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posted on 06.06.09

This very short list of symphonies includes works that many of you may already know. I chose these because they are among the best, and the most popular. Thus, they are great entry points into this musical genre. You may also be able to finally identify some themes used over and over again in film and television.

A symphony is a more-or-less serious composition, generally written in four movements: a fast movement, followed by a slow movement, a fast and “light” movement, and a fast finale. In most symphonies, the opening movement is written in “sonata form” – an opening theme in the original “home” key, a contrasting theme in a different key, a freeform section playing with these two themes, working back to the opening theme, followed by the contrasting theme in the “home” key. The other movements are less standardized, but the fast-and-light (usually called “minuet” or “scherzo”) movement is typically ABA form. “Theme and variations” is often used for the slow movement, and sometimes for the finale.


Without further ado, Eight Great Symphonies, in chronological order:


Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Symphony No. 40 in g minor (1788)

I am not a huge Mozart fan, but this work - and the Requiem - are darker than much of his work, so more to my taste. Like Haydn, Mozart’s works (and the Classical era in general) are clear-cut and easy to follow.


Franz Joseph Haydn: Symphony No. 94 in G Major “Surprise” (1791)

Haydn is the granddaddy of symphonists (and he wrote 106 of them!). His works are relatively short, tuneful, and easy to follow. As for the “surprise,” I won’t tell you what happens, I’ll just tell you that it’s in the second movement.



Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 5 in c minor (1808)

Perhaps the most famous opening of a symphony. Much of the work is based on that four-note motif, and it’s fun to follow along as Ludwig transforms it. Beethoven was not quite the melodist that Mozart was, but he sure know how to wring every last drop out of a few notes.



Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 in d minor “Choral” (1824)

Ludwig Van’s magnum opus, with a large orchestra and a chorus. Features the famous melody called “Ode to Joy” in the final movement. The rest of it is killer, as well.



Hector Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique (1830)

Obsession. Opium. Murder and execution. A Witches Sabbath. This “symphony” is in FIVE movements, and introduces an actual narrative into the mix.



Johannes Brahms: Symphony No. 4 in e minor (1885)

Brahms lived during the Romantic era, but is sometimes called a Classicist, due to his love of classic forms and counterpoint. This piece is Brahms at perhaps his most expressive. A major work, and his final Symphony.



Antonin Dvorak: Symphony No. 9 in e minor “From the New World” (1893)

This symphony is inspired by folk music, both from the Americas and from Dvorak’s native Bohemia. The second movement is also known as the song “Goin’ Home,” and John Williams ripped off the beginning of Movement 4 for his theme to “Jaws.”



Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 1 in D Major “Titan” (1899)

Mahler’s symphonies are large, loud, and require a lot of people. That’s why they’re so exhilarating! Bonus points for this one: the slow third movement is a theme-and-variations based on “Frere Jacques.”



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