A Brief History Of The Symphony As A Musical Form
When you attend a concert by a symphony orchestra, you will often, but not always hear an orchestral work , usually in several movements, called a symphony . But just what is a symphony, and how did this kind of composition come into being ? The story is most interesting, and here is a brief overview .
The term Symphony comes from the Greek Syn - phone - a coming together of sounds , or a sounding together . The earliest use of the term for a composition comes from late 16th century Italy, when the Venetian composer Giovanni Gabrieli, who was in charge of music for the cathedral of San Marco, which still exists there, wrote a work combining voices and various musical instruments called the Sacrae Symphoniae . Gabrieli is famous for his antiphonal brass music exploiting the resonant acoustics of that great Cathedral.
By the 18th century, what we now call the overture to an opera, or an oratorio, was called the Sinfonia. In the scores to the operas and oratorios of Handel and his contemporaries, you can see this description of the introduction .
A typical sinfonia to an opera or oratorio would usually consist of thre parts ; a lively section followed by a slower one, leading to another lively part, often in the form of a minuet . Some of the sinfonias came to be performed separately at concerts , and soon, composers began to write sinfonias as an independent form for those concerts , with no connection to any opera .
Many once prominent 18th century composers wrote sinfonias to be performed at concerts, such as the Italian Giovanni Battista Sammartini, the German Johann Stamitz and C.P.E. Bach , one of the sons of the great Johann Sebastian , and many others, now forgotten .
The first composer whose symphonies are still performed today with any regularity is Joseph Haydn, (1732 -1809), who wrote no fewer than 104 of them during his long and distinguished career . Most Haydn symphonies consist of four movements - a first, sometimes with a majestic slow introduction in sonata form, with exposition , development and recapitulation, a slow movement followed by a minuet , ending with a lively finale .
Three movement symphonies without a minuet were also written. Haydn's younger contemporary and friend Mozart left 41 numbered symphonies, and several without numbers .
But the great innovator of the symphony was Beethoven, who lived from 1770 to 1827. His nine symphonies revolutionized the form. The first two, written at the beginning of the 19th century, show the influence of Haydn and Mozart, but the third, subtitled "Eroica" and inspired by Napoleon's conquests, is aboput twice the length of the usual symphony, and much more complex in harmony and structure.
The world-famous fifth begins with the da-da da- daaaah motif which every one knows. But the last movement is unusual in using trombones for the first time in a symphony, plus piccolo and contrabassoon . The sixth , or "Pastoral" symphony has a specific story behind it, and depicts a day in the country, complete with a slow movement depicting a dreamy scene by the brook, a merry gathering of the country folk with dancing, and a thunderstorm. It is also unusual in consisting of five movements, and the last three are continuous, without a break .
The mighty ninth was the longest and most complex symphony that had ever been written, and uses a chorus and soprano,alto, tenor and bass soloists in a setting of the "Ode to Joy" by the German poet Friedrich Schiller, Beethoven's contemporary . Later composers such as Gustav Mahler and others used a chorus and vocal solists in some of their symphonies . At the time of the first performance of Beethoven's ninth in Vienna, the composer was deaf .
Beethoven's younger contemporary Franz Schubert , who also lived in Vienna but was a native unlike the German-born giant, wrote seven completed symphonies, and the famous unfinished , and several symphonic fragments which he never got around to completing .
Other great composers of the 19th century who wrote notable symphonies include Felix Mendelssohn, Robert Schumann, Johannes Brahms , Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Cesar Franck, Camille Saint-Saens, Anton Bruckner, Antonin Dvorak, Hector Berlioz , to name only a handful .
The 20th century also produced an enormous number of symphonies by such great names as Gustav Mahler, Jean Sibelius, Edward Elgar, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Carl Nielsen, Sergei Prokofiev, Dimitri Shostakovich, Sergei Rachmaninov, and others, and important American composers as Charles Ives, Aaron Copland, William Schuman, Howard Hanson and others wrote symphonies with a distinctively American character .
A symphony can last under fifteen minurtes or well over an hour . 18th century symphonies use a small orchestra consisting of strings, two oboes, bassoons or sometimes flutes , and only occaisionally clarinets, with two horns, sometimes two trumpets and tympani. But some 20th century and late 19th century symphonies call for enormous orchestras with many woodwind instruments including piccolo, English horn, bas clarinet and contra basson, as many as eight horns, four or five trumpets, four trombones, tuba, extensive percussion and even an organ ! Plus a very large string section .
There is so much to explore in the rich repertoire of this great musical genre , and so much variety of approach to form . And it's all avaialable to you on CD , DVD and through the miracle of the internet .