Poster William Grant Still
William Grant Still was the first African American composer to write a symphony.
Carl Van Vechten
Classical Basics

10 great symphonies you should know

When you think of classical music, chances are you’re thinking of a symphony (or a movement from one). It’s the cornerstone of classical music — indeed, it’s in the name of many orchestras. But what defines a symphony?

The word derives from the Greek word symphonia, or “agreement or concord of sound.” For most of the Baroque era in the 17th century, the term was used for a range of compositions comprising three distinct movements: fast, slow and fast. Over the course of the 18th century, the form, led by Franz Joseph Haydn (often called the “Father of the Symphony”), evolved into the four parts we know today: an opening allegro (fast) movement; an andante or adagio (slow) movement; a minuet or scherzo, and a closing rondo, or dancelike movement.

Here are 10 great symphonies to know:

Symphony No. 104 (London Symphony), by Franz Joseph Haydn: This work, composed in 1795 while Haydn was living in England, was the last symphony by the man who defined the genre. The opening theme to the final movement (at 22:00) is said to be based on a traditional Croatian song; Haydn never visited Croatia but was often influenced by the folk music he heard in the Austro-Hungarian border region.

Symphony No. 9 (Choral Symphony), by Ludwig van Beethoven: Need we say more? This final symphony by Beethoven, composed in 1824, is one of the most frequently performed and most highly recognizable. Take note of the transposition of the traditional adagio and scherzo movements, which serves to highlight the glorious “Ode to Joy” fourth movement (beginning at 43:55).

Symphonie Fantastique, by Hector Berlioz: ­This one’s got it all: an obsessive lover, a bad opium trip (Berlioz just might have been under the influence when he wrote this piece in 1830), the guillotine. The dreamlike — you might say hallucinatory — work was inspired by the composer’s obsession with an Irish actress. The fourth movement, “March to the Scaffold” (39:52), includes the sounds of a military band escorting a condemned man to the gallows. But wait, there’s more! A fifth movement incorporates a fugue that represents Berlioz’ vision of hell.

Symphony No. 3 (Organ Symphony), by Camille Saint-Saëns: The 1886 work is unusual because, well, the organ figures prominently. The implementation of piano (both two and four hands) also is uncommon; perhaps all this innovation took it out on Saint-Saëns, who never returned to the symphonic form. Listen for two flavors of the organ: the quiet undertone accompanying the lush strings and winds starting at 12:12 and the bombastic chords beginning at 30:32.

Symphony No. 5, by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: A recurring motif, sometimes called the “Fate theme,” unifies the four movements of this work, which was composed in 1888. What begins as a funeral march in the first movement gradually becomes the triumphant march that commands the final movement. Perhaps because of its message of hard-won victory, this symphony gained new popularity during World War II, with many new recordings and performances during those years.

Symphony No. 8, by Antonin Dvořák: No, it’s not the famous Ninth Symphony (“From the New World”), but this 1889 work might be Dvořák at his most Czech. He aimed to create a markedly different sound after his dramatic Symphony No. 7, and, indeed, No. 8 is lighthearted and songlike, inspired by his beloved Bohemian folk music. Listen for the flute-and-piccolo bird calls in the first movement.

Gaelic Symphony, by Amy Beach: This work, composed in 1894, was the first symphony composed by an American woman, establishing Beach’s prodigious talents in the male-dominated music world. Her use of English, Scottish and Irish melodies as inspiration lent the work its name. You can also hear echoes of Beach’s contemporary Dvořák, whom she admired (even though he famously said that “ladies” lacked “creative power”).

Symphony No. 1 (Afro-American), by William Grant Still: Can an orchestra play the blues? Check out Still’s 1930 composition, the first symphony written by an African American composer. The muted trumpet that establishes a languid 12-bar pattern, before the oboe ushers in a spiritual, signifies that this is no ordinary symphony. Listen for the banjo(!) accompanying a Gershwin-inspired snippet in the third movement (beginning at 12:45). In titling the movements “Longing,” “Sorrow,” “Humor” and “Aspiration,” Still attempted to capture the Black experience in 24 minutes.

Symphony No. 5, by Dmitri Shostakovich: Judge for yourself whether the final movement of this 1937 symphony (beginning at 34:38) is truly uplifting or a parody of exuberance, as Shostakovich is alleged to have said: “I think it is clear to everyone what happens in the Fifth. The rejoicing is forced, created under threat. … It’s as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying, ‘Your business is rejoicing; your business is rejoicing.’”

Symphony No. 2 (Mysterious Mountain), by Alan Hovhaness: Conductor Leopold Stokowski, a Hovhaness aficionado, commissioned this work, which premiered live on NBC. An outlier in that it contains only three movements (slow, fast, slow), the work was described by Hovhaness as a “celestial ballet,” embracing his trademark lush progressions as it travels up and down that mysterious mountain.

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