Symphony

A symphony is an extended piece of music for orchestra, especially one in the form of a sonata.

Table of contents
1 The word "symphony"
2 History of the form
3 Composers of symphonies

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 vasy majority of these early symphonies are in a major key.

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 the 19th century. The movements tend to be:

  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 (this sometimes resulted 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 exponenets 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. These two composed some of the best known symphonies of all time.

The 19th century symphony

Most - but not all - major composers of the 19th century wrote symphonies. Ludwig van Beethoven took the symphony into new territory. 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 livlier scherzo as as third movement. The scherzo, with its greater scope for emotional expression, was more suited to the Romantic style.

Robert Schumann, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Anton Bruckner and Johannes Brahms (who was seen by many as the artistic heir of Beethoven), all wrote symphonies along lines of the four-movement 18th century model, but the form diversified in the 19th century: Hector Berlioz' Symphonie fantastique is in five movements, and is also a piece of programme music (music which seeks to tell a story).

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 Rachmaninov 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 alongisde the orchestra, but remained rare, and the use of solo instruments was virtually unheard of. 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 ŕ 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).
  • 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.
  • Louis Spohr (1784-1859), well known as a symphonist in his day, though his nine works in the genre are largely forgotten today.
  • 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.
  • Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921), whose best number 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), complete 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 incompleted tenth.
  • Carl Nielsen (1865-1931), composer of six symphonies.
  • Jean Sibelius (1865-1957), composer of seven symphonies.
  • Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958), composer of nine symphonies.
  • Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943), composer of three symphonies in a late-Romantic style.
  • 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.
  • Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975), Soviet composer of fifteen symphonies.
  • Philip Glass (born 1937), composer of six symphonies up to 2003.


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.

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