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For other uses, see Symphony (disambiguation).
A performance of the 8th Symphony of Gustav Mahler in the Kölner Philharmonie. The orchestra is the Wuppertaler Sinfonieorchester, conducted by Heinz-Walter Florin.

A symphony is an extended musical composition in Western classical music, most often written for orchestra. Symphonies have been composed for both symphony and chamber orchestras, concert bands, chamber ensembles, organ, piano, choir, or combinations of these resources. 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.

The term was used from the ancient Greek era, with meanings which evolved over time. By the 18th century the word had taken on the meaning common today: a work for orchestra in several (usually four) movements, and after 1790 assumed an important role in concert life.


The word symphony is derived from Greek συμφωνία (symphonia), meaning "agreement or concord of sound", "concert of vocal or instrumental music", from σύμφωνος (symphōnos), "harmonious" (Oxford English Dictionary). The word referred to an astonishing variety of different things, before ultimately settling on its current meaning designating a musical form.

In late Greek and medieval theory, the word was used for consonance, as opposed to διαφωνία (diaphōnia), which was the word for dissonance (Brown 2001). In the Middle Ages and later, the Latin form symphonia was used to describe various instruments, especially those capable of producing more than one sound simultaneously (Brown 2001). Isidore of Seville was the first to use the word symphonia as the name of a two-headed drum, and from c. 1155 to 1377 the French form symphonie was the name of the organistrum or hurdy-gurdy. In late medieval England, symphony was used in both of these senses, whereas by the 16th century it was equated with the dulcimer. In German, Symphonie was a generic term for spinets and virginals from the late 16th century to the 18th century (Marcuse 1975, 501). In the sense of "sounding together," the word begins to appear in the titles of some works by 16th- and 17th-century composers including Giovanni Gabrieli's Sacrae symphoniae, and Symphoniae sacrae, liber secundus, published in 1597 and 1615, respectively; Adriano Banchieri's Eclesiastiche sinfonie, dette canzoni in aria francese, per sonare, et cantare, op. 16, published in 1607; Lodovico Grossi da Viadana's Sinfonie musicali, op. 18, published in 1610; and 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 (Bowman 1971, 7; Larue, Bonds, Walsh, and Wilson 2001).

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).

18th century[edit]

During the 18th century, "the symphony was cultivated with extraordinary intensity" (Larue, Bonds, Walsh, and Wilson 2001, §I.2, citing two scholarly catalogs listing over 13,000 distinct works: Larue 1959 and 1988). It played a role in many areas of public life, including church services (Larue, Bonds, Walsh, and Wilson 2001, §I.2), but a particularly strong area of support for symphonic performances was the aristocracy. In Vienna, perhaps the most important location in Europe for the composition of symphonies, "literally hundreds of noble families supported musical establishments, generally dividing their time between Vienna and their ancestral estate [elsewhere in the Empire]" (Larue, Bonds, Walsh, and Wilson 2001, §I.10). Since the normal size of the orchestra at the time was quite small, many of these courtly establishments were capable of performing symphonies. The young Joseph Haydn, taking up his first job as a music director in 1757 for the Morzin family, found that when the Morzin household was in Vienna, his own orchestra was only part of a lively and competitive musical scene, with multiple aristocrats sponsoring concerts with their own ensembles (Carpani 1823, 66, cited in Gotwals 1968).

Larue, Bonds, Walsh, and Wilson (2001, §I.4) trace the gradual expansion of the symphonic orchestra through the 18th century. At first, symphonies were string symphonies, written in just four parts: first violin, second violin, viola, and bass (the bass line was taken by cello(s), double bass(es) playing the part an octave below, and perhaps also a bassoon). Occasionally the early symphonists even dispensed with the viola part, thus creating three-part symphonies. A continuo part played on a harpsichord or other chording instrument[citation needed] was also possible.

The first accretions to this simple ensemble were a pair of horns, occasionally a pair of oboes, and then both horns and oboes together. Over the century, other instruments were added to the classical orchestra: flutes (sometimes replacing the oboes), separate parts for bassoons, clarinets, and trumpets and timpani. Works varied in their scoring concerning which of these additional instruments were to appear. The full-scale classical orchestra, deployed at the end of the century for the largest-scale symphonies, has the standard string ensemble mentioned above, pairs of winds (flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons), a pair of horns, and timpani. A keyboard continuo instrument (harpsichord or piano) remained an option.

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 a second 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.

The normal four-movement form became the following (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, 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).

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 later significant Viennese composers of symphonies included Johann Baptist Wanhal, Karl Ditters von Dittersdorf and Leopold Hoffmann. The Mannheim school included Johann Stamitz (Anon. n.d.).

The most important symphonists of the latter part of the 18th century are Haydn, who wrote at least 107 symphonies over the course of 36 years (Webster and Feder 2001), and Mozart, with at least 47 symphonies in 24 years (Eisen and Sadie 2001).

19th century[edit]

At the beginning of the 19th century, Beethoven elevated the symphony from an everyday genre produced in large quantities to a supreme form in which composers strove to reach the highest potential of music in just a few works (Dahlhaus 1989, 265). Beethoven began with two works directly emulating his models Mozart and Haydn, then seven more symphonies, starting with the Third Symphony ( "Eroica") that expanded the scope and ambition of the genre. His Symphony No. 5 is perhaps the most famous symphony ever written; its transition from the emotionally stormy C minor opening movement to a triumphant major-key finale provided a model adopted by later symphonists such as Brahms (Libbey 1999, 40) and Mahler.[citation needed] His Symphony No. 6 is a programmatic work, featuring instrumental imitations of bird calls and a storm, and a convention-defying[clarification needed] fifth movement. His Symphony No. 9 takes the unprecedented step[contradiction] for a symphony of including parts for vocal soloists and choir in the last movement, making it a choral symphony.[citation needed]

Of the symphonies of Franz Schubert, two are core repertory items and are frequently performed. Of the Eighth Symphony (1822), Schubert completed only the first two movements; this highly Romantic work is usually called by its nickname "The Unfinished." His last completed symphony, the Ninth (1826) is a massive work in the Classical idiom (Rosen 1997:521).

Of the early Romantics, Felix Mendelssohn (five symphonies) and Robert Schumann (four) continued to write symphonies in the classical mold, though using their own musical language. In contrast, Hector Berlioz favored programmatic works, including his "dramatic symphony" Roméo et Juliette and the highly original Symphonie fantastique. The latter is also a programme work and has both a march and a waltz and five movements instead of the customary four. His fourth and last symphony, the Grande symphonie funèbre et triomphale (originally titled Symphonie militaire) was composed in 1840 for a 200-piece marching military band, to be performed out of doors, and is an early example of a band symphony. Berlioz later added optional string parts and a choral finale (Macdonald 2001b, §3: 1831–42). In 1851, Richard Wagner declared that all of these post-Beethoven symphonies were no more than an epilogue, offering nothing substantially new. Indeed, after Schumann's last symphony, the "Rhenish" composed in 1850, for two decades the Lisztian symphonic poem appeared to have displaced the symphony as the leading form of large-scale instrumental music. If the symphony had been eclipsed, it was not long before it re-emerged in a "second age" in the 1870s and 1880s, with the symphonies of Anton Bruckner, Johannes Brahms, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Alexander Borodin, Antonín Dvořák, and César Franck—works which continued to dominate the concert repertory for at least a century (Dahlhaus 1989, 265).

Over the course of the 19th century, composers continued to add to the size of the symphonic orchestra. Around the beginning of the century, a full-scale orchestra would consist of the string section plus pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, trumpets, and lastly a set of timpani (Larue, Bonds, Walsh, and Wilson 2001, II.1) This is, for instance, the scoring used in Beethoven's symphonies numbered 1, 2, 4, 7, and 8 (instrumentation of Beethoven symphonies taken from the chapter headings for each symphony in Hopkins 1981,[page needed]). Trombones, which had previously been confined to church and theater music, came to be added to the symphonic orchestra, notably in Beethoven's 5th, 6th, and 9th symphonies. The combination of bass drum, triangle, and cymbals (sometimes also: piccolo), which 18th century composers employed as a coloristic effect in so-called "Turkish music", came to be increasingly used during the second half of the 19th century without any such connotations of genre (Larue, Bonds, Walsh, and Wilson 2001, II.1). By the time of Mahler (see below), it was possible for a composer to write a symphony scored for "a veritable compendium of orchestral instruments" (Larue, Bonds, Walsh, and Wilson 2001, II.1). In addition to increasing in variety of instruments, 19th century symphonies were gradually augmented with more string players and more wind parts, so that that the orchestra grew substantially in sheer numbers, as concert halls likewise grew (Larue, Bonds, Walsh, and Wilson 2001, II.1).

20th century[edit]

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 (Tawa 2001, 352).

A concern with unification of the traditional four-movement symphony into a single, subsuming formal conception had emerged in the late 19th century. This has been called a "two-dimensional symphonic form", and finds its key turning point in Arnold Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony No. 1, Op. 9 (1909), which was followed in the 1920s by other notable single-movement German symphonies, including Kurt Weill’s First Symphony (1921), Max Butting’s Chamber Symphony, Op. 25 (1923), and Paul Dessau's 1926 Symphony (Vande Moortele 2013, 269, 284n9).

There remained, however, certain tendencies. 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 for orchestra (Kennedy 2006a; Temperley 2001).

In the first half of the century, Edward Elgar, Gustav Mahler, Jean Sibelius, Carl Nielsen, Igor Stravinsky, Bohuslav Martinů, Roger Sessions, and Dmitri Shostakovich composed symphonies "extraordinary in scope, richness, originality, and urgency of expression" (Steinberg 1995, 404). One measure of the significance of a symphony is the degree to which it reflects conceptions of temporal form particular to the age in which it was created. Five composers from across the span of the 20th century who fulfill this measure are Sibelius, Stravinsky, Luciano Berio (in his Sinfonia, 1968–69), Elliott Carter (in his Symphony of Three Orchestras, 1976), and Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen (in Symphony/Antiphony, 1980) (Grimley 2013, 287).

Beginning in the 20th century, more symphonies have been written for concert band than in past centuries. Although examples exist from as early as 1932, the first such symphony of importance since Hector Berlioz wrote the Grande symphonie funèbre et triomphale in 1840 is Nikolai Miaskovsky’s Symphony No. 19, Op. 46, composed in 1939 (Battisti 2002, 42). Some further examples are Paul Hindemith's Symphony in B-flat for Band, composed in 1951[citation needed]; Morton Gould's Symphony No. 4 "West Point", composed in 1952; Vincent Persichetti's Symphony No. 6, Op. 69, composed in 1956; Vittorio Giannini's Symphony No.3, composed in 1959[citation needed]; 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[citation needed]; Alfred Reed's 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th symphonies, composed in 1979, 1988, 1992, and 1994 respectively[citation needed]; and Johan de Meij's Symphony No. 1 "The Lord of the Rings", composed in 1988, and his Symphony No. 2 "The Big Apple", composed in 1993[citation needed].

See also[edit]


  • Anon. n.d. "Mannheim School". Encyclopedia Britannica (accessed 27 January 2015).
  • Anon. 2008. "Symphony." The Oxford Dictionary of Music, second edition, revised, edited by Michael Kennedy, associate editor Joyce Bourne. Oxford Music Online (Accessed 24 July 2008) (subscription required).
  • Battisti, Frank L. 2002. The Winds of Change: The Evolution of the Contemporary American Wind Band/Ensemble and Its Conductor. Galesville, MD: Meredith Music Publications. ISBN 9780634045226.
  • 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.
  • Bowman, Carl Byron. 1971. "The Ecclesiastiche Sinfonie (Opus 16) of Adriano Banchieri (1568–1634)". Ph.D. diss. New York: New York University.
  • 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.
  • Dahlhaus, Carl. 1989. Nineteenth-Century Music, translated by J. Bradford Robinson. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press. ISBN 978-0-520-07644-0.
  • 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.
  • Grimley, Daniel M. 2013. "Symphony/Antiphony: Formal Strategies in the Twentieth-Century Symphony". In The Cambridge Companion to the Symphony, edited by Julian Horton, 285–310. Cambridge Companions to Music. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9781107469709.
  • Hansen, Richard K. 2005. The American Wind Band: A Cultural History. Chicago, Ill: GIA Publications. ISBN 1-57999-467-9.
  • Hopkins, Antony. 1981. The Nine Symphonies of Beethoven. London: Heinemann.
  • Horton, Julian (ed.). 2013. The Cambridge Companion to the Symphony. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-88498-3.
  • 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).
  • Kennedy, Michael. 2006a. "Sinfonietta". The Oxford Dictionary of Music, second edition, revised, Joyce Bourne, associate editor. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Kennedy, Michael. 2006b. "Symphony". The Oxford Dictionary of Music, second edition, revised, Joyce Bourne, associate editor. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.
  • LaRue, Jan. 1959. "A Union Thematic Catalogue of 18th Century Symphonies". FAM[full citation needed] 6:18–20.
  • LaRue, Jan. 1988. A Catalogue of 18th-Century Symphonies, i: Thematic Identifier. Bloomington, IN.
  • 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.
  • Libbey, Theodore. 1999. The NPR Guide to Building a Classical CD Collection. Workman Publishing.[full citation needed]
  • Macdonald, Hugh. 2001b. "Berlioz, Hector". 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.
  • Randel, Don Michael. 2003. The Harvard Dictionary of Music, fourth edition. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. ISBN 9780674011632.
  • Rhodes, Stephen L. 2007. "20th Century Repertoire"[unreliable source?] [Accessed 3 January 15]
  • Rosen, Charles (1997) The Classical Style, 2nd ed. New York: Norton.
  • Stainer, John, and Francis W Galpin. 1914. "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.
  • Steinberg, Michael. 1995. The Symphony: A Listener's Guide. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-506177-2 (cloth); ISBN 978-0-19-512665-5 (pbk) (accessed 27 January 2015).
  • Tawa, Nicholas E. From Psalm to Symphony: A History of Music in New England. Boston: Northeastern University Press. ISBN 978-1-55553-491-2.
  • 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 Publishers.
  • Vande Moortele, Steven. 2013. "'Two-dimensional' Symphonic Forms: Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony, Before and After". In The Cambridge Companion to the Symphony, edited by Julian Horton, 268–84. Cambridge Companions to Music. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9781107469709.
  • 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 Publishers.

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