Before we begin to move through our list of 100 symphonies let’s briefly discuss what a symphony actually is. The term symphony comes from the Greek (surprise, surprise). They used it to notate two tones being sounded together in accord. Between then and the 17th century the term was used here and there to refer to different instruments and eventually musical works. In the 17th century the symphony begins to take shape, evolving from the Italian Overture. The earliest symphonies, like the Italian Overture, had three movements; a fast, a slow, and a fast. Eventually a fourth movement was added and we have what is considered to be a standard symphony form.
The first movement is usually uptempo and in sonata form. There is no simple definition for Sonata Form so instead of digressing lets agree to come back to it at a later time. The opening movement is typically followed by a slower movement. The third movement is traditionally a dance piece. The final movement ends as it began with a fast, lively tempo. Within each movement there may be several smaller sections usually set apart by their tempos.
This is a very simple outline of the symphony. I feel it is best to leave it basic for two reasons: 1). Although it helps, knowing this is not completely necessary in appreciating a good symphony. The more you listen the more familiar you will become and the more you will be able to appreciate the more subtle qualities of the piece. 2). The more you listen the more you’ll realize that many composers greatly stretch these boundaries, while others break them altogether. Sibelius’s Symphony No. 7 in C Major is a single movement, while most of Mahler’s symphonies have at least five movements.
So there’s our quick look at the symphony. If you found that a bit dull I apologize and promise we will get into more interesting topics like Berlioz’s elaborate murder/suicide plot and the anti-Semitism of Wagner.