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Sinfonia is the Italian word for symphony, from the Latin symphonia, in turn derived from Ancient Greek συμφωνία sumphōnia (agreement or concord of sound), from the prefix σύν (together) and ϕωνή (sound). In English it most commonly refers to a 17th- or 18th-century orchestral piece used as an introduction, interlude, or postlude to an opera, oratorio, cantata, or suite.[a] In the Middle Ages down to as late as 1588, it was also the Italian name for the hurdy gurdy (Marcuse 1975, 477). Johann Sebastian Bach used the term for his keyboard compositions also known as Three-part Inventions, and in 20th-century usage it often is found in the names of chamber orchestras such as the Northern Sinfonia (Kennedy 2006).

Late Renaissance – early Baroque[edit]

In the very late Renaissance and early Baroque, a sinfonia was an alternative name for a canzona, fantasia or ricercar.[citation needed] These were almost always instrumental forms, all rooted however in a polyphonic tradition. Still later in the Baroque era, the word was used to designate an instrumental prelude, as described in the next section.[citation needed]

Overture or early symphony[edit]

For the sinfonias the style would be rather Italian (also for the single-movement ones) than French:

  • One-movement sinfonia opening the secular cantatas Non sa che sia dolore, BWV 209, and Mer hahn en neue Oberkeet, BWV 212
  • Sinfonia followed by an "adagio" opening the Easter Oratorio, BWV 249. Although the chorus joins in the third movement of that oratorio, these three successive opening movements could be seen as a 3-movement "Italian" sinfonia to the oratorio.
  • Some opening movements of his church cantatas were like up-beat movements of organ concertos (BWV 29, 35, 49, 169)—later Bach would rework some of these sinfonias to harpsichord concerto movements.

Symphony with an alternative scope[edit]

Examples of such "sinfonias" composed after the classical era include:

See also[edit]


  1. ^ This definition is taken from the Oxford American Dictionary, which gives the origin of the word as Italian. It is also found in other related languages such as Spanish or Portuguese. For a detailed etymology see Symphony. See also Talk:Sinfonia.
  • Anon. "Sinfonia". The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. Stanley Sadie. 20 vol. London, Macmillan Publishers Ltd., 1980. ISBN 1-56159-174-2
  • Bukofzer, Manfred. Music in the Baroque Era. New York, W.W. Norton & Co., 1947. ISBN 0-393-09745-5
  • Cusick, Suzanne G., and Jan Larue. "Sinfonia (i)". The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell. London: Macmillan Publishers, 2001.
  • Kennedy, Michael. "Sinfonia". The Oxford Dictionary of Music, second edition, revised, associate editor, Joyce Bourne. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. ISBN 978-0-19-861459-3.
  • Marcuse, Sibyl. Musical Instruments: A Comprehensive Dictionary, corrected edition. The Norton Library. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1975. ISBN 0-393-00758-8.
  • Randel, Don (ed.). The New Harvard Dictionary of Music. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1986. ISBN 0-674-61525-5

External links[edit]