symphony [Gr.,=sounding together], a sonata for orchestra.
The Italian operatic overture, called sinfonia, was standardized by Alessandro Scarlatti at the end of the 17th cent. into three sections, the first and last being fast and the middle one slower in tempo. Since these sinfonie had little musical connection with the operas they preceded, they could be played alone in concert. It became customary in the early 18th cent. to write independent orchestral pieces in the same style, which were the first real symphonies.
G. B. Sammartini wrote a number of works that influenced and partially defined symphonic form and style. Johann Stamitz, who was leader of the Mannheim group of composers, was one of the first to add a second lyrical theme in the first movement and to expand the symphony's three movements to four. Other important contributions to the development of the symphony were made by C. P. E. Bach, Johann Christian Bach, C. H. Graun, and F. J. Gossec.
It was Haydn and Mozart, however, who synthesized the techniques of all preceding schools into the Viennese classical symphony. This composition consisted of four movements—the first, a fast sonata-form movement; the second, a slow movement; the third, a dance, usually a minuet; and the fourth, a fast finale, usually a rondo and frequently a combination of sonata form and rondo. Beethoven expanded the dimensions of this form and intensified the element of personal expression far beyond the styles of Haydn and Mozart. He also initiated the use of a chorus in the symphony.
After Beethoven the classical ideal was continued in the symphonies of Schubert, Mendelssohn, and Schumann, although the classical elements are often overshadowed by romantic traits—repetition in place of actual thematic development, profusion of themes rather than severely limited thematic material, and concern for mood and atmosphere in orchestral color and tone painting. Mainly through the device of thematic transformation, Berlioz adapted the symphonic style and form to program music in his Symphonie fantastique, a procedure that was transformed by Liszt into the symphonic poem and brought to its height by Richard Strauss.
Reacting strongly to the romantic orchestral style, Brahms revived the classical model as defined by Beethoven. Although his harmony, melodic formulas, and use of orchestral color are romantic, Brahms's formal designs and developmental procedures carry on and elaborate on the classical style. Bruckner combined classical formal outlines with the chromatic harmonies and extended melodic structures of the Wagnerian style, and his symphonies influenced those of Mahler in their huge orchestral dimensions. Other important romantic symphonists were Dvořák and Tchaikovsky in the 19th cent. and Sibelius in the 20th cent.
The symphony has been treated with unprecedented freedom by contemporary composers, as illustrated by Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms, Bloch's Israel, which includes voices, Webern's Symphony for nine solo instruments, Hindemith's Symphony for Concert Band, and Roy Harris's Folksong Symphony and Symphony for Voices. Other important American symphonists are Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson, Walter Piston, Roger Sessions, Henry Cowell, Randall Thompson, and Howard Hanson.
See R. Simpson, ed., The Symphony (2 vol., 1972); D. F. Tovey, Essays in Musical Analysis: Symphonies (1935, repr. 1972); R. Nadeau, The Symphony (rev. ed. 1974); H. Chappell, Sounds Magnificent (1986).
Taking over from Haydn and Mozart, Beethoven raised the sym. to a new plane of emotional expression, his 3rd Symphony (Eroica, 1803–4) ending the 18th cent. at a stroke and striding forward into an age when democracy, revolution, and ethics were to become influential factors in art, while at the same time effecting a mus. revolution by its enlarged dimensions, boldness of harmony, subtlety of key relationships, and general scope. In the Pastoral Symphony, No.6 (1807–8), Beethoven reconciled perfectly the claims of ‘absolute’ and ‘descriptive’ mus., and in the 9th (1817–23) he introduced human vv. into the finale in a setting of Schiller's Ode to Joy. The floodgates were now open. Schubert's syms. bridged the way to the Romantic period. The syms. of Mendelssohn and Schumann combine classical outlines with romantic feeling and some pictorialism, as in the former's Scotch and Italian syms. and the latter's Spring and Rhenish. Brahms's 4 syms. eschew pictorial associations and uphold the virtues of classical design (though they are deeply romantic in essence and also formally unusual in places) as an antidote to the growing craze for Lisztian symphonic poems and the operas of Wagner (who wrote only one early sym. but was contemplating others when he died). Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique (1830) is one of the most remarkable works in the genre, frankly programmatic, brilliantly orchestrated, and opening up horizons which were not further explored until the picturesque late-19th-cent. syms. of Tchaikovsky. Yet the epitome of the Romantic sym., imbued still with classical principles while on a huge architectural scale, is to be found in the 9 syms. of Bruckner. Berlioz's pioneering was taken a stage further by Mahler, whose 10 syms. not only bridge the 19th and 20th cents. but also form a ‘transition passage’ of their own between 19th-cent. mus. idioms and the new 20th-cent. preoccupation with the dissolution of tonality. The crisis of the sym. in the early years of the 20th cent. is exemplified by the contrasting approaches of Sibelius and Mahler. The former expressed his faith in compression, concentration, and ‘absolute’ mus. whereas Mahler said that ‘the symphony must embrace everything’. In Sibelius, especially in the 4th and 7th syms., symphonic thought and processes are elliptical and pared to essentials. In Mahler, vv. are used in 4 of the syms., philosophical and religious theories are at the root of their inspiration, and wildly juxtaposed thematic material is brought into cohesive unity by sheer force of conviction, the instrumentation being exotic and multiple. The two attitudes, regarded as mutually exclusive, are in fact not incompatible and a compromise has governed the development of the 20th-cent. sym., often within the works of the same composer, e.g., compare the severe ‘classicism’ of Vaughan Williams's 4th Sym. with the programmatic 7th, Sinfonia Antartica; compare Shostakovich's 5th Sym. with his 13th and 14th.
From time to time throughout the 20th cent. composers and pundits have pronounced the sym. dead but it shows an encouraging refusal to lie down. Nielsen (6), Vaughan Williams (9), Bax (7), Shostakovich (15), Ives (4), W. Schuman (10), Rubbra (11), not to mention Hovhaness (well over 60), and many others show that the sym. has lost neither its attraction nor its challenge for composers. Argument frequently occurs over whether certain works designated ‘symphony’ really merit the description, e.g. Stravinsky's Symphony in 3 Movements (1945), Messiaen's Turangalîla (1946–8), etc. An answer to this is that no mus. form can be regarded as immutable. The 18th-cent. composer (with the likely exception of Haydn) would scarcely recognize some 20th-cent. syms. in form, but there is more to a sym. than its title. It implies an attitude of mind, a certain mental approach by the composer, and in this respect the 4 syms. of Tippett and the 6 syms. by Maxwell Davies, as well as many others comp. since 1960, suggest that, for some considerable time to come, reports of the demise of the sym. will prove to have been exaggerated.(4) In the USA ‘symphony’ also means ‘symphony orchestra’.(5) Sym. concert means, pedantically, a concert at which a sym. is played, but it is generally used to mean a concert by a sym. orch., whatever it is playing.
sym·pho·ny / ˈsimfənē/ • n. (pl. -nies) an elaborate musical composition for full orchestra, typically in four movements, at least one of which is traditionally in sonata form. ∎ chiefly hist. an orchestral interlude in a large-scale vocal work. ∎ something regarded, typically favorably, as a composition of different elements: autumn is a symphony of texture and pattern. ∎ (esp. in names of orchestras) short for symphony orchestra: the Boston Symphony. ∎ a concert performed by a symphony orchestra: tickets to the symphony.