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For other uses, see Symphony (disambiguation).

A symphony is an extended musical composition in Western classical music, generally scored for orchestra or concert band. A symphony usually contains at least one movement or episode 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.


The word symphony is derived from Heinrich Schütz's Symphoniae sacrae, op. 6, and Symphoniarum sacrarum secunda pars, op. 10, published in 1629 and 1647, respectively. Except for Viadana's collection, which contained purely instrumental and secular music, these were all collections of sacred vocal works, some with instrumental accompaniment.

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 (Larue, Bonds, Walsh, and Wilson 2001).

Another important progenitor of the symphony was the ripieno concerto—a form resembling a concerto for strings and continuo, but with no solo instruments. The earliest-known ripieno concerti are Giuseppe Torelli's set of six, op. 5, published in 1698. Perhaps the best-known ripieno concerto is Johann Sebastian Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 3.

18th century

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 another fast movement. Haydn and Mozart, whose early symphonies were in this form, eventually replaced it with a four-movement form through the addition of an additional middle movement (Prout 1895, 249). The four-movement symphony became 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 (Jackson 1999, 26; Stein 1979, 106):

  1. an opening sonata or allegro
  2. a slow movement, such as adagio
  3. a minuet or scherzo with trio
  4. an allegro, rondo, or sonata

Variations on this layout, like changing the order of the middle movements or adding a slow introduction to the first movement, were common. Haydn and Mozart and their contemporaries 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 Milan, Vienna and Mannheim. The Milanese school centred around Giovanni Battista Sammartini and included Antonio Brioschi, Ferdinando Galimberti and Giovanni Battista Lampugnani. Early exponents of the form in Vienna included Georg Christoph Wagenseil, Wenzel Raimund Birck and Georg Matthias Monn, while the Mannheim school included Johann Stamitz.

Later significant Viennese composers of symphonies include Johann Baptist Wanhal, 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 107 symphonies over the course of 36 years (Webster and Feder 2001), and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who wrote at least 47 symphonies in 24 years (Eisen and Sadie 2001).

19th century

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. 6 is a programmatic work, featuring instrumental imitations of bird calls and a storm, and a convention-defying fifth movement. 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). Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique, a work famous for its innovative orchestration (Berlioz 2002, xv) 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, Saint-Saëns, Mahler, Franck, and Dvořák.

By the end of the 19th century, some French organists (e.g., Charles-Marie Widor and his students Charles Tournemire and Louis Vierne) named some of their organ compositions symphony: Their instruments (many built by Aristide Cavaillé-Coll) allowed an orchestral approach (Kaye 2001; Smith 2001; Thomson 2001).

20th and 21st centuries

At the beginning of the 20th century, Gustav Mahler wrote long, large-scale symphonies. His Eighth Symphony, for example, was composed in 1906 and 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—originally op. 80, changed to op. 180—composed in 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 is shorter, of more modest aims, or "lighter" than a symphony, such as Sergei Prokofiev's Sinfonietta (Kennedy 2006; Temperley 2001).

There has also been diversification in the size of orchestra required. While Mahler's symphonies call for extravagant resources, Arnold Schoenberg's two Chamber Symphonies, opp. 9 (1906) and 38a (1906-39), and the Chamber Symphonies by Franz Schreker (1916), George Enescu (1954), Edison Denisov (1982, 1994) and John Adams (1992) 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 from 1951 (Hansen 2005, 95), and Alan Hovhaness's Symphonies No. 4, op. 165, No. 7, "Nanga Parvat", op. 175, No. 14, "Ararat", op. 194, and No. 23, "Ani", op. 249—composed in 1958, 1959, 1961, and 1972 respectively—which are symphonic works for school and college wind bands. Hovhaness is also notable for having written 67 numbered symphonies, whilst Englishman Havergal Brian wrote 32.


Symphony 5, movement 1
File:Ludwig van Beethoven - Symphonie 5 c-moll - 1. Allegro con brio.ogg
Ludwig van Beethoven's 5th Symphony, 1st movement

Symphony 5, movement 2
File:Ludwig van Beethoven - Symphonie 5 c-moll - 2. Andante con moto.ogg
Ludwig van Beethoven's 5th Symphony, 2nd movement

Symphony 5, movement 3
File:Ludwig van Beethoven - Symphonie 5 c-moll - 3. Allegro.ogg
Ludwig van Beethoven's 5th Symphony, 3rd movement

Symphony 5, movement 4
File:Ludwig van Beethoven - Symphonie 5 c-moll - 4. Allegro.ogg
Ludwig van Beethoven's 5th Symphony, 4th movement

Problems playing these files? See media help.

See also


  • Anon. 2008. "Michael Kennedy, associate editor Joyce Bourne. Oxford Music Online (Accessed 24 July 2008) (Subscription access)
  • Berlioz, Hector. 1857. Roméo et Juliette: Sinfonie dramatique: avec choeurs, solos de chant et prologue en récitatif choral, op. 17. Partition de piano par Th. Ritter. Winterthur: J. Rieter-Biedermann.
  • Berlioz, Hector. 2002. Berlioz's Orchestration Treatise: A Translation and Commentary, translated by Hugh Macdonald. Cambridge University Press, 2002. ISBN 0-521-23953-2.
  • Brown, Howard Mayer. 2001. "Symphonia". The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell. London: Macmillan Publishers.
  • Eisen, Cliff, and Stanley Sadie. 2001. "Mozart (3): (Johann Chrysostum) Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart". The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell. London: Macmillan.
  • Hansen, Richard K. 2005. The American Wind Band: A Cultural History. Chicago, Ill: GIA Publications. ISBN 1-57999-467-9.
  • Jackson, Timothy L. 1999. Tchaikovsky, Symphony no. 6 (Pathétique). Cambridge Music Handbooks. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-64111-X (cloth); ISBN 0-521-64676-6 (pbk).
  • Kaye, Nicholas. 2001. "Tournemire, Charles (Arnould)". The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell. London: Macmillan Publishers.
  • Kennedy, Michael. 2006. "Sinfonietta". The Oxford Dictionary of Music, second edition, revised, Joyce Bourne, associate editor. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Larue, Jan, Mark Evan Bonds, Stephen Walsh, and Charles Wilson. 2001. "Symphony". The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell. London: Macmillan Publishers.
  • Marcuse, Sybil. 1975. Musical Instruments: A Comprehensive Dictionary. Revised edition. The Norton Library. New York: W. W. Norton. ISBN 0-393-00758-8.
  • Prout, Ebenezer. 1895. Applied Forms: A Sequel to 'Musical Form', third edition. Augener's Edition, no. 9183. London: Augener. Facsimile reprint, New York: AMS Press, 1971. ISBN 0-404-05138-3
  • Smith, Rollin. 2001. "Vierne, Louis(-Victor-Jules)". The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell. London: Macmillan.
  • Wind Instruments - Sumponyah; Sampunia; Sumphonia; Symphonia". In The Music of the Bible, with Some Account of the Development of Modern Musical Instruments from Ancient Types, new edition. London: Novello and Co.; New York: H.W. Gray Co.
  • Stein, Leon. 1979. Structure & Style: The Study and Analysis of Musical Forms, expanded edition. Princeton, N.J.: Summy-Birchard Music. ISBN 0-87487-164-6.
  • Temperley, Nicholas. 2001. "Sinfonietta." The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell. London: Macmillan Publishers.
  • Thomson, Andrew. 2001. "Widor, Charles-Marie(-Jean-Albert)", 2. Works. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell. London: Macmillan.
  • Webster, James, and Georg Feder. 2001. "Haydn, (Franz) Joseph". The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell. London: Macmillan.

External links


  • A Chronology of the Symphony 1730-2005 A list of selected major symphonies composed 1800-2005, with composers of 18th century symphonies
  • The Symphony - Interactive Guide
  • A fairly detailed list of symphonists, mostly active after 1800 - Part 1
  • A fairly detailed list of symphonists, mostly active after 1800 - Part 2
  • A fairly detailed list of symphonists, mostly active after 1800 - Part 3
  • A fairly detailed list of symphonists, mostly active after 1800 - Part 4
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