The Real Top 20 C Major Symphonies of All Time

C major. The white keys on the piano.

The Symphony has been good to C major, and C major has been good to the symphony, even though there are no Brahms, Mahler or Bruckner symphonies officially in C. Brahms 1 ends in C major (as does Beethoven 5 and Bruckner’s 8th) and C major is hugely important in Mahler’s 7th Symphony (it ends there) and Das Lied von der Erde. Still, even without Brahms, Mahler and Bruckner, C major has given us some of the greatest symphonies in the literature.

C major is where we all started when we took our first piano lessons. Perhaps this is why it is so often a key in which great composers come full circle, summing up their life’s work in the genre, as did Schubert, Mozart and Sibelius. It’s apparent simplicity can be a perfect metaphor for innocence, like the innocence that is totally and utterly shattered in the course of Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony. It can be festive or it can be suffused with struggle.

What is your favorite C major Symphony? Do let us know.

20- Mozart- Symphony no. 34

The brief on Mozart is that the earlier mature symphonies have the freshest musical ideas, and the later ones use and develop musical ideas with much more profound craftsmanship. His last 3 symphonies in C major are a perfect example- No. 34 has the freshest and most entrancing tunes, the Jupiter is possibly the greatest tour-de-force of compositional technique in symphonic history, made all the more impressive because the “tunes” aren’t all that interesting. No. 36 (the “Linz”) is probably somewhere in between on both counts.

19- Haydn- Symphony no. 63 “Roxelane”

Frankly, I could have filled the entire top 10 of this list with Haydn symphonies, but I decided to show pity on the other guys.  There’s no particular reason why Roxelane should be the lowest of the Haydn’s, except I got to know it through the rather cold-blooded Orpheus recording, which I never really warmed to.

18- Haydn- Symphony no. 41

Some of the best advice I ever got about Haydn came from my good friend and colleague David Hoose. He said that it’s a huge mistake that everyone starts their exploration of Haydn with the London symphonies because by that point his language had become so sophisticated and polished that a less-than-expert listener can miss most of the felicities and surprises. The symphonies from the mid-20’s to the 50’s tend to be more rough-and-ready and all things considered, have more immediate impact for a lot of modern listeners. This piece is a great place to get to know what Haydn means by C major. I love the last movement!

17- Bizet- Symphony in C.

It’s a wonderful and charming piece, and quite a roast up for the violins. Its light and breezy character masks the fact that it is a huge undertaking for any orchestra. If you hear it played well, please clap loudly for the poor first fiddles. They probably endured some trying rehearsals.

15 and 16- Prokofiev- Symphony no. 4

Prokofiev fashioned this incredible work using musical ideas from his ballet The Prodigal Son. There are actually two very different versions of the piece, op 47 and op 112. Both are cool.

14- Stravinsky- Symphony in C

Pure genius- we tend to think of Stravinsky as ballet composer, but his forays into the symphony are pure gold.

13- Dukas- Symphony in C

Dukas? Isn’t he the Sorcerer’s Apprentice guy? Dukas is the one composer who makes Brahms look like he lacked the last ounce of self-criticism. Dukas was so self-critical that he only allowed about fourteen pieces to see the light of day. The upshot is that all of them are pretty darned good.  His Symphony is a masterpiece, but not easy to play- it’s especially demanding for the horns. It’s the only piece I ever saw the Cincinnati Symphony horn section ask for a break during rehearsal. Serious stuff, but incredibly enjoyable.

12- Schubert -Symphony no. 9 “The Great”

One of the most influential symphonies ever written, it had a huge impact on Schumann, Bruckner and Brahms. It seems to strike fear into the hearts of orchestral musicians and audience members in equal measure. It does, however, more than live up to its nickname, and remains one of the most important symphonies ever written, casing a long shadow on the music of later German masters.

11- Schubert- Symphony no. 6

Perverse as it seems to place this charming but slight, rather- Rossini-esque work higher in the pantheon than the “Great,” the 6th is a work that needs more advocacy, and it is charming, funny and effective. So, here it is.

10- Stravinsky- Symphony in 3 Movements

Although it ends with a D-flat major chord, Stravinsky’s wartime masterpiece fits the legal definition of a symphony in C major, making his Symphony in C the second best symphony in C he wrote. I love this piece and never tire of it, but it’s been way too long since I conducted it.

9- Mozart- Symphony no. 36 “Linz”

Not only is Mozart 36 one of the greatest symphonies in C major ever written, it’s one of the greatest pieces of music written in less than the time it takes leftover Chinese food to go off in the fridge (four days!).  Check out Carlos Kleiber’s DVD performance with the Vienna Philharmonic. Heaven.

8- Sibelius- Symphony no. 3

A true watershed in symphonic music, and one of the most revolutionary symphonies written after Haydn, this piece marked a huge breakthrough and change of direction after Sibelius’ much-loved Second Symphony.  In this short, modestly scored and slightly understated work, Sibelius reinvents the post-Beethoven-ian symphonic model, trading closure for culmination, clarity for concision, epic drama for focused intensity. The sheer range of musical ideas and styles is awe-inspiring, from the folksy good-humor of the opening to the disjunct weirdness which opens the third movement. Sibelius would go on to develop all of the threads in this remarkable piece further in the four works that would follow it, but none of them could have been written had he not written this one first.

7- Haydn- Symphony no. 82 “Bear”

A truly inspired work, even by the Master’s standards. An incredibly beautiful slow movement, and the Finale is pure genius. And it is good to name a symphony after the mighty Ursus family. Did I mention the Finale? It’s the perfect Haydnesque balance of irresistibly catchy tunes, musical sophistication and wit. Better than Schubert 9? Better than Stravinsky’s two masterpieces in the key? Yup. It’s really that good.

6- Beethoven- Symphony no. 1

Beethoven’s first essay in the symphonic genre is sometimes overshadowed by his later works, but not on this list.

 

Now, we come to the top 5 symphonies in C Major, and the competition here becomes absurdly intense.  Between them you could make a good case they make a credible “Top 5 Symphonies of All-time, never mind the key.” All five have a legitimate claim to the top spot on this list.

 

5- Haydn- Symphony no. 60 “Il Distratto”

It’s the funniest and most modern work on this list, possibly the funniest and most modern symphony ever written. Haydn uses most of the 20th c “isms” in this piece- surrealism, absurdism, modernism, poly-stylism, and hops effortlessly between tightly integrated symphonic argument and rapid-fire cinematic jump-cutting. This is Haydn at his absolute boldest- he undermines every expectation, and re-examines every possible assumption about music.

4- Sibelius- Symphony no. 7

A watershed in musical history, a work with no real peers. This is music in which the composer’s quest for concentration, coherence and intensity is taken as far as it can possibly go.  But that is not why Sibelius 7 is one of the greatest pieces of music ever written- it holds that status because it is so imaginative, so moving, so inspiring and so compelling.

3- Shostakovich- Symphony no. 7 “Leningrad”

At first glance, a more drastic contrast with Sibelius 7 is hard to imagine. Where the Sibelius is concise, the Shostakovich is gargantuan, where Sibelius has boiled down every gesture to its essential primal essence, Shostakovich has stretched every possibility to its maximum potential. Sibelius 7 was written for a chamber orchestra of about 40 players, Shostakovich 7 is often done with two full symphony orchestras. By the end of all of Sibelius 7, you’ve still got about 8 minutes left in the first movement of Shostakovich 7.

Sadly many Sibelius fans wouldn’t put Shostakovich 7 anywhere on this list, let alone above the Sibelius, and a regrettable  number of Shostakovich fans think Sibelius is “muddy.” The two works may pursue almost diametrically opposed aesthetic aims, but the intensity  and inspiration with which they pursue those aims is very similar. Both take their material as far as it can possibly go, just in very different directions.

Ultimately, it’s impossible to say which is the more remarkable piece of music, but Shostakovich’s Seventh is a more “public” work in the very best sense of the word.  For the good it has done for humanity in times of desperate need, I rate it that tiny bit higher.

 

2- Mozart- Symphony no. 41 “Jupiter”

Well, what can say about this apotheosis of symphonic music? The whole work is a delight, but owes its special place in musical history to the Finale- a contrapuntal tour de force unlike any other work of any epoch.  Mozart pushes the possibilities of counterpoint, that most intellectual of musical techniques, so far that he creates a sort of spiritual ecstasy, a pure, rapturous joy in the intoxicating abundance of idea and process.

The symphony is also fascinating for the way in which it anticipates the sort of cyclic processes that would become so important to Schumann and Schubert and all later symphonists. The seeds of the Finale are already there in the Symphony’s opening, and the theme is heard in its full glory in the 3rd movement.

 

1- Schumann- Symphony no. 2

On first glance, I’m sure some music lovers will see this piece in the coveted number one spot and think it is obviously the desperate act of a guy who has to sell a recording he just made of the piece next year. Not so.  The juxtaposition with the Jupiter is more apt than one might think- although commentators often compare this work to Beethoven 5 (and there are important parallels and references in play), Schumann himself cited two main influences- Schubert’s Great C major Symphony and Mozart’s 41st. In fact, Schumann called his own C Major Symphony “quite a Jupiter.” And so it is- similarly inspired and similarly learned. Both works are love-letters to Bach and to the communicative power of counterpoint.

So, how on Earth can I justify claiming that Schumann’s opus 62 surpasses Mozart’s masterpiece, a work many critics consider the greatest symphony ever written? Both works are full of contrapuntal felicities to boggle the mind, but the Mozart is, for all its greatness, not without flaws. Some of the first movement of the Jupiter is a bit too formulaic “C major trumpet and drums” music, and its not his most harmonically inspired movement by any measure. And, even though the Finale is probably, all-in-all, the most impressive movement of symphonic music I know, I find the last few bars disappointing. The famous Coda, where Mozart gets all 6 themes going at once, promises a more inspired ending than the slightly standard-issue last 8 bars.

The Finale of the Schumann is similarly exalted (although not quite as jaw-droppingly contrapuntal), and Schumann’s inspiration carries through to the very end, when the solo timpani switches from triple to duple meter in the last 3 bars. The tension between tripled and duple meter is one of the threads that Schumann explores from the very beginning of the work, and his ending is that tiny bit more remarkable than Mozart’s because where Mozart breaks off from the symphonic process and attaches an “ending,” Schumann’s ending is the perfect, inescapable, totally organic result of all the intellectual, musical and emotional processes that have been at work throughout the piece. The more one studies Schumann 2, the more one is struck by how perfectly it balances intensity of emotion with structural depth- things don’t just “work” or move us for one reason, but for many layers of reasons. Surprises are more surprising because once we experience them, we come to understand that the result in question was always inescapable, and yet Schumann, the greatest master of misdirection after Haydn, only reveals this inevitability after the fact. It may not be the greatest symphony ever written, but it is the greatest Symphony in C Major ever written.

 

 

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

All material in these pages is protected by copyright.

27 comments on “The Real Top 20 C Major Symphonies of All Time”

  1. Lev Parikian

    Well I wouldn’t have expected you to be predictable. Personal disagreement re Schumann 2 aside, this is a really interesting and thoughtful list. It contains a couple I don’t know well enough, and one I don’t know at all (no prizes for guessing which one). But I’m disturbed that you put Leningrad ahead of Sibelius 7 (yes yes I know you acknowledge it in the note, but even so…) and even more so that Bizet beats Haydn.
    But that’s what lists do – create division and debate. Nice one.
    *goes to iTunes – makes C major symphonies playlist*

  2. Kenneth Woods

    @Lev Parikian

    Thanks, Lev. Of course, you are totally right about Haydn versus Bizet. All the Haydn symphonies are better than the Bizet. I just thought people might be more likely to read the whole list if I mixed it up a bit more.

    And Shostakovich 7 is REALLY good if you don’t rush the ending…

  3. Peter M

    No 1 no surprise! Glad Prok 4 got 2 slots. Can I add Weber 1 to your list please? (performing next Sat!) It’s pretty cool 🙂

  4. Brian Hughes

    Oh Kenneth, add the Brahms! It’s magnificent final movement (in C-major of course) certainly makes it worthy of inclusion. I did enjoy seeing all of the Haydn symphonies you mentioned; he remains, in my mind, the single most underrated composer of them all. Of course, his works are well known to conductors, but they certainly do not show up often enough on concert programs–especially his earlier works, which are, as you state, filled with humor and often the rustic flavor of the Hungarian countryside, where he spent many a year with his patron.

    As for Haydn being better than Bizet, that may be a valid point, but one must remember that Bizet wrote his symphony at the ripe old age of 17, and clearly outdid the symphonic efforts of his teacher, Gounod.

    While I am unsure that I would rate Schumann 2 as the greatest, it is worthy of high praise. Like his other symphonic contributions, I have become significantly more enamored through lengthy study and performance. It is truly a “romantic” symphony in every definition of the word.

  5. Peter

    Is Mahler 7 a C major symphony? It aspires to be one.

    Wagner’s Meistersinger is like a vast C major symphony too, but I realise that would be stretching a point.

    If you include Brahms 1 then also you would have to include Beethoven 5 and Bruckner 8. Perhaps you need to add the top 10 C minor symphonies ending in C major.

    Not sure I would give the crown to Schumann though. The Jupiter and and Schubert 9 would have the edge in my view.

  6. Kenneth Woods

    @Peter

    Of course, Wagner did write a Symphony in C major (his only symphony). I covered it for Jesus Lopez-Cobos when I was at the Cincinnati Symphony- he’s very fond of it and does it often. It certainly shows how much he owed to Mendelssohn, and what he lacked that Mendelssohn always had. Meistersinger as symphony- now that I like!

    Mendelssohn 1 and Schubert 4 could join the list of C minor symphonies ending in C major. Maybe we need a face-off between the top 10 C minor symphonies and top 10 C major symphonies. Which is the stronger team….

  7. Kenneth Woods

    Top C minor Symphonies ending in C major

    1- Brahms 1
    2- Beethoven 5
    3- Bruckner 8
    4- Shostakovich 8
    5- Bruckner 1 and 2
    6- Mendelssohn 1
    7- Schubert 4
    8- Haydn 95
    9- Haydn 78
    10- Magnard 1

    Could they beat the top 10 C major symphonies?

  8. Peter

    @Kenneth Woods
    I’d go with your top 3.

    Mahler 2 doesn’t end in C major but must be one of the best ever C minor symphonies. If it had ended in C major it would have been too worldly. C major is very much about celebration in this world rather than the next. That makes the case for Mahler 7 as a genuine C major symphony, but perhaps the most paradoxical of them all.

  9. Elaine Fine

    I have to put Jupiter on the very top, and I would follow it with the Haydn “distratto” and then the Bizet, but that’s because those are three of my favorite symphonies in any key. This post and these comments have been fun to read.

  10. Brian Linnell

    What a great article Kenneth! (Though while I have great respect for Haydn, I suspect he’s probably over-represented on your list.) I’ve posted a link to it on the A Year in Classical Music Facebook page — please pay my site a a visit if you haven’t. I do a blog and podcast about music history and classical recordings called A Year in Classical Music, at http://www.ayicm.com.

  11. peeyaj

    Any objective classical music fan would never place Schumann’s 2nd on this list. Mozart’s Jupiter and Schubert’s Great are some of the greatest symphonies ever written and it beats Schumann’s symphony in form, orchestration and innovation. Why would you place Schumann, a composer with issues with his muddy orchestration skills (can’t orchestrate in paper bag) to any of these masterpieces. You must be joking, right?

  12. Kenneth Woods
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  14. peeyaj

    Thanks for the resources. But first, I am going to dissect your ridiculous comment:


    Now, we come to the top 5 symphonies in C Major, and the competition here becomes absurdly intense. Between them you could make a good case they make a credible “Top 5 Symphonies of All-time, never mind the key.” All five have a legitimate claim to the top spot on this list.”

    For this, I am going to refer to DDD’s list of Greatest Symphonies in Classical Music” found here http://www.digitaldreamdoor.com/pages/best-classic-symp.html. I think this is more objective than this “one-man” list.

    Here are the top ten symphonies in C major. The number on the end are the placings of the symphonies in the DDD list.

    1. Symphony No. 41 in C major “Jupiter – Mozart(5)

    2. Symphony No. 9 in C major “The Great” – Schubert(9)

    3. Symphony No. 7 in C major – Jean Sibelius (57)

    4. Symphony No. 36 in C major “Linzer” – (78)

    5. Symphony No. 2 in C major – Robert Schumann (85)

    6. Symphony in C major – Georges Bizet (87)

    7. Symphony No. 4 in C major “Poem of Ecstasy” – Alexander Scriabin ( 89)

    8. Symphony No. 1 in C major – Ludwig Van Beethoven ( 92)

    9. Symphony No. 7 in C major “Leningrad” – Dmitri Shostakovich 92

    10. Symphony No. 3 in C major – Jean Sibelius ( 95)

    Jupiter and the Great C Major placed inside the top ten of the greatest symphonies in any key. Your number 1, Schumann’s second is on the bottom of the barrel at number 85. With the exception of the Jupiter, your top 5 are in the bottom of the list. Haydn’s 60 is not even on the DDD’s list! I can post the TalkClassical Greatest symphony list, but I think it would be too much..

    Perusing your site, I found that you are a great advocate of Robert Schumann. Honestly, I like some of Schumann’s music (the piano concerto is amazing), but this list (in putting Schumann at the top) is just plain wrong.

    We have our own opinion, but it is fair to say that the general consensus among classical music fans, “great” maybe is Schumann’s second, it would never approach the ranks of either Mozart’s or Schubert’s symphony.

  15. Kenneth Woods

    Peeyaj

    I find it interesting that my list of C major symphonies, particularly the presence of the Schumann in the no. 1 spot, seems to upset you so much. Did you learn your disdain of Schumann from someone very close to you? The only real point of an exercise like this is to entertain and enlighten. I’ve obviously not entertained you, and if you haven’t gotten your money’s worth, I can only offer my apology. You don’t seem to want to be enlightened. Quite the opposite- it seems that this list is in some way undermining a received wisdom (perhaps from your DDD website linked above?), and that actually upsets you. I am sorry for any distress caused.

    If I encounter a colleague or friend praising a piece I don’t know or never got, my first instinct is always to think “hmm- if he/she thinks that’s the greatest piece ever, I must have missed something. Time to get the score out!” Any of the many lists on this blog are presented primarily to encourage that spirit of curiosity and discovery. We have a saying in my family- you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. Consider yourself led to the water of Schumann and Haydn.

    I’m sure your own list would remain different than mine, but if you spend some time and energy exploring music you don’t understand, your life as a listener would be greatly enriched, which is the sole point of the exercise.

    Thanks again for your comments

    KW

  16. peeyaj

    The “Real” Top 20 C Major Symphonies of All Time

    Maybe if you never posted “Real” in the subject, and instead “according to my tastes”.

    Here:

    http://www.talkclassical.com/12443-tc-150-most-recommended.html

    Schumann’s 2nd is nowhere found in the list. If I’m going to rank the Schumann’s symphonies, it would be:

    Symphony No. 3 ‘Rhenish’
    Symphony No. 1 ‘Spring
    Symphony No. 4
    Symphony No. 2

    It is unfortunate that you have chosen his weakest symphony, in my opinion. At least have the decency to put the Great C Major in the top 5, a work that influenced Schumann in writing his second.

    And not posting this kind of comments:

    “Perverse as it seems to place this charming but slight, rather- Rossini-esque work higher in the pantheon than the “Great,”

  17. Lev Parikian

    Hey Kenny, you got yourself a fight here, aintcha? Imma get me some popcorn and sit back to enjoy round 3. ;-))

  18. Andy

    I think the Talk-Classical website, as referred to by “peeyaj”, is mainly for children,isn’t it?

  19. peeyaj

    When you are posting comments like these:

    “A true watershed in symphonic music, and one of the most revolutionary symphonies written after Haydn”

    “It’s the funniest and most modern work on this list, possibly the funniest and most modern symphony ever written…his is Haydn at his absolute boldest- he undermines every expectation, and re-examines every possible assumption about music.”

    “Frankly, I could have filled the entire top 10 of this list with Haydn symphonies, but I decided to show pity on the other guys. There’s no particular reason why Roxelane should be the lowest of the Haydn’s, except I got to know it through the rather cold-blooded Orpheus recording, which I never really warmed to.”

    “It may not be the greatest symphony ever written, but it is the greatest Symphony in C Major ever written.”

    Be prepared to handle the criticisms and backup your assertions. Pardon, but it all sound “pretentiousness” to me.

    And:

    http://www.talkclassical.com/20044-real-top-20-c.html

  20. Joseph Low

    Thank you for your enlightening list – I have most of the listed 20 pieces – I enjoy classical music although I do not read or play music – but am always ready to be guided by professionals

    The challenge for me is to listen to those listed that I have not yet experienced and to discover and understand why they merit your list – that for me is fun and enjoyment of the ‘new’ music

    Bizet’s C is my favorite – I was delighted it made your list

    Best Regards / Joseph Low

  21. prospero55

    Schubert’s 9th symphony only placed 12th ??? I think it is a joke. It is now recognized as one of the greatest works in the Western music…

  22. Kenneth Woods

    Thanks for your comment,
    The 12th greatest C major symphony of all time seems like pretty high praise to me. I’d be thrilled to be in the top 10, 000.

    What would you swap it with?

    KW

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  24. Andrew Raiskums

    Hi Kenneth,
    I was reading this list and thinking to myself ‘Schumann 2 HAS to be here!’ so I was delighted to see that it was number one. I adore it. Loved your comment about the violins grappling with the Bizet- I always feel for the violins in the Scherzo of Schumann 2 (also at un poco più vivace in the intro) and I’m not sure if you’ve noticed but there are commercial recordings (some even high profile ones) where the violins clearly can’t manage these sections of the work. The ‘memory’ of the opening motto that appears towards the end of the last movement…..so original and so profound.

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