5 symphonies you should know

Season 1 Episode 6  [5 symphonies]


Today we will discuss the five orchestral pieces that changed how we listen to music. Perhaps the most important pieces of symphonic music?

Welcome to Our Music, A podcast to unlock your imagination to the possibilities of Classical music. I hope you are having an inspiring week.

Creating arguably the most important examples of symphonic music, these five composers affected history with their work. Today we start a lengthy journey to explore how the symphony has shaped western history and identity. Their music is our true north.

I . Haydn, Symphony No. 44, ‘Trauer’ (1772)

A man with many nicknames. We acknowledge Joseph Haydn as the father of the symphony not only because he composed many of them, but because he is the one who made it the place where a composer’s most daring and grandest ideas find their expression.

His music has a relatable humanist flavor, a new sense of humor an imagery, all written around a newly found virtuosity in the individual parts. His earliest symphonies are delightful gems, and the late works granted him well deserved international fame. But it is in the middle where I think his genius transforms music. 

Since I have to pick only one piece, then I go for No. 44. The subtitle means ‘mourning’, and after one of the most creative fanfares ever to start a piece, he jumps into a first movement already depicting romantic sounds into the future. The second movement was Haydn’s favorite in his entire output, while the closing is as dramatic as it is memorable.

II . Beethoven, Symphony no. 3, ‘Eroica’ (1804)

The premiere of this piece is the precise moment when the Classicism is no more, and the doors to Romanticism are wide open. Length, structure, and meaning acquire new dimension, and the legend of Beethoven himself starts to take hold in history.

Originally, the piece was to honor the achievements of Napoleon, but as soon as the general crowned himself as Emperor, Beethoven scratch the name in disgust. It now reads “to the memory of a great man”. And that is how we have approached the piece since, for here Beethoven took a huge leap forward and projected what the genre could really become in the next centuries.

The first movement is truly unstoppable, the second is a moving funeral march, the third makes you forget the courtly minuet with its fiery energy, and the fourth is a masterclass on how to write a set of orchestral variations. In sum, every subsequent piece owes its worth to the daring Beethoven of the Eroica.

III. Tchaikovsky, Symphony no. 6, ‘Pathétique’ (1893)

You would be hard pressed to find many listeners who don’t find Tchaikovsky’s music compelling, deeply human. In particular, the aura surrounding his last symphony seems to only complete the picture that the composer set himself to give us. There will always be rumors about whether or not he knew the water he was about to drink was contaminated with cholerae, only hours away from the premiere of his crowning symphonic work. Whatever the case, this piece is clearly autobiographical, an aspect that only fuels much controversy  today.

A master on the use of structural from to convey deep emotional meanings, the role of each movement seems to be alloyed into new possibilities. The first movement reaches out to our imagination, while the second feels confusing in its disarming lighter simplicity. But it’s in the symphony’s final two movements that the power of Tchaikovsky’s plan finds its poignant message. The third movement starts like a scherzo but progressively descends into a tempestuous nightmare. I have yet to see an audience that is able to resist the urge to accompany its conclusion without applause.

And then there’s the masterstroke. There is one more movement, a slow one. In the craft there is a new search for meaning happening in front of us. If you were able to separate all its parts, while first violins have… and the seconds play… the resulting melody, the one you hear, is never played.

The symphony is shocking, rocking, adventurous, and, as its subtitle suggests, able to convey deep emotions.

IV. Mahler, Symphony no. 9 (1909-10)

We are drawn to his ninth, but would never dream of leaving Mahler out of this list. With him, the symphonic scale is even greater, the emotional journey even more kaleidoscopic, and the connection with personal autobiography even more profound than almost any of his predecessors in the genre. 

The composer was aware of his impending final months when tackled this symphony, and many would argue the piece is about the acceptance and the inevitability of death.

Of course, it is possible to hear this symphony without knowing anything of Mahler’s biography – to witness it as “pure music” – but once you realize he was reeling in mourning after the passing of one of his daughters, then the work becomes suddenly poignant, and the sheer scale of the emotions are impossible to ignore. 

V. Shostakovich, Symphony no. 7, ‘Leningrad’ (1941)

The circumstances of the genesis Shostakovich’s seventh Symphony are surely the most intense of any symphony in history. Smuggled to the West in microfilm, the score was premiered in the US even before a performance took place in the composer’s hometown.  A celebrity in his country and elsewhere, Shostakovich became a symbol of the Russian’s people stoic resistance against the nazi germany’s war machine. The piece was routinely played over loudspeakers to the besieging troops around Leningrad. 

But the work is actually much more than simply depicting the conflict between two nations at war. The symphony is a hymn to the inner strength of all people living under the yoke of a totalitarian regime. As Mark Elder puts it, “no symphony may ever again carry the same gigantic emotional and political power.”

There you have my choices, now it’s your turn to turn up the volume and give yourselves a treat of symphonic music. [follow the links above] A link to each piece is posted in our website for your convenience. Happy listening.

Thanks for your attention. Please leave some comments below and don’t forget to subscribe. Hear you next time!

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