John Barbirolli conducted more 7ths than any other symphony

John Barbirolli conducted more 7ths than any other symphony

Why Beethoven

norman lebrecht

January 29, 2023

A reader has written to the Daily Telegraph in support of my discussion of the performance history of Beethoven’s orchestral works:

SIR – Norman Lebrecht’s fascinating article on Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony (Arts, January 26) confirms my own experience of this wonderful work.

The first concert I attended in 1961, when I was 16, concluded with a performance of this symphony by Sir John Barbirolli and the Hallé in the Free Trade Hall in Manchester, and began my life-long love of orchestral music. Nine years later I attended my last Barbirolli concert, in the De Montfort Hall in Leicester, which also ended with the Seventh. Two months later, and a few days before his death, Sir John concluded the King’s Lynn Festival with the symphony, making it the last piece of music he conducted in public.

Records of the maestro’s career, published by the Barbirolli Society, show that he conducted Beethoven’s Seventh 249 times, the Fifth 144 times, and the Eroica 105 times. This would seem to endorse Mr Lebrecht’s conclusion – that what Wagner called “the apotheosis of the dance” is almost certainly Beethoven’s most popular symphony. That said, I regard the Eroica as his greatest and most influential work, but that is the subject of another debate.

David Elliott
Falmouth, Cornwall  




  • KANANPOIKA says:

    No mystery here….it’s the plum of the Beethoven symphonies.
    We used to play it, totally undistorted, as a ballet, every night for a week…over several seasons. I never wearied, for a moment, of its wonders.

    For me, the most amazing section of all: those volcanically rising scale passages in the introduction of the
    first movement.

    • Peter San Diego says:

      Of course, Beethoven told Schindler that his favorite (of the 8 he had written at that point) was the Eroica, to Schindler’s surprise (he thought it would be the 5th).

  • Garry Humphreys says:

    Yes, as a schoolboy in Nottingham in the 1960s the Halle came several times a year conducted by JB, George Weldon and, later, Lawrence Leonard and Maurice Handford, and Beethoven’s 7th was a regular and, as with David Elliott, ignited my love of orchestral music. We looked forward to the horns, ‘Schalltrichter auf’, in the final movement, with JB doing one of his rapid windmill impressions at the end! Happy days, never forgotten!

  • William Gross says:

    The opening scene of the movie JAWS has music written by John Williams. Williams in conversation with Sara Willis (4th Horn Berlin Phil) credited Beethoven’s 7th for his inspiration for the shark attack.

  • MacroV says:

    This got me to wonder which of the Mahler symphonies gets played the most. I would imagine #1 because it’s the most straightforward, i.e. is purely instrumental, but not huge like #7 or #9. But #5 gets played a lot on tour, a good showcase piece.

    But I think the one I have heard the most in live performance may be #2, followed by #6.