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Top 10 Symphonies to Start Your Classical Music CD and MP3 Collection

A symphony is a multi-movement work for full orchestra. A typical symphony has four movements. The first movement is usually fast and contains two or three themes that are repeated and developed throughout the movement. The second movement is usually slow and lyrical, while the third movement is in a dance style such as waltz, minuet, or scherzo. The finale may take on any of a number of forms, including theme and variations, rondo (one repeated theme and a number of unrelated themes), or the same form as the first movement.

The symphony developed in the first half of the eighteenth century from the Italian opera overture (called sinfonia). In the second half of the century, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven perfected what we now call the Classical symphonic style. Mozart wrote 41 symphonies, and Haydn, the "father of the symphony," wrote 106. Beethoven wrote only nine, but they were so revolutionary that his shadow loomed over all symphony composers for the next hundred years. (Brahms in particular was so intimidated that he didn't write a symphony until he was forty.) The nineteenth century was a golden age for the symphony: one could not be accepted as a truly great composer without having written one. As composers in the twentieth century began to break away from the accepted notions of harmony, they also began to experiment with new forms, and the symphony lost some of its prestige and popularity. However, in today's concert halls the symphony is still king; hardly a program is played that does not feature one.

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1 Beethoven: Symphony No. 5 -- Carlos Kleiber
The most famous piece of classical music ever written. Review...

2 Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6, "Pathétique" -- Mariss Jansons
So tragic it must have been written by a Russian. Review...

3 Mozart: Symphonies 35-41 -- Karl Böhm
The Classical style achieves perfection. Review...

4 Beethoven: Symphony No. 9, "Choral" -- Herbert von Karajan
An inspiring journey, culminating in the "Ode to Joy." Review...

5 Dvorák: Symphony No. 9, "From the New World" -- Fritz Reiner
The Czech master takes on a new continent. Review...

6 Mahler: Symphony No. 1, "Titan" -- Leonard Bernstein
The last of the great symphonists. Review...

7 Schubert: Symphony No. 8, "Unfinished" -- Carlos Kleiber
The torso of a symphonic giant. Review...

8 Haydn: Symphonies Nos. 103, 104 -- Richard Hickox
Successes in London from the "father of the symphony." Review...

9 Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5 -- Leonard Bernstein
A Soviet artist redeems himself. Review...

10 Brahms: Symphony No. 2 -- Bruno Walter
Brahms's most tuneful symphony. Review...

11 Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 4, "Italian" -- Claudio Abbado
Musical images of the southern lands. Review...

12 Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique -- John Eliot Gardiner
A musical depiction of love's passions. Review...

13 Beethoven: Symphony No. 3, "Eroica" -- George Szell
A revolutionary symphony. Review...

14 Sibelius: Symphony No. 2 -- Sir Colin Davis
An emotional crescendo. Review...

15 Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 5 -- Valery Gergiev
A wholly unified symphony. Review...


Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Carlos Kleiber, conductor

Beethoven's Fifth is perhaps the most famous piece of classical music ever written, and deservedly so. The famous opening four note motif serves as the thematic material for the whole first movement, and it reappears in the third and fourth movements to make the symphony into a unified whole rather than a collection of four individual movements. This unity is apparent in other respects as well: the stormy opening movement is in a dark minor key, and the mood gradually shifts through the middle two pieces and culminates in a glorious brass fanfare that opens the finale. Carlos Kleiber's recording with the Vienna Philharmonic still stands as one of the all-time greats.

Similar works: Top 10 Beethoven, Top 10 Classical

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74, "Pathétique"
Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra, Mariss Jansons, conductor

Tchaikovsky's sixth and final symphony is aptly named, for it is filled with pathos from beginning to end. The slow introduction lasts more than two minutes, and the tension slowly mounts until the orchestra bursts forth with a jarring brass fanfare. The turbulence rises and falls and eventually subsides; as the first movement draws to close one hears the sun coming out and a rainbow appearing. The second movement is a gentle waltz that is subtly disfigured by the fact that it is counted off in five rather than the traditional three beats. The finale, instead of being the usual rousing conclusion, is slow and quiet, trailing off so gradually into nothing that one almost can't tell when the music stops. Mariss Jansons's set of Tchaikovsky symphonies with the Oslo Philharmonic is widely regarded as the best available on record, and this recording of the Pathétique shows the ensemble at its finest.

Similar works: Top 10 Tchaikovsky, Top 10 Romantic
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Symphonies Nos. 35, 36, 38-41
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Karl Böhm, conductor

These six symphonies are the last that Mozart wrote before his death at the tender age of 36, and they represent the pinnacle of the Viennese Classical style. The works demonstrate all the expressive possibilities of Mozart's music: the 35th is brimming with exuberance, while the 40th is dark and brooding, and the stately nature of the 41st led to its nickname of "Jupiter." In the final movement of the 41st, one hears different instruments entering right after each other with the same theme -- a technique Mozart had only recently acquired by studying the works of Bach. Karl Böhm was one of the great Mozart interpreters, and his Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra gives these works the gravity that they deserve.

Similar works: Top 10 Mozart, Top 10 Classical
Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125, "Choral"
Gundula Janowitz, soprano; Hilde Rössl-Majdan, mezzo soprano; Waldemar Kmentt, tenor; Walter Berry, bass; Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Vienna Singverein, Herbert von Karajan, conductor

Beethoven's Ninth is justly famous for its setting of Schiller's "Ode to Joy" in its final movement, but what many people don't realize is that there are forty minutes of glorious music before the final movement even begins. The first movement begins in the musical equivalent of a mist, which gradually lifts to reveal the full splendor of the orchestra. The astute listener can even hear a preview of the "Ode to Joy" melody in the second theme. The second movement features a catchy melody that is passed back and forth between the different instruments, while the third movement contains some of Beethoven's most exquisite slow music. As the fourth movement begins, the orchestra plays brief reprises of the first three movements, only to reject them in favor of the famous "Ode to Joy" theme. Beethoven was a master of conveying emotion in his music; by the end of the Ode, you will truly believe that "All creatures drink of joy."

For a first taste of Beethoven's Ninth, we recommend either Herbert von Karajan's 1962 recording (with Janowitz, Rössl-Majdan, Kmentt, Berry, pictured above), in which the orchestra conveys a rare intensity and depth of feeling, or his 1977 version (with Tomina-Sintow, Baltsa, Schreier, van Dam), in which the singing is noticeably better but the orchestra doesn't quite reach the same level. Another fine choice is Wilhelm Furtwängler's 1951 recording at the Bayreuth Festival (with Schwarzkopf, Höngen, Hopf, Edelmann), which is arguably the finest performance on record, but is limited somewhat by the recording technology of fifty years ago. Finally, for those who wish to hear the Ninth as (we think) the composer intended, John Eliot Gardiner conducts a compelling performance (with Orgonasova, von Otter, Rolfe Johnson, Cachemaille) using instruments and performance techniques of Beethoven's time.

Similar works: Top 10 Beethoven, Top 10 Classical, Top 10 Choral
Antonín Dvorák: Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 95, "From the New World"
Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Friz Reiner, conductor

Antonín Dvorák (pronounced "DVOR-zhak") began his last symphony while he was directing the National Conservatory of Music in New York in 1892, and finished it while on vacation in the Czech community of Spillville, Iowa in 1893. Its first performance, in Carnegie Hall in 1893, was met with great critical acclaim, and it has been a staple of the repertoire ever since. Though the symphony does not quote directly any Native American or African-American themes, Dvorák was profoundly influenced by these two types of music, and this influence distinguishes "From the New World" from Dvorák's previous works. The symphony is most notable for its slow movement, whose simple but enchanting melody conveys a mood of great peacefulness. Nearly 50 years after its first release, Fritz Reiner's recording with the Chicago Symphony orchestra is still the best interpretation available.

Similar works: Top 10 Romantic
Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 1 in D major, "Titan"
New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Leonard Bernstein, conductor

Whereas Beethoven's nine symphonies paved the way for the Romantic era, Gustav Mahler's nine symphonies brought the era to a close. Mahler's symphonies are very long (several do not fit on a single CD) and complex. Mahler's great innovation was in his orchestration: he combined the various instrumental colors in daring and imaginative ways. Song was also important to Mahler, and the First Symphony contains themes from a set of songs he had composed a few years earlier.

Similar works: Top 10 Early Modern
Franz Schubert: Symphony No. 8 in B minor, D. 759, "Unfinished"
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Carlos Kleiber, conductor

Franz Schubert completed only the first two movements of his eighth symphony, but what a pair of movements they are! The first packs in more tragedy and pathos than most composers could work into a full symphony, while the second, in a sunny major key, provides a welcome catharsis. Carlos Keliber coaxes the utmost lyricism from the Vienna Philharmonic in this emotionally charged recording. For those performing a more leisurely approach, Leonard Bernstein's recording with the New York Philharmonic is just as recommendable.

Similar works: Top 10 Schubert, Top 10 Romantic
Franz Joseph Haydn: Symphony No. 103, "Drumroll"; No. 104, "London"
Collegium Musicum 90, Richard Hickox, conductor

When Haydn traveled to England in 1791, he was hailed there as "the greatest composer in the world." He had been invited to compose and conduct a set of six symphonies for public performance, and he was determined that these works should live up to the advance billing. Indeed they did, and the British public were so grateful that he was asked to come back a few years later and write another set of six symphonies. The final two, Nos. 103 and 104, are Haydn's crowning achievements in the genre. They summarize everything Haydn had learned about the craft of composition, and demonstrate admirably why Haydn earned the title "father of the symphony." Richard Hickox gives a sparkling performance on the CD which also includes the Symphony No. 95.

Similar works: Top 10 Haydn, Top 10 Classical

Dmitri Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Op. 47
New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Leonard Bernstein, conductor

Dmitri Shostakovich was one of the true giants of twentieth-century music. His fifteen symphonies and fifteen string quartets rank with Beethoven's among the greatest contributions to those two genres. The Fifth Symphony was written in 1937 and is subtitled "a Soviet artist's response to just criticism." The Soviet leader Josef Stalin had denounced Shostakovich's popular opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk in 1936, and this symphony was Shostakovich's attempt to redeem himself in the eyes of the establishment. And redeem himself he did, by creating his greatest symphony. Especially notable is the triamphant finale with its blaring brass theme. Leonard Bernstein gives the definitive performance on a CD that also includes Shostakovich's equally memorable Cello Concerto.

Similar works: Top 10 Twentieth Century
Johannes Brahms: Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 73
Columbia Symphony Orchestra, Bruno Walter, conductor

It took Brahms more than forty years to write a symphony, but once he achieved his first the second followed within a matter of months. The symphony contains many of the composer's most catchy melodies; astute listeners will hear references to Beethoven's "Eroica" symphony and to Brahms's own lullaby in the first movement. The finale begins with a lyrical introduction that showcases the composer's ability to create what seems like a never-ending phrase, and then bursts into a jubilant orchestral fanfare. Bruno Walter was one of the greatest of Brahms interpreters, and this pairing with the Third Symphony is highly recommendable.

Similar works: Top 10 Brahms, Top 10 Romantic
Felix Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 4 in A major, "Italian"
London Symphony Orchestra, Claudio Abbado, conductor

Felix Mendelssohn, born into a wealthy German family, was one of history's great child prodigies; his Octet remains the greatest work ever composed by a teenager. Mendelssohn's thorough education in the works of Bach, Handel, and Mozart made his works the least overtly Romantic of the great nineteenth-century composers. Unlike Schumann, Brahms, and others, he did not see himself as toiling in the shadow of Beethoven, and was thus able to compose five symphonies with relative ease. His most famous is his fourth, subtitled "Italian" because it captures aural images of the composer's trips to Italy. Unlike Berlioz's Fantastique, the symphony has no explicit program, but rather conveys abstractly impressions of southern Europe. This fine performance is coupled with Mendelssohn's other "travel" symphony, the "Scottish."

Similar works: Top 10 Romantic
Hector Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique, Op. 14
Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, John Eliot Gardiner, conductor

Berlioz had a specific set of images in mind as he composed this symphony, and at the first performance the audience received a program with the details written out. Subtitled, "Episodes in the life of an Artist," the symphony's subject is the passions aroused in a woman whose love the artist hopes to win. The woman is represented by a melody called an idée fixe, or "fixed idea"; this melody recurs often in the piece but the accompaniment each time creates a different mood, from desparate longing to a pastoral tranquility to a fiery witches' sabbath. John Eliot Gardiner's acclaimed performance sets a new standard for both expressiveness and authenticity.

Similar works: Top 10 Romantic
Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, Op. 55, "Eroica"
Cleveland Orchestra, George Szell, conductor

Beethoven's "Heroic" third symphony was originally dedicated to a contemporary revolutionary in a different field -- Napoleon Bonaparte. However, after Napoleon crowned himself emperor Beethoven stratched out the dedication and instead gave the symphony the title by which we know it today. Indeed, the symphony is one of heroic proportions. The first movement alone is nearly as long as most Mozart symphonies. The second movement is a tragic funeral march and is followed by a sprightly minuet. The finale is a set of variations that takes a simple theme and develops it in ever grander gestures. George Szell's performance is still electrifying more than forty years after it was recorded.

Similar works: Top 10 Beethoven, Top 10 Classical
Jean Sibelius: Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 43
Boston Symphony Orchestra, Sir Colin Davis, conductor

The great Finnish composer Jean Sibelius composed his second symphony while on vacation in Italy in the summer of 1901. The premiere in Helsinki was an overwhelming success, and it today it is still the most popular of Sibelius's seven symphonies. The symphony features warm orchestral scoring and memorable themes, and the emotional crescendo throughout the piece comes to a climax at the very end. Sir Colin Davis conducts an uplifting performance of the Second, and it comes on a two-for-one set with three other Sibelius symphonies. If you don't mind a scratchy recording, Thomas Beecham's famous 1954 performance -- recorded on Sibelius's 89th birthday with the composer in the audience -- remains the most impassioned and energetic account of the piece ever commited to record.

Similar works: Top 10 Early Modern
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op. 64
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Valery Gergiev, conductor

Tchaikovsky's Fifth is the most unified of the composer's symphonies: the brooding melody announced in the introduction reappears in each successive movement. More upbeat than the depressing Sixth, the Fifth also demostrates Tchaikovsky's mastery of orchestration, particularly in the sweeping effects he achieves by setting different sections of the orchestra against each other. This recording shows why Valery Gergiev is today's premier interpreter of Russian orchestral music.

Similar works: Top 10 Tchaikovsky, Top 10 Romantic