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A symphony is an extended musical composition in Western classical music, most often written by composers for orchestra. Although the term has had many meanings from its origins in the ancient Greek era, by the late 18th century the word had taken on the meaning common today: a work usually consisting of multiple distinct sections or movements, often four, with the first movement in sonata form. Symphonies are almost always scored for an orchestra consisting of a string section (violin, viola, cello, and double bass), brass, woodwind, and percussion instruments which altogether number about 30 to 100 musicians. Symphonies are notated in a musical score, which contains all the instrument parts. Orchestral musicians play from parts which contain just the notated music for their own instrument. Some symphonies also contain vocal parts (e.g., Beethoven's Ninth Symphony).
The word symphony is derived from the Greek word συμφωνία (symphonia), meaning "agreement or concord of sound", "concert of vocal or instrumental music", from σύμφωνος (symphōnos), "harmonious". The word referred to a variety of different concepts 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". 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. 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.
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.
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.
In the 17th century, pieces scored for large instrumental ensemble did not precisely designate which instruments were to play which parts, as is the practice from the 19th century to the current period. When composers from the 17th century wrote pieces, they expected that these works would be performed by whatever group of musicians were available. To give one example, whereas the bassline in a 19th-century work is scored for cellos, double basses and other specific instruments, in a 17th-century work, a basso continuo part for a sinfonia would not specify which instruments would play the part. A performance of the piece might be done with a basso continuo group as small as a single cello and harpsichord. However, if a bigger budget was available for a performance and a larger sound was required, a basso continuo group might include multiple chord-playing instruments (harpsichord, lute, etc.) and a range of bass instruments, including cello, double bass, bass viol or even a serpent, an early bass woodwind instrument.
During the 18th century, "the symphony was cultivated with extraordinary intensity". It played a role in many areas of public life, including church services, 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]".  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.
LaRue, Bonds, Walsh, and Wilson 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 basso continuo part including a bassoon together with a harpsichord or other chording instrument was also possible.
The first additions 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. Over the course of the 18th century it became the custom to write four-movement symphonies, along the lines described in the next paragraph. The three-movement symphony died out slowly; about half of Haydn's first thirty symphonies are in three movements; and for the young Mozart, the three-movement symphony was the norm, perhaps under the influence of his friend Johann Christian Bach. An outstanding late example of the three-movement Classical symphony is Mozart's "Prague" Symphony, from 1787.
- an opening sonata or allegro
- a slow movement, such as adagio
- a minuet or scherzo with trio
- 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.
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, Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf and Leopold Hofmann. The Mannheim school included Johann Stamitz.
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, and Mozart, with at least 47 symphonies in 24 years.
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. 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 and Mahler. His Symphony No. 6 is a programmatic work, featuring instrumental imitations of bird calls and a storm; and, unconventionally, a fifth movement (symphonies usually had at most four movements). His Symphony No. 9 includes parts for vocal soloists and choir in the last movement, making it a choral symphony.
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.
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. 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, Camille Saint-Saëns, Alexander Borodin, Antonín Dvořák, and César Franck—works which continued to dominate the concert repertory for at least a century.
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. This is, for instance, the scoring used in Beethoven's symphonies numbered 1, 2, 4, 7, and 8. 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. 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". In addition to increasing in variety of instruments, 19th century symphonies were gradually augmented with more string players and more wind parts, so that the orchestra grew substantially in sheer numbers, as concert halls likewise grew.
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 large number of voices required to perform the work. Additionally, his Third Symphony is one of the longest regularly performed symphonies at around 100 minutes in length for most performances. 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.
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.
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).
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 fulfil 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).
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; 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; 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; Alfred Reed's 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th symphonies, composed in 1979, 1988, 1992, and 1994 respectively; 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.
Other modern usages of "symphony"
The word "symphony" is also used to refer to the orchestra, the large ensemble that often performs these works. The word "symphony" appears in the name of many orchestras, for example, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the St. Louis Symphony, the Houston Symphony, or Miami's New World Symphony. For some orchestras, "(city name) Symphony" provides a shorter version of the full name; for instance, the OED gives "Vancouver Symphony" as a possible abbreviated form of Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. As well, in common usage, a person may say they are going out to hear a symphony perform, a reference to the orchestra and not the works on the program.
- Choral symphony
- Organ symphony
- Piano symphony
- Pocket symphony
- Symphonies for concert band
- Curse of the ninth
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- Count taken from Graham Parkes, "The symphonic structure of Also sprach Zarathustra: a preliminary outline," in Luchte, James (2011). Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra: Before Sunrise. Bloomsbury Publishing. ISBN 1441118454.. Excerpts on line at .
- The conjecture about the child Mozart's three-movement preference is made by Gärtner, who notes that Mozart's father Leopold and other older composers already preferred four. See Gärtner, Heinz (1994). John Christian Bach: Mozart's Friend and Mentor. Hal Leonard Corporation. ISBN 0931340799. Excepts on line at .
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- Beethoven's Ninth is not the first choral symphony, though it is surely the most celebrated one. Beethoven was anticipated by Peter von Winter’s Schlacht-Sinfonie ("Battle Symphony"), which includes a concluding chorus and was written in 1814, ten years before Beethoven's Ninth. Source: Jan LaRue et al. (n.d.) "Symphony," in the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (online edition).
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- OED, definition 5d:ellipt. for ‘symphony orchestra’. (1926) P. Whiteman & M. M. McBride Jazz xiv. 287 The unknown composer has to pay to get his compositions played by a good symphony.
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- Encyclopædia Britannica. 26 (11th ed.). 1911. pp. 290–291. .
- Gann, Kyle. "A Chronology of the Symphony 1730-2005". Archived from the original on 2015-08-04. A list of selected major symphonies composed 1800-2005, with composers of 18th, 19th, 20th and 21st century symphonies
- The Symphony - Interactive Guide
- "List of symphonists, mostly active after 1800", compiled by Thanh-Tâm Lê: "A to D". "E to J". "K to O". "P to Z".