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Definition: symphony from Musical Terms, Symbols and Theory: An Illustrated Dictionary

a composition for full orchestra, a major form since the 18th century. The classical symphony contains four movements and employs sonata form for the first and last movements. Symphonies of fewer movements have been composed, including one-movement versions. The symphonic form was developed over time from several smaller and less elaborate ensembles, including the overture, concerto, string quartet and other forms of chamber music. See also concerto; orchestra; sonata.


Summary Article: symphony
from The Columbia Encyclopedia

[Gr.,=sounding together], a sonata for orchestra.

The Italian operatic overture, called sinfonia, was standardized by Alessandro Scarlatti at the end of the 17th cent. into three sections, the first and last being fast and the middle one slower in tempo. Since these sinfonie had little musical connection with the operas they preceded, they could be played alone in concert. It became customary in the early 18th cent. to write independent orchestral pieces in the same style, which were the first real symphonies.

G. B. Sammartini wrote a number of works that influenced and partially defined symphonic form and style. Johann Stamitz, who was leader of the Mannheim group of composers, was one of the first to add a second lyrical theme in the first movement and to expand the symphony's three movements to four. Other important contributions to the development of the symphony were made by C. P. E. Bach, Johann Christian Bach, C. H. Graun, and F. J. Gossec.

It was Haydn and Mozart, however, who synthesized the techniques of all preceding schools into the Viennese classical symphony. This composition consisted of four movements—the first, a fast sonata-form movement; the second, a slow movement; the third, a dance, usually a minuet; and the fourth, a fast finale, usually a rondo and frequently a combination of sonata form and rondo. Beethoven expanded the dimensions of this form and intensified the element of personal expression far beyond the styles of Haydn and Mozart. He also initiated the use of a chorus in the symphony.

After Beethoven the classical ideal was continued in the symphonies of Schubert, Mendelssohn, and Schumann, although the classical elements are often overshadowed by romantic traits—repetition in place of actual thematic development, profusion of themes rather than severely limited thematic material, and concern for mood and atmosphere in orchestral color and tone painting. Mainly through the device of thematic transformation, Berlioz adapted the symphonic style and form to program music in his Symphonie fantastique, a procedure that was transformed by Liszt into the symphonic poem and brought to its height by Richard Strauss.

Reacting strongly to the romantic orchestral style, Brahms revived the classical model as defined by Beethoven. Although his harmony, melodic formulas, and use of orchestral color are romantic, Brahms's formal designs and developmental procedures carry on and elaborate on the classical style. Bruckner combined classical formal outlines with the chromatic harmonies and extended melodic structures of the Wagnerian style, and his symphonies influenced those of Mahler in their huge orchestral dimensions. Other important romantic symphonists were Dvořák and Tchaikovsky in the 19th cent. and Sibelius in the 20th cent.

The symphony has been treated with unprecedented freedom by contemporary composers, as illustrated by Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms, Bloch's Israel, which includes voices, Webern's Symphony for nine solo instruments, Hindemith's Symphony for Concert Band, and Roy Harris's Folksong Symphony and Symphony for Voices. Other important American symphonists are Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson, Walter Piston, Roger Sessions, Henry Cowell, Randall Thompson, and Howard Hanson.

  • See R. Simpson, ed., The Symphony (2 vol., 1972);.
  • D. F. Tovey, Essays in Musical Analysis: Symphonies (1935, repr. 1972);.
  • R. Nadeau, The Symphony (rev. ed. 1974);.
  • Chappell, H., Sounds Magnificent (1986).
The Columbia Encyclopedia, © Columbia University Press 2017

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