Listening to music as a means of relaxation or reflection can be inspiring and cathartic. During a strenuous period or when overcoming a daunting challenge, it is refreshing to listen to music that celebrates courage and strength. Sometimes, during especially difficult times, it is helpful to listen to music that will give you the boost you need to triumph.
Of course, there’s a difference between strength and triumph. Strength is an attribute or characteristic. Triumph implies a struggle, whether against an opposing force or against oneself—a struggle from which one emerges victorious.
I selected the following pieces of music because they paint in sound this process of struggle and eventual triumph. And it’s no coincidence that each piece below is a symphony. Symphonies, being large-scale, multi-movement works, are uniquely suited to depict triumph over hardship, victory of good over evil, and the indomitability of the human spirit.
Symphony no. 5 in c minor, op. 67, by Ludwig van Beethoven
Beethoven’s music is often described as brooding and melodramatic. This is likely due to two factors: First, a number of his most recognizable pieces (his Piano Sonata no. 14 and Symphony no. 5, for example) start out dark and dreary. Second, Beethoven reputedly was, at times, an unpleasant man.
This was largely due to the fact that between 1796 and 1824 he struggled with the gradual loss of his hearing.1 He felt compelled to keep his deafness a secret from everyone, including those closest to him, because he was terrified that his career would be cut short if the public or his critics found out. This drove him to isolate himself, which in turn led him to become lonely and bitter. But still, he went on creating his music. In what today is known as the Heiligenstadt Testament, a letter Beethoven penned to his two brothers but never sent, he detailed his hardships:
But what humiliation when any one beside me heard a flute in the far distance, while I heard nothing, or when others heard a shepherd singing, and I still heard nothing! Such things brought me to the verge of desperation, and well-nigh caused me to put an end to my life. Art! art alone deterred me. Ah! how could I possibly quit the world before bringing forth all that I felt it was my vocation to produce?2
Beethoven was no stranger to struggle. But his will to create and dedication to his craft enabled him to accept and overcome his deafness. His fifth symphony, written between 1804 and 1808, is particularly powerful, inspirational, and, in my opinion, an embodiment of triumph. Indeed, Beethoven’s struggle made him uniquely capable of understanding and conveying to listeners a feeling of triumph.
Below is a recording of Beethoven’s Symphony no. 5, performed by the Wiener Philharmoniker and conducted by Leonard Bernstein. Most people never listen past the first movement, which is a shame because they miss what this symphony is all about. I recommend setting aside some time to listen to it in its entirety.
The first movement is indeed dark and menacing. The “duh duh duh duhhh!” motif often is described as “fate knocking on the door.”3 I prefer to think of it as the hero’s call to adventure. How will he respond? You have to keep listening to find out.
The second movement begins by conveying a feeling of introspection; perhaps we, the heroes, are considering the call to adventure. What will we do? Later, the music becomes waltz-like, majestic, and romantic while retaining its gentle, introspective character.
The third movement presents a shadow of the drama from the first movement but carries over and embellishes the majesty of the second movement. Pay attention to the “bum bum bum bum” rhythm that is first played by the French horn (which occurs at 20:03 in the recording above) and subsequently by different instruments in the orchestra. Doesn’t it remind you of the call to adventure from the first movement (“duh duh duh duhhh”)?
The fourth movement is a voracious—and surprising—burst of triumph. You have to be aware of two things to know why the last movement, in particular, is so surprising and triumphant: First, in Beethoven’s day, conventions dictated that composers should start and end a piece in the same key.4 Second, we often associate happy events with Major keys and sad events with minor keys (see for yourself in this YouTube video of popular songs transposed from their original Major key to a minor key and vice versa).
This symphony begins in the “sad” key of c minor, so we’d expect it to end in c minor. But Beethoven, in a stroke of genius, subverted this expectation and ended the piece in a bright, glorious C Major. This key change indicates that the hero prevails—that he is no slave to fate. He forges his own destiny and ultimately triumphs.
If you let your spirit be conquered by the challenges that inevitably arise in life—the kinds of experiences Beethoven portrays in his first movement—you’ll miss out on such pinnacles of joyous success as he paints in the fourth movement.
Symphony no. 1 in D Major by Gustav Mahler
No other composer’s music better describes the inner landscape and struggles of its creator, and no other composer manages to ask so many questions about the human condition in music as does Gustav Mahler. —Musicologist Robert Greenberg5
Gustav Mahler was an exceptional conductor and composer who wrote many symphonies throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Mahler, born to Jewish parents, struggled with persecution his whole life due to his Jewish heritage. After he was appointed conductor of the Vienna State Opera, the Viennese newspaper Deutsche Zeitung decried the appointment as “the frightening Jewification of art in Vienna” and doubted that a Jew was capable of performing “our great music—our German opera.”6
Despite the lifelong ostracization he faced due to his heritage, Mahler persevered in becoming a world-renowned conductor and composer.
His first symphony, often subtitled “Titan,” is a delight to listen to. It depicts the majesty of springtime and the triumph of good over evil.
Below is a recording of Leonard Bernstein conducting the piece with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.
The music of the first movement starts out soft, slow, and uneasy. This is the sound of spring awakening from a long winter slumber. Enjoy the flowing melodies, the trumpet fanfares, and see if you can hear the “cuckoo calls” the clarinets chirp throughout the movement.
The second movement conveys a lot of the same majesty that can be heard in the second movement of Beethoven’s fifth symphony but with a more dance-like feeling.
The third movement gets dark. Indeed, it is a funeral march to the famous folk tune “Frère Jacques” (known in Austria where Mahler grew up as “Bruder Martin”). Throughout the movement, the funeral march is interrupted by a musical theme reminiscent of Jewish klezmer music. It’s almost as if Mahler is battling with himself in the music. His two identities, his Jewish heritage and his Austrian life, are at odds, and composing this piece is his way of figuring out who he is and how he wants to present himself through his music.
The fourth movement is the most cathartic, triumphant part of the piece. It begins with a crack of thunder and a fanfare of pure evil. This movement originally was subtitled “Dall’ Inferno al Paradiso” (“From Hell to Paradise”), and that feeling definitely has persisted through Mahler’s multiple revisions of the score to the version we most commonly hear performed today, even though he eventually removed the subtitle.7 It is a masterful articulation of struggle and triumph.
In this final movement, we don’t hear a reappearance of the folk tunes from the previous movement. Instead, Mahler seems to shake off these national identities, and he calls back to original musical themes that he created—the springtime melodies from the first movement and new musical themes yet to appear in the piece.
The struggle of the final movement lasts for some sixteen to eighteen minutes before the dark storm clouds clear away, and a beautiful, triumphant band of brass sweeps us away to paradise.
This symphony was not appreciated by audiences or critics at its premier. After a poorly received performance, Mahler wrote of the symphony, “Sometimes it sent shivers down my spine. Damn it all, where do people keep their ears and their hearts if they can’t hear that!”8
Many musicologists and audiences today agree with him. This symphony is a masterpiece in its depiction of the sun bursting through the clouds after a mighty and terrible storm and the triumph of joy over misery and hardship.
Symphony no. 3 in c minor, op. 78, by Camille Saint-Saëns
Camille Saint-Saëns was a late-Romantic composer known for works such as The Carnival of the Animals (especially “The Swan”), Danse Macabre, and his opera Samson et Delila. In 1886, he wrote his third and final symphony. Audiences today call this his Organ Symphony because of its novel inclusion of the organ.
Saint-Saëns did not struggle with external circumstances as much as Beethoven or Mahler, but, nonetheless, this symphony was the result of an artist struggling to create a masterpiece for the ages—and succeeding. The composer said of this symphony, “I gave everything to it I was able to give. What I have here accomplished, I will never achieve again.”9
Below is a recording of the Organ Symphony performed by the Orchestre de Paris with conductor Paavo Järvi.
Similar to Beethoven’s fifth symphony, Saint-Saëns’s Organ Symphony begins with a hint of evil lurking behind a veil. Just when we start to feel settled in the tumultuous world he’s drawn up, the strings begin a frantic, off-kilter motif.
The first movement is not all darkness and discomfort, though. Moments of sweetness and sunshine are sprinkled in. The poco adagio, a musical theme at the end of the first movement (starting at 10:55 in the recording above), is so heart-wrenchingly sweet that it rivals the famous love theme from Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet.”
When the second and final movement begins, it becomes evident that the first movement’s lurking darkness was an indication of what was to come. In the musical theme at the very start of this movement (remember what it sounds like—I will refer to this musical theme as the allegro moderato later), the darkness transforms into a tangible villain.
A powerful chord and introduction from the organ and orchestra shake the earth in the musical theme introduced at 28:15 in the recording above (I will refer to this theme as the maestoso going forward). In some recordings, the maestoso marks the beginning of the “third movement,” but Saint-Saëns intended for the piece to be played and thought of as only two movements.10
After the earth-shattering arrival of the organ, pounding chords by the strings, the music shifts. An ethereal, joyful theme is played by the strings and piano in the upper range of their instruments. The flowing music seems to float above our heads, just out of reach. The organ returns with another triumphant chord, and this heavenly experience transforms and roots itself firmly in the ground as the strings strike the chords with rigor, and the brass section releases a powerful fanfare.
The villainous theme from the allegro moderato weaves in and out at constant odds with the joyous, triumphant theme we heard at the start of the maestoso. The push-and-pull drama eventually descends into a frenzy of strings and a devilish flurry of low brass reminiscent of the Dies Irae, a Gregorian chant frequently quoted by classical composers to signify death or a moment of reckoning.11 The organ returns to the fight—but who will come out on top?
* * *
Finding music that conveys struggle and eventual triumph is difficult because, to depict true triumph, one has to study it intensely and perhaps experience it firsthand. But such music is a wonderful tool of inspiration and empowerment.
Beethoven, Mahler, and Saint-Saëns all had to overcome personal obstacles in pursuit of their craft. The pieces described in this article show their intimacy with struggle and triumph, and the musical depictions of triumph are clear and easy to understand even if you aren’t a classical music connoisseur.
I appreciate these works because they inspire me to muster the strength to overcome my own obstacles. I hope they inspire you as well.
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1. Robert Greenberg, The Symphonies of Beethoven (Chantilly: Audible, 2013).
2. Ludwig van Beethoven, Beethoven’s Letters 1790–1826, translated by Grace Wallace (New York: C. H. Ditson, 1866).
3. Anton Schindler, Beethoven as I Knew Him: A Biography, translated by Constance S. Jolly (London: Faber and Faber, 1966).
4. Lewis Lockwood, Beethoven: The Music and the Life (New York: Norton, 2003), 224.
5. Robert Greenberg, Great Masters: Mahler—His Life and Music (Chantilly: Audible, 2013).
6. Greenberg, Great Masters: Mahler.
7. “The Symphony’s Beginnings as Programme Music,” http://gustavmahler.com/symphonies/No1/Symphonys-Beginnings-As-Programmatic-Music.html (accessed October 2, 2020).
8. Phillip Huscher, “Civic Orchestra of Chicago Season 2017–2018 Program Notes” (Chicago: Chicago Symphony Orchestra, 2017).
9. David Dubal, The Essential Canon of Classical Music (New York: North Point Press, 2003), 337.
10. Tom Service, “Symphony Guide: Saint-Saëns’s Third (the Organ Symphony),” The Guardian, February 25, 2014, https://www.theguardian.com/music/tomserviceblog/2014/feb/25/symphony-guide-saint-saens-organ-tom-service.
11. Stephen Peithman, “The Dies Irae Connection,” CapRadio, October 29, 2016, https://www.capradio.org/classical/connections/2016/10/29/connections-102916/.