Top Five Loudest Compositions

Pieces Where You Don't Need to Turn it Up To 11

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

loud music speakers (matthijs/flickr)

Fortissimo just isn’t enough for some people. To show just how ear-shatteringly bombastic some composers want their music played, they have been known to double, triple and even quadruple those fortes (And we thought fff meant as loud as you can possibly play).

The decibel-climbing results have been captured in albums, such as the appropriately titled Fortissimo and Thunder and Lightning. How do these deafening instructions sound? We’ve selected our favorites for the top five loudest classical music compositions.

1. Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture

Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture has a place on both of the bombastic CD anthologies, and who can argue with a work that uses artillery in its percussion section. Tchaikovsky used a wide range of dynamics in his works from a pianissississississimo in the "Pathetique" symphony to the quadruple fortes at the end of the 1812, perhaps one reason why it’s a favorite selection for outdoor concerts.

2. Ligeti's The Devil's Staircase

György Ligeti audaciously doubled the number of fortes Tchaikovsky wrote into the 1812, when he used eight in his Étude No. 13, The Devil’s Staircase. This aural exclamation point seems to be the classical equivalent of Spinal Tap’s amps marked up to 11—an absurdity that most likely delighted Ligeti. That doesn’t make playing the piece any easier for nimble fingered pianists, such as Jeremy Denk, who blogged about learning it last fall. Luckily, he didn’t come to a grizzly end trying to bang out Ligeti’s notes.

3. Mahler's Symphony No. 8

When you have a work nicknamed “Symphony of a Thousand,” you’re likely to encounter an earsplitting moment or two. That’s the case in Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 8, which actually premiered with 1,030 musicians, including the composer who conducted. "Try to imagine the whole universe beginning to ring and resound,” Mahler wrote of the piece.

4. Holst's The Planets "Mars, The Bringer of War"

Gustav Holst is another composer who pushes his music beyond the normal dynamic limits. In the “Mars” movement from The Planets, the music fluctuates from pianissimo to ffff as “The Bringer of War” vacillates from being peaceful to waging battle. To illustrate Mars’ fury, Holst gives the god of war (and the entire horn section) the occasion to let out their amplified rage.

5. Rouse's Requiem

American Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Christopher Rouse doesn’t shy away from loud dynamics. In a 2007 review of the composer’s Requiem, the L.A. Times critic Mark Swed wrote, "The result can be a joyous racket, a terrible racket or, as it is in the Requiem, a combination of both.” New York Magazine’s Justin Davidson, wrote Rouse “means what he screams,” which is proudly blurbed on Rouse’s web site. It’s a fitting comment for a composer, who acknowledges Led Zeppelin as an influence and has adopted the motto, “Anything worth doing is worth doing to excess.”  

What is your favorite loud piece? Do you relish a speaker-blowing fortissimo? Leave a comment below:

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Comments [27]

Andy W from Wolverhampton, Great Britain

Listening via internet in Britain. Have to agree with Lawrence E; Leif's 'Hekla' does take some beating in the fffff stakes. The Iceland Symphony recording on BIS is excellent; the only one to include the choral part as far as I'm aware. Try Leif's 'Geysir' too; a companion piece almost.

Feb. 17 2017 03:13 PM
EricC from Virginia, USA

I must add Rossini's William Tell Overture, but the only version I've heard worth listening to at the appropriate (earsplitting) volume is the 1971 Deutsche Grammophon recording by the Berlin Philharmonic, directed by Herbert von Karajan. Those trombones will practically throw you against the back wall, and you'll love it.

Jan. 24 2017 10:21 PM
Dave Lauder from United States

Ron Nelson's 'Pebble Beach Sojourn", esp the end chords with Organ :

May. 03 2015 11:55 PM
Jackson S from Bend, OR

Verdi's Requiem: II. Dies Irae - Tuba Mirum?

Jul. 13 2014 06:09 PM
SZG from Garden City, NY

As a first year college student in the 1960s I discovered that some students were playing their rock music excessively loud in an adjacent dorm. My putting a speaker speaker in the window and playing the "1812" at max volume the speaker could handle gave them some pause. Also, my roommate learned a bit more about the music for "the cereal shot from guns.:

Aug. 25 2011 02:53 PM
Frank Pedulla from Sunnyside, Queens, N Y

"Francesca da Rimini" by Peter I. Tchaikovsky (Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir George Solti). - chromatic passages.

Aug. 14 2011 03:01 PM
Evan Young from New Jersey

Thanks Miku-D!! I watched that part you talked about and realized that was my wolf call. :-) I was standing near the camera. I filmed it from up in the balcony where I was placed. And yes I had to put ear plugs in even from that far away. It was THAT LOUD.

Aug. 11 2011 10:46 PM
Muki-D from Brooklyn

(Last follow-up to Evan)

What would have been "icing" is if the shotgun wielder had been summoned to take the stage for a bow during the applause!

Aug. 11 2011 08:55 PM
Muki-D from Brooklyn

Follow-up comment to 'Evan from New Jersey':

Thanks for that Rutgers link! That's really impressive. And the horn emulation of wolves howling at the 3:09 mark on vid 2/3 is VERY convincing! I got legitimate chills from that. Nicely done!

Aug. 11 2011 08:14 PM
Muki-D from Brooklyn

Another great expansion of the list would be Bernstein's 'On The Waterfront'. The conclusion of that piece makes my hair stand on-end and brings me tears of gratification every time. I think it's almost criminal that Tschaikowsky's Symphony #4 in Fmi isn't in the top 5, although I don't know what I'd oust to make room for it. Must have been a tough list to compile, and it must have left the judges ears ringing for days!

Aug. 11 2011 07:26 PM
jprfrog from Jersey City formerly Boston

It's hard for me to pick because for most of the time I was in the orchestra and often bombarded at close range particularly in 20 seasons of the Boston Pops in which I played piano in the rhythm section and was thus right next to the cymbal of the drum set.
But Christopher Rouse's "Infernal Machine", while not that loud as things go, prompted one of the funniest things I've ever heard in a performance. During a concert for very young people, I distinctly heard the voice of (probably) a 4-year-old cry out "Turn it off!"

Aug. 11 2011 01:52 PM
J. Strong

Good choices. If a sixth, how about Also Sprach Zarathrusta - opening minute and a half

Aug. 11 2011 01:06 PM
MichaelB from Morningside Heights

I remember that Scriabin wrote a piece -- I can't recall what it was exactly -- can someone help me out on this? -- wherein he envisioned bells being hung on cables strung between mountains (in the Himalayas or Alps?)

Fairly grandiose & ambitious, to say the least, and I think the scope and volume of the work reflected this vision.

Does this -- ahem -- ring a bell with anyone?

Aug. 11 2011 12:23 PM
Bernie from UWS

Two others I'd mention:
the Scythian Suite of Prokofiev and Carmina Burana. Both have that bunga-bunga primal classical style that invites earplugged listening

Also, there was a great album several years ago called "Earquake" that was actually engineered to be played at loud volumes!

Aug. 11 2011 11:43 AM
Les Bernstein from Miami

Sorry for adding a sixth, but I have to include "Cloudburst" from Grofe's "Grand Canyon Suite."

Aug. 11 2011 10:05 AM
Les Bernstein from Miami, Florida

My choices are: Berlioz's "Symphonie Funebre et Triumphal", with the huge orchestra and chorus in the Apotheosis. Next is Respighi's "Feste Romane," The Epiphany,"; Ives's Fourth Symphony, the fourth movement with the three interwoven instrumental groups; Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony, the climax of the first movement; Wagner's "Go"tterda"mmerng", The Immolation Scene.

Aug. 11 2011 10:03 AM
asie from nyc

Carl Ruggles (1876 –1971):
Sun Treader (1926-31)
Definitely one of the loudest American compositions, plus it's adventurous, powerful, and well ahead of its time.

Aug. 11 2011 06:59 AM
Daniel Rutkowski from New York City

The Pines of Rome was pretttay prettay prettay pretty loud in the Musikverein....and I was in the standing room.

Aug. 10 2011 11:50 PM
Josh V from White Plains, NY

I'm pretty certain I lost a good deal of my hearing sitting in front of the brass section (even with a shield) after hours of rehearsal of Shostakovich Symphony No. 2.

Aug. 10 2011 11:09 PM

Eleven. Exactly. One louder

Aug. 10 2011 07:12 PM
Barry Owen Furrer

While only written accounts survive, if you go back to the 1869 National Peace Jubilee held in Boston over five days in June, the performance of Verdi's Anvil Chorus could be added to this list when you factor in an orchestra of 1,000, a chorus of 10,000, 100 members of the Boston Fire Department banging on anvils in time to the music, electronic cannons being set off from the conductor's podium and every church in Boston ringing their bells when the cannons were fired.

Aug. 10 2011 06:23 PM
Evan from New Jersey

John Corigliano's Circus Maximus for band is definitely THE LOUDEST piece I've ever had the privilege of performing. Rutgers Wind Ensemble did this past April. There are sections of the piece which are just loud, especially near the middle climax of the piece where the ENTIRE BAND, percussion, and surround band just holds a ridiculously loud chord for about 30 seconds. My ear drums almost exploded that I needed to put in ear plugs, even on stage. Not to mention... the piece ends with about 20 trumpets and a shotgun blast. Youtube it!! I uploaded the entire performance. just type in Rutgers Wind Ensemble Circus Maximus and enjoy! :-)

Aug. 10 2011 04:46 PM
Michael Meltzer

David's entry was posted as I was preparing mine, so I had not seen it. Jongen was a Belgian, but he spoke French, so there you go!
Not coincidentally, the Jongen Symphonie Concertante was recorded by Jean Guillou, a villainous partnership if there ever was one.

Aug. 10 2011 03:47 PM
Michael Meltzer

I am surprised that you omit the historic pioneer in this effort, Hector Berlioz.
His Te Deum was scored (maybe "subcontracted" is a better word) for 110 strings, double winds, brass bands all over the hall, 6 timpani and 12 harps, two adult choirs of 100 singers each and a children's chorus of 600.
The only piece I've heard in concert that was so loud it drove me out into the street, was a piece by Jean Guillou for four pipe organs, three of them pre-recorded and the fourth played live by the composer on the organ at Riverside Church in the mid-1970's.
The French, so proud of their subtlety, are not to be outdone in decibels either.

Aug. 10 2011 03:22 PM
David from Flushing

In Sept. 2008, I was at a Philadelphia Orchestra/Wanamaker Organ at Macy's joint concert in Philadelphia. The highlight was the first performance of Jongen's Symphonie Concertante that was written for these musical powerhouses, but never previously performed there.

The poor Philadelphians were in constant danger of being blown away by the organ and I would estimate three orchestras would be needed for a proper balance. When the organ alone is played at tutti fff, it is almost imposible to speak to a person next to you. I suspect this the biggest unamplified musical sound on earth.

Aug. 10 2011 03:16 PM

This is a great list but I'd like to offer three possible additions: Richard Strauss' Thus Spoke Zarathustra, also his An Alpine Symphony - which has organ, thunder machine and windmachine - and Saint-Saen's Organ Symphony. Each of those are like the 1812 Overture and the Mahler 8th in that they require the entire ensemble to play ffff at the climactic point of the work.

Aug. 10 2011 11:33 AM
Lawrence E from Los Angeles

What, no mention of Christopher Rouse's Gorgon (louder than the Requiem), John Corigliano's Circus Maximus, or Jón Leifs's Hekla? The latter required that all of the performers wear ear protection, especially those sitting next to the 12 percussionists, who played a variety of loud instruments! These three will surely make the 1812 Overture and the Holst look like Morton Feldman in comparison.

Aug. 10 2011 11:31 AM

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