Beethoven’s nine symphonies are staples of the classical music canon. The mere genre of the symphony is, near unquestionably, eternally associated with the composer himself. The greatness these magisterial works exude is unquestioned.
Yet, when discussing symphonies, even the most remarkable orchestral composer himself did not write nine equal symphonies: instead, some of his works are considered significantly more important than others.
Today, we discuss his nine symphonies based on their greatness, excellence as compositions, and historical importance.
Several of these pieces’ melodies are likely familiar to you. Their textures, emotions, and motifs are sitting comfortably in the collective consciousness of humankind.
Here are Beethoven’s nine immortal symphonies.
Symphony No. 1 in C Major
Beethoven’s first symphony is the least known of his symphonies, except for the opening. It is a famous musical joke “tricking” the listener into thinking the music is in a different key than it actually is.
While the joke may be lost on a contemporary audience, in its time, the musical gesture was akin to a musical joke by a composer like Haydn, one of classical music’s “pranksters.”
Speaking of Haydn, the music itself owes much to the fathers of the “classical era,” including Haydn himself and Mozart. Beethoven composed this work in his mid-20s.
His early period works, like this symphony, are his least remembered pieces. The first symphony is certainly not the place to find a revolutionary genius creating a groundbreaking masterpiece.
Although the work does not sound like signature Beethoven, it is a charming, well-composed start in his journey towards symphonic immortality.
Symphony No. 2 in D Major
Similar to the first symphony, the second symphony is among his least publicly performed symphonies. However, Beethoven’s signature is starting to come alive here, as a close listen of this piece does sound quite different from his first piece.
You will hear the curiously accented passages and brief, unpredictable loud movements idiomatic to Beethoven’s repertoire upon listening closely.
Compared to the first symphony, Beethoven’s sense of drama is significantly more sophisticated. His sense of “push-and-pull,” a critical compositional element for creating musical intrigue, is in full force here.
While the music has not yet transitioned to the Romantic era, Beethoven no longer sounds like Mozart or Haydn like he does in his first symphony. Instead, this work is unmistakable Beethoven in scope and depth.
Musicologist of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Robert Greenberg, likened the fourth movement of the piece to Beethoven’s gastric problems! While this may seem far-fetched, it is a common interpretation.
Symphony No. 3 E♭ Major
The “Eroica” symphony would be Beethoven’s crowning achievement in the symphony genre if it were not for the next piece on this list.
The first movement is in classic “sonata-allegro” form, with its opening exposition establishing a triumphant E♭ major key. The opening melody, outlining a memorable E♭ Major arpeggio, is a favorite among listeners.
However, with its darker c minor tonality, the second movement, composed as a funeral march, is a true masterpiece overshadowed by the opening movement’s popularity.
Its solemn character is similar to that of the 7th symphony’s slow movement. Several proper funeral marches have used this music in the background.
Beethoven scholar Lewis Lockwood described the second movement’s conclusion best, remarking it “crumbles into short phrases interspersed with silences.”
The final movement is a dramatic and stormy theme and variations, occasionally harkening back to the opening movement’s main melody. By the final variation, the image of a full “Eroica,” or “heroic” character, takes place before the impulsive coda of a finale.
Symphony No. 4 in B♭ Major
Composed in 1806 during Beethoven’s “Middle Period,” this symphony is mostly joyous, frequently overshadowed by his later, more dramatic and darker symphonies.
However, the introduction to the B♭ Major Symphony is one of the most memorable parts of the composition, a foreshadowing of his later style. As Leonard Bernstein best said, an ominous beginning “tiptoes” through different modes, refusing to settle until it finally relents to a joyous B♭ Major.
The second movement is a delightful “hidden gem” in Beethoven’s repertoire. Although it does not have the turmoil of his later music, it is a lovely rondo in E♭ major that could standalone in any concert hall setting.
The final movement is perhaps the crowning achievement of this piece. If a composition could be described as “tempestuously happy,” then this one would be it. Back in the composition’s original key of B♭ Major, classical era idioms combined with Beethovenian drama are at the forefront.
The next symphony on this list, however, is one of his most beloved works.
Symphony No. 5 in C minor
At least one of the five final symphonies on this list is annually programmed by every orchestra globally, and the 5th is no exception. It is among the most famous works of music ever created.
The 5th opens with the most famous four notes in classical music. They are so famous, just reading “dun-dun-dun-DUNNN” will awaken the opening motif from the not-so-deep recesses of our musical minds.
This opening motive alone has appeared everywhere; in music as varied as disco and rock n’ roll, in film and television, and throughout popular culture.
While the opening movement is the most well-known, the fourth movement is unique for a few reasons.
Did you know Beethoven’s fifth symphony has a nickname? Like the “Pastoral” Symphony No. 6 and the “Eroica” Symphony No. 3, the 5th one is called the “Fate” symphony.
Although not as well-known as the opening, the final movement of the work feels like a classic struggle between the “good” and “evil” of Beethoven’s inner self. Halfway through the fourth movement, the music subverts, referencing the opening movement in a sly, unexpected way.
Symphony No. 6 in E♭ Major
The opening of the 6th could not be as different as the opening of the 5th.
While the 5th is legendary for its thunderous, ominous, and repetitive four-note motif, the 6th opens with a lovely melody from the countryside.
Such is the feeling the music evokes, so it is dubbed the “Pastoral” Symphony.
Beethoven himself was a lover of nature, spending hundreds of hours throughout his life ambling through countryside fields and preserves.
The Pastoral Symphony is Beethoven’s only programmatic symphony, meaning it is instrumental music intentionally designed to portray a non-musical story or narrative.
Each movement portrays a different landscape. For example, the opening is an arrival into the country. The fourth movement is a musical depiction of a storm. The third illustrates folk dancing through its ¾ time signature, and the second is that of still water.
While the work may not be as dramatic as his greatest symphonies, many classic Beethoven melodies came into existence in the Pastoral Symphony.
Symphony No. 7 in A Major
The audience demanded an encore of the second movement at this symphony’s premiere, unusual as it was neither fast nor joyous, but rather, profoundly deep, melancholy, and dare I say, sad.
The whole symphony is outstanding, but the second movement of the 7th has to be among Beethoven’s most extraordinary movements. It is at once accessible and profoundly complex, with its repeating pedal tone of E guiding the listener through its simple minor-key melody.
The second movement is an excellent example of a slow, gradual build-up. While Beethoven often intersperses the quiet suddenly with the loud, the second movement takes its time getting to the loud moments, letting the listener bask in the first 150 seconds’ ambient quietness.
A wistful major key section contrasts the main melody, but it is the melancholy that wins out in the 2nd movement.
The other movements are ecstatic and riveting in character. Beethoven’s genius is in full force here.
Symphony No. 8 in F Major
Beethoven’s 8th has a special place in his repertoire; while it is similar to his early work, it does feel out of place between the 7th and 9th symphony.
Some musicians jokingly say Beethoven’s greatest symphonies are the odd-numbered symphonies, referencing 3, 5, 7, and 9.
While it’s easy to agree, I think the even-numbered symphonies are simply misunderstood, and the 8th is an excellent example of it.
As a composer, Beethoven did not want to write the same piece twice. After writing the 7th symphony, which travels between the supreme melancholy of its second movement and friendly rambuctiousness of the finale, Beethoven likely wanted to compose something more conservative, comfortable, and predictable.
Such is the story of the 8th symphony, frequently and, ironically, referred to as the “Classical” symphony.
Why does it have this name? Aren’t all of Beethoven’s symphonies “classical” symphonies?
By the 7th symphony, Beethoven more-or-less launched the Romantic era of music, a period characterized by greater chromaticism and expression in composition. The 8th is a retreat to his more “classical era” style cemented in his earlier works.
The 8th is lighthearted and cheerfully loud, abundant with accents garnished with booming timpanis. The work’s final movement is its crowning achievement, an airy and swift orchestral crowd pleaser.
It may not be his most profound symphony; however, it may just be his very best “even-numbered” one.
Symphony No. 9 in D minor
What can be said of the 9th symphony that has never been written before? The “Choral” symphony was simply groundbreaking.
Many consider it Beethoven’s most significant work. It is possibly the greatest piece of music of all time in any genre by any composer.
In terms of pure historical significance, much stands out about the ninth symphony. First, Beethoven wrote it while he was completely deaf. While he was not fully deaf his whole life, by the time he wrote this piece, he was.
Secondly, it was the first symphony to include a full chorus. While this may not sound like a big deal to modern listeners, back in the early 19th century, this type of practice was only reserved for the opera. A symphony with a full chorus was not common practice.
The melody of the final movement is perhaps the most well-known in all of classical music. It is so simple in its composition; with just the first five notes of the major scale, Beethoven weaves together a joyous recitative intricate counterpoint throughout the chorus. The final result is a melody as cherished by classical music’s elite as it is by the mass musical audience.
Like much of Beethoven’s later work, the composition is cyclical – ideas that show up in one movement come back later throughout the piece. This practice became more commonplace throughout the Romantic period and beyond.
If Beethoven wrote no other piece, he would still be immortal for his 9th symphony. Its place in history is unmatched.