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A symphony is traditionally considered to be the highest form of orchestral music. It is usually a work for large forces, consisting of several movements. Most symphonies are written for a full orchestra but there are rare exceptions such as the Widor Organ Symphonies for organ alone which use other combinations of instruments. Voices, both solo and choral, are occasionally used in symphonies; the most famous example is Beethoven's Symphony No. 9, in the final movement which sets Schiller's "Ode to Joy". Gustav Mahler also used voices in several of his symphonies, and there exist other examples from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries of unconventional instrumentation.


The symphony traditionally contains four movements which are ordered in a fast-slow-fast-fast sequence. The form in the classical period was as follows:

  1. Movement 1: Fast, but sometimes with a slow introduction: always Sonata-Allegro form.
  2. Movement 2: Slow, such as an Adagio, Andante, or Largo.
  3. Movement 3: Moderately fast: Minuet or Scherzo.
  4. Movement 4: Fast, often Allegro or Allegretto.

The positions of the second and third movements would occasionally be reversed from the order shown here. This became more common through the nineteenth century. Although the movements were intended to be separate from one another, each with a clear beginning and ending, the Fifth symphony of Beethoven contains a linking passage between the scherzo and finale. This was one of the first examples of adjoined movements. Sometimes, certain composers would add or remove movements from the traditional order. For example, Beethoven's Sixth (the 'Pastoral') and Schumann's Third (the 'Rhenish') contain five separate movements. Several early Mozart symphonies have only two or three movements. However, this may be due to incomplete manuscripts or the fact that his early symphonies were arrangements of sonata movements or string quartets. The Third and Fifth symphonies by Jean Sibelius contain only three movements, and his ground-breaking Seventh was amongst the first to be contained in a single movement. At the other end of the spectrum, Gustav Mahler expanded both the duration and number of movements in his symphonies; his Third contains six movements lasting nearly two hours. In the 20th and 21st centuries, the exact definition of a symphony became less restricting.

In it's classical form, the first movement of a tonal symphony is always a sonata form in the tonic key, often prefaced by a slow introduction. The slow movement may be in binary or ternary form, or possibly some other type of sonata form. It is usually in a different but related key to the first. The third movement in early symphonies was usually a minuet, followed by a trio, and then a repeat of the minuet section. Many composers after Beethoven's time abandoned the minuet and trio, and replaced it with less common forms, such as the march. It was often in the tonic key. The finale was generally in rondo, sonata, or sonata-rondo form, which returned to the home key at a slightly slower tempo.

History of the Symphony


The earliest compositions which are described as a symphony are found in the Renaissance and Baroque periods. The word was used to describe as a single-movement piece that often served as an interlude or introduction. The name 'sinfonia' is also used to describe this form, and did not necessarily mean an orchestral piece, nor one in sonata form, although a slow introduction is sometimes found. J.S. Bach's solo keyboard partitas often begin with a sinfonia movement and there are other notable examples of its use as an interlude, such as the 'Pastoral Symphony' which can be found in both Bach's Christmas Oratorio and Handel's Messiah. Symphonies could also be found as opera interludes.

Classical Period

By the time of J.S. Bach's death, vocal music was becoming less important and composers, including his sons, were writing more orchestral music. In this way, the symphony as a work in several movements for orchestra started to develop. At the same time the idea of the sonata form also emerged. C.P.E. Bach provides some of the earliest examples of symphonies as stand-alone pieces with a sonata movement and a minuet and trio. In the early Classical period most symphonies contained only three movements in a fast-slow-fast plan, but by the end of the eighteenth century four movements was the norm. Joseph Haydn wrote 104 surviving symphonies (and probably others that have been lost) which show how the orchestra expanded during his lifetime as well as the length of the work as a whole.

Ludwig van Beethoven is especially important in the development of the symphony as he is responsible for extending the form and for applying Romantic ideals of the self and of narrative to it. His Third Symphony, the 'Eroica', was the longest written up to that point and is also notable for including three French horns in its scoring instead of the usual two. It also features what were, at the time, extreme dissonances and much greater unity between the four movements. In his Fifth and Sixth symphonies Beethoven joined movements together, again to create a unified and narrative effect in the course of the work, and in his Ninth added a chorus to the final movement. This final symphony again pushed the bounds of length, lasting over an hour in performance.

Notable examples

  1. Haydn's Symphony No. 104
  2. Mozart's Symphony No. 25
  3. Mozart's Symphony No. 40
  4. Mozart's Symphony No. 41: Jupiter
  5. Beethoven's Symphony No. 3: Eroica
  6. Beethoven's Symphony No. 5, the most popular piece of classical music in history; first mainstream use of trombones in any symphony
  7. Beethoven's Symphony No. 7

Romantic Period

The Romantic period saw several developments in music which directly affected ideas about the symphony. At this time several new instruments such as the cor anglais, concert harp and valved brass instruments came into widespread use and many composers, notably Berlioz, began to include them in their scores. This lead to the expansion of the string section to balence the enlarged wind and brass. In addition, composers began to expand the technical demands upon players to exploit new inventions in instrument manufacture. Another key feature of music at this time, which Berlioz was again partly responsible for, was the use of a 'programme' or a descriptive element to music. Berlioz's 'Symphonie Fantastique' (Fantastic Symphony in the sense of being about fiction) contains movements which variously describe a ball, an execution and the 'witches' sabbath'. Composers also drew upon contemporary poetry such as Goethe's Faust as inspiration. It is also important to point out that in the nineteenth century composers started to be thought of as having the same status as poets or artists rather than just craftsmen who wrote for others. Following Beethoven, symphonies from this period often demonstrate the Romantic ideal of the artist struggling against fate and the world and trying to achieve a higher goal. The length of the symphony was also expanded during the nineteenth century to better emphasise this 'epic' quality: although the first movement was still in a sonata form, it had greatly expanded sections and could be as long as an entire Haydn symphony. In addition, the other three movements were no longer pleasant dances or light music but had the same weight as the first and would maintain the 'musical argument' throughout the piece. By the early twentieth century composers such as Gustav Mahler were writing works with five or six movements that had a duration of well over an hour in order to express their thoughts. Mahler, Scriabin and Liszt also advanced harmony in their symphonic music, sometimes to the brink of atonality.

Notable examples

  1. Beethoven's Symphony No. 9: Choral, Ode to Joy, the first use of the Chorus in a symphony
  2. Berlioz's Roméo et Juliette, a dramatic choral symphony
  3. Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique
  4. Brahms' Symphony No. 1
  5. Bruckner's Symphony No. 7, first use of Wagner Tubas in symphonic context
  6. Bruckner's Symphony No. 9
  7. Dvorak's Symphony No. 9: From the New World
  8. Liszt's A Faust Symphony
  9. Mahler's Symphony No. 2: Resurection
  10. Mahler's Symphony No. 3, longest symphony in standard repertoire
  11. Mahler's Symphony No. 8: Symphony of a Thousand
  12. Schubert's Symphony No. 8: Unfinished
  13. Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4
  14. Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6: Pathetique
  15. Tchaikovsky's Manfred Symphony

20th Century

In the twentieth century, the definition of what a symphony was became less strictly defined. Some composers, such as Edward Elgar, Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich continued to write four-movement works based around the sonata-allegro first movement, albeit in a more modern musical language. Others, such as Igor Stravinsky, Anton von Webern and Jean Sibelius changed instrumentations, reduced the number of movements and scaled down the proportions of the symphony. Still others abandoned the symphony as the dominant form altogether, or else revived the Baroque and Classical forms of a short piece for small forces.

Notable examples

  1. Jean Sibelius: Symphony No. 3, truncates scherzo and finale into one movement, written for chamber orchestra
  2. Jean Sibelius: Symphony No. 7, one movement
  3. Anton Webern: Symphony, composed for 15 instruments and only 10 mins. in duration
  4. Dmitri Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5
  5. Sergei Prokofiev: Symphony No. 1
  6. Sergei Prokofiev: Symphony No. 5
  7. Olivier Messiaen: Turangalila Symphonie
  8. Luciano Berio: Sinfonia, a parody on the scherzo of Mahler's Symphony No. 2
  9. Witold Lutoslawski: Symphony no. 3
  10. Henryk Mikolaj Gorecki: Symphony No.3 'Symphony of Sorrowful Songs', use of solo voice and minimalist techniques
  11. Richard Strauss: An Alpine Symphony, a cross between symphony and tone poem

21st Century

In the 21st Century the symphony has still survived as a genre used by composers. However many of the issues surrounding it in the twentieth century are still relevant. Some composers have attempted to write based on trends from the past, for example adding electronics or unusual instruments to the orchestra. Others have revived romantic ideas and tonality. As with much 21st-century music, there is less a dominant trend than many schools of thought existing at the same time.

Notable examples

  1. John Adams: Doctor Atomic Symphony, following the examples of Hindemith, the symphony is based on material from the opera of the same name.
  2. Einojuhani Rautavaara: Symphony No.8, in four movements, using a neo-romantic sound world including tone clusters.
  3. Thomas Ades: Tevot, not a symphony by name but contains many characteristics of a symphonic piece

Musical Forms
Polyphonic forms CanonCanzonaInventionFugueOrganumRicercarRoundSinfornia
Sectional forms Strophic formChain formBinary formTernary formRondo formArch formRitornello form
Cyclical forms BalletConcertoMassOratorioOperaRequiemSonataSong cycleSuiteSymphony
composed forms
BagatelleFantasiaEtudeImpromptuPreludeRhapsodySymphonic poem
Dance forms AllemandeBalladBoleroContradanceEstampieJigPolkaWaltz

French: CouranteGigueMinuetSarabande

Italian: BarcarolleSaltarelloTarantella

Polish: MazurkaPolonaise