…and in that order. Those are Beethoven’s best symphonies — the ones that put him on the map. The other ones are good, but they’re not all that. I mean, they might as well have been written by Shubert. If Beethoven had only written those other ones (1, 2, 4, 6, and 7), nobody would consider him master of the symphony.

The most important thing to know about Beethoven’s symphonies is what I call the Beethoven-Hen rule: All Beethoven symphonies pretty much derive from some portion of Haydn’s 83rd symphony, “The Hen.” Small wonder: Haydn taught Beethoven until he discovered that Beethoven was cheating him out of his teaching fee.

Symphony 5 is the exception to the Beethoven-Hen rule. It’s 4-note “Fate” motif is parallels Mozart’s similar treatment of a 6-note motif in the Magic Flute Overture, converts it into a 4 movement sonata cycle, and calls it a symphony. So the Beethoven-Hen rule breaks down a bit here, and the honest critic must concede that the 5th derives as much from Mozart as from Haydn.

Deriving Beethoven’s 5th from Mozart’s Magic Flute inflicts some collateral damage on the Beethoven-Hen theory, since symphony number 4 is basically symphony number 5-lite. An honest critic must, therefore, also concede that the 4th depends somewhat on Mozart .

Contrary to popular opinion (which tends to favor the 3rd, 5th, or 9th) Beethoven’s 8th is his finest, and best I can tell he thought so, too. Legend has it that he declared it better than any of his earlier symphonies. But don’t take his word for it: Listen to it. It’s the only one of Beethoven’s symphonies that approaches Haydn’s level of wit and Mozart’s fluency with melody.

Don’t get me wrong. I like Beethoven’s symphonies quite a lot. I just don’t place any of them in my list of top six symphonies:

  1. Mozart’s 40th
  2. Mozart’s 41st
  3. Mozart’s 39th
  4. Brahms’ 1st
  5. Haydn’s 104th
  6. Brahms’ 4th

But then, I don’t even play the kazoo. So what do I know? There’s probably a good reason they don’t teach this stuff anywhere.