Feature: Development of the Symphony             Back to Features page

What's so special about symphonies?

The 'S' word comes up a lot in classical music, frequently connected with rather long pieces of music. Since the symphony is one of the most important genres in classical music, we thought we’d find out a bit about what the term means, and which symphonies we should listen to.

By the 17th century, musicians had developed a clear way of writing music down, and they started writing pieces for large groups of players assembled into an orchestra. Pieces where the orchestra accompanied one singer were called arias, pieces where the orchestra accompanied one or more soloists were called concertos, and anything where instruments just played together was called a sinfonia or symphony (from the Greek “sounding together”). Many baroque sinfonias were used as orchestral interludes in operas, or as overtures to set the scene at the beginning. Often these interludes were in three sections – a fast one, a slow one and another fast one.

In Henry Purcell’s Opera The Fairy Queen, written in 1692, he uses the word “symphony” to describe sections of incidental music, played while actors enter the stage.

1) Purcell: 'Symphony While the Swans Come Forward'     

By 1760, English composer William Boyce was writing symphonies that sounded a bit more like the symphonies were are used to today. Each was made up of three or four contrasting movements. Like all instrumental music of the time, some movements were based on a fashionable stately dance like a gavotte or minuet.

2) Boyce: Complete Symphonies         

It was around this time that the Austrian-born composer Franz Joseph Haydn began composing symphonies. He wrote 104 symphonies in total, and over the years developed a very rigid structure for them to adhere to: A fast opening movement, a slow interlude, a stately minuet in two sections and a final fast movement to give a big finish.

Haydn was keen to experiment with his symphonies, and many had titles relating to gimmicks within the music. The “Horn Signal” has unusually prominent parts for four horns, the “Clock” Symphony has an insistent tick-tock motif, and the “Surprise” Symphony is not good news for anybody with a heart condition. Haydn’s symphonies were much longer than those written by Boyce. At the end of the “Farewell” symphony of 1772, the musicians leave the stage one by one at the end, until there is only the lead violinist left on stage.

3) Haydn: "Farewell" Symphony 

At around the same time, the young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was getting stuck in to orchestral composition. His “Haffner” Symphony of 1782 is a good example of Mozart’s symphonic writing. He uses a slightly larger orchestra than Haydn, but he sticks to the same four-movement structure. 

4) Mozart: "Haffner" Symphony 

At this point it is worth explaining something about the structure of Mozart and Haydn’s first movements. The first movement of a Classical symphony was always in sonata form. This means that the piece is structured in distinct sections: two musical ideas are introduced, one after the other in different keys. They are then repeated, before the composer “develops” them – this usually involves altering the notes slightly, and playing lots of different versions of these two tunes. At the end of the movement, the original ideas are both played again in the same key before the piece ends.

 A version of sonata form has been widely used for the first movements of symphonies ever since. The technical demands of writing music within this rigid and formal structure are part of the reason that symphonies have become the vehicle for many composers most intellectually substantial music.

Ludwig von Beethoven wrote his first symphony in about 1800. He was responsible for some major innovations in symphonic writing. For example, the entire Fifth Symphony is fundamentally based on the first four notes of the work. In his "Pastoral" Symphony No. 6, Beethoven made the music tell a story, and in the glorious Ninth Symphony, he introduced a large choir and vocalists to the orchestra. By the time he had finished with the genre, the sedate classical symphony was longer, louder and bigger than ever before. In addition to the choir, he used a larger orchestra including four horns, three trombones, piccolo, contrabassoon and percussion. This group of around 70 players became the standard sized symphony orchestra.

5) Beethoven: Symphony No. 5 

6) Beethoven: "Pastoral” Symphony No. 6   

7) Beethoven: Symphony No. 9     

After Beethoven, Hector Berlioz came along and wrote his Symphonie Fantastique in 1830. This piece expands on many of Beethoven’s developments, with a large orchestra playing music that illustrates a complex tale of tragic love. The whole piece is tied together by a tune that sneaks in to every movement.

 8) Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique

Pyotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky wrote six symphonies for large orchestra. His last, the “Pathetique” Symphony, was written just two weeks before he died. Although the piece has no specific storyline, the movements are in an unconventional order (Fast, slow, fast, slow), and it ends with the basses and timpani emulating a fading heartbeat.

9) Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6 'Pathetique' 

From here on in, symphonies just went on getting bigger and more elaborate. Other composers including Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss used massive orchestras of more than one hundred players. During the nineteenth century, it became common to use a poem sung by soloists and chorus, and some composers did away with the standard structure entirely, writing the whole piece in one long movement. Mahler’s Second Symphony, written in 1894, is an example of a late romantic symphony. After the First World War, nobody could afford to perform pieces on such a massive scale, and so from here on in, symphonies didn’t get any bigger.

10) Mahler: Symphony No. 2 "Resurrection"    

Music did of course continue developing, but after Strauss and Mahler, the twentieth century did not see many vast symphonies being widely performed. The symphony remains to this day a composer’s largest blank canvas for pure composition. Unlike a Mass, an Opera or a Concerto, they are not constrained by limitations of storyline, text or instrumentation. It is partly because of this that the symphonic repertoire contains some of the most innovative and exciting music ever written.