This is how it began.

“Classical” Music?

What most people call “classical” music tends to include all so called “serious” music: the baroque, the classical, the romantic and the so-called modern works; most of it was composed for concert performances, typically using strings, woodwinds, brasses and percussion. Classical music in this sense is the music to be carefully listened to. It is also the music whose popularity is best measured over large time scales, rather than from last week’s sales charts.

The formal classical musical tradition flourished in the 18th and the early 19th centuries, producing symphonies in four movements and concerti in three. Within the classical symphonic form, a period of intense creativity produced several masterpieces. The symphonies were typically string-dominated works for orchestra, more artful than epic. The classical symphonies of the period were filled with well ordered themes and variations that portrayed a disciplined, genteel vision of the human condition. By the dramatic standards of epic symphonic writing that would follow, Haydn’s “Surprise Symphony” was a musical hiccup. Such was the spirit of the 18th century mind.

Mozart’s celebrated 39th, 40th & 41st symphonies (all composed in 1788), and some of the masses composed by the classicists (see IV, page 6) carried more dramatic freight. Their emotional depth and dramatic force foreshadowed the epic symphonic works that would emerge fifteen years later.

Emergence of the Heroic Romantic

The 19th century was a period of heroic exploration, risk and revolution. Unsurprisingly, various epic and romantic visions of the human condition began breaking into in art and literature. It was only a matter of time before these grand impulses found musical expression of equal grandeur. Beethoven’s musical output straddled the classical / epic-romantic divide and the romantic epic symphonic form probably began with the 1805 premier of his Third Symphony.

In spite of atonal “modernism” – the epic symphonic tradition lives on as the grand scale film music for epic movies.

This survey begins with the epic symphony and ends with a list of omitted musical gems.



About my criteria in making this list:

Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony (his third) was a dramatic breakout from the restrained, formal classicism that had dominated symphonic writing until then. The Third Symphony (originally intended as an ode to a liberating hero, Napoleon Bonaparte, whose dedication Beethoven destroyed) inaugurated a major new genre within the old classic symphonic form.

The epic romantic symphony remained a major musical genre, becoming, in the popular mind, the archetypical “classical” music, until “modern” atonality and dissonance began to dominate. Symphonic music became increasingly less accessible in the second half of the 20th century, often devolving into a radically distorted form. Often explicitly anti-heroic and anti-romantic, it began to sound like the music of a mental disorder.

The nine symphonic composers I’ve selected were working at the height of their powers in the best of the epic romantic tradition and produced several symphonies each for the century and a half that ended about 1955. While each of them produced several symphonies in the genre, I’ve picked only one composer as the “BEST” example in the numbered category. [Had I done otherwise, Beethoven and a couple of other masters would have dominated the entire list.]

My goal was to include the most impressive and durably fascinating example of each numbered symphony in the symphonic order used by the composer (a numbering system not always chronologically true). I was strongly influenced by when I first came to know and appreciate each work; for example Sibelius’ Second came to my attention before Mahler’s Second.

The Best First Symphony

Johannes Brahms 1833-1897 (4 symphonies)

Also: Mahler’s First

Comment: Brahms’ is a mature and striking work, remarkable as a first symphony.

The Best Second Symphony

Jean Sibelius 1865-1957 (7 symphonies)

Also Brahm’s Second, Mahler’s Second, Nielsen’s Second

I’ve saved Mahler for his Eight Symphony.

The Best Third Symphony

Ludwig van Beethoven 1770-1827 (9 symphonies)

Also Saint-Saens’ Third, Brahm’s Third, Mendelssohn’s Third.

This was Beethoven’s “breakout” work, truly the most powerful and earliest of the epic symphonies of the 19th century, arguably the beginning of the genre.

The Best Fourth Symphony

Pyotr Iljich Tchaikovsky 1840-1893 (6 symphonies)

Without a doubt, this is Tchaikovsky’s most epic work.

The Best Fifth Symphony

Sergei Prokofiev 1891-1953 (7 symphonies)

Also Beethoven’s Fifth, Mahler’s Fifth, and Shostakovich’s Fifth, Tchaikovsky’s Fifth

This was a difficult choice, except that Beethoven & Tchaikovsky were taken and the corpus of Shostakovich’s other symphonies are more “modern” than romantic.

The Best Sixth Symphony

Ralph Vaughan-Williams 1872-1958 (9 symphonies)

Also Bruckner’s Sixth, Bax’s Sixth, Sibelius’ Sixth, Dvorak’s Sixth.

The Best Seventh Symphony

Anton Bruckner 1824-1896 (9 symphonies)

Also Beethoven’s Seventh, Dvorak’s Seventh

The Best Eighth Symphony

Gustav Mahler 1860-1911 (9 symphonies)

Also Schubert’s Eighth (unfinished)

This is tied with the Second as Mahler’s most epic symphony.

The Best Ninth Symphony

Antonin Dvorak 1841-1904 (9 symphonies)

Also Beethoven’s Ninth, Mahler’s Ninth, Schubert’s Ninth

The Dvorak is a very early and durable favorite of mine.


Arnold Bax 1883-1953 (seven symphonies)

Carl Nielsen 1865-1931 (six symphonies)

Felix Mendelssohn 1809-1847 (five symphonies)

Camille Saint-Saens 1835-1921 (five symphonies – three numbered)

Franz Schubert 1797-1828 (nine symphonies)

Robert Schumann 1810-1865 (four symphonies)

Dimitri Shostakovich 1906-1975 (fifteen symphonies, some epic, one romantic)

Note for a “follow up composers watch”: Keep track of the promising tonal moderns, two of whom (both Americans, now deceased) have written several potentially qualifying symphonies in the epic romantic genre. Their music is underperformed:

Howard Hansen 1896-1981 (7 symphonies)

Allan Hovhannes 1911-2000 (at least 65 symphonies, many recorded)

Dave Brubeck 1920- )


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[Not necessarily in Symphonic Form]

The romantic era generated a huge number of romantic works for full orchestra, so epic in scope that they broke out of the symphony form entirely. However they were described (ballet music, film scores, tone poems, etc.) they had memorable themes, dramatic harmonies, and followed an explicit or implied story line. The romantic, epic orchestral movement never quite guttered out, even during the anti-tonal modernist fad, because it was carried on in the background—mostly in the form of film score compositions. This list could be much, much longer. My sixteen favorites omit some brilliant gems from some of the symphonists earlier named.

Barber, Samuel (1910-1981)

Adagio for Strings (expanded from his string quartet)

Berlioz, Hector ( 1803-1869)

Les Troyens

Copland, Aaron (1900-1990):

Quiet City (film score now performed in concert halls)

Debussy, Claude (1862-1918):

La Mer

Glass, Phillip (1937- )

Mishima (a mesmerizing film score)

Holst, Gustav (1874-1934):

The Planets

Liszt, Franz (1811-1886):

Les Preludes

Mussorgsky, Modest (1839-1881):

Pictures at an Exhibition

Orf, Carl (1895-1982)

Carmina Burana


Alexander Nevsky (a film score now performed in concert halls)

Rachmaninov, Sergei (1873-1943)

Symphony #2, Op. 27

Respighi, Ottorino (1879-1936)

The Birds

Rimsky Korsakov (1884-1908):


Sibelius, Jean (1865-1957)

Lemminkäinen Suite – “4 Legends From The Kalevala’

Strauss, Richard (1864-1950):

Don Quixote

Stravinsky, Igor (1882-1971):

The Firebird

Wagner, Richard (1813-1883):

Twilight of the Gods (from Gotterdammerung)

Williams, John (1932- )

Empire of the Sun (film score, one among dozens of his concert level film scores)



Any survey of epic romantic orchestral music would be incomplete without including the works of the era that featured that single most epic solo instrument (other than the human voice), the Grand Piano. A piano concerto follows the three movement sonata form, but the epic works below transcend the form. Again, my choices are personal and I’ve avoided including more than one example from each chosen composer.


Beethoven, Ludwig (1770-1827)

Piano Concerto # 5, The Emperor

Chopin, Frederic (1810-1849)

Piano concerto # 2

Gershwin, Ira (1898-1937)

Piano Concerto in F

Liszt, Franz (1811-1886

Piano concerto # 1

Mendelssohn, Felix (1809-1847)

Piano Concerto # 2

Rachmaninov, Sergei (1873-1943)

Piano Concerto # 2

Ravel, Maurice (1875-1937)

Concerto for the Left Hand

Saint Saens, Camille (1835-1921)

Piano Concerto # 5

Tchaikovsky, Pyotr Iljich (1840-1893)

Piano Concerto # 1




Let no one think that the classicists were a passionless lot. Their capacity to produce stirring epic works was never more evident than when one of them did a Roman Mass.

Johann S. Bach lived and died long before the advent of the Romantic Movement in orchestral music, but his musical output (most of which was liturgical) achieved a sublimity, power and elegance of expression never since equaled. [If ever faced with a hypothetical “pre-Noah’s Ark packing crisis”, I’d sacrifice any other composer on the planet if necessary to preserve the magnificent corpus of Bach’s music.] I’ve identified six masses (four brilliant products of the classical sensibility and two from romantic-epic composers –Berlioz & Verdi) that are equally poowerful:

Bach, Johann Sebastian (1685-1750)

B Minor Mass

Berlioz, Hector (1803-1869)


Haydn, Franz Joseph (1732-1809)

Mass in Time of War

Mozart, Wolfgang (1756-1791)


Schubert, Franz Peter (1797-1828)

Mass No. 6 in D

Verdi, Giuseppe (1813-1901)




A short list of my personal favorites, whether “epic romantic” or not:

Bach, J. S. (1685-1750)

Brandenburg Concertos 1-6

Bartok, Bela (1881-1945)

Concerto for Orchestra

Bizet, Georges (1838-1875)

Symphony in C

Brubeck, Dave (1920- )

Elementals (for orchestra and jazz quartet-1963)

Copland, Aaron (1900-1990)

Third Symphony (Copeland’s other two “symphonies” weren’t numbered)

Frank, Cesar (1822-1890)

Symphony in F minor

Respighi, Ottorino (1979-1936)

Church Windows

Vivaldi, Antonio (1649-1741)

The Four Seasons

I’ve omitted a great deal: all the operas, the oratorios, the concert works less epic than beautiful, some extraordinary concerti for other instruments, a handful of composers who would be represented by a single brilliant work (except for Carl Orf whose Carmina Burana I just couldn’t omit), and the entire Italian baroque period. These and many, many more are capable of stirring the soul in just the same way the epic work can and does.

My hope is that this list might remind us of the ongoing epic Romantic tradition and perhaps draw you to discover composers and works you haven’t yet experienced, especially if, like me, you are moved by the heroic tradition in art and music.

I am aware there are many more compositions & performances in the epic romantic spirit, many of which are now just finding an audience. Please let me know of your favorites.

Copyright © 2005, 2007 by Jay B. Gaskill

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