which he tried his hand, when it came to the symphony he created an indisputable masterpiece. The Second Symphony boasts heartbreaking melodies in the first and, especially, the fourth movements. These are intertwined within a powerful symphonic structure that renders this piece one of the greatest achievements of the Romantic era and of music history.
1. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74 (“Pathétique”)
Few pieces rival the catharsis of Tchaikovsky’s final symphony. Beginning quietly and darkly, a tune of almost unbearable melancholy soon blossoms from the mists. After a turbulent section kicked off by an orchestral thunderclap, the melancholy main theme reappears and then dissolves to close out the massive, twenty-minute-long first movement. The second movement, which one conductor described as “the ladies and gentlemen skating on the ice,” is a waltz that provides a balm to the listener; yet there are hints of trouble beneath the surface calm. This is thin ice indeed. The third movement is a powerful march, which should take flight into a carefree, jaunty martial celebration… yet again something is wrong, something is held back by Tchaikovsky. The fourth movement is a radical conclusion to a symphony, a brooding adagio, which erupts at times into nightmarish storms, and which decays into nothingness at the conclusion, the symphony ending much as it begun. Has the Angel of Death, who hovered over the entire piece, at last arrived? In an incredible innovation, Tchaikovsky has no single instrumental group play this movement’s main theme; that theme is instead a product of the interaction among different sections of the orchestra. The listener is hearing a tune that no one is playing.
“I have put my whole soul into this work,” Tchaikovsky said of the symphony he deemd “the best thing I have composed.” He died a few days after conducting its premier. Tchaikovsky gave the symphony a Russian title, “Патетическая” (“Patetitčeskaja”), which best translates into English as “passionate.” (The French nickname given to this work, “Pathétique,” unfortunately is too close to our meaning, “evoking pity.”) It was discovered after his death that Tchaikovsky, who intended the work to be programmatic, had appended titles to the four movements: “Life,” “Love,” “Disappointment,” and “Death.”
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Note: The author revised this list since its original publication.
The featured image is “View of the Hudson River Valley from Olana” by Frederic E. Church, and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.