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My top 9 Beethoven Symphonies


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Here is my ranking and reasons why(I'm listening to Symphony no. 1 as I post this):

1. Symphony no. 5 in C minor

Obviously the main reason has to do with how Beethoven bases the entire symphony off of that 4 note motif. That is just incredible that he is able to take such a short motif as a basis for an entire symphony. That and the symphony kind of has its own Picardy third if you know what I mean, where it goes seamlessly from the Scherzo in C minor to the Finale in C major. Then you get the inverse of that as the Scherzo theme comes back in C minor. And then there is a second Picardy third as Beethoven goes back to the Finale material, this time staying in C major. Also, he uses the submediant as the key for the second movement which seems unusual, especially when compared with his earlier symphonies and the symphonies of Mozart and Haydn, which typically have the second movement in either the dominant or the subdominant with a slight bias towards the subdominant. But it doesn't sound dissatisfied at all being in the submediant rather than the dominant or subdominant. And Beethoven already hints at Finale material here when you get to the triumphant theme in C major before it goes back to Ab major.

2. Symphony no. 9 in D minor

A lot of things are incredible about this symphony. There is the contrapuntal complexity(a double fugue appears in the Finale), there is the sheer drama of it all, equal to that of the fifth symphony I would say, maybe even surpassing the fifth symphony in terms of drama, and there is the sudden but smooth harmonic changes. Just in the first movement alone, you have sections in D minor, Bb major, and C minor. In later movements, you have D major on top of these 3 keys already present in the first movement. And the fact that the Finale starts with just the double basses and it eventually becomes full orchestra + full choir as the variations pass is incredible. Like the fifth symphony, this has its own Picardy third(Finale is in D major unlike the first movement which is in D minor). This I would say is like Bach's contrapuntal complexity and Beethoven's sheer emotion and expression in just the right ratio for a symphony with a lot of fugal passages, not just the double fugue of the Finale that I already mentioned.

3. Symphony no. 3 in Eb major

This one again is an equal to the fifth symphony in terms of drama. But it is in a major key, so while it does feel powerful, it doesn't feel angsty like the fifth symphony. Going from a fast, powerful Eb major first movement to a sad, slow, and funereal C minor second movement is such a dramatic change. And I find the funereal feel of the C minor 2nd movement is unusual for Beethoven's C minor movements. Usually, his C minor is more climactic if it is a harmony but not the key or angsty if it is the key, often starting off at forte or louder. So to hear a quiet, funereal C minor from Beethoven is very unusual. This is another one that has a lot of fugal passages. And like the ninth symphony, its Finale is a Theme and Variations.

4. Symphony no. 6 in F major

Hearing a Beethoven symphony with very little minor harmony is unusual. In some ways, his Pastoral symphony feels more like Mozart than your typical Beethoven piece(the major key bias being just one of those ways). It also has a more operatic feel to it, at least to me it does. And the fourth movement being a structural and harmonic interruption of the typical 4 movement symphony form is unusual. I guess you could say that Beethoven was the first well known composer to experiment with the symphony structure.

5. Symphony no. 2 in D major

Even though this symphony is is D major, a lot of it is in D minor. This is another symphony that I would say is equal to the fifth symphony in terms of the drama. In some ways, this symphony anticipates his ninth symphony.

6. Symphony no. 4 in Bb major

This is the one that everybody says is operatic in its nature. I'm not so sure about that(But then again, I'm only really familiar with Mozart operas). I do know however that he seems to get just as much angst in his Bb major symphony as he does in his fifth symphony, despite the symphony not being in a minor key at all. I have seen this "major feels like minor" taken to the extreme with his piano sonatas. For example, his C major piano sonatas sound just as dramatic and just as angsty as his C minor piano sonatas. And this is even more unusual for C major than it is for a key like Bb major. Typically, C major is your neutral key so to speak. Not really the case with Beethoven. This also seems to have a 5 movement structure like the Pastoral Symphony on first listen, but it is really a Double Scherzo and Trio(so the Scherzo appears 3 times and the Trio appears twice). So despite sounding like 5 movements, it isn't really 5 movements at all, just a typical symphony movement structure with an expanded scherzo movement.

7. Symphony no. 1 in C major

This is one piece for which I would consider Beethoven to be using C major as a neutral key. But then again, this is more influenced by Mozart and Haydn than his piano sonatas. His piano sonatas, even the early ones, already are experimental. This symphony however is more like a Mozart or Haydn piece in that it is very conservative. I can still tell that it is Beethoven(sudden C minor harmonies popping up and other things typical for Beethoven) but it is unusually conservative for Beethoven.

8. Symphony no. 7 in A major

This is another symphony of his that doesn't have all that much minor harmony. I haven't listened to it much but I find it interesting that he uses a quasi melodic rhythmic ostinato in this symphony. Of course, you could say much of the fifth symphony is a rhythmic ostinato and you would be right in that assessment. But the ostinato in his 7th symphony is not one that continues almost throughout the entire symphony unlike his fifth symphony.

Symphony no. 8 in F major I have never listened to(seems to be the hardest Beethoven symphony to find on Youtube) so I have no idea how I would rank it against Beethoven's other symphonies. But yeah, there's my ranking and reasons for the ranking.

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I think most people would disagree with your assessment of the 7th symphony as his "worst symphony."  The Allegretto movement alone is a masterpiece, perhaps the greatest slow movement in any symphony in my opinion.  Personally, I find it hard to decide between the the 7th and his 9th as my favorite Beethoven symphony.

For me, I would rank them 9 or 7, then 5th, 6th, 3rd, 4th, 2nd, 1st, then 8th.

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  • 1 year later...

 

I adore Beethoven, so I listen to all his symbols with pleasure. But, for example, Symphony no. 6 in F major does not make such an impression as Symphony no. 1 in C major. And most of all I love Symphony no. 5 in C minor. But to be honest, it all depends on the mood, I choose the composition just for the mood of the day.

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