The Symphony

The Symphony is an extended work for orchestra, usually in three or four movements. It is traditionally regarded as the central form of orchestral composition. In the 17th century the term ("sinfonia") was used in other senses: for concerted motets (e.g. Schütz's "Symphoniae sacrae"), for introductory movements to operas (see Overture), for instrumental introductions and sections within arias and ensembles, and for ensemble pieces which might be classified as sonatas or concertos.

17th Century

Features of the Classical symphony may be traced to the Italian overture of the late 17th century in three movements (fast-slow-fast). With Italian opera composers such as Leo, Pergolesi, Galuppi and Jommelli, the movements became longer and more developed. G.B. Sammartini was among the first Italians to write concert symphonies; composers of the next generation, including Boccherini and Pugnani, inherited his essentially lyrical approach, but Italian composers were not generally interested in the richer, more developed style favored in Austria and Germany.

18th Century

In Vivaldi's music one can find traces of all the different changes occurring in the first half of the 18th century.  At the progressive extreme are most of the 23 works which Vivaldi called "sinfonias."  As usual in this period, the terminology is imprecise, but the music, especially that of the sinfonias, clearly demonstrates that its composer is entitled to be reckoned among the earliest forerunners of the pre-Classic symphony:  the conciseness of form, the markedly homophonic texture, the melodically neutral themes, the minuet finale, even many of the little mannerisms of style that were formerly thought to have been invented by German composers of the Mannheim school -- all are found in Vivaldi.

Many composers of the new symphony were active in London, Paris, north Germany and elsewhere, but the main centers were Vienna and Mannheim. About 1735 the Viennese symphony, drawing on the opera overture and chamber music, began to establish an independent course, notably in the works of Monn and Wagenseil. They and their younger contemporaries, Gassmann and Ordonez, continued to prefer three-movement form, but with four prolific, gifted composers - Hofmann, Dittersdorf, Vanhal and Michael Haydn - the four-movement symphony, with minuet and trio preceding the finale, became the norm. Their works represent the highest achievements in the Viennese Classical symphony apart from Joseph Haydn and Mozart.

At Mannheim, where the electoral court assembled a concentration of talent, the virtuosity and discipline of the court orchestra led to new developments in orchestral style, particularly ones involving the striking use of dynamics and the stylized use of melodic figures. Johann Stamitz provided the model and the motivation; his 'army of generals' included such names as F.X. Richter, Holzbauer, Antonín Fils and, among the next generation, Toeschi, Cannabich, Eichner, Beck and Stamitz's son Carl.

The achievements of Haydn and Mozart place them far above any of these local groupings. Haydn's appointment at the Esterházy court in 1761 required a steady production of symphonies: he responded with many fine examples, often building whole expositions on a single thematic idea and exploiting the unexpected. His supreme achievements began with six symphonies written for Paris in 1785, with their new heights of ingenuity, humor and unpretentious intellectuality; the last symphonies (Nos.93-104), written for London, exceed even these in breadth of conception, melodic appeal and magisterial command.

As a child, Mozart met Italian-style symphonies through his friendship with J.C. Bach; his Austro-German background added harmonic depth, textural interest, subtlety of phrasing and orchestral virtuosity. In his early symphonies these and other influences appear. In his symphonies after 1773, one or other occasionally predominates (Parisian in No. 31, Mannheim style and Italian form in No. 32), but stylistic conflicts and imbalances are resolved in symphonies which show increasing enlargement of scale and complexity of development and texture, leading to the remarkable depth and originality of his final masterpieces in the form, Nos. 38-41.

19th Century

Whatever the view of his contemporaries, the early 19th-century symphony is now typified by Beethoven. While his first two symphonies shared a development from Haydn's, No. 3 (Eroica) was a departure: its four movements were on an unprecedentedIy large scale, and its dedication to Napoleon (later erased) proclaimed that its grandeur and power celebrated personal courage and the unconquerable human spirit. The later symphonies work out in fresh terms the same type of struggle, and all end in triumph, for example in the brilliant C Major finale of No. 5 in C minor. No. 9, the Choral Symphony, is a solitary masterpiece, bringing together two projects that had long been in the composer's mind, a gigantic symphony in D minor and a choral setting of Schiller's "Ode to Joy".  (See the Article The Three Periods of Beethoven)

Beethoven's achievements were such that the merits of Schubert's more lyrical ones were long overlooked, even those of the expansive yet often closely argued 'Great C major'; while those of later composers tended to be judged by how they matched up to Beethoven's. The more conservative Romantics, notably Mendelssohn, Schumann and Brahms, remained broadly faithful to the Classical conception of the symphony even if they sometimes changed the number and order of its movements or sought new ways of unifying them, as Schumann did in his cyclic treatment in No. 4. There is some 'programmatic' tendency, but it is rarely pursued by Mendelssohn beyond titles that evoke a source of the music's inspiration ('Scottish', 'Italian') or by Schumann beyond general atmosphere ('Spring', 'Rhenish' - in which one unorthodox movement is specifically evocative of Cologne Cathedral). Brahms rejected even such mood painting, but nevertheless made far-reaching innovations within the standard four-movement pattern. There are motivic links within and between movements and elaborately worked contrapuntal textures, adding strength to his sonata-form structures. The finale of his Fourth and last symphony, however, is cast in his own version of the Baroque Passacaglia form. In the first three, he substituted a lyrical, intermezzo-like movement in moderate tempo for the Beethovenian scherzo.

Another composer who may be classed as a conservative Romantic was Tchaikovsky, who adhered to the traditional forms even though his material was not always susceptible to the organic unity on which they depend. Several symphonies, notably No. 4, involve the cyclic recall of themes; this may be connected with the programmatic content that he is believed to have followed and which no doubt (his programs were not generally disclosed) governs the unorthodox use of a slow despairing finale to his last symphony, No. 6 ('Pathétique'). At several points in his symphonies, notably No. 4, he used Russian folk melodies but he did not, like the more overtly nationalist composers, adapt his style to accommodate a folk idiom.

While many of the more radical Romantics found a congenial outlet for their ideas and aspirations in the Symphonic Poem, there were some for whom the symphony was a challenge. In the "Symphonie fantastique" and "Harold en Italie" Berlioz sought to unite the Beethoven conception of the symphony with his own penchant for descriptive, literary-inspired music by means of a recurrent "idée fixe". His example was followed by Liszt's pupil d'Indy in the "Symphonie sur un chant montagnard français". Lalo's Symphony and Saint-Saëns's Third also show Liszt's influence in their style and the use of thematic transformation, and Franck's "D Minor Symphony", although non-programmatic, goes further in that direction.

Although some nationalist composers, including Borodin and Balakirev in Russia and Dvorak in Bohemia, felt close enough to the center of a tradition to contribute to the genre, by the end of the 19th century it had become largely a bastion of the orthodox. Only Bruckner succeeded in creating a new model, basing his symphonies first on Beethoven's Ninth and secondly on a Wagnerian expansiveness and (to some degree) style and orchestration. He extended the sonata-form tradition in some of his first movements to involve three rather than two thematic and tonal groups; wrote long and deeply contemplative adagios, often capped by a huge orchestral climax, and scherzos which often have a demoniacal drive contrasted with lyrical middle sections; and he extended finales, often again with three tonal areas, sometimes incorporating chorale-like material and (from No. 3 onwards) ending with a recall of the symphony's opening theme.

20th Century

The period 1901-18, during which Mahler, Sibelius, Elgar and (though his greatest symphonies came later) Nielsen were active, brought the Romantic symphony to its fullest maturity and to its end. The sense of an end is strongly present in the music of both Mahler and Elgar, and, although Sibelius's structural innovations (culminating in the single-movement Seventh Symphony of 1924) seemed to point a way forward, changes in the artistic climate and in the language of music after 1918 threatened to undermine the concept of the symphony. Avant garde composers either did not write them or wrote symphonies in which perceived standards were deliberately outraged.

Composers closer to the 19th-century tradition, and particularly those whose music has retained links with tonality, have continued to write symphonies in the traditional mold (for example Ives, Honegger, Roussel, Prokofiev, Myaskovsky, Henze, Martinu, Vaughan Williams, Simpson, Tippett, Sessions, Harris and Vagn Holmboe). But among 20th-century composers of international stature, perhaps only Shostakovich, whose symphonies range from the political manifesto (Nos. 2 and 3), the heroic and sometimes programmatic (Nos. 7 and 10-12) to the bitterly ironic (Nos. 13 and 14), has found in the symphony a natural vehicle for his most challenging and original music.

(See also 20th-Century Symphonists)