The 15 greatest symphonies of all time

11 January 2024, 17:40 | Updated: 21 February 2024, 11:31

Best symphonies: Ludwig van Beethoven, Antonín Dvořák and Florence Price
Best symphonies: Ludwig van Beethoven, Antonín Dvořák and Florence Price. Picture: Alamy
Classic FM

By Classic FM

We think these are the greatest symphonies of all time – the biggest, most emotional, most impressive and plain-old flabbergasting works ever written.

Nothing beats the sound of an orchestra unleashing its full force at the epic climax of a symphony. With bold and brash brass fanfares, a flurry of wind instruments and strings galore, it’s always an exhilarating experience.

And then there’s the delicate and subtle quieter sections, charged with emotion enough to move you to tears.

With centuries of music to choose from there are many great symphonies, but here are the 15 symphonies we reckon triumph over all others.

From Mozart to Florence Price and Beethoven, with some lesser-known discoveries along the way, let the epicness commence…

Read more: What is a symphony? We explain…

  1. Mozart – Symphony No. 41

    Mozart’s final symphony was also his best – and it’s no coincidence that it’s subtitled ‘Jupiter’, either. Mozart threw absolutely everything at this epic, his longest symphony.

    Marvel at the five-theme fugal ending, gasp at the quotations of plainchant motifs, and simply recoil in wonder at the majesty of it all...

    Read more: 30 of the greatest classical music composers of all time

    Mozart: Symphony No. 41 "Jupiter" / Rattle · Berliner Philharmoniker

  2. Florence Price – Symphony No.1

    In 1932, Florence Price took home first prize in a competition for her glorious Symphony No.1 in E minor, a thrilling four-movement work packed with soaring melodies.

    The following year, Price became the first African American woman to have her music performed by a major US orchestra, when her Symphony was performed by the Chicago Symphony. The music critic of the Chicago Daily News declared it “a faultless work, a work that speaks its own message with restraint and yet with passion… worthy of a place in the regular symphonic repertoire.”

    We couldn’t agree more.

    Florence Price’s groundbreaking Symphony No.1 ‘Finale’ at Royal Albert Hall | Classic FM Live

  3. Beethoven – Symphony No. 9 (‘Choral’)

    Written when the composer himself was profoundly deaf, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is without question, one of the greatest works in the classical repertoire, labelled by Classic FM presenter and Beethoven expert, John Suchet, as “the culmination of Beethoven’s genius”.

    It’s his longest and most complex, and that final hymnal theme, the ‘Ode to Joy’, has come to symbolise hope, unity and fellowship across borders and through conflicts. Today, it is the official anthem for the European Union.

    Read more: The 15 most famous tunes in classical music

    Beethoven Symphony No 9 Flashmob in Nuremberg, Germany.

  4. Mahler – Symphony No. 2 (‘Resurrection’)

    This masterful symphony was Mahler’s most loved work during his own lifetime, and an absolute triumph at its premiere. It’s even gained the attention of Hollywood, as the pinnacle scene of Bradley Cooper’s Maestro in 2023.

    Written across a six-year period, Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’ Symphony represents the entire lifecycle of the human condition, ending with a triumphant, supernatural return to life.

    It requires at least 10 French horns, a load of church bells, two soloists and an immense choir, alongside the gargantuan sized symphony orchestra. Suffice to say, as live music experiences go, it’s not one you’ll forget in a hurry.

    Read more: Bradley Cooper says he was ‘levitating above the orchestra’ in surreal Maestro conducting scene

    Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony

  5. Dvořák – Symphony No. 9 (‘From The New World’)

    The subtitle of Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 is important: it’s not ‘To the New World’; it’s ‘From’ – this is very much a symphony that looks back, from the US, to the composer’s native Bohemia.

    It’s one of the most poignant, energetic, elegiac and spiritual symphonies ever composed, with some of the most glorious melodies of all time.

    Neeme Järvi​ and the Verbier Festival​ Orchestra perform Dvorák Symphony No. 9

  6. Berlioz – Symphonie Fantastique

    Is it a symphony? Or a symphonic fantasy or a tone poem? And does its five-movement structure actually take it a step away from the idiom?

    Well – what does matter, is that Berlioz wrote one of the whackiest pieces of music to come out of the Romantic period, while managing to make it a total hit and an artistically sound statement.

    Truly inspiring.

    Berlioz : Symphonie Fantastique (Philharmonique de Radio France / Myung-Whun Chung)

  7. Brahms – Symphony No. 4

    When the dust had settled from Brahms’ first symphony (he was heavily touted in his day as the successor to Beethoven in symphony land), he set about creating one of the most consistent sets of symphonies in history.

    The fourth and final, composed up a mountain in 1884, has to be the best one though, proving to be one of his most emotionally daring works and sealing his reputation as one of the symphonic masters.

    Symphony No. 4 / Johannes Brahms / Klaus Mäkelä / Oslo Philharmonic

  8. Gorecki – Symphony No. 3 (‘Symphony of Sorrowful Songs’)

    A recording phenomenon in the 1990s, Gorecki’s third is not only popular now: it’s destined to be a future classic. The concept is innovative and watertight – a soprano sings three texts inspired by themes of parents and missing children over a sparse and simple orchestral backing – but it’s the second movement that’s proved the real winner.

    The text, taken from a message scrawled on the wall of a Gestapo cell in World War II, dovetails so perfectly with Gorecki’s bare-bones accompaniment that it’s impossible to imagine a future without it.

    Gorecki Symphony of Sorrowful Songs

  9. Shostakovich – Symphony No. 5

    Shostakovich wrote 15 symphonies in total, and he’s unique in that almost all of them made an actual cultural impact.

    But of them all, the fifth has to be considered the greatest: sarcastic and funereal, inflammatory yet somehow managing to toe the party line – the final movement can be seen as both a parody of Stalinist excess, and an example of it – this was the symphony that made the young Shostakovich a name, for better or worse.

    Schostakowitsch: 5. Sinfonie ∙ hr-Sinfonieorchester ∙ David Afkham

  10. Louise Farrenc – Symphony No.3

    Farrenc’s Third is home to one of the most glorious finales in all symphonic repertoire, chocka with tense, agitated strings following a deceptively soft, melodic oboe and clarinet-based introduction.

    Farrenc was unable to attend composition classes at the Paris Conservatoire, as they were only open to men.

    She got her own back though – she had already become the first woman to be appointed professor at the Conservatoire, and later won a campaign against the institution for equal pay compared to her male counterparts.

    Read more: The story of Louise Farrenc is one of the most remarkable in classical music history

    Louise Farrenc's Symphony No. 3 // Aurora Orchestra

  11. William Grant Still – ‘Afro-American’ Symphony No.1

    American composer William Grant Still’s Symphony No.1 weaves influences from jazz and spirituals into a classical form to tell the history, experience and struggle of Black life in America, and was the first work by a Black composer to be played by a major US orchestra.

    Six years after the Rochester Philharmonic performed it in 1931, the composer himself famously conducted it at the Hollywood Bowl.

    Symphony No. 1 “Afro-American Symphony” – William Grant Still

  12. Tchaikovsky – Symphony No. 6 (‘Pathétique’)

    This is undoubtedly one of the most emotionally-charged works in the symphonic repertoire. Supposedly written as a desperate musical example of Tchaikovsky’s struggle with his sexuality and personal life, it conjures the most incredible sense of yearning, nostalgia and regret throughout four movements.

    It must have been an incredible undertaking for the composer, who died just nine days after its first performance.

    Read more: Tchaikovsky, composer of the world’s most uplifting ballets, had crippling self-esteem issues

    Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6 Pathetique | Dresden Philharmonic & Marek Janowski

  13. Rachmaninov – Symphony No. 2

    Rachmaninov’s indulgent second symphony has stealthily become a hugely popular concert favourite. It’s all the more remarkable that it’s survived because the composer himself thought the work was pretty abject.

    The reviews for his first symphony had been terrible and he was nervous about how the follow-up would be received. He needn’t have worried, of course. It became an award-winner, and the slow movement contains perhaps the finest command of melody and orchestration in Rachmaninov’s entire output.

    Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 2 / Vasily Petrenko / Oslo Philharmonic

  14. Sibelius – Symphony No.5

    A triumphant symphony, with an unforgettable final movement which supposedly conveys the majestic call of the whooper swan.

    Conductor Paavo Järvi, a great lover of Sibelius 5, said of the symphony’s unexpected ending, which ends with six massive chords: “It scares audiences who hear it for the first time. After the first chord, usually somebody starts applauding, after the second chord somebody else starts applauding, and when the piece is finished there’s total silence because people are so ashamed that they applauded after the first chord.

    “But if it’s done right and if the timing is right and it’s done with conviction, it could not be more effective. It has an unbelievable sense of inevitability.”

    Sibelius: Symphony No. 5 / P. Järvi · Berliner Philharmoniker

  15. Beethoven – ‘Eroica’ Symphony No.3

    Composed in 1803, this victorious, revolutionary symphony closed the door on the Classical period, and ushered in the early days of the Romantic era. Widely considered the first ‘Romantic’ symphony, it was grander and more dramatic than the symphonies of his contemporaries, and inspired a new style that would hold sway in the 19th century.

    An admirer of the ideals of the French Revolution, Beethoven dedicated the ‘Eroica’ to Napoleon Bonaparte. That is, until Napoleon declared himself emperor, and Beethoven sprang into a rage, scrubbing out his name from the manuscript.

    Beethoven: Symphony No. 3 "Eroica" / Rattle · Berliner Philharmoniker