The Symphony

(Photo: Philharmonia Orchestra – a lovely orchestra who I had the wonderful opportunity of playing with as part of an outreach youth programme! One of my best musical experiences so far!)

From the Greek word ‘symphonia’, which means an agreement or concord of sound, the symphony has grown from 10-20 minutes to fully grown masterpieces of almost 2 hours long!

The symphony originally developed from the Baroque symphony, sinfonia and Italian overture (an introduction to vocal entertainment).  These often were in the form of 3 sections: fast-slow-fast/dance-like. This was developed in the 1700s, as the aristocrats began to sponsor their own concerts with instrumental music, the 3 sections expanding into 4 movements.

Consolidating the 4 movements and the symphony, using only the orchestra, as its own type of music was Haydn (1732-1809), earning him the title ‘Father of the Symphony’: I mean, he did compose over 100 symphonies! Initially, his first 30 symphonies had 3 movements but soon became 4. A famous musical anecdote is of his (Farewell) Symphony No.45 in F# minor, premiered in front of their patron, Prince Nikolaus in 1772, whereby the piece ends with each instrumentalist extinguishing their candle and exiting, leaving a desk of violins remaining: only a subtle hint to let the musicians return to their families!

The 4 movements typical to the symphony are:

1st movement: Allegro in sonata form

2nd movement: Adagio/ Largo/Andante  – originating from the Baroque aria da capo (an aria in 3-part musical form comprising a theme, a secondary contrasting part, and a repetition of the first part).

3rd movement: Minuet and Trio or Scherzo

4th movement: Allegro

Strings remained the biggest sections, but the orchestra did grown in size, with each instrument beginning to get individual parts, with the addition of a pair of horns, sometimes interchanged with the oboes, until they decided they could have horns and oboes. This was followed by the flutes, bassoons and clarinets, and finally the trumpet and timpani.

The next composer to take hold of the symphony is Mozart (1756-1791). Not only did he compose one of the shortest symphonies Symphony No. 32 K318 in G major (although arguably it could be considered an overture to another composer’s work) at 8 minutes, but he began to use symphonies to express his own emotions, a personal testimony, particularly in his Symphony 39, 40 and 41, with Symphony 40 being one of his few symphonies in a minor key. 

Another key composer is Beethoven (1770-1827), his first 2 symphonies emulating those of Haydn and Mozart, but from the third onwards he evolves his own style, crossing into the Romantic era. His Symphony No. 5 in C minor is the first symphony to use a trombone, with the first movement based on rhythmic drive and not melody. Such a dramatic and infamous piece, this was an initial model for the symphonies of both Brahms and Mahler.

Schubert composed one more symphony than Beethoven, with a total of 10. His Symphony No.8 (1822), affectionately known as the Unfinished Symphony is a beautiful piece of 2 movements, with a rich though dark opening in the lower registers of the celli and double basses. Mendelssohn and Schumann are also notable Classical symphonic composers.

In the late 1800s, a new wave of Romantic composers renewed the symphony, with the likes of Bruckner (1824-1896), Brahms (1833-1897), Tchaikovsky (1840-1893), Saint-Saens (1835-1921), Borodin (1833-1887) and Berlioz (1803-1869). Dvorak’s Symphony No.9 in E minor (a.k.a. New World Symphony, 1893), the Largo easily recognisable, having been used in adverts and films.

Moving into the 1900s lead to more composers stretching the boundaries of the symphony, with Sibelius (1865-1957) having no definitive breaks between movements, as in his seventh symphony. Mahler’s (1860-1911) sixth symphony calls for a hammer blow:


Other notable composers include Shostakovich (1906-1975), whose music was oppressed and used by the Soviet Union (such as his Symphony No. 7 (1941), named Leningrad) and was often stimulated by political events, as well as Rachmaninoff (1873-1943), Nielsen (1865-1931), Elgar (1857-1934), Martinu (1891-1959) and Stravinksy (1882-1971).

Here’s The Guardian’s list of revolutionary symphonies:


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