A symphony is an extended piano, choir, or combinations of these resources. A symphony usually contains at least one movement or episode composed according to the sonata principle. Many symphonies are tonal works in four movements with the first in sonata form, which is often described by music theorists as the structure of a "classical" symphony, although many symphonies by the acknowledged classical masters of the form, Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Ludwig van Beethoven do not conform to this model.
The term was used from the late 16th century, with meanings which evolved over time. By the 18th century the word had taken on the meaning common today: a work for orchestra in several (usually four) movements, and after 1790 assumed an important role in concert life.
The word symphony is derived from hurdy-gurdy. In late medieval England, symphony was used in both of these senses, whereas by the 16th century it was equated with the dulcimer. In German, Symphonie was a generic term for spinets and virginals from the late 16th century to the 18th century (Marcuse 1975, 501). In the sense of "sounding together," the word begins to appear in the titles of some works by 16th- and 17th-century composers including Giovanni Gabrieli's Sacrae symphoniae, and Symphoniae sacrae, liber secundus, published in 1597 and 1615, respectively; Adriano Banchieri's Eclesiastiche sinfonie, dette canzoni in aria francese, per sonare, et cantare, op. 16, published in 1607; Lodovico Grossi da Viadana's Sinfonie musicali, op. 18, published in 1610; and Heinrich Schütz's Symphoniae sacrae, op. 6, and Symphoniarum sacrarum secunda pars, op. 10, published in 1629 and 1647, respectively. Except for Viadana's collection, which contained purely instrumental and secular music, these were all collections of sacred vocal works, some with instrumental accompaniment.
In the 17th century, for most of the Baroque period, the terms symphony and sinfonia were used for a range of different compositions, including instrumental pieces used in operas, sonatas and concertos—usually part of a larger work. The opera sinfonia, or Italian overture had, by the 18th century, a standard structure of three contrasting movements: fast, slow, fast and dance-like. It is this form that is often considered as the direct forerunner of the orchestral symphony. The terms "overture", "symphony" and "sinfonia" were widely regarded as interchangeable for much of the 18th century (Larue, Bonds, Walsh, and Wilson 2001).
The "Italian" style of symphony, often used as overture and entr'acte in opera houses, became a standard three-movement form: a fast movement, a slow movement, and another fast movement. Haydn and Mozart, whose early symphonies were in this form, eventually replaced it with a four-movement form through the addition of a second middle movement (Prout 1895, 249). The four-movement symphony became dominant in the latter part of the 18th century and 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. "Normative macro-symphonic form may be defined as the four-movement form, in general, employed in the later symphonies of Haydn and Mozart, and in those of Beethoven" (Jackson 1999, 26).
- an opening sonata or allegro
- a slow movement, such as adagio
- a minuet or scherzo with trio
- an allegro, rondo, or sonata
Variations on this layout, like changing the order of the middle movements or adding a slow introduction to the first movement, were common. Haydn, Mozart and their contemporaries restricted their use of the four-movement form to orchestral or multi-instrument chamber music such as quartets, though since Beethoven solo sonatas are as often written in four as in three movements (Prout 1895, 249).
The most important symphonists of the latter part of the 18th century are Haydn, who wrote at least 107 symphonies over the course of 36 years (Webster and Feder 2001), and Mozart, with at least 47 symphonies in 24 years (Eisen and Sadie 2001).
With the rise of established professional orchestras, the symphony assumed a more prominent place in concert life between approximately 1790 and 1820.
Beethoven dramatically expanded the symphony. His Symphony No. 3 (the Eroica), has a scale and emotional range that sets it apart from earlier works. His Symphony No. 5 is arguably the most famous symphony ever written. His Symphony No. 6 is a programmatic work, featuring instrumental imitations of bird calls and a storm, and a convention-defying fifth movement. His Symphony No. 9 takes the unprecedented step for a symphony of including parts for vocal soloists and choir in the last movement, making it a choral symphony (however, Daniel Steibelt had written a piano concerto with a choral finale four years earlier in 1820). Hector Berlioz, who coined the term "choral symphony", built on this concept in his "dramatic symphony" Roméo et Juliette while explaining his intent in the five-paragraph introduction in that work's score (Berlioz 1857, 1). Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique, a work famous for its innovative orchestration (Berlioz 2002, xv) is also a programme work and has both a march and a waltz and five movements instead of the customary four. His fourth and last symphony, the Grande symphonie funèbre et triomphale (originally titled Symphonie militaire) was composed in 1840 for a 200-piece marching military band, to be performed out of doors, and is an early example of a band symphony. Berlioz later added optional string parts and a choral finale (Macdonald 2001b, §3: 1831–42).
In 1857, Charles-Valentin Alkan published his Twelve Études in all the minor keys, Op. 39, including the first symphony for solo piano, in four movements, as well as an overture and a three-movement unaccompanied concerto for the same instrument (Macdonald 2001a, §3).
20th and 21st centuries
At the beginning of the 20th century, Gustav Mahler wrote long, large-scale symphonies. His Eighth Symphony, for example, was composed in 1906 and is nicknamed the "Symphony of a Thousand" because of the forces required to perform it. The 20th century also saw further diversification in the style and content of works that composers labeled symphonies (Anon. 2008). Some composers, including Dmitri Shostakovich, Sergei Rachmaninoff, and Carl Nielsen, continued to write in the traditional four-movement form, while other composers took different approaches: Jean Sibelius' Symphony No. 7, his last, is in one movement, whereas Alan Hovhaness's Symphony No. 9, Saint Vartan—originally op. 80, changed to op. 180—composed in 1949–50, is in twenty-four (Tawa 2001, 352).
There remained, however, certain tendencies. Designating a work a "symphony" still implied a degree of sophistication and seriousness of purpose. The word sinfonietta came into use to designate a work that is shorter, of more modest aims, or "lighter" than a symphony, such as Sergei Prokofiev's Sinfonietta (Kennedy 2006a; Temperley 2001).
There has also been diversification in the size of orchestra required. While Mahler's symphonies call for extravagant resources, Edison Denisov (1982, 1994) and John Adams (1992) are scored for chamber groups.
Beginning in the 20th century, more symphonies have been written for concert band than in past centuries. Some examples are Paul Hindemith's Symphony in B-flat for Band, composed in 1951; Morton Gould's Symphony No. 4 "West Point", composed in 1952; Alan Hovhaness's Symphonies No. 4, op. 165, No. 7, "Nanga Parvat", op. 175, No. 14, "Ararat", op. 194, and No. 23, "Ani", op. 249, composed in 1958, 1959, 1961, and 1972 respectively; Vincent Persichetti's Symphony No. 6, Op. 69, composed in 1956; Vittorio Giannini's Symphony No.3, composed in 1959; Alfred Reed's 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th symphonies, composed in 1979, 1988, 1992, and 1994 respectively; and Johan de Meij's Symphony No. 1 "The Lord of the Rings", composed in 1988, and his Symphony No. 2 "The Big Apple", composed in 1993.
In the 21st century, symphonies for concert band have been written by such composers as Frank Ticheli, Johan de Meij, David Maslanka, Steven Reineke, John Corigliano, John Mackey, Robert W. Smith, Philip Sparke, James Barnes, and others.
Ludwig van Beethoven's 5th Symphony, 1st movement
Ludwig van Beethoven's 5th Symphony, 2nd movement
Ludwig van Beethoven's 5th Symphony, 3rd movement
Ludwig van Beethoven's 5th Symphony, 4th movement
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- Ritzarev, Marina. 2014. Tchaikovsky's Pathétique and Russian Culture. Ashgate. ISBN 978-1-4724-2411-2.
- Media related to at Wikimedia Commons
- A Chronology of the Symphony 1730-2005 A list of selected major symphonies composed 1800-2005, with composers of 18th century symphonies
- The Symphony - Interactive Guide
- A fairly detailed list of symphonists, mostly active after 1800 - Part 1
- A fairly detailed list of symphonists, mostly active after 1800 - Part 2
- A fairly detailed list of symphonists, mostly active after 1800 - Part 3
- A fairly detailed list of symphonists, mostly active after 1800 - Part 4