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A Guide to Beethoven’s Symphonies

Things Your Music Teacher Didn’t Tell You
Symphony No. 1

Haydn—Beethoven’s mentor—thought the younger composer had a bit of an attitude, notoriously referring to his student as “the grand mogul” or “big shot.” Despite the friction, Beethoven learned a lot from the master, and his Symphony No. 1 honors Haydn’s symphonic genius. Beethoven’s symphony, however, ups the ante with progressive harmonies—especially in the first movement—and muscular wind and brass writing. The First is a great way to complete your Haydn journey and set you on the Beethoven road.

Symphony No. 2

The Haydn–Mozart–Beethoven connection climaxes in the Symphony No. 2. While the early masters codified the four-movement Classical symphony, Beethoven expanded their visions in this work. The symphony overflows with irresistible melodies and good humor, particularly in its boisterous finale. Hard to believe, but this exuberant gem was composed when Beethoven’s deafness was profound and he was in the deepest despair of his life.

Symphony No. 3, “Eroica”

Beethoven admired Napoleon and dedicated his Symphony No. 3 to the French general. However, he furiously withdrew his dedication when Napoleon declared himself emperor, violently scratching Napoleon’s name from the dedication page with such vigor that he tore through the paper. The “Eroica” (“Heroic”) symphony now represents lofty ideals, courage, and all the things you need to be a hero. Listen to the “Eroica” and be inspired to do great things.

Symphony No. 4

Explore the nine symphonies and you’ll hear that the odd-numbered works are tempestuous while the even-numbered ones are more sedate. Consider Symphony No. 4. Composer Robert Schumann called it “a slender Greek maiden between two Nordic giants.” The giants are the revolutionary “Eroica” and dramatic Symphony No. 5—both tremendously popular. The Fourth has a sweet lyricism, surprising shifts of mood, and gentle humor. It won’t raise your roof—it doesn’t intend to—but it never disappoints. The Fourth deserves your love.

Symphony No. 5

With four famous opening notes—“da da da dum!”—Beethoven created one of the most famous passages in music. Anton Schindler, one of Beethoven’s early biographers, claimed the master said it was the sound of fate knocking at the door. If you believe in the power of fate, the Fifth Symphony is a magical, mystical journey. Even if you don’t—Schindler was known to stretch the truth—the symphony is the perfect soundtrack for shaping your own destiny.

Symphony No. 6, “Pastoral”

Beethoven was known for rambling through the countryside. The Symphony No. 6, “Pastoral,” vividly depicts bird song, rowdy dance, a wild thunderstorm, and partying country folks—it’s like getting the best out of your REI gear with a gorgeous soundtrack playing in the background.

Symphony No. 7

More than any of the nine symphonies, the Seventh jumps with energy, especially in the driving finale—it’s the musical equivalent of an intense SoulCycle class. If you enjoy a racing pulse and working up a good sweat, the Symphony No. 7 is the one for you. Movie trivia fans also take note, the symphony’s second movement was arranged for voices on the soundtrack to the Sean Connery sci-fi film Zardoz.

Symphony No. 8

Beethoven liked his wine and sharing a good joke with his inner circle, sometimes affectionately poking fun at them. The boisterous Eighth’s second movement imitates his friend’s newly invented metronome with the wind instruments’ tick-tocks pushing the rhythm along until the device seems to go a bit haywire at the end. If you like to kid with your friends, the Eighth is going to grab you.

Symphony No. 9

Both Anthony Burgess’s novel and Stanley Kubrick’s film A Clockwork Orange cite the Ninth. Beethoven is the anti-hero’s idol and references to his music—as well as to Bach, Mozart, and several fictitious composers—are made throughout. In the film, various movements of the Ninth—including some electronically synthesized by Wendy Carlos—provide the soundtrack to some unforgettable scenes. Whether you experience it after reading the book, seeing the film, or purely on its own, the Ninth is unforgettable.