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 truth, my title is slightly deceiving, for I will include not only formal symphonies but also symphonic works of considerable length (no short overtures here). By symphonic work, I mean an orchestral piece that is not a concerto, or a choral or vocal work per se.
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. 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 Wolfgang 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 early twentieth century. Beethoven helped birth the Romantic period, and the era saw its final great exponents in Sergei Rachmaninov and Gustav Mahler. The compositions on this list come from this period.
10. Richard Wagner: Siegfried Idyll, WWV 103
I was criticized for leaving Wagner out of my survey of the Ten Greatest Operas. Some might be surprised that he is here. But there is no denying the beauty of the Siegfried Idyll, written by Wagner to celebrate his wife Cosima’s birthday and the birth of their son. It is really a lullaby in the form of a tone poem. Wagner surprised Cosima by having a chamber ensemble play the Idyll beneath her window on Christmas morning of 1870. She awoke to its lovely opening notes. We do not usually associate such tender stories with Wagner, who is known better for his noisy, long operas and anti-Semitic opinions. Listen to this wondrous piece and your image of the man may be softened somewhat.
9. Bedřich Smetana: Má Vlast
Smetana was a Romantic of the Nationalist variety, his works often employing traditional Czech tunes and painting musical portraits of his homeland. The epitome of Romantic Nationalism, and easily greatest of Smetana’s opus is Má Vlast (My Fatherland). The first movement is entitled “Vyšehrad” (“The High Castle”); its opening melody, introduced on harps immediately, magically conjures up visions of vanished, once-mighty Bohemian kingdoms. This feeling of nostalgia permeates too the second movement, the most famous of the piece’s seven, which describes the flowing of the Vltava River. Its central theme is also riven with nostalgia. Four of the succeeding movements depict specific Czech historical events and legends (the line between the line is often properly blurred), and one paints a vivid picture of “Bohemia’s Woods and Fields.”
8. Hector Berlioz: Harold in Italy, Op. 16
I may be bending my self-imposed rules here, but I am not breaking them. This is not technically a viola concerto but a “symphony in four parts with viola obbligato.” As justification, I point to the renowned violinist Niccolò Paganini, for whom the piece was written, and who rejected Berlioz’ composition at first because the solo part was not prominent enough. The piece is based on Lord Bryon’s poem, Child Harold’s Pilgrimage. When the viola enters in the first movement (“Harold in the Mountains”), we are presented with a theme of such beauty that it seems to pierce one’s soul before it is even completely spun out. Berlioz had originally used the theme for his overture, Rob Roy, a work he thought unworthy and which he discarded. But he recognized the value of the piece’s central theme. There are wonderful melodies too in the second movement (“The Pilgrims’ March”) and, especially, the third movement (“Serenade”). But Harold wins a spot here because of the first movement.
7. Jean Sibelius: Symphony No. 5 in E flat major, Op. 82
Jean Sibelius was 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. Also, as Sibelius said: “Never pay any attention to what critics say. 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.
6. 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.
5. Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 5 in C sharp minor
The fourth-movement Adagietto of Mahler’s Fifth was played by Leonard Bernstein for the funeral of President Kennedy, and it thereby wrongly gained a reputation as a funeral dirge, with conductors slowing its tempo so that in recent decades it often clocked in at twelve minutes. Recently, musicologists have rightly pointed out that the movement is really a love letter to Alma, the composer’s wife, and as a result it is not unusual for conductors today to pace the Adagietto so that it come in at eight or nine minutes. It is much more effective this way, plumbing the depth of eros in a way few pieces do, at once beautiful and aching.
4. Sergei Rachmaninov: 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 Rachmaninov. 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.
3. Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125
I am not breaking my rules here either. Though sometimes dubbed the “Choral” symphony, Beethoven’s mighty Ninth is technically a symphony with voices in the final movement. The theme of that movement, the “Ode to Joy,” 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 Beethoven not storming the Heavens, as he did so often, but carrying us with him gently upwards into Elysium.
2. 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. But with the lilting, pastoral tune of the third movement, 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.
1. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74 (Pathétique)
Not even Mahler could top 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, largely 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?
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