Ranked: Beethoven's Symphonies
Ludwig van Beethoven is one of the world's most renowned and revered classical composers in all of human history. After hearing bits of his work in passing across all 23 years of my life, one fateful day in the very early hours of a Friday morning, I woke up from a dream and couldn't go back to sleep. I stared at the black sky and the small array of stars that were no match for the light pollution of the city, and put on Beethoven's 9th. What transpired was an experience I will never forget and it catalyzed me to listen to all of Beethoven's symphonies in full over the course of the following days.
But we wouldn't be in the modern age without a ranking list for all of the internet to create discourse over. So, here is my ranking of all of Beethoven's symphonies.
#9 – Symphony 1
Peter Pan is a children’s classic that has been adapted to many mediums over the years, the ballet being one of them. Tinkerbell, who has seen solo adaptations on screen, has yet to make that same crossover to the ballet world. If, by some strike of genius, Tinkerbell does make to the ballet stage as a solo story, this symphony, particularly the first movement, Adagio molto – Allegro con brio, could very easily become synonymously named The Tinkerbell Theme. Though it starts off tentative, what ends up unfolding is a romantic and youthful daydream full of mischief and naivety—innocence. It would be akin to a scene in a period drama where soft, Tuesday afternoon sun washes the rose garden in pale, yellow light. The women are having afternoon tea in their puffy gowns, and the children aged anywhere from 12 to 16, are getting up to no good, playing pranks, and their gaudy laughter gets one of the women to check on the group from time to time, telling them children are to be seen and not heard.
That odd twinge of childhood innocence is peppered all over this symphony and can’t be masked, not even by the boisterous and bold machinations of the present, coming out of the nostalgia as one faces the frontier ahead. The brashness that shoves its way to the foreground is like a youth fresh out of high school who thinks they know everything and thinks they are an adult so they go headstrong into peril because they have the confidence backed only by innocence and naivety, but objectively, they—signified by the piece—lack depth. There seems to be two main aspects to this symphony though: how the adolescent views their future, and how the adolescent views the object of their affection. One can argue they they’re one in the same but I’ll describe them separately.
There’s a cognitive dissonance between what is there, and what isn’t. Because as most people understand it, the future is unknown, it allows the adolescent to envision whatever they want—create expectations that are so fanciful, they can be a hero, or a conqueror. They can be blanketed by fame and adoration, be seen, exalted—recognized and powerful. But the reality is that they’re tentative, shy, as signified by reserved moments of romanticism in the piece. It’s quiet, secretive almost. Like when talking to your first real crush who develops into your first love. Stumbling over words, your heart beating fast in the face of shame or embarrassment over finding the right things to say. Wanting so badly to reach out and touch the other person but not having the gusto to do it. The adolescent sways between wanting to appear capable to those who look to him by projecting machismo onto the future, and battling his blatant inexperience internally.
The entire symphony is a declaration of the capability of youth, the jovial bravado of wishful thinking—perhaps even delusion, but only time could tell. Moments of doubt and apprehension don’t last long, and the answer is always to do it anyway because what could go wrong and I have to get this right. The symphony is as follows:
Movement I – Adagio molto – Allegro con brio: The Awakening of the Youthful Dream / The Declaration of Independence.
Movement II – Andante cantabile con moto: I’m Still A Kid and You Can Tell By The Way I Handle My Love Life.
Movement III – Menuetto. Allegro molto e vivace – My Actions Have Consequences and I’m Ngl, I Have No Idea What’s Going On.
Movement IV – Adagio -- Allegro molto e vivace – I Know Nothing but I’m Excited to Figure It Out
If this symphony were condensed into a pop song, it would be I’m Not A Girl Not Yet A Women by Britney Spears, but not after the boisterous and brash musings of When I Grow Up by The Pussycat Dolls. It is worth noting that Beethoven would’ve been around 24 around the time he finished penning this one, so perhaps younger when he started. Fitting.
Overall Listening Experience: Quickly understood what I going to get out of it within the first couple of minutes, then started to get annoyed because we get it you vape, and then I was kind of just waiting for it to be over but was pleasantly surprised by…
Favourite Movement: Movement III - Menuetto. Allegro molto e vivace
#8 – Symphony 3
“We’re going on a trip in our favourite rocket ship—zooming through the sky, Little Einsteins.” We open up in the premise that we’re on a new adventure and the protagonist is ready to take on the world but if it wasn’t for the very Harry Potter-esque passages in the opening movement providing that nice sprinkle of mystery, I would’ve hated this piece from the jump. The moment of elation and excitement is held a little too long that it starts to feel tiresome but we’re rescued by the beautiful—and I mean absolutely gorgeous moment of meditation provided by the second movement. This piece is a train ride, a journey to a destination.
In fact, this whole symphony illustrates that journey of transition. Where you’ve made your personal changes based off of your lessons, and you’re now being brought to where you now have to act upon your maturity. By the end of the piece, that ignoramus bravado that was present throughout the first symphony shows up again, presenting a protagonist standing in his full power—or so he thinks. The audience is left to think that there are more mistakes yet to come that the protagonist doesn’t see, but will let him have his moment after struggling so hard to test the waters in his new environment. The symphony is as follows:
Movement I - Allegro con brio: All Aboard The Hogwarts Express
Movement II - Marcia funebre: Adagio assai: Long Train Rides Call for Moments of Deep Reflection
Movement III - Scherzo: Allegro vivace: Getting Acquainted
Movement IV - Finale: Allegro molto: Dipping Toes in The Water
Overall Listening Experience: Kind of boring. I didn’t feel the magic the themes of this piece could have the potential to entice like in the Philosopher’s Stone which I referenced earlier. This could’ve had the same wistful magic of the moment Harry Potter found out he was a wizard. But no.
Favourite Movement: Movement II - Marcia funebre: Adagio assai
#7 – Symphony 4
The era is steampunk and there’s a war on the horizon. The cobblestone streets are glistening with the golden light of the low storefronts from the perpetual rain that rusts every street light, every iron fence, and every train bridge across the city hooded by dark cloud cover. The night would draw the long shadows of stray cats, and our protagonist who’s now firmly a young adult is witnessing the true horrors of man. There’s a comical, mad-genius quality to his musings, as if his eyes being opened to the dark side of humanity connects him to the darkness within himself. The primal barriers between being civilized and being animalistic. And thus our protagonist flirts with insanity.
This piece lacks any kind of direction or statement, and is more about the emotional experience of exploring the depths of the psyche—as one does growing up—and understands the ways of human existence. There’s a bit of fantasy and delusion, but more so in the sense of romanticizing the ugly attributes of being human, rather than an aggrandizement of one’s capabilities. The artistic decisions as a result make the sound of this symphony incredibly disjointed—startling in some places, in the change of tone, and while that isn’t inherently bad, beautiful motifs are ditched before they’re fleshed out to be replaced with … ugly.
Because of the foundation that was laid in the opening movement, particularly in the first minute or so, I was expecting this symphony to have possibly my favourite movement (as I listened to the symphonies in chronological order) yet, but alas, that did not happen. In fact, I was so disappointed that not only did that not happen, but that I didn’t actually like any of the movements as a whole despite having to pick the “best” one for the sake of this ranking. At the beginning of the third movement, I was holding out hope that the fourth could be the home run I was looking for but by the time I got there, I was just ready for this thing to be over. The symphony is as follows:
Movement I – Adagio - Allegro vivace: The Horrors of Man Are Maddening and I’m Loving Every Second Of It
Movement II – Adagio: The Beauty of Life Is That It’s Gray (Gray Is The Warmest Colour)
Movement III – Allegro vivace: Hello Aimless, My Old Friend
Movement IV – Allegro ma non troppo: The Sound of the Canons Has Brought Me Out Of My Fog
Overall Listening Experience: A pendulum swing of emotions that irritated me. There were brief moments of happiness swiftly followed by gripping moments of passionate anger for Beethoven’s work. This was … a mess.
Favourite Movement: Movement II – Adagio
#6 – Symphony 5
This is a grown man now. All that bravado from the first symphony is now mature. It’s dignified, statuesque. It now has authority and presence, like a cub having grown into a powerful lion. The people that rejected and critiqued him before for not being grown, now do double takes as they see him, unable to rationalize the fact that this is the friend they knew in their youth who talked too much and far too brashly about things he couldn’t possibly do. And now here he is, accomplished, with a sobriety only the confidence from those accomplishments can grant him. Hardened and molded by life, any sense of romanticism is polished, like a playboy bachelor who is finished having fun and is ready to devote all his romantic expertise to the partner of his dreams; regal, sophisticated, and challenging. And boy is our protagonist struck by something. The second movement is an absolute daydream—being chased through groomed hedges of the elaborate rose garden, standing out back on the grand veranda to survey the day, the fountain in time with the birds. But of course, with age and accomplishment also comes the stagnation of middle age and the question of if this is it—if this is all there is. The proverbial turning point for the true moments of genius to follow later in life. The symphony is as follows:
Movement I – Allegro con brio: New Phone Who Dis?
Movement II – Andante con moto: Where Have You Been All My Life?
Movement III – Scherzo: Allegro: So, This Is Normality (The Lull of the Middle Age)
Movement IV – Allegro: The Fear of Existentialism
Overall Listening Experience: The fact that the first movement is incredibly overplayed made it difficult to connect to the piece without the influence of all the other mediums I’ve heard this be associated with. Once I got passed that though, I was generally slightly disengaged for the majority of this one except for …
Favourite Movement: Movement II – Andante con moto
#5 – Symphony 7
There’s a marveling at life, perhaps in retrospect here. There’s a sense of nearing an end. A melancholy dowsed in gratitude. It’s the moment of realization that you’re about to begin the final act. You’re elated because you’re tired and the endurance required of you to get this far has been more than demanding, but you’re sad because despite the chaos and the stress, you’ve had fun and you don’t want it to end. But you can’t stop time, nor can you pause it, and so you surrender with the mature acceptance that this is everybody’s journey, and look forward to how it’ll all wrap up and all the things you’ll take with you into the afterlife. The symphony is as follows:
Movement I – Poco sostenuto – Vivace: It Almost Doesn’t Feel Real How The Time Has Passed
Movement II – Allegretto: What Does This Mean For The Time I Have Left?
Movement III – Presto – Assai meno presto: The Bucket List
Movement IV – Allegro con brio: Time Is An Illusion
Overall Listening Experience: As the second movement is a very recognizable Beethoven piece, it was difficult to pay attention as I anxiously awaited what is my favourite Beethoven symphony movement of all time (even though I rank it as #2 in the bonus list below). However, while I can appreciate the themes this symphony explored, sonically my expectations for the piece in its entirety were too high, despite it still being good.
Favourite Movement: Movement II - Allegretto
#4 – Symphony 6
“You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the end.” There’s a sense of renewal here, seeing the world with fresh new eyes, almost as if having a child. There’s a parental aspect to the protagonist, or at least, the protagonist has some kind of teacher or mentor role as he reacquaints himself with the world to sift out the lessons worth passing on, appreciating things he’s taken for granted, and revisiting things he has overlooked, reaching new heights of joy, and perhaps contentment. This symphony is far more softer than any of his previous symphonies and for once is not so much focused on the protagonist but on the people the protagonist cares about. This is almost an ode to the glory of the people the protagonist loves, exalting them, cherishing both their presence and the memories he shares with them. The symphony is as follows:
Movement I – Allegro ma non troppo: This Way Little Duckling
Movement II – Andante molto mosso: I Enjoy Life By Watching You Enjoy Life
Movement III – Allegro: Your Curiosity Enlivens Me
Movement IV – Allegro: And Your Perils Are Now My Perils
Movement V – Allegretto: An Ode to You
Overall Listening Experience: The first two movements are stronger than the last three and so what started out as incredibly pleasurable—an experience blanked by love, compassion and care—dissolved into an experience of practicing patience as the momentum of those emotions started to fade.
Favourite Movement: Movement II – Andante molto mosso
#3 – Symphony 8
There’s nothing more surreal than when you’re walking down the street and do a double take: “That wasn’t there before,” and you’re left to reckon with the passage of time and the development—or perhaps the evolution of the places you once knew. Streets in a city that had been parts of your identity are now places you have to reacquaint yourself with, as that backdrop that used to exist only does so in your memory. And you see your reflection in the busy shop’s window; see all the things time has done to your features. The kids have grown up, and by golly, so have their kids. Odd considering you still feel just as alive, just as present, maybe even just as youthful as when you were a kid.
This symphony walks us through the mindscape of a solitary protagonist, having grown into a wallflower. The only person still and perceptive enough to watch the sunlight ride the waves of the ripples in the still lake disturbed by paddling ducks and swans. In having seen where we’ve been and where we are, the protagonist swells at the thought of the future, the prospects for the evolution of our race too large to grasp but all-enveloping nonetheless. But this perceptiveness also breeds caution and anxiety, being able to recognize patterns that will create destruction later on—seeing the flaws of humanity repeat themselves; becoming wiser to the parts of our society that we cannot escape. The symphony is as follows:
Movement I – Allegro vivace e con brio: New Faces, Same Stories
Movement II – Allegretto scherzando: I Might Be A Little Too Old For This
Movement III – Tempo di menuetto: The Observer
Movement IV – Allegro vivace: But At Least The Story of Us Is Worth A Celebration
Overall Listening Experience: The imagery was vivid and while the sound and interpretations of the themes show Beethoven’s maturity, there’s a sense that the revelations can be bigger. Not everything that is meant to be known, is known yet, so it feels slightly incomplete or hollow. Leaves a little to be desired because of that.
Favourite Movement: Movement III - Tempo di menuetto
#2 – Symphony 2
In 1995, Michael Jackson released HIStory, an album that was his response to the way his life had been torn apart and changed forever. To promote the album, he had nine, massive 32-foot statues made of himself, one of which he floated along on the Thames, and with that, a militant, angry, betrayed, and unhinged Michael was presented to the public, shattering his idealistic, “boy wonder” persona. This symphony is akin to that with the once hopelessly naive adolescent shedding his romanticism—or rather, surrendering it to the harshness of reality.
Though there is a sorrow woven through the piece, it’s a type of sorrow that will seem youthful in retrospect. We’re shown the broken heart of a child, where the emotions are blown out of proportion, moments of pity following the musings of feeling wronged by the world. A child screams wondering how it’s supposed to get better, not yet knowing this is in fact how it’s supposed to go—a lesson everyone must learn.
This symphony is absolutely beautiful, and while the opening movement really took my breath away in presenting the clouds rolling in to block out the sun, I have to give the fourth movement its flowers because holy heaven there are some beautiful passages in that part of the symphony. One is wiser, one is strengthened, and one is better equipped for the real journey of adulthood. The symphony is as follows:
Movement I – Adagio molto – Allegro con brio: Reality’s Popped My Bubble
Movement II – Larghetto: The First Heartbreak
Movement III – Scherzo Allegro: Even Broken Pieces Fit Back Together
Movement IV – Allegro Molto: Ready for The Road
Overall Listening Experience: What an absolute pleasure. From the beginning I was wholeheartedly captured and knew after the ending of the first movement, this was going to be an adventure that was equal parts fun and breathtaking.
Favourite Movement: Movement I - Adagio molto - Allegro con brio
#1 – Symphony 9
The dark and expansive void. Nothingness. And then, light. A tiny light pulsing dimly until it fizzles out. The simultaneous moment of darkness is the simultaneous moment of blinding white light running the length of the universe, photons colliding creating even more, even bigger explosions—heat too severe to comprehend. And then it all cools, rocks of all sizes form, pulling one another into their gravitational orbits, finding solace next to what are now known as stars. Temperatures equalize, and then: life.
This symphony conceptualizes the universe in its entirety, traversing the past, present, and the future to incapsulate all of human existence in all of its possibility. There are truly no words to describe how masterfully Beethoven works up to the climax of this symphony that demands such respect, this symphony can only be listened to in its entirety with your undivided attention. Here, our protagonist is at the end of his life, the final pieces of understanding coming together to paint an intricate picture of existence that answers for all aspects of existence in a manner that seems both holy and otherworldly, unapologetically proclaiming the sacredness of life. The symphony is as follows:
Movement I – Allegro ma non troppo, un poco maestoso
Movement II – Molto vivace
Movement III – Adagio molto e cantabile
Movement IV – Presto
Overall Listening Experience: I cried twice. The symphony is a little over an hour long and it flew by. When it was over, I’d realized that classical music is inherently meditation music and that a piece is a journey you relinquish control to in order to allow the vision the composer intended to show on its own. This was the symphony that inspired me to listen to all of Beethoven’s prior symphonies and approach classical music as a whole, differently.
Favourite Movement: Movement II – Molto vivace
Ranking my favourite movements from each symphony from least to most favourite (based on nothing but personal preference):
YouTube: The Model Citizen