A symphony is an extended composition usually for orchestra and usually comprising four 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 either a minuet and trio or a ternary dance-like (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 limitless, starting from the early Romantic era, for example:

The word symphonyEdit

The word symphony is derived from the Greek Template:Polytonic, a combination of syn- (Template:Polytonic, with, together) and phone ('Template:Polytonic', sound, 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 types of works, including overtures, instrumental ritornello sections of arias, and works which would later be classified as concertos or sonatas. In the late 17th and early 18th century, the terms “sonata”, “concerto”, and “sinfonia” reached “a short-lived but total synonymity . . . paralleling that of ‘sonata’ and ‘canzona’ at the previous mid century” (Newman 1972, 140). A particularly striking example is a composition by Giuseppe Torelli, a piece with two trumpets dating from after 1702, no. 27 in the Giegling catalog of Torelli's works, whose title in the manuscript score is Concerto con trombe, oboy, e violini, but in the set of parts is variously called Sinfonia and Sonata (Tarr 1974).

History of the formEdit


In the 17th century, the majority of the Baroque period, the terms symphony and sinfonia were used to describe a range of different works, including instrumental pieces used in operas, sonatas and concertos. The common factor in this variety of usage was that symphonies or sinfonias were usually part of a larger work. The most direct forerunner of the symphony is commonly considered to be the opera sinfonia, which by the 18th century had a standard structure of three contrasting movements: fast, slow, and fast dance-like, much like the modern symphony. The terms overture, symphony and sinfonia were widely regarded as interchangeable for much of the 18th century.

The 18th century symphonyEdit

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 works 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: a fast movement, the "allegro"; a slow movement; and then another 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 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. Other common possibilities are Rondo form or sonata-rondo

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. However, this is an isolated example: 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, Andrea Luchesi 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 Karl 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 symphonyEdit

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 was from approximately 1790 to 1820. For Ludwig van Beethoven his first Academy Concert had "Christ on the Mount of Olives" as the featured work, rather than the two symphonies and piano concerto he had performed on the same concert.

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, often cited as ushering in the Romantic era. His Symphony No. 5 demonstrated his ability to write an entire large-scale, multi-movement work on a single rhythmic motif. 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 an inner movement (most often the third of four). 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, Felix Draeseke, Antonín Dvořák, Pyotr Ilyich 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 inferior to those written for execution by a symphonic orchestra. In the cases of Widor and Vierne in particular it is much less usual to hear their symphonies for "orchestra alone", of which Vierne wrote one and Widor several, than those they wrote for organ.

The 20th century symphonyEdit

In the 19th century the symphonies got bigger and bigger, both in play time and size of the orchestra. That development finished with Gustav Mahler in the beginning of the 20th century. 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, seventh and tenth 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 (Leoš Janáček'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). Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde is sung throughout but would likely have been christened a symphony, with justification, but for the Curse of the Ninth. Some present-day composers continue to write works which they call "symphonies" (Philip Glass, for example, has written eight as of 2005), 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, or even non-orchestral works. Glenn Branca, for example, composes symphonies for electric guitars and percussion, which blend droning industrial cacophony and microtonality with quasi-mysticism and advanced mathematics.

Composers of symphoniesEdit

For a list of symphony composers, see List of symphony composers

Symphonies by number and nameEdit

Template:Symphonies by number and name

Symphony as "orchestra"Edit

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.


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See also Edit


  • Bukofzer, Manfred F. 1947. Music in the Baroque Era: From Monteverdi to Bach. New York: W. W. Norton.
  • Newman, William S. 1972. The Sonata in the Baroque Era. New York: W. W. Norton.
  • Tarr, Edward H. 1974. Unpaginated editorial notes to his edition of Giuseppe Torelli, Sinfonia a 4, G. 33, in C major. London: Musica Rara.

External linksEdit