We ranked Beethoven’s nine symphonies from worst to greatest

8 July 2024, 13:04

We ranked Beethoven’s nine symphonies from worst to greatest
We ranked Beethoven’s nine symphonies from worst to greatest. Picture: Getty

By Rosie Pentreath

We put on a brave face and dare to rank the nine remarkable symphonies of Ludwig van Beethoven – from great to the very greatest.

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From the iconic knocks of fate in Beethoven’s Fifth, to the unbridled joy of the final moments of the Ninth, Beethoven’s symphonies unquestionably define the symphonic genre.

But which of Beethoven’s symphonies are the best, and which – sacrilege, we know – just aren’t quite as memorable?

We have, against our better judgement, taken the plunge, and dared to rank all of Beethoven’s symphonies, from brilliant to even better.

We look forward to the pile-in in the comments section…

Read more: The 15 greatest symphonies of all time

  1. Symphony No.8 in F Major (1812)

    Beethoven’s Symphony No.8 is more light-hearted than many in the canon, and the composer himself referred to it fondly as “my little Symphony in F”, to distinguish it from the Sixth Symphony, which was also in F Major.

    The work doesn’t have a dedication, and didn’t take long for Beethoven to complete; just four months.

    It didn’t go down particularly that well at its premiere, either, if the critic who wrote the following account is to be believed: “The applause it received was not accompanied by that enthusiasm which distinguishes a work which gives universal delight; in short… it did not create a furor.”

    Apparently Beethoven’s pupil Carl Czerny asked the composer why the Eighth Symphony wasn’t as popular as the Seventh before it, and Beethoven responded that it’s because it’s actually a better work.

    Critics since have had nice things to say about the symphony, including writer and composer Jan Swafford who described it as “a beautiful, brief, ironic look backward to Haydn and Mozart” and Irish playwright and critic George Bernard Shaw harked back to agree with the composer, that the Eighth is actually better than the Seventh.

    Beethoven: 8. Sinfonie ∙ hr-Sinfonieorchester ∙ Paavo Järvi

  2. Symphony No.1 in C Major (1800)

    Beethoven’s First Symphony is a more-than-good first attempt. Of course it is.

    A clear descendent of the work of Beethoven’s predecessors, including his teacher Joseph Haydn and the prodigious Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the symphony is traditional in a sense, but also absolutely unequivocally Beethoven.

    The work features unbridled ‘sforzandi’ (notes that are marked, even forced), prominent woodwind parts, and relatively abrupt shifts in keys, which was uncommon in traditional symphonies of the day.

    Read more: Definitively the 20 greatest Beethoven works of all time

    Symphony No.1 / Beethoven / Juanjo Mena / Oslo Philharmonic

  3. Symphony No.2 in D Major (1802)

    Beethoven’s Symphony No.2 opens with strident chords, and features Haydnesque writing. Like the first, it gives us clues as to the revolutionary use of timbres and tonality, as well as overall structure, that Beethoven would get to with his Third symphony, the monumental and history-making ‘Eroica’.

    Fans of this one might point you to the rich melodic themes in the lyrical slow movement, while others might wax lyrical about the energetic dancing ‘scherzo’ movement towards the end of the symphony.

    Beethoven - Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 36 (SWR-Sinfonieorchester, Michael Gielen)

  4. Symphony No.4 in B-flat Major

    Coming after Beethoven’s Symphony No.3 ‘Eroica’ AKA The Most Important Symphony Ever Written AKA (spoiler alert) the top-ranked symphony in this list, Symphony No.4 was surely always destined to have a bit of a ‘sophomore slump’ second album vibe.

    It’s a bit subdued, cheerful in places, withdrawn in others… inoffensive. Which means it’s not in any way bad. It’s Beethoven. It’s brilliant. It’s just not the iconic ‘Eroica’ or the iconic ‘Fifth’ or the iconic ‘Ninth’... (okay, we could keep doing this).

    It actually sounds a bit like “somebody having a go at being Beethoven.” Take it as a standalone one day, and listen for introspective, sombre, searching Beethoven.

    Beethoven: Symphony No. 4, 4th movement | Paavo Järvi and the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen

  5. Symphony No.7 in A Major

    Beethoven’s Seventh is a dark, demonic work.

    Romantic composer Richard Wagner called it “the apotheosis of the dance,” alluding to its divinely dark flavour and existential, searching nature.

    There’s a visceral quality to the music – not least in the almost crazed finale when the musicians appear to be playing as if their lives depend on it.

    The sombre second movement balances orchestral gravitas with the swelling, emotive tunes Beethoven writes so well.

    Beethoven: Symphony No. 7 | Bernard Haitink & the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (2009)

  6. Symphony No.6 in F Major ‘Pastoral’

    If the Eighth is the ‘little’ F Major Beethoven symphony, the Sixth ‘Pastoral’ is the magnificent fully-grown F Major Beethoven symphony.

    And the great thing about the Sixth is the programmatic nature of the work. Each movement depicts a different story taking place in the countryside local to Ludwig.

    Beethoven delivers an ‘awakening of pleasant feelings upon arriving in the country’ in the opening of the symphony, and goes on to treat us to ‘peasant merrymaking’, ‘a thunderstorm’’ and a ‘shepherds song’ for after the storm. There are gorgeous bird calls, shimmering summer days, and dramatic thunder claps, bringing nature right into our ears.

    If this music had a scent, it would be freshly cut grass and damp moss, and perhaps also the slightly sour scent of a well-patronised farmyard…

    Beethoven: 6. Sinfonie (»Pastorale«) ∙ hr-Sinfonieorchester ∙ Ariane Matiakh

  7. Symphony No.5 in C Minor ‘Fate’ (1808)

    If you were to approach any person at random and ask them to attempt to hum “a famous piece of classical music”, they might well go “da, da, da, duuum… da, da, da, duuum…”

    The opening of Beethoven’s Symphony No.5.

    Those opening syncopated chords have ‘household name’ status for many people; they simply are “classical music”. It is sheer greatness, and sheer impact, that has allowed those opening notes to stick around in the collective consciousness, and keep us coming back to this wonderful symphony again and again, and again.

    Those notes, interpreted by many to represent fate knocking at the door, provide an introduction to an utterly gripping and incredibly moving piece of music that takes us – as Beethoven so often does – through the most extreme highs and lows of human emotional capacity.

    The chords are big, the melodies divine, and the overall effect completely enthralling.

    Gustavo Dudamel - Beethoven: Symphony No. 5 - Mvmt 1 (Orquesta Sinfónica Simón Bolívar)

  8. Symphony No.9 in D Minor ‘Choral’ (1824)

    Beethoven completed his Ninth and final symphony when he was truly quite deaf.

    In spite of profound challenges for the composer, the Ninth Symphony is without question one of the greatest works in the Western music canon.

    Beethoven’s longest and most complex symphony, it’s known and admired not only for its the novel inclusion of chorus and vocal soloists in a symphony, but also the way Beethoven brilliant unravels the musical ideas, and creates extraordinary variety within single movements.

    Just the finale itself contains a Turkish march, double exposition, double fugues, strophic variations, and of course the iconic hymn, ‘Ode to Joy’.

    That final hymnal theme has come to symbolise hope, unity and fellowship across borders and through conflicts. Truly a history making work, and one that Classic FM presenter and Beethoven expert, John Suchet, refers to as “the culmination of Beethoven’s genius”.

    Beethoven Symphony No 9 in D minor „An die Freude“ „Ode to Joy“ Marin Alsop

  9. Symphony No.3 in E-flat Major ‘Eroica’ (1803)

    Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ Symphony redefined what a symphony was and what a symphony could do.

    Composed in 1803, this victorious, revolutionary symphony is a marker between the neater, more formal Classical period, and the more dramatic, emotionally turbulent Romantic era of music.

    The name ‘Eroica’ comes from Beethoven’s own dedication of the work to Napoleon Bonaparte. He was a big fan until, against his values and principles, Napoleon declared himself emperor. Beethoven sprang into a rage, and scrubbed Napoleon's name out of the manuscript.

    This symphony makes the top of this list for the sheer joy and wonder we have when we listen to it – that opening never ceases to amaze – and the fact that it’s widely considered the first ‘Romantic’ symphony ever written.

    Never before had a composer started with so existential a question in their symphonic music; never before had they used the orchestra to edge closer and closer to unanswerable awe, wonder and emotional depth until the music exploded with, well – everything. All the joy, the thrill, the rage, the release, the feeling. Nothing like it had ever been heard.

    Beethoven well and truly wrote history – if not diverted history – with this piece of music, and nothing would ever be the same again. It was far grander and more dramatic than the symphonies of Beethoven’s contemporaries, and it inspired a new style that would be favoured well into the 19th century.

    A profound and glorious listen.

    Beethoven - Symphony No. 3 Eroica (complete/full) / Nathalie Stutzmann