What are the three greatest symphonies of all-time? What an excellent question to ask.
Here are my three. What I say is the top, most of the experts will have in the top three but almost never as number one.
I’m a minority here, but I’m totally comfortable with that. Your experiences may differ. Anyways, here’s my list:
3. Beethoven’s 9th
Imagine. Writing something that you know is a masterpiece. They know it’s a masterpiece. Everyone knows it’s a masterpiece.
But you are entirely deaf and you cannot hear it.
That was Beethoven by the time he first performed Beethoven’s 9th.
After the performance, a standing ovation. The audience roared. They immediately knew. Beethoven had just released greatness and you got to hear one of the pinnacles of Western Civilization right in front of your eyes.
Yes. He was deaf. So one of the singers, Caroline Unger, had to run Beethoven around to show him that they got it. They knew they just witnessed greatness.
The symphony has four movements. It starts off with what sounds like an orchestra warming up and ends with a chorus, the melody of which you’ve heard hundreds of times. Beethoven’s Ode to Joy.
Beethoven believed in the greatness of man. He truly believed we can accomplish great things in our lifetimes. And you know what? He did. If I ever need inspiration, this is the piece.
2. Beethoven’s 6th
A lot of the experts will rate this one number one – the greatest symphony ever written. Actually, I’m in a minority. I’m fine with that.
As great as Beethoven’s 9th is, his 6th is even better.
The Pastorale. It sounds like nature.
Yes, Beethoven loved nature. He found peace with nature and was one with nature. I would have loved to see Austria back then. It must have been magical.
This was the peak of the Romantic era, except Romanticism in music actually came after Romanticism in poetry and literature. That’s just how it worked though.
Beethoven himself kicked off the Romantic era with his 3rd symphony.
Anyways, back to the 6th. You hear everything from bird calls to a raging tempest, then the peaceful aftermath.
Close your eyes. And listen.
Beethoven will take you to another time, a more dangerous time. But one where the outdoors still existed and it took forever to get from city to city.
Beethoven produced a lot of great works, from the 5th of his symphonies I love to his piano concertos to his solo piano pieces to his string quartets. No, I actually don’t like his violin concerto. I think it’s just ok.
But this is my favorite of all his pieces.
1. Tchaikovsky’s 6th
I remember hearing this for the first time when I was 18 years old. I immediately, upon hearing it for the first time, knew that this was going to be my favorite piece of all time.
It was a haunting feeling though. Because I also knew upon hearing it for the first time that Tchaikovsky just wrote his eulogy.
Six days after the first performance of the symphony, Peter Tchaikovsky took his life.
This is hands down the greatest piece of music ever written. Except with a caveat.
It’s also the most dangerous piece of music ever written.
I can only listen to this piece on special occasions. And I never listen to this piece alone, especially if I had been drinking.
I’ve had bouts of depression in the past. Yes, the past is the past. But still. I won’t take the risk.
Yes, it’s that powerful.
If you’re emotionally healthy, then I don’t think you’ll have any problem with this symphony whatsoever. I also don’t think you’ll get the same feeling from it.
Tchaikovsky often hid his melancholia from the rest of the world. You couldn’t hear it in his 1812 Overture or his Violin Concerto. Or his Piano Concerto Number 1, often (correctly) seen as the greatest piano concerto ever written.
But this piece. Four movements. All sadder than the previous one. Until the final movement where the composer dies from his sadness. And it ends. Slowly. And sadly. Fading away without anyone else noticing he’s dead.
He dies alone. And not understood.