There have been thousands of symphonies written since musicians first put ink to paper. Some, naturally, are better than others. For anyone who could use some clarification, a symphony is a large-scale, orchestral piece of music, often with four movements.
Perhaps you’re trying to educate yourself about this amazing style of music, or you already love it and want to put together the best symphony playlist possible. Whatever your needs, we have you covered here with the 25 best symphonies of all time. Get ready to be swept away in some of the most powerful music ever written.
1. Symphony No. 3 – Beethoven
Also known as “Eroica,” which means ‘Heroic’ in English, Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 3” is widely regarded as the best symphony of all time. He is one of the greatest composers who ever lived, hands down. Though he grew deaf with age, he continued to compose brilliant pieces of work that changed the way the world thought of music.
One of his most important contributions—on full display in “Symphony No. 3″—is his use of emotion and storytelling in symphonic movements. Beethoven’s work is known for evoking extremely powerful feelings, from misery to joy. “Eroica” takes us on the entirety of that journey in possibly the most beautiful work of music ever created.
2. Symphonie Fantastique – Berlioz
Leonard Bernstein described this symphony as the first musical exploration of psychedelic expression, and he surmised that Berlioz must have composed at least some of it while on opiates. That should give you some insight into what is in store when you listen to “Symphonie Fantastique.” Because Berlioz put so much emotional and personal story into his musical compositions, he famously said he had difficulty listening to any of his work conducted by anyone else.
The story of this symphony takes us on a journey through the mind of an artist who has poisoned himself. Berlioz was inspired to write the symphony when he fell in love with a Shakespearean actress who rejected him. After she heard the performance, she relented and married him, though their marriage did not ultimately work out.
3. Symphony No. 6 – Tchaikovsky
Also known as the “Pathetique Symphony” or “Passionate Symphony,” this was Tchaikovsky’s final symphony. The actual program for its story is not certain, though there are many theories. What is known is that Tchaikovsky felt compelled to work on it and said he had trouble tearing himself away as he was writing.
Audiences and musicians alike have found that the music takes the listener to dark places of emotional mindsets, and it is equal parts beautiful and painful.
4. Symphony No. 40 – Mozart
Sometimes referred to as “the great G minor symphony” to distinguish it from “the little G minor symphony,” this is an immensely popular work that most people will recognize, even if they aren’t familiar with most symphonies. That should come as no surprise, as Mozart was a force of nature for nearly every year of his short life.
It is unclear what his goal was with this symphony, though common theories suggest he was writing about his own life and reaching out to the future that he would never see. There are moments of joy, despair, and anger felt throughout the movements.
5. Symphony No. 9 – Beethoven
Let’s return to Beethoven for another of his masterpieces. His “Symphony No. 9” is so well known that it has appeared in modern pop culture countless times. The final movement uses text for a choral segment, adapted from a poem called “Ode To Joy” by Friedrich Schiller.
This entire symphony has become an international favorite. Every year in Japan, for example, there are many performances throughout the country at New Year’s celebrations. This is one of the most requested pieces of music on classical radio stations worldwide. It lifts the listener up and expresses joy musically.
6. Symphony No. 3 – Mahler
Using a mythological setting for his program, Mahler wrote this symphony in six movements. The movements are each titled with descriptions to help the audience visualize what is happening in the symphony. The first movement is “Pan Awakes, Summer Marches In.” We hear a march-like opening with percussion in this movement, and the story begins.
From there, Mahler brings us the second movement, “What The Flowers In The Meadow Tell Me;” the third movement, “What The Animals In The Forest Tell Me;” the fourth movement, “What Man Tells Me;” the fifth movement, “What The Angels Tell Me;” and the sixth movement, “What Love Tells Me.” This is a fascinating journey through history, nature, and the soul.
7. Symphony No. 7 – Bruckner
This symphony is one of Bruckner’s best-known and most popular works. Parts of it he even claimed to have heard in a dream and then written after he woke up. The composer once said that his writing could not be summed up in a single emotion, such as happy or sad. This is true for “Symphony No. 7,” as it can be at times ethereal, and at other times almost frightening.
8. Symphony No. 1 – Brahms
It took Brahms around 20 years to finish writing this symphony, which is a masterpiece by all accounts. After this work, he went on to compose several other incredibly successful symphonies, but this one took the longest. This is possibly partly because he was a die-hard fan of Beethoven and did not want to compose anything unworthy of the great composer.
Brahms must have been pleased, then, when people began to call this symphony “Beethoven’s 10th” because they felt it had so much in common with his music.
9. Symphony No. 2 – Brahms
Brahms didn’t take quite as long to write his second symphony. After the success of his first, he finished this in just one summer. It’s a happy, lighthearted score throughout most of the movements, though Brahms seems to have had a sense of humor.
He wrote to his publisher that this symphony was so melancholy it would be almost painful to hear. He said, “I have never written anything so sad.”
10. Symphony No. 7 – Beethoven
This symphony is particularly fascinating because of its enduring optimism and joy, not to mention its musical beauty. It is important to note that Beethoven wrote this while he was going deaf.
He was still trying to hide his hearing loss from others for both professional and social reasons, so his ability to compose such lovely music and inspire such confidence and happiness in others while his own health was faltering is a special gift.
11. Symphony No. 5 – Beethoven
This may be the most famous symphony ever written. “Dun-dun-dun-DUN!” It’s dramatic and powerful, and it gets performed and recorded all the time. He plays with changing from minor to major, resolving pain and fear into joy whenever possible. This was an explicit philosophy for Beethoven, who knew the power of optimism, even in the face of terrible obstacles.
12. Symphony No. 7 – Sibelius
“Symphony No. 7” is one of Sibelius’s final works of his life, though he lived for about seven years after its completion. He referred to it as a “symphonic fantasy,” and people have described it as playing with the listeners’ sense of space, time, and even gravity. This is a phenomenal work of art that has inspired listeners since its first performance.
13. Symphony No. 6 – Beethoven
There’s a reason Beethoven shows up so many times on playlists of the best symphonies ever written. He was a master of this complex art, and his work inspires musicians and audiences to this day. In his “Symphony No. 6,” also known as “Pastoral Symphony,” the listener gets to take a walk through nature with Beethoven.
14. Symphony No. 5 – Shostakovich
Working on a broken heart and the text of a poem about rebirth, Shostakovich succeeded in composing one of the most riveting symphonies of all time. Some have seen this as a political work, and others have found it to be a deeply personal reflection of the composer’s life. Either way, it has managed to inspire others ever since its first performance.
15. Symphony No. 41 – Mozart
This is Mozart’s final symphony. The number alone tells us how prolific this composer was. It’s also known as “Jupiter” and is the longest symphony he composed. It’s likely called this way because of its grand energy and the joyful storytelling of the music.
16. Symphony No. 3 – Brahms
Though Brahms seemed to have found his stride with his second symphony, it took him another six years to get started on his third. Once he got going, though, he finished in four months. This is his shortest symphony, but it is by no means an underwhelming piece of work. Every note packs an emotional punch that pulls the listener back in with every movement.
17. Symphony No. 9 – Mahler
Mahler didn’t live to see his final symphony performed. Many have suggested that he wrote this work as a final farewell to the world because he had just been diagnosed with heart disease. He had also experienced personal losses just before this was completed. The actual inspiration for this symphony is not confirmed, but it adds something to the interpretation of this beautiful, heartfelt symphony.
18. Symphony No. 8 – Bruckner
This is another example of a final symphony. Some have called this “The Apocalyptic,” but that is not the official title. The program for this one is in some ways militaristic, and other ways, an introspective look at death and the feelings a person may have in his final moments.
19. Symphony No. 9 – Dvořák
Nicknamed “The New World” because Dvořák wrote it while he was in America, “Symphony No. 9” takes the listener on a journey, as if across the sea, to new settings and new adventures. It’s a thrilling symphony, and that energy has contributed to its enduring popularity around the world.
20. Symphony No. 4 – Brahms
We return to Brahms for his final symphony. There is good reason to believe he was inspired by Shakespeare’s play Antony And Cleopatra for this work, which makes many musical references to outside works, including his favorite composer, Beethoven.
21. Symphony No. 3 – Górecki
Also known as the “Symphony Of Sorrowful Songs,” Górecki’s “Symphony No. 3” was composed in 1976 and published the next year. It tells the story of parents who have lost their children. It is a truly heartbreaking work of music that addresses loss head-on and exorcises the deepest despair that human beings can experience in their grief.
22. Symphony No. 2 – Rachmaninov
This symphony is so influential that modern pop artists have sampled parts of it in their songs. Shockingly, this composer experienced such a negative reception of his previous symphony that he believed he had no talent at all. He went through a period of depression and then completed this work, which came out to rave reviews.
23. Symphony No. 2 – Mahler
This is also known as the “Resurrection Symphony,” and it begins with a funeral that, we find, is only the beginning. This is a symphony that examines the possibility of life after death and what that might be like—musically speaking. It is solemn and full of wonder, as the departing soul encounters new settings throughout its resurrection.
24. Dante Symphony – Liszt
This amazing symphony is sometimes known as a symphonic poem in two parts. It takes us through Dante’s levels of Hell, where we experience all the beauty and horror that the epic poem described for us. Liszt wanted to accurately portray the emotions present in Dante’s work through music, and there is no question he succeeded.
25. Symphony No. 4 – Ives
Speaking of Hell, let’s conclude our journey through the most important symphonies of all time with Ives. “Symphony No. 4” is a massive work that requires two conductors and leaves certain portions of the movements optional so that no two performances are ever exactly the same. In a way, it can be heard as a train ride through Hell, which is just a taste of what this epic symphony has in store.
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