The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: What is the greatest symphony ever written? And what are the other nine in the maestros’ list of the Top 10 symphonies? | September 9, 2016

By Jacob Stockinger

The BBC Music Magazine recently surveyed 151 conductors about their favorite symphonies. (Below is a photo of the Madison Symphony Orchestra.)

John DeMain and MSO from the stage Greg Anderson

Of course, the maestros – who were asked to name their Top 3 symphonies to generate a master list — might well disagree with the public. One suspects that conductors like BIG, difficult and complex works that challenge them.

Here’s a big surprise — NOT: the list is heavily weighted toward German and Austrian composers. And The Ear doesn’t mean Haydn, Schubert or Schoenberg.

Now making such rankings and lists is certainly a subjective experience, some say, silly.

Still, it can be informative as well as fun.

Here are the results, as reported in The Guardian newspaper in the United Kingdom:

Do you agree with the maestros?

What modern and contemporary symphonies would you name?

What great symphony, from any period, do you think is missing from the Top 10 and would you add?

The Ear – who confesses his special fondness for the Symphony No. 1 “Titan” by Gustav Mahler — wants to hear.



  1. The marvelous Sibelius #1, perhaps the best of all?

    Comment by fflambeau — September 11, 2016 @ 12:04 am

  2. Perhaps a more interesting list for your readers might be the top 10 symphonic works that they feel are underplayed/deserve more attention.

    Here’s mine, in no particular order:

    1. Jean Sibelius, Symphony #1;
    2. Jean Sibelius- Symphony # 3;
    3. Henryk Górecki, “Third Symphony”, the “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs”;
    4. Howard Hanson, “Romantic Symphony, #2;
    5. Alan Hovhaness, “Mysterious Mountain”, #2;
    6. Alan Hovhaness, “Mt. St. Helens”, #52
    7. Bedřich Smetana, “Má vlast”;
    8. Jan Dismas Zelenka, “Capriccio No. 2 in G major, ZWV 183” (this, strictly speaking, might not be a symphony, but Zelenka is uniformly good and if much of Haydn’s works are considered as symphonies, so should these be. See also his Hiponcondrie a 7 in A major, ZWV 187 his Concerto a 8 in G major, ZWV 186, his Capriccio No. 3 in F major, ZWV 184; and his “Magnificat” which foreshadows Beethoven’s 9th but also is likely not a symphony and is kind of choral chamber work.
    9. Vaughan Williams, Symphony No. 9;
    10. Mozart- Symphony no. 29 (39 too but I love the intensity of the 29th).

    Comment by fflambeau — September 10, 2016 @ 10:37 pm

    • Mozart #25 (the Amadeus theme) is also amazing but it cannot be considered to be underplayed. Better than the Jupiter, in my opinion.

      Comment by fflambeau — September 10, 2016 @ 11:00 pm

  3. I think the list over at Classic FM of the 10 greatest symphonies is much better:

    Berlioz – Symphonie Fantastique.
    Mahler – Symphony No. 2 (‘Resurrection’)
    Brahms – Symphony No. 4.
    Mozart – Symphony No. 41.
    Gorecki – Symphony No. 3 (‘Symphony of Sorrowful Songs’)
    Shostakovich – Symphony No. 5.
    Beethoven – Symphony No. 9 (‘Choral’)
    Dvořák – Symphony No. 9 (‘From The New World’)
    Tchaikovsky #6 Pathethque
    Rachmaninoff Symphony #2

    Note too that this list is less German/Austrian centered and has 1 symphony from the French; 2 from Austrians (Mahler; Mozart); 1 from Poland (Gorecki); 3 Russians (Shostakovitch, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff) two Germans: Beethoven and Brahms; and one Czech/Bohemian (Dvorak).

    In my opinion, I would remove the Berlioz (which is very good) and replace it with Sibelius #1 and remove the Gorecki (also very good) and replace it with Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony. I prefer Beethoven’s 9th to his Eroica. I also like Mahler’s 5th.

    Comment by fflambeau — September 10, 2016 @ 9:29 pm

  4. This should come as no surprise considering the source; most conductors are ultra conservative these days with rep. Beethoven and Mozart are seen as sure money makers by them.

    I’m disappointed, but not surprised, to see no Sibelius (lovely #1), Rachmaninoff (1-3), more Tchaikovsky, Schubert, Dvorak (his “New World Symphony” belongs in the mix), Alan Hovhaness (his “Mysterious Mountain” symphony along with the Sibelius #1, in my opinion, are the two best “modern” symphonies). I also like very much Howard Hanson’s “Romantic” symphony.

    Along with a kind of “standardization” of classical music played by these same mandarins, goes this lock step notion of “German-Austrian” masterpieces. Little in the way of Russian, French, British, Italian or American music makes these lists.

    Comment by fflambeau — September 10, 2016 @ 8:30 pm

  5. Agree with Eroica in first place

    Comment by Mary Gordon — September 10, 2016 @ 5:36 pm

    • It’s better than the tedious 5th!

      Comment by fflambeau — September 10, 2016 @ 8:31 pm

  6. Maybe not the greatest, but I’d want Cesar Frank’s Symphony in D Minor and Schumann’s Symphony No. 1 (“Spring”) to be in the mix. I find a lot of piano concertos to be greater than symphonies.

    Comment by Ron McCrea — September 9, 2016 @ 2:35 pm

  7. Not included in the top 20: Symphonies by Haydn, Mendelssohn, Schubert, Schumann et al. All 4 of the Brahms symphonies are included. Not included among the 151 conductors surveyed: Barenboim, DeMain, Dudamel, Eschenbach, Honeck, Muti, Salonen, Sewell, Schwarz, Tilson-Thomas, et al. Still an interesting survey.

    Comment by Anders Yocom — September 9, 2016 @ 10:43 am

    • Haydn in the top 20? Nope, not even the top 200. Only on WPR is he given so much preferential treatment.

      Comment by fflambeau — September 10, 2016 @ 9:33 pm

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