The Symphony

A symphony is a work for orchestra which usually contains three or four movements. The origins of the classical symphony can be traced back to the three movement Italian overtures of the late 17th century. The movements which were usually quick, slow and quick gradually became longer until composers such as the Italian Sammartini began to write concert symphonies.

Vienna and Mannheim were the main centres for the new style of symphonic composition. Until the mid 18th century symphonic writing continued in three movement form with the exception of a few composers, including Hofmann and Michael Haydn who used a four movement form (the third movement consisting of a minuet and trio). During this period orchestral style and especially the use of dynamics become further developed.

In the later 18th century Haydn and Mozart produced many great symphonies. Haydn’s position at the court of Esterhazy required him to regularly produce symphonic works and he responded enthusiastically to this challenge producing over 100 symphonies. Haydn is often credited with the title of "Father of the Symphony". The symphonic writings of Mozart are indicative of complex development and texture and lead to increased enlargement of scale, great depth and originality.

Beethoven is credited with being one of the greatest of the 19th century symphonic composers. His earlier symphonies can be seen to have developed from the model of Haydn’s compositions. His third symphony was written however on a very large scale; this symphony was originally dedicated to Napoleon. Beethoven’s later symphonies are all large scale masterpieces and all end triumphantly. Beethoven’s ninth symphony, entitled The Choral Symphony is recognised as being one of his greatest masterpieces; a huge symphony which includes a setting of Schiller’s Ode to Joy. Brahms, Mendelssohn and Schumann adhered for the most part to the Classical model of Symphonic composition. Schubert’s symphonic writing reflects quite a lyrical style. Mendelssohn and Schumann portray a programmatic tendency in their symphonic composition, Mendelssohn in his evocative titles and Schumann in creating a general atmosphere. Brahms’ symphonic composition was quite innovative while remaining within the four movement, sonata form structure. Tchaikovsky also adhered to the four movement, sonata form structure; he is believed to have followed a programmatic style of composition, the programme however often remaining undisclosed. Some of the later Romantic composers continued to be challenged by symphonic composition, others resorting to the composition of the symphonic poem. Berlioz, influenced by Beethoven’s concept of the symphony, produced the descriptive Symphonie Fantastique using a recurring idée fixe. Bruckner, at the end of the 19th century, based his symphonies on Beethoven’s ninth symphony and also expanded them in the style of Wagner; some of his movements had three, rather than two subjects.

The early 20th century saw the Romantic symphony fully materialised in the compositions of Elgar, Mahler and Sibelius; Elgar’s seventh symphony completed in 1924 consisted of only one movement. A number of composers continued to write symphonies during the 20th century chief among them being Shostakovitch, some of whose symphonies are programmatic. The originality in Shostakovitch’ composition is reflected in his symphonic writing.