The word symphony actually comes from the Greek for sounding together, but came into use as a name for a piece of orchestral music in the 17th century. At this time it was used instead of the word overture as the orchestral introduction of an opera. These early symphonies were mostly in three-movement form, generally consisting of a quick-slow-quick pattern - this would form the basis for the development of the symphony. Symphony was also occasionally used for orchestral interludes within vocal works, although this was less common and had disappeared by the classical period (roughly 1750).

By the 18th century the word symphony was being used to describe an orchestral piece of music in a four-movement form:

Allegro - Slow movement - Scherzo/Minuet - Allegro/Rondo

More notable composers during this early classical period were Sammartinni, J.C. and C.P.E. Bach and the Mannheim School, lead by Johann Stamitz (1717-57). Stamitz imparticular forwarded the evolution of this new orchestral music with his use of dynamics, tremolo and heightened importance of violins - he also replaced the baroque figured bass continuo (a form of music notation which in practise is similar to guitar chords, the continuo forming the accompaniment of much baroque music and much of Haydn and Mozart) with fully written out parts.

However the first composer to achieve true popularity with his symphonies (and the earliest composer to have them regularly performed in the modern concert hall) is Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), who wrote an incredible 104 symphonies from 1757 through to 1795. Haydn moved away from the strict structure of the earlier classical symphonies, choosing to experiment with the form and creating an emotional style of music very different to anything from the baroque period.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) was the next composer to achieve popularity from symphonies (writing 41 in all), although they are not the most innovative works from his canon, and the next real developments in symphonic form came with the music of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). In comparison to the prolific characters of Haydn and Mozart, Beethoven composed very few symphonies - 9 plus sketches of a 10th that were found after his death. However his influence on this form of music was unparalleled. The piece which is attributed as a turning point in Beethoven's style - and the symphony's evolution - is his 3rd Symphony, the 'Eroica', in Eb. Audiences of the time shunned the work as being too long and unreasonably dissonant - but the meaning and structure of this revolutionary work is still being discussed today. Beethoven's economic use of musical material is one notable element as well as his use of the dominant-tonic relationship to create tension and drama in his music that was previously unheard of.

The last composer of the classical period who still has symphonies performed today is Franz Schubert (1797-1828). Beethoven's influence over Schubert is undeniable - although how much contact the two composers had is debatable - and even if he did not forward the evolution of the symphony as Haydn and Beethoven before him, his symphonies are wonderful pieces of music, containing Schubert's melodic invention and solid use of form throughout.

After Schubert's death there was a lull in the composition of symphonies. Although Schumann and Mendelssohn both wrote symphonies, these works are of little note in the history of the symphony, and are not good examples of either composer at the height of their creativity and powers. However a notable exception during this period is Hector Berlioz's (1803-1869) Symphony Fantastique a remarkable piece of music written in 1830. It is an early example of programme music. Beethoven's symphonies often had leanings in this direction - a piece of music telling a story - and Berlioz took this idea another step onwards. At the front of the music is an elaborate programme note, telling how the symphony describes the hero's passion for a woman (Berlioz was inspired by a young Irish actress named Harriet Smithson). Berlioz conjures up new sounds from the orchestra, and although the piece is perhaps not the most mature in his output, it predicts many later advances made in this type of music (inspiring Liszt's symphonic poems and influencing Tchaikovsky's sprawling programmatic symphonies).

Often thought of as the archetypal romantic symphonist, Anton Bruckner (1824-1896) took the motivic development and musical economy of Beethoven and the romantic sound world of Wagner to produce symphonies of enormous scale and scope. Around the same time Brahms was composing his first symphony – it took him 21 years to write. He was haunted by the legacy of Beethoven, and the tremendous hold that Beethoven had on him is obvious in much of his larger scale music. His four symphonies are romantic in nature but within a huge classical architecture and his use of tiny motifs as a basis for entire works is incredible (this is particularly evident in his 4th Symphony in E minor, where almost all the thematic material is constructed from a simple descending third) as well as foreshadowing work of 20th century composers such as Schoenberg, Berg and Webern (the 2nd Viennese School).

The symphony became something of a split personality by the 20th century – this is best described by looking at Sibelius and Mahler. Mahler chose to follow on where Berlioz finished, taking the symphony and using it to express emotions, philosophy and religion – in the process creating some of the most powerful and searching music of all time. In contrast to this Sibelius wanted to rid his works of any extra-musical elements – 'absolute' music.

The word symphony to describe a piece of music is becoming less and less common, and it is often argued that some works that are labelled 'symphony' have absolutely nothing to do with the form. However there are many notable 20th century composers who have created their most challenging works in the symphonic form (Shostakovich, Nielsen, Henze and others).

Despite the amount of new orchestral works being composed, the classical or romantic symphony still holds a fascination for modern audiences and is often the centrepiece of an orchestral concert. These compelling pieces explore such a wide range of emotions and experiences it is no surprise they are as popular today (in some cases more popular) as they were a hundred years ago.

Further listening:

  • No. 44 'Trauer'
  • No. 94 'Surprise'
  • No. 101 'Clock'

  • No. 38 'Prague'
  • No. 41 'Jupiter'

  • No. 3 'Eroica'
  • No. 5
  • No. 6 'Pastoral'
  • No. 9 'Choral'

  • No. 8 'Unfinished
  • No. 9 'Great'

  • 'Symphonie Fantastique'

  • No. 7
  • No. 8
  • No. 9

  • No. 1
  • No. 4

  • No. 1 'Titan'
  • No. 5
  • No. 8 'Symphony of a Thousand'
  • 'Das Lied von der Erde'

  • No. 4
  • No. 7

20th Century Symphonies
  • Shostakovich No. 5
  • Shostakovich No. 7 'Leningrad'
  • Stravinsky Symphony in C
  • Henze No. 9