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.