A Guide To Beethoven’s 9 Symphonies

Avatar photo
Written by Izaak Walton
Last updated

Ludwig Van Beethoven (1770-1827) was a legendary German composer who bridged the gap between the classical and romantic periods. While he wrote pieces in a variety of genres, he is most readily associated with his contributions to the Symphony. Over the course of his life, Beethoven wrote Nine symphonies, each one unique and exemplary.

In this post, we’ll guide you through each beethoven’s 9 symphonies and recommend some notable recordings of his works.

Symphony No. 1 in C Major, Op. 21

Georg Solti, Chicago Symphony Orchestra

First performed in the spring of 1800, this symphony is very classical in style, similar to works by Haydn or Mozart.

The first movement starts with a subtle joke, leading the audience through a series of chords that stray from the key before bringing the listener to a lush, playful Adagio molto and a vibrant and exciting Allegro con brio.

Andante, a lightly strolling second movement, adheres to the classical tradition.

Although titled Menuetto, the symphony’s third movement is too fast to be a traditional minuet, and is thus considered to be an early Romantic Scherzo.

The movement is technically dazzling, and hints at the rigor of his future fast movements.

With the Adagio at the beginning of the fourth movement, Beethoven eases the listener into his hurried Allegro molto e Vivace by introducing small scale fragments in the violins, slowly building the orchestra to the shimmering C Major Finale.

Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 36

Leonard Bernstein, Vienna Philharmonic

Premiered in 1803, this symphony exhibits Beethoven’s early Romantic innovations, though it largely adheres to classical style.

The first movement, Adagio molto- Allegro con brio, has a dramatically alluring introduction that leads into a bombastic Allegro con brio.

The second movement, Larghetto, follows a classical structure, featuring warm, lush string textures with playful undertones.

Following with a Scherzo, the third movement is an exciting romp through dynamic swells at blazing speeds.

Beethoven was one of the pioneers of the romantic scherzo, and adopted the form for his symphonies.

The final movement, Allegro molto, sounds particularly Haydnesque, beginning with an unusual opening reminiscent of a hiccup, and carried to the end by fast string passages.

Symphony No. 3 in Eb Major, Op. 55 – “Eroica”

A pillar of symphonic literature, Beethoven’s Third Symphony marks the beginning of Beethoven’s middle period, and the development of his romantic style.

Originally, Beethoven dedicated the symphony to Napoleon Bonaparte, believing the leader to be a force of democracy in France.

Once Napoleon declared himself Emperor of France, Beethoven retitled it, “Heroic Symphony, composed to celebrate the memory of a great man.”

Sparing the audience a lengthy introduction, Beethoven jumps straight into the first movement, Allegro con brio, with a flourish.

The rest of the movement sounds particularly Mozartian, potentially inspired by Mozart’s 39th Symphony.

Marcia funebre, Adagio assai, Beethoven’s first symphonic funeral march, serves as the slow, second movement.

Beethoven jumps next to a Scherzo – Trio movement which carries on at a gallop.

Rounding out the piece is the rousing Finale. Allegro molto – Poco Andante Presto, consisting of a set of variations on an original theme.

Symphony No. 4 in Bb Major, Op. 60

Seiji Ozawa, Saito Kinen Orchestra

Premiered in 1807, Beethoven’s Fourth symphony is a cheerful throwback to the classical era.

The first movement consists of two parts: a slow and mysterious Adagio introduction, and a joyful Allegro Vivace that sends the orchestra flying.

Another Adagio, the second movement is a slow, tranquil rondo which harkens back to a simpler time.

Beethoven then leads the orchestra into a Scherzo and trio third movement, which features three statements of the Scherzo instead of the traditional two.

The final movement, marked Allegro ma non troppo, is a dazzling and playful movement that runs straight to the end almost like a perpetuum mobile. Beethoven described the style as aufgeknöpft, or “unbuttoned.”

Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67 – The Fate Symphony

One of the most iconic pieces of Classical Music, Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, first performed in 1808, is a testament to the composer’s genius.

The first movement, Allegro con brio, begins with four of the most recognized notes in all of music.

The movement as a whole sticks to a traditional, classical sonata form, with a structure that centers on this simple yet powerful four-note motif.

Next is an Andante con moto, structured into a theme and variation that builds from a tranquil statement of the theme to a thunderous coda.

Beethoven follows with a Scherzo which adheres to a typical Minuet and Trio form.

The movement transitions attacca(nonstop) into the fourth movement, Allegro.

The Allegro is set in C Major, a powerful contrast to the piece’s ongoing C minor key.

The movement repeats the Scherzo material before winding back to a bombastic conclusion.

Symphony No. 6 in F Major, Op. 68 – The Pastoral Symphony

Paavo Jarvi, Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen

Unlike Beethoven’s other Symphonies, the Sixth, which premiered in 1808, is an exploration of programmatic music; throughout the piece, the composer creates musical images depicting the countryside.

Beginning with a peaceful Allegro ma non-troppo, Beethoven invites the listener on a walk through the countryside with an air of excitement.

The second movement is a quiet Andante molto mosso which begins with sounds of running water in the strings and culminates in a cadenza of bird songs in the winds.

The third movement is a Scherzo based off of folk dances.

The fourth movement, Allegro, begins without pause, following the course of a tumultuous storm complete with rain, wind, thunder, and lightning.

The storm subsides and the movement eases into the final movement.

Allegretto, the fifth and final movement, is a rather traditional movement, adhering to sonata-rondo form and incorporating shepherd songs.

Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Op. 92

Carlos Kleiber, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra

Beethoven composed his Seventh Symphony while resting at a spa town from 1811-1812.

The piece begins with a Poco sostenuto introduction characterized by ascending scales and prominent staccato chords, before transitioning into a rapid and playful Vivace reminiscent of folk dances.

The second movement, Allegretto is likely the most memorable movement of the symphony, consisting of an ostinato(repeated) bass rhythm which continues throughout.

The third movement, Presto – Assai meno presto, is a Scherzo, built upon an Austrian hymn.

The fourth movement, Allegro con brio, uses a traditional sonata form, with a melody borrowed from an Irish folk-song.

Symphony No. 8 in F Major, Op. 93

Gordon Nikolic, Netherlands Chamber Orchestra

A rather cheerful piece, the Eighth Symphony was premiered in 1814, only four months into its composition.

The first movement, Allegro Vivace e con brio, uses a typical sonata form, and sounds more classical than his other compositions of this era.

Imitating a metronome, the second movement, Allegretto scherzando, has a staccato texture that ticks along unendingly like clockwork.

Beethoven uses a Minuet for the third movement, Tempo di minuetto, though it breaks tradition by depending on a blatant, constant bass rhythm.

The meatiest movement, Allegro Vivace, rushes along with a sonata rondo form filled with orchestral pyrotechnics and a dense, complex architecture.

Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Op. 125 – The Choral Symphony

Leonard Bernstein, Vienna Philharmonic

Possibly Beethoven’s greatest composition, this piece has captivated both audiences and musicians alike.

The symphony, premiered in Berlin in 1824, was the first symphony to use voices, and inspired generations of composers to challenge the symphonic form.

The first movement, Allegro ma non troppo, in poco maestoso, begins dramatically with huge contrasts, soaring from an agitated pianissimo to a furious fortissimo in under a minute.

The movement continues with extreme swells, until the tumult resolves and the listener is brought to the scherzo.

Molto Vivace, the second movement, is a Scherzo, a dazzling display of orchestral prowess and precision.

The third movement, Adagio molto e cantabile is a lyrical theme with two variations.

Following the peaceful respite, the audience is plunged into the iconic and massive Finale.

The inescapably memorable “Ode to Joy” melody originated in the Finale, a manifestation of the composer’s ideal of universal brotherhood.

The melody is presented throughout the orchestra, before being accompanied by text from Schiller’s poem, “Ode to Joy.


Anyway, that’s it for our quick guide through the 9 Beethoven symphonies, we hope it helps and helps you listen to them knowing a bit more about each one.

Each of these symphonies gleams with their own unique power and charm, testaments to Beethoven’s compositional genius.

Listen through and see which symphony captivates, awes or inspires you!

Photo of author

Izaak Walton is a violinist and violin teacher based out of Denver, Colorado. Izaak received a Master’s in Violin Performance at the University of Denver, and a Bachelor’s in Violin Performance from the University of Georgia. Exposed to a variety of violin methods and musical styles, Izaak built passions for music history, literature, and violin technique.