Updated: May 26, 2020
Symphonies are the highest glorious form of music, they contain the history, social situation, hopes, fears, musical taste, and storytelling techniques of their time, told by their composers.
Symphonies are so important in every culture that, they can even change the course of history. This effect was at its peak in the eighteen and nineteen centuries.
Here are ten of the most important symphonies in the history of music:
1- Ludwig Van Beethoven, Symphony No.3 (1803)
The course of music as an art form and also as a craft changed after Beethovens’s symphony No. 3. Eroica is the name that Beethoven himself gave to his composition, it was supposed to be dedicated to Napoleon, but after the attack on Austria from France, Beethoven erased his dedication with rage from the manuscript of this symphony.
From those first two electrifying orchestral chords to the final victorious timpani flourishes it never puts a toe wrong. Architecturally it’s stunning. The whole thing is wrought from the brilliantly simple notion of a not-quite-finished tune (first heard on cellos) that continually strives for completion, and each time goes off in some fascinating new direction
Eroica was the first symphony to have an expressive feeling, it broke the law of music for entertainment forever, after this symphony composers started to create music to express themselves not to entertain their masters.
2- Gustav Mahler, Symphony No.9 (1909)
As Leonard Bernstein puts it, Mahler was not just a composer, he was indeed a prophet with the miracle of music.
Gustav Mahler has nine complete symphonies and one unfinished symphony. And honestly, if you consider Mahler’s ten symphonies as the ten most important symphonies, or even as the ten most important musical pieces, you are not wrong.
Between all of Mahler’s masterpieces, his Symphony No. 9 stands out as a representation of the world in the twentieth century. Though he composed the symphony at the start of the century, he prophesizes the wars, depression, and the doom that covered the world in this century through his composition.
Scored for vast orchestral forces – huge woodwind and brass, with a percussion section that includes timpani, bass drum, side drum, triangle, cymbals, tam-tam, glockenspiel and three deep bells – the most striking thing about its soundworld is Mahler’s exquisite handling of sonorities.
3- Ludwig Van Beethoven, Symphony No.9 (1824)
Beethoven only wrote one opera, he was an expert in symphonies, piano sonatas, and string quartets. But it did not mean that Beethoven is not good in vocal music. He brought vocal to symphonies for the first time in history.
Ode to Joy is a vocal part of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 by the lyrics of German poet, Friedrich Schiller and it is without a doubt one of the most famous vocal songs in history.
Had audiences in 1824 heard anything more elemental than the Ninth’s opening bars? And it was a stroke of genius to place the slow movement not second but third, enabling its climactic profundity – something Gustav Mahler learned from.
To emphasize the importance of this symphony, suffice to say that when you say “the ninth”, everybody in the world understands that you are talking about The Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125 by Ludwig van Beethoven.
4- Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Symphony No.40 (1788)
Mozart, the greatest musical genius in history, the man who could make the best and most attractive tunes and combine then with incredible complex harmonize, wrote 41 symphonies in his short lifetime.
No. 40 combines elegance and unease, its dark opening yielding to calmer waters, only to return to despair. Mozart explores this pattern again in the Andante, harmonic clashes, falling motifs, and rhythmic twists gently poisoning its bucolic charm. A stately, stormy Minuetto precedes the brilliant, fizzing finale which has at its heart a moment of baffling brilliance.
5- Joseph Haydn, Symphony No.104 (1795)
Joseph Haydn, also known as the father of the symphony, has the record for most symphonies, with 104 compositions. He created a path than later used by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig Van Beethoven and created the modern musical composition style.
His last six symphonies also known as London symphonies are among the most important and sophisticated pieces of music in history.
6- Dmitri Shostakovich, Symphony No.10 (1953)
The life of Dmitri Shostakovich is full of twists and turns. His situation as a world-known artist in Soviet times, made him create pieces with powerful expressions.
The second movement of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10 is one of the best-known pieces of music for everybody around the world.
7- Antonin Dvorak, Symphony No.9 “from the new world” (1893)
Dvorak was appointed to create the new sound of the United States in the later years of the nineteenth century. Though his composition sounds like Europian symphonies and has Czech qualities in it, the use of native American tunes as the main themes of his symphony, made it a very special composition.
This well-known symphony is one of the greatest works of the Czech composer, Dvorak. He created a narrative composition in four movements using folk tunes. His 9th symphony is one of the most performed pieces of classical pieces.
8- Hector Berlioz, Symphonie Fantastique (1830)
Believing in the narrative power of instrumental music, Hector Berlioz created his amazing symphony Fantastique based on a hallucination story regarding his love toward Harriet Smithson.
Berlioz Inspired by Beethoven’s sixth symphony created a new form in musical compositions. He used Idee Fixe instead of the traditional sonata, rondo, and minuet forms for the symphony. He finished the rebel Beethoven started against fixed forms and created a new free form completely in the composer’s service.
What Richard Wagner used as Leitmotif in his masterpieces, is actually another name for Idee Fixe created by Hector Berlioz.
9- Ludwig Van Beethoven, Symphony No.5 (1808)
The four-beat starting motive of the fifth symphony is by far the most known musical expression in the world. The start of the Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 does the same thing for music as Mona Lisa does for paintings. It defines music, not just classical or orchestral music, but the music.
Beethoven gives the entire work a remarkable cohesion by referring to that opening rhythmic motif at key moments, for instance by the horns in the penultimate Scherzo movement, recalling it in the finale. In another inspired touch, Beethoven uses the rhythmic motif as a subdued timpani pulse which links the Scherzo to the glorious blaze of the finale’s opening.
10- Johannes Brahms, Symphony No.4 (1885)
Johannes Brahms along with Johann Sebastian Bach and Ludwig van Beethoven is one of the most important German composers. His first symphony was and is considered as Beethoven’s 10th symphony by many critics.
Brahms’s Fourth baffled even his friends: somber, austere with a Baroque passacaglia – it appeared willfully unfashionable. There’s something almost intimidating about the Fourth’s formal perfection: its thematic integration, economy, the richness of variation, the fusion of polyphony with sonata form.
Brahms’s Symphony No.4 is a visionary masterpiece combining the spirit of JS Bach with Beethovenian energy