A Very Brief History of the Symphony

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.

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3 Responses to A Very Brief History of the Symphony

  1. John Chittum says:

    “There is no simple definition for Sonata Form so instead of digressing lets agree to come back to it at a later time.”

    a truer statement may never have been uttered. especially when you get to all the variations of the sonata that people have given names…

    also, you may be interested in a book, “Symphonic Music” by Homer Ulrich. It may now be out of print (some quick searching showed prices for “new” copies around $100. WHAT?!?) but there will undoubtedly be plenty of cheap used copies around (same search found used copies around $8). It gives a decently eloquent synopsis of the symphony and it’s development from pre-baroque through Mahler with some in depth looks at various pieces. Since you’re embarking on this noble quest, thought you might be interested. It’s one of those “it’s nice to have around, but it doesn’t replace listening, that’s for sure,” types of books.

    • Nathaniel says:

      I will definitely check that out. Right now I’m making my way through An Outline of the History of Music by Karl Nef, and I just finished Aaron Copland’s What to Listen For in Music.

  2. Nic says:

    Form is a quest by itself, as it represents a sort of order from chaos. A musical chaos, in this case. And it’s very personal, if I might add.

    I’ll add a quote, apart from John’s:
    “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.”

    So true. Nothing else to add. Keep the symphony flow coming 😀

    nic

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