What is A Symphony?
A symphony is a large-scale orchestral composition.
In many ways, the best way to understand it is to see it as a composer’s “big moment”.
Symphonies are “reserved by composers for their most weighty and profound orchestral thoughts” (The Oxford Dictionary of Music; Kennedy, M. 1986).
As a result, symphonies tend to be long (they can often be 40 minutes in length).
They also contain complex compositional techniques and ideas as composers seek to explore and express their greatest talent.
The symphony has changed and developed a lot over the years from the symphonies of Haydn to Beethoven to the contemporary works of composers such as Philip Glass.
However, what has remained the same is the “attitude of mind, a certain mental approach by the composer” (Kenndey, M. 1986) to produce weighty and profound music.
The Origins of Symphony
Symphony is a word that has had different meanings over the years.
In 17th and 18th centuries, the word Sinfonia was a short instrumental piece (often containing 3 movements) – similar to what we would now describe of as an overture to an opera.
It was also used to describe an orchestral interlude in a large scale vocal work. For example, Handel’s “Pastoral” symphony was a piece of instrumental music in his famous vocal work Messiah.
Early examples of the symphony were produced by composers, such as CPE Bach.
However, it was Haydn who really laid the foundations for the development of the symphony.
The Classical Symphony
Haydn wrote a staggering 107 symphonies!!
In them, he explored a wide variety of methods and musical ideas.
Have a listen to this performance of one of his most famous symphonies:
Haydn Symphony No. 104 “London”
The typical 18th century orchestra consisted of strings, double woodwinds, horns and a continuo instrument (usually a harpsichord) and Haydn sought to explore the possibilities of the different timbres.
Most of Haydn’s symphonies have 4 movements (but there are a number of exceptions).
Subsequently, the use of 4 movements became the norm for the symphony and usually consisted of the following:
Mozart built upon the foundation laid by Haydn and explored his own musicianship throughout his 41 symphonies.
Have a listen to this extract from his final symphony No 41 “Jupiter”.
This is taken from the opening movement (interestingly, there are 5 movements in this symphony instead of 4)
Mozart Symphony No. 41 “Jupiter”
(Taken from The open source audio collection
78 RPMs & Cylinder Recordings – Public Domain)
As with much of his music, Beethoven’s 9 symphonies bridge the gap between the formality of the Classical period and the greater emotional expression of the Romantic period.
His 3rd symphony (Eroica) was nothing short of revolutionary with its bold harmonies and dramatic contrasts.
It was a “game changer” as in many ways Beethoven “tore up the musical rulebook”.
Have a listen to the opening of it:
Beethoven Symphony No. 3 “Eroica”
(performed by The Czech National Orchestra
source – musopen.org – Public Domain)
Can you hear the dramatic contrasts in the music?
This was like nothing heard before and it “wowed” and “shocked” audiences at the time!
It is a piece of music that is much studied to this day and is often cited as being the point at which the Romantic period truly dawned.
Beethoven initially dedicated this revolutionary symphony to Napolean! (although he changed this when Napoleon declared himself Emperor!).
Beethoven Symphony No.5
It is difficult to mention Beethoven’s symphonies without including “the fifth”.
The opening to his 5th symphony remains to this day arguably one of the most famous extracts of music of all time.
Have a look at the sheet music and listen to this recording:
(Performed by The Skidmore College Orchestra
– released to public domain)
It is interesting that in a style so focussed on deep expression of “weighty and profound orchestral thoughts”, it is a relatively “simple” melodic phrase that has remained so enduring in the mind’s of young and old alike!
Singing in Beethoven Symphony No. 9
In his 9th and final symphony, Beethoven introduced singing into the symphony with his setting of Ode To Joy.
This final symphony paved the way for significant change as some later composers have chosen to also include singing in what was previously an exclusively instrumental composition.
Other Romantic period symphonies
Many Romantic period composers wrote symphonies.
Brahms’ 4 symphonies combine classical design with romantic emotion, whilst Bruckner’s 9 symphonies are considered to be extremely important works.
Mahler said that “the symphony must embrace everything” and his 10 symphonies certainly explored many of the techniques that bridged the 19th and 20th centuries.
They characterised the move from the Romantic period to the increase experimentation and challenges to traditional tonality that characterised the 20th century.
Have a listen to this video of Mahler symphony No 2:
20th century and 21st century Symphonies
At various points during the 20th century critics pronounced that the symphony was “dead” as a form of composition. However, many composers, including Vaughan Williams and Shostakovich continued to compose symphonies that proved such assertions wrong.
Contemporary composers have also continued symphony writing, most notably works by Tippett and Maxwell Davies in the second half of the 20th century.
This has continued into the 21st century.
Philip Glass has written 12 symphonies, the most recent being premiered in January 2019.
Here is a video of Philip Glass’ First Symphony, performed by The Brooklyn Philharmonic Orchestra:
The Future of The Symphony
It is impossible to tell how long the symphony will endure for as a compositional form.
In the contemporary fast-paced world of “3 minute music tracks” the 40 minutes-plus of a symphony seems a very long time to engage audiences for.
However, the desire of composers to produce music that is “weighty and profound” is undiminished and so it would be rather foolish to suggest that the symphony is “dead” in contemporary composing – it may well have some life in it yet!