Ranking Beethoven's 9 Symphonies
Updated: Mar 5
By Alkis Karmpaliotis
Founder of AppreciateOpera.org
Ludwig van Beethoven composed what is arguably the best collection of symphonies of all time. Although he wrote far fewer symphonies than his predecessors Mozart and Haydn, each of whom wrote dozens, every one of Beethoven's works is unique and special.
Ranking these symphonies has proven to be a Herculean task, as any of these works could easily be placed as number one. After all, there is no single, indisputable right answer. That said, let's jump into the list.
9. Symphony No. 1 in C Major
Beethoven was only 25 when he finished this work, so he had not yet developed into the composer we know and love. Its classical sound is very reminiscent of the music of Mozart and Haydn. However, this symphony contains hints of what Beethoven would soon become. In particular, the opening Adagio of the first movement, which segues into an upbeat Allegro, is a harbinger of the slow opening to his Fourth symphony, which also develops into an Allegro.
Throughout the Classical Era, movements would typically start and end in the main key of the symphony. Beethoven's First broke this custom. Although the bulk of the symphony is in C Major, the first movement opens in D, before gradually developing into the main key of the piece. This made the First a major statement when it premiered in Vienna.
8. Symphony No. 2
Beethoven's Second was an intermediate step between the Haydnesque First and the romantic Eroica. Interestingly, he composed the Second without a minuet, breaking the standard of the time. Instead, he included a "scherzo" as the third movement, once again defying musical customs and establishing a new method of composition.
7. Symphony No. 8
Beethoven fondly referred to the Eighth Symphony as "my little symphony in F" — and for good reason. It was certainly his lightest symphony, joyful throughout and lacking a slow movement. Like in the First and Second symphonies, Beethoven deviated from classical tradition by making the fourth movement the heaviest.
6. Symphony No. 4
The Fourth is often overshadowed by the symphonies that preceded and followed it - that is, of course, the mighty Eroica and Fifth. What an injustice! Indeed, the Fourth is one of Beethoven's most remarkable and severely underrated works.
The first movement begins with a slow prelude, which Leonard Bernstein called, a "mysterious introduction which hovers around minor modes, tip-toeing its tenuous weight through ambiguous unrelated keys and so reluctant to settle down into its final B♭ major." The second contains one of Beethoven's most gorgeous slow melodies, while the third and fourth are rhythmic and upbeat.
5. Symphony No. 6 "Pastoral"
The Sixth, more commonly known as the Pastoral, is the closest Beethoven came to a tone poem. Essentially a portrait of nature, it is Beethoven's only symphony to contain programmatic content, with each movement telling its own story. The movements are titled:
Awakening of cheerful feelings on arrival in the countryside
Scene by the brook
Merry gathering of country folk
And the music tells the rest.
4. Symphony No. 5
Its infamous first four notes (often referred to as the sound of "fate knocking at the door") make the Fifth Symphony Beethoven's most instantly recognizable work. There are dozens of classic interpretations of the Fifth, from Pierre Boulez's painfully slow rendition to Carlos Kleiber's lightning-fast recording with the Vienna Philharmonic.
3. Symphony No. 7
Beethoven's Seventh is one of those pieces that never gets old, no matter how many times you listen to it. It is most famous for the second movement, but each and every movement is memorable in its own right. The most fascinating moment of the Seventh is in the first movement, which opens with a slow Poco Sostenuto and develops into a Vivace. At the end of the opening section, Beethoven repeats the same note no fewer than sixty-one times — a high E, from the flute to the strings, back and forth — and yet it never gets boring. It is the perfect segue to the exciting Vivace that follows.
2. Symphony No. 3 "Eroica"
The Eroica is arguably Beethoven's most important symphony, as it ushered in and effectively defined the Romantic period of music. Once again breaking the rules of the classical symphonic structure, it epitomizes Beethoven's unique style of composition. Its four movements are each thrilling, most notably the second movement, a powerful funeral march, and the third, which, interestingly, contains one of the hardest passages ever composed for the Horn section.
1. Symphony No. 9 "Choral"
Beethoven's Ninth is the pinnacle work of Beethoven's career. Being one of the first instances in which a composer used a chorus in a symphony, the Ninth was not very well received initially; however, it is now recognized as one of the most important pieces ever composed.
The symphony opens with a soft humming from the strings and develops into a dramatic and angry Allegro. The frantic and speedy second movement is similarly captivating, as is the slow and peaceful third. (Beethoven once again breaks tradition here, as it was unusual at the time to compose a fast second movement and a slow third.) The third movement segues beautifully into the infamous fourth, which contains the famous "Ode to Joy" theme.
Thanks for reading my article! I'm Alkis Karmpaliotis, and I'm a 16-year-old opera fan living in New York. I founded Appreciate Opera in 2019. You can support my work by reading my articles and interviews and subscribing.