German and Austrian composers occupy eight of top 10 places in survey of leading conductors by BBC Music magazine
Beethoven’s thrilling, electrifying Eroica, a piece of music originally dedicated to Napoleon and celebrating the revolutionary spirit sweeping Europe, has been named the greatest symphony of all time by the world’s greatest conductors.
BBC Music Magazine surveyed 151 conductors working across the world to come up with a top 20 great symphonies.
The Eroica, Beethoven’s Third Symphony, came in at No 1, followed by his Ninth, the “Choral”, in second place. Mozart’s last symphony, No 41, the “Jupiter”, was in third place while Mahler occupied the next two places with his Ninth and Second symphonies respectively.
Surprisingly, Beethoven’s Fifth, with its instantly recognisable duh-duh-duh-duuuh opening, missed out on a top 10 spot, coming in 11th place.
Oliver Condy, editor of the magazine, admitted it was no great surprise Beethoven dominated the list. “It has been over 200 years since Beethoven’s symphony number three was written and the vote suggests that it has not been improved on in those years, which is remarkable really and is testament to his absolute genius.
“Conductors love conducting it. They love it because there is just so much to it, there is so much happening … that opening is a real punch in the face.”
The British conductor Jonathan Nott, music director of the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra, told the magazine the Eroica was boundary-breaking. “This symphony is not about the glory of God, it’s about humans – our struggles, challenges and victories.
“Later, composers became preoccupied with life’s depressions and bitterness, but I never get that in Beethoven. You come away having experienced the power and joy of being alive.”
The Eroica, written in 1803, was originally destined to be called the Bonaparte, a celebration of Napoleon and all he stood for. Beethoven changed his mind when he heard that Napoleon had declared himself emperor, denouncing him as a tyrant and scrubbing out his name so hard there is a hole in the manuscript.
The Third heralded a new era for the symphony, said Han-Na Chang, chief conductor of the Trondheim Symphony. “He finds his voice and we see who he is.
“The way he works out all the motifs, melodies and themes in such detail, while at the same time maintaining a completely organic development of the emotional message, seems to me unbeatable.”
Condy said he would have predicted that the Ninth, which contains the European Union anthem, Ode to Joy, would have been at No 1. “There is this real joyful sense of brotherhood and unity, which is interesting of course in these Brexit times.”
Mahler is represented three times with his Second, Third and Ninth Symphonies; the Ninth has a beautifully slow final movement.
In third place is Mozart’s last symphony, No 41, while his arguably more popular 40th is at No 15.
“I’m not sure why the conductors don’t find it as alluring,” said Condy. “But don’t forget we are talking about people who know the symphonies inside out, they really get inside the works, the structure, the textures and orchestrations.”
The top 10 is completed by Brahms’s Fourth Symphony (6th); Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique (7th); Brahms’s First Symphony (8th); Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony (9th ); and Mahler’s Third Symphony (10).
The most recent work on the list is Shostakovich’s Symphony No 5, ranked at 17. It was written in 1937, a time of great personal crisis for the composer after the state denunciation for his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.
The absence of more recently written symphonies is down to fashion, said Condy. “Composers don’t tend to write symphonies these days, they are mostly shorter orchestral pieces with titles.”
Each conductor was asked to name his or her top three symphonies in any order before the magazine processed that into a top 20. Among the conductors polled was Simon Rattle (Beethoven’s Third, Bruckner’s Eighth, Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde), Marin Alsop (Barber’s First, Brahms’s Third, Mahler’s Second), who last year conducted Last Night of the Proms, and Sakari Oramo (Beethoven’s Third, Mahler’s Third, Sibelius’s Fifth), who will do so this year.
The BBC Music Magazine top 10
- Beethoven Symphony No 3 (1803)
- Beethoven Symphony No 9 (1824)
- Mozart Symphony No 41 (1788)
- Mahler Symphony No 9 (1909)
- Mahler Symphony No 2 (1894 rev 1903)
- Brahms Symphony No 4 (1885)
- Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique (1830)
- Brahms Symphony No 1 (1876)
- Tchaikovsky Symphony No 6 (1893)
- Mahler Symphony No 3 (1896)
The top 20 is in the September issue of BBC Music Magazine.