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The Evolution of the Symphony

August 04, 2022

The earliest symphonies, from Italian overture to sonata form

Symphonies emerged from Italy's Neopolitan School, founded by Alessandro Scarlatti, as overtures for operas around the 1700s. The word "symphony" comes from sinfonia: derived from the Greek syn meaning "together" and phone meaning "voice or sound", it meant, "playing together"; the perfect name for this new genre.

In the early 18th century, Czech composer Johann Stamitz wrote and conducted several sonatas for the famous Mannheim orchestra, extending the sonata form to four movements, thus creating the blueprint of the symphony.

Back then, orchestras were predominantly used to back up a soloist - a vocalist in opera, or a soloist in a concerto. Orchestral suites - a set of several linked dance tunes - were also popular in the Baroque era.

Inspired by these suites, the symphony score sought to profit from the diversity of sounds within the orchestra; it reduced the number of movements in a suite to three or four and was eventually adapted from dance halls to concert halls. Johann Stamitz created some of the first-ever symphonies, entitled Sonatas for the Orchestra.

Joseph Haydn: The father of the symphony

The variety of the symphony orchestra offers many possibilities to composers, allowing them to contrast moments of grandiosity with those of quiet intimacy when smaller groups of instruments play.

Joseph Haydn appreciated the symphony's potential to accompany the magnificent spectacles of firework shows and grand balls at the Esterhazy Palace, where he was the court composer. In total, he composed 108 symphonies!

The second movement of his Symphony No. 94, Surprise, plays on the form of the symphony to create a musical joke. The movement begins with a simple theme before a single unexpected, loud chord gives the audience its intended surprise.

After 108 works, Haydn had mastered the classical symphony form. The first movement - allegro - was fast and lively, followed by a slow andante. The third movement - a minuet and trio of dance suites - led to the finale, which was lively and bombastic. With this, he propelled the symphonic form to the forefront of musical creation. Joseph Haydn composed 108 symphonies, perfecting the form and leading to him being nicknamed "Papa Haydn: the father of symphonies".


Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's legacy: An influence on future musicians


The classical symphony was a rigid construction; each instrument and each movement had to follow a set of rules for the work to be considered a symphony. This didn't frighten the young Mozart, who composed his first symphony at the age of 8.

Have a listen to his first symphony in E flat major. The budding composer's maturity is immediately obvious, as he integrates the influence of his predecessors while creating balance and establishing dramatic tension.

His 41st and last symphony presented something quite different. Nicknamed Jupiter, it marked another turning point for symphonies. The final movement is where Mozart mixes things up, as he creates an interweaving fugue of the piece's five themes in what is said to be one of the most exciting bits of Western musical craftsmanship.

By extending the form, Mozart paved the way for other composers to experiment, allowing Beethoven and his revolutionary symphonies to make their indelible mark. Mozart composed his first symphony aged 8 and went on to revolutionize the symphony, enticing Beethoven and others to evolve the form further.



Ludwig van Beethoven: Eroica and the liberation of form in the classical era


Perhaps to free himself of his teacher Haydn, Beethoven revolutionized the symphonic form, building on what Mozart had set in motion. He enlarged the orchestra, doubled the duration of the works, and, in the third movement, occasionally replaced the minuet that he hated with a scherzo. A minute is a slow ballroom dance; a scherzo is light and jolly.

Beethoven's third symphony Eroica, which he originally dedicated to Napoleon Bonaparte, is a revolutionary piece marking the turn from classical to romantic music. Unlike the classical period's dedication to form, the romantic era saw an increased emphasis on meaning and emotion.

Beethoven's compositions are monuments of change, catalysts of the evolution of the symphony. "Those who understand [my music] must be freed by it from all the miseries which the others drag about with themselves, " he said in a letter to his friend Bettina Brentano. His commitment to musical freedom resulted in his Symphony No. 9: the first symphony with a chorus and soloists, establishing the bases of the romantic and modern symphony. Beethoven's nine symphonies changed the symphony forever, taking more artistic liberties with the form and marking a transition from the Classical period to the Romantic period.



The modern symphony: A world of freedom from Mahler to Shostakovich


A century later, Gustav Mahler wrote symphonies for instruments and vocals, including Symphony No. 8, nicknamed Symphony of a Thousand, written for orchestra, vocal quartet, two adult choirs, a children's choir, a percussion section, a piano, an organ, and a harmonium!

Dmitri Shostakovich, "The Russian Beethoven", composed a symphony for chorus and orchestra dedicated to the glory of the October Revolution, which was only two movements rather than the traditional four and, in his eighth symphony, he added the fifth movement.

More recently, James Macmillan's Symphony No.3, Silencewhich, premiered in 2003, is just one movement inspired by Shūsaku Endō's book Silence. Macmillan explained in his notes that "the connections between music and silence are made palpable in the third symphony. The work begins and ends in silence and the climax is a prolonged fermata". The piece is not led as much by form as by theme.


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