In Western classical music, a symphony is an extended musical composition, scored almost always for orchestra. "Symphony" does not necessarily imply a specific form, though most are 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.
History of the form
The word symphony derives from Greek συμφωνία, meaning "agreement or concord of sound", "concert of vocal or instrumental music", from σύμφωνος, "harmonious" (Oxford English Dictionary). This Greek word was used to describe an instrument mentioned in the Book of Daniel once identified by scholars as a bagpipe (this is identified as the root of the name of the Italian zampogna) (Stainer and Galpin 1914, ). However, more recent scholarly opinion points out that the word in the Book of Daniel is siphonia (from Greek siphon, reed), and concludes that the bagpipe did not exist at so early a time, though the name of the "zampogna" could still have been derived from this word (Marcuse 1975, 501 & 597). In late Greek and medieval theory, the word was used for consonance, as opposed to diaphonia, which was the word for dissonance (Brown 2001). In the Middle Ages and later, the Latin form symphonia was used to describe various instruments, especially those capable of producing more than one sound simultaneously (Brown 2001). Isidore of Seville was the first to use the word symphonia as the name of a two-headed drum, and from ca. 1155 to 1377 the French form symphonie was the name of the organistrum or hurdy-gurdy. In late medieval England, symphony was used in both of these senses, whereas by the sixteenth 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 (Sacrae symphoniae, 1597, and Symphoniae sacrae, liber secundus, 1615), Adriano Banchieri (Eclesiastiche sinfonie, 1607), Lodovico Grossi da Viadana (Sinfonie musicali, 1610), and Heinrich Schütz (Symphoniae sacrae, 1629).
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.
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). Perhaps the best-known ripieno concerto is Johann Sebastian Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 3.
Early symphonies, in common with both overtures and ripieno 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 binary form. They are distinguishable from Italian overtures in that they were written to stand on their own in concert performances, rather than to introduce a stage work, although a piece originally written as an overture was sometimes later used as a symphony, and vice versa.
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 dominant, and symphonies provided preludes, interludes, and postludes.
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 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, through the addition of an additional middle movement (Prout 1895, 249), 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. "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).
The normal four-movement form became, then (Jackson 1999, 26; Stein 1979, 106):
- an opening sonata or allegro
- a slow movement, such as adagio
- a minuet with trio or "Beethoven four-movement solo sonata": scherzo
- an allegro, rondo, or sonata
Variations on this layout were common, for instance the order of the middle two movements, or the addition of a slow introduction to the first movement. Older composers such as Haydn and Mozart 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). Tchaikovsky's Third Symphony has a five-movement form through the addition of an "Alla tedesca" 'movement' between the first and the second (Jackson 1999, 26).
The composition of early symphonies was centred on Vienna and Mannheim. Early exponents of the form in Vienna included Georg Christoph Wagenseil, Wenzel Raimund Birck and Georg Monn, while the Mannheim school included Johann Stamitz.
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 are Joseph Haydn, who wrote at least 108 symphonies over the course of 36 years (Webster and Feder 2001), and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who wrote at least 56 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. 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, a minor composer, 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). In Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony, a program work, the composer inserted a "storm" section before the final movement; Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique, a work famous for its exceptional orchestration is also a programme work and has both a march and a waltz and five movements instead of the customary four.
Notable early-romantic symphonists include Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, and Schumann. Late-romantic symphonists include Bruckner, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, and Dvořák.
By the end of the 19th century, some French organists (e.g., Charles-Marie Widor) named some of their organ compositions symphony: Their instruments (many built by Aristide Cavaillé-Coll) allowed an orchestral approach (Thomson 2001).
At the beginning of the 20th century, Gustav Mahler wrote long, large-scale symphonies (his eighth 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 (1949–50) is in twenty-four.
There remained, however, certain tendencies: symphonies were still, almost always, orchestral works. 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 was "lighter" than a symphony, such as Prokofiev's Sinfonietta.
There have also been diversification in the size of orchestra required. While Mahler's symphonies call for extravagant resources, Arnold Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony No. 1 and John Coolidge Adams's Chamber Symphony are scored for chamber groups.
In the 20th- and early-21st-century symphonies have been written for wind ensemble and band. Notable examples are Paul Hindemith's Symphony in B-flat for Band (1951) (Hansen 2005, 95), and Alan Hovhaness's Symphonies Nos. 4, 7, 14, and 23, which are symphonic works for school and college wind bands.
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- Tarr, Edward H. 1974. Unpaginated editorial notes to his edition of Giuseppe Torelli, Sinfonia a 4, G. 33, in C major. London: Musica Rara.
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