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A symphony is an extended piece of music usually for orchestra and comprising several movements.

The main characteristics of the classical symphony, as it existed by the end of the 18th century in the German-speaking world were:

  • 4 movements, of which the first would usually be a fast movement in sonata form, the second a slow movement, the third a ternary dance-like (or scherzo) movement in "simple triple" metre, finishing with a fourth fast movement in rondo and/or sonata form.
  • Instrumental, to be played by an orchestra of the relatively moderate size customary at the time.

After Beethoven started experimenting with the movement structure and with programmatic features in his Sixth Symphony, and later added singers to the last movement of his Ninth Symphony, the possibilities for moulding the symphony format appeared unlimited, starting from the early Romantic era, for example:


The word symphony

The word symphony is derived from the Greek syn (together) and phone (sounding), by way of the Latin symphonia. The term was used by the Greeks, firstly to denote the general conception of concord, both between successive sounds and in the unison of simultaneous sounds; secondly, in the special sense of concordant pairs of successive sounds (i.e. the "perfect intervals" of modern music; the 4th, 5th and octave); and thirdly as dealing with the concord of the octave, thus meaning the art of singing in octaves, as opposed to singing and playing in unison. In Roman times the word appears in the general sense which still survives in poetry, that is, as harmonious concourse of voices and instruments. It also appears to mean a concert. In the Gospel of Luke, chapter xv verse 25, it is distinguished from χορῶν, and the passage is appropriately translated in the English Bible as "music and dancing." Polybius and others seem to use it as the name of a musical instrument.

In the sense of "sounding together", the word appears in the titles of works by Giovanni Gabrieli (the Sacrae symphoniae) and Heinrich Schütz (the Symphoniae sacre) among others. Through the 17th century, the Italian word sinfonia was applied to a number of works, including overtures, instrumental ritornello sections of arias and concertos, and works which would later by classified as concertos or sonatas.

History of the form

The 18th century symphony

The form that we now recognise as the symphony took shape in the early 18th century. It is commonly regarded to have grown from the Italian overture, a three-movement piece used to open operas, often used by Alessandro Scarlatti among others. Another important progenitor of the symphony was the ripieno concerto - a relatively little explored form resembling a concerto for strings and continuo, but with no solo instruments. The earliest known ripieno concerti are by Giuseppe Torelli (his set of six, opus five, 1698). Antonio Vivaldi also wrote works of this type. Perhaps the best known ripieno concerto is Johann Sebastian Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 3.

Early symphonies, in common with both Italian overtures and concertos, have three movements in the tempi quick-slow-quick. However, unlike the ripieno concerto, which uses the usual ritornello form of the concerto, at least the first movement of these symphonies is in some sort of binary form. They are distinguished from Italian overtures in that they were written for concert performance, rather than to introduce a stage work, although for much of the 18th century, the terms overture and symphony were used interchangeably, and a piece originally written as one was sometimes later used as the other. The vast majority of these early symphonies are in a major key.

Symphonies at this time, whether for concert, opera or church use, were not considered the major work on a program: often, as with Concerti, they were divided up between other works, or drawn from suites or overtures. Vocal music was considered the heart of the musical experience, and symphonies were supposed to provide preludes, interludes and postludes to this. At the time most symphonies were relatively short - running between 10 and 20 minutes at the most.

The "Italian" style of symphony, often used as overture and entr'acte in opera houses, became a standard three movement form of a fast movement, the "allegro", a slow movement, and then a fast movement. Mozart's early symphonies are in this layout. The early three-movement form was eventually replaced by a four-movement layout which was dominant in the latter part of the 18th century and throughout most of the 19th century. This symphonic form was influenced by Germanic practice, and would come to be associated with the "classical style" of Haydn and Mozart. The important changes were the addition of a "dance" movement and the change in character of the first movement to becoming "first among equals".

The normal four movement form became, then:

  1. Quick, in a binary form or later sonata form
  2. Slow
  3. Minuet and trio (later developed into the scherzo and trio), in ternary form
  4. Quick, sometimes also in sonata form or a sonata-rondo

It should be noted, however, that even in the mid-18th century, variations on this layout were not uncommon - in particular, the middle two movements sometimes switched places, or a slow introduction was added to the beginning, sometimes resulting in a four-movement slow-quick-slow-quick form.

The first symphony to introduce the minuet as the third movement appears to be a 1740 work in D major by Georg Matthias Monn . This is an isolated example, however: the first composer to consistently use the minuet as part of a four-movement form was Johann Stamitz.

Two major centres for early symphony writing were Vienna, where early exponents of the form included Georg Christoph Wagenseil, Wenzel Raimund Birck and Georg Matthias Monn ; and Mannheim, home of the so-called Mannheim School. Symphonies were written throughout Europe, however, with Giovanni Battista Sammartini and Antonio Brioschi active in Italy, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach in northern Germany, Leopold Mozart in Salzburg, François-Joseph Gossec in Paris, and Johann Christian Bach and Carl Friedrich Abel in London.

Later significant Viennese composers of symphonies include Johann Baptist Vanhal , Karl Ditters von Dittersdorf and Leopold Hoffmann . The most important symphonists of the latter part of the 18th century, however, are considered to be Joseph Haydn, who wrote 106 symphonies over the course of 40 years, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Their many widely performed and emulated works are commonly considered the apotheosis of the Classical style.

The 19th century symphony

In the late 18th century, vocal music, particularly cantatas and operas, were considered the major form of concert music, with concerti being next. With the rise of standing orchestras, the symphony assumed a larger and larger place in concert life. The period of transition can be seen in the 1790 to 1820 period. For Ludwig van Beethoven his first Academy Concert had "Christ on the Mount of Olives" as the major work, and not the two symphonies performed.

Beethoven took the symphony into new territory by expanding, often dramatically, each of its parts. His nine symphonies set the standard for symphonic writing for generations afterwards. After two symphonies rather in the style of Haydn, his Symphony No. 3 (the Eroica), has a scale and emotional range which sets it apart from earlier works. His Symphony No. 9 takes the unprecedented step of including parts for vocal soloists and choir in the last movement. Beethoven, together with Franz Schubert, was also responsible for replacing the genteel minuet with the livelier scherzo as a third movement. The scherzo, with its greater scope for emotional expression, was more suited to the Romantic style.

The next generation of symphonists desired to combine the expanded harmonic vocabulary developed by chromatic composers such as John Field, Ludwig Spohr and Carl Maria von Weber, with the structural innovations of Beethoven. Robert Schumann and Felix Mendelssohn were two leading Germanic composers whose works attempted this fusion. At the same time a more experimental form of symphonic writing was coming into being, featuring a greater number of symphonies with textual meaning or specific programs. While "program symphonies" had been written as early as 1790, their place and role became expanded with Hector Berlioz' Symphonie Fantastique (1830) and then Liszt's program symphonies, such as the Dante Symphony and the Faust Symphony (both 1857).

This period corresponds with what is generally labelled the "Romantic" period, and ends around the middle of the 19th century, though the term "Romantic" is often used in music to correspond with the longer musical era from Beethoven all the way through Sergei Rachmaninoff.

In the second half of the 19th century, symphonies included movements using a much-expanded but often strict Sonata Form. Johannes Brahms, who took Schumann and Mendelssohn as his point of departure, set the standard for composing symphonies which very high levels of structural unity. At the same time symphonies grew in length, and became the centerpiece of the expanding number of symphony orchestras. Other important symphonists of the late 19th century include Anton Bruckner, Antonin Dvořák, Tchaikovsky and Camille Saint-Saëns.

By the end of the 19th century French organists like Widor named some of their organ compositions symphony too: the "romantic" type of organs they played on (like the ones built by Cavaillé-Coll) allowed a thorough orchestral approach and sound, so these composers didn't think of their symphonies as lesser than those for execution by a symphonic orchestra.

The 20th century symphony

The twentieth century saw further diversification in the style and content of works which composers labelled "symphonies" - the idea that the "symphony" was a definite form which had certain standards was eroded, and the symphony instead came to be any major orchestral work which its composer saw fit to label such. While some composers - such as Sergei Rachmaninoff and Carl Nielsen, continued to write in the traditional four-movement form, other composers took different approaches. Gustav Mahler, whose second symphony written at the end of the 19th century is in five movements, continued to write novel works in the form: his third symphony, like the second, has parts for soloists and choir and is in six movements, the fifth and seventh symphonies are in five movements, and the eighth symphony, which in another age would more likely have been called a cantata or oratorio, is in two large parts, with vocalists singing for virtually the duration of the work. Jean Sibelius' Symphony No. 7, his last, is in just one movement.

Despite this diversification, there remained certain tendencies - symphonies were still limited to being works for orchestra. Vocal parts were sometimes used alongside the orchestra, but remained rare, and the use of solo instruments was virtually unheard of. Notable exceptions were the "organ symphonies" composed for solo organ by French composers such as Louis Vierne and Charles-Marie Widor which exploited the power and increased resources of the modern organ to present an orchestral effect. Designating a work a "symphony" still implied a degree of weightiness - very short or very frivolous works were rarely called symphonies. The label sinfonietta came into use to designate a work that was "lighter" than the term "symphony" implied (Leos Janacek's Sinfonietta is one of the best known examples).

Along with a widening of what could be considered a symphony, the 20th century saw an increase in the number of works which could reasonably be called symphonies but which were given some other name by their composer. The Concerto for Orchestra by Béla Bartók is just one such example (Bartók never wrote a work he called a symphony). Some present-day composers continue to write works which they call "symphonies" (Philip Glass, for example, has written six as of 2003), but the tendency in the 20th century has been for the symphony to be less a recognisable form with its own conventions and norms, and more a label which composers apply to orchestral works of a certain ambition.

Composers of symphonies

Among composers who have composed symphonies are (listed in chronological order of birth):

  • Giuseppe Torelli, Italian composer of the Sinfonia à 4, the first real symphony
  • Giovanni Battista Sammartini (around 1701-1775), Italian composer
  • Antonio Brioschi , Italian composer
  • William Boyce (1710-1779), whose opus 2 is a set of eight "symphonies", although they started life as overtures to other works.
  • Ignaz Holzbauer (1711-1783)
  • Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-1788), son of Johann Sebastian Bach, composer of around twenty symphonies
  • Georg Christoph Wagenseil (1715-1777)
  • Georg Matthias Monn (1717-1750), whose symphony in D of 1740 is the first to include a minuet as a third movement.
  • Johann Stamitz (1717-1757), the first composer to regularly include a minuet as the third movement of his symphonies.
  • Wenzel Raimund Birck (1718-1763)
  • Leopold Mozart (1719-1787), who wrote symphonies in which he included thrillingly incorporated French horns.
  • Carl Friedrich Abel (1725-1787), active in London
  • Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), one of the best known Classical composers of symphonies, he wrote 106 examples (see the list of symphonies by Joseph Haydn and the Category of Haydn symphonies.).
  • François-Joseph Gossec (1734-1829), French composer
  • Johann Christian Bach (1735-1782), son of Johann Sebastian Bach, active in London
  • Leopold Hoffmann (1738-1793)
  • Johann Baptist Vanhal (1739-1813)
  • Karl Ditters von Dittersdorf (1739-1799)
  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791), one of the best known Classical symphonists. The exact number of symphonies Mozart wrote is difficult to determine owing to problems with autenticating scores - traditional numbering credits him with 41 symphonies, though some of those are not by him, and there are several authentic works not included among those 41.
  • Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), considered one of the most important symphonists, he wrote nine numbered symphonies plus sketches for a tenth and the Battle Symphony - see Category of Beethoven symphonies.
  • Louis Spohr (1784-1859), well known as a symphonist in his day, though his ten works in the genre are largely forgotten today.
  • Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826), German composer, wrote two symphonies.
  • Franz Schubert (1797-1828), composer of nine surviving symphonies, with the Symphony No. 8 (the Unfinished) and Symphony No. 9 (the Great) the best known.
  • Hector Berlioz (1803-1869), best remembered for his Symphonie Fantastique.
  • Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847), composer of five symphonies.
  • Robert Schumann (1810-1856), who wrote four numbered symphonies plus two sketched movements for a fifth in G minor.
  • Franz Liszt (1811-1886), wrote two programmatic symphonies, the Faust Symphony and the Dante Symphony .
  • César Franck (1822-1890), wrote one symphony.
  • Joachim Raff (1822-1882), composer of eleven symphonies, several with programmatic elements, well known in his day, but now largely forgotten.
  • Anton Bruckner (1824-1896), composer of eleven symphonies, including Nos. 00 and 0.
  • Anton Rubinstein (1829-1894), composer of six symphonies, with number two, the Ocean and number six, the Dramatic, the best known (though neither as well known now as they were in Rubinstein's day).
  • Johannes Brahms (1833-1897), composer of four symphonies, considered to be the artistic heir of Beethoven. Regarded as one of the great symphonists of the Romantic period.
  • Felix Draeseke (1835-1913), composer of the New German School wrote four symphonies.
  • Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921), whose best known symphony is number three, the Organ Symphony .
  • Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893), who wrote six numbered symphonies plus the Manfred Symphony.
  • Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904), who wrote nine symphonies, of which the most famous in the ninth (From the New World).
  • Edward Elgar (1857-1934), completed two symphonies, with sketches for a third made into a performing version by Anthony Payne .
  • Gustav Mahler (1860-1911), completed nine large-scale symphonies, plus an incomplete tenth - see Category of Mahler symphonies.
  • Carl Nielsen (1865-1931), composer of six symphonies.
  • Jean Sibelius (1865-1957), composer of seven symphonies.
  • Vasily Kalinnikov (1866-1901), Russian composer of two symphonies.
  • Albert Roussel (1869-1937), French composer of four symphonies.
  • Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958), composer of nine symphonies.
  • Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943), composer of three symphonies in a late-Romantic style.
  • Charles Ives (1874-1954), American composer of four symphonies.
  • Franz Schmidt (1874-1939), Austrian composer of four symphonies.
  • Havergal Brian (1876-1972), English composer of 32 symphonies, most of which he wrote in his seventies and eighties.
  • Nikolai Myaskovsky (1881-1950), Soviet composer (moved from Poland at a very young age) and composer of 27 symphonies.
  • Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), wrote three purely orchestral symphonies plus the Symphony of Psalms for chorus and orchestra (his Symphonies of Wind Instruments uses the word symphony in its old sense of "sounding together").
  • Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953), Soviet composer of seven symphonies.
  • Arthur Honegger (1892-1955), Swiss-French composer of five symphonies.
  • Paul Hindemith (1895-1963), German composer of several works with descriptive titles designated symphonies, the best known Mathis der Maler .
  • Roy Harris (1898-1979), American composer of 15 symphonies, of which Symphony No. 3 is by far the most famous.
  • Aaron Copland (1900-1990), American composer of three symphonies. The fourth movement of No. 3 is based on his famous Fanfare for the Common Man.
  • Edmund Rubbra (1901-1986), English composer of eleven symphonies.
  • William Walton (1902-1983), English composer of two symphonies.
  • Benjamin Frankel (1906-1973), English composer of eight symphonies.
  • Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975), Soviet composer of fifteen symphonies - see Category of Shostakovich symphonies.
  • Vagn Holmboe (1909-1996), Danish composer of thirteen symphonies, four symphonies for strings and three chamber symphonies (these seven mature works, but not included by him among the other thirteen).
  • William Schuman (1910-1992), American composer of 9 symphonies.
  • David Diamond (born 1915), American composer of 11 symphonies.
  • Lou Harrison (1917-2003), American composer of 4 symphonies.
  • Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990), American composer and conductor, composed 3 symphonies.
  • Moisei Vainberg (1919-1996), Polish composer who emigrated to the Soviet Union, composer of 20 symphonies for full orchestra and four chamber symphonies.
  • Robert Simpson (1921-1997), British composer, wrote 11 symphonies.
  • Peter Mennin (1923-1983), American composer, wrote 9 symphonies.
  • Philip Glass (born 1937), composer of six symphonies up to 2003.
  • Ilayaraaja (born 1943), eminent Indian film composer
  • Heinz Chur (born 1948), German composer of 4 symphonies.

Symphony as "orchestra"

In a more modern usage, a symphony or symphony orchestra is an orchestra, particularly one that plays or is equipped to play symphonies. Going to hear a symphony orchestra play is sometimes called "going to the symphony," whether or not an actual symphony is on the programme. A concert hall that is dedicated to a particular symphony orchestra may also be called a symphony.

See also

External links

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