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); H. Chappell, Sounds Magnificent (1986).
A symphony is a musical composition, often extended and usually for orchestra. "Symphony" does not imply a specific form. Many symphonies are tonal works in four movements with the first in sonata form, and this is often described by music theorists as the structure of a "classical" symphony, although even some symphonies by the acknowledged classical masters of the form, Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven, do not conform to this model.
In the 17th century, for most of the Baroque period, the terms symphony and sinfonia were used for a range of different compositions, including instrumental pieces used in operas, sonatas and concertos—usually part of a larger work. The opera sinfonia, or Italian overture had, by the 18th century, a standard structure of three contrasting movements: fast; slow; fast and dance-like. It is this form that is often considered as the direct forerunner of the orchestral symphony. The terms "overture", "symphony" and "sinfonia" were widely regarded as interchangeable for much of the 18th century.
Another important progenitor of the symphony was the ripieno concerto—a relatively little-explored form resembling a concerto for strings and continuo, but with no solo instruments. The earliest known ripieno concerti are by Giuseppe Torelli (his set of six, opus five, 1698). Antonio Vivaldi also wrote works of this type. Perhaps the best known ripieno concerto is Johann Sebastian Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 3.
Early symphonies, in common with both overtures and ripieno concertos, have three movements, in the tempi quick-slow-quick. However, unlike the ripieno concerto, which uses the usual ritornello form of the concerto, at least the first movement of these symphonies is in binary form. They are distinguishable from Italian overtures in that they were written to stand on their own in concert performances, rather than to introduce a stage work—although a piece originally written as an overture was sometimes later used as a symphony, and vice versa. The vast majority of these early symphonies are in a major key.
Symphonies at this time, whether for concert, opera, or church use, were not considered the major works on a program: often, as with concerti, they were divided up between other works, or drawn from suites or overtures. Vocal music was dominant, and symphonies provided preludes, interludes, and postludes. At the time most symphonies were relatively short, lasting between 10 and 20 minutes.
The "Italian" style of symphony, often used as overture and entr'acte in opera houses, became a standard three movement form: a fast movement, a slow movement, and then another fast movement. Mozart's early symphonies are in this layout. The early three-movement form was eventually replaced by a four-movement layout which was dominant in the latter part of the 18th century and most of the 19th century. This symphonic form was influenced by Germanic practice, and would come to be associated with the "classical style" of Haydn and Mozart. The important changes were the addition of a "dance" movement and the change in character of the first movement to becoming "first among equals."
The normal four-movement form became, then: 1. an opening allegro 2. a slow movement 3. a minuet or scherzo 4. an allegro or rondo.
Variations on this layout were common, for instance the order of the middle two movements, or the addition of a slow introduction to the first movement. The first known symphony to introduce the minuet as the third movement is a work in D major of 1740 by Georg Matthias Monn, while the first composer to consistently add a minuet as part of a four-movement form was Johann Stamitz.
The composition of early symphonies was centred on Vienna and Mannheim. Early exponents of the form in Vienna included Georg Christoph Wagenseil, Wenzel Raimund Birck and Georg Monn, while the Mannheim school included Johann Stamitz. Symphonies were written throughout Europe, however, with examples by Giovanni Battista Sammartini, Andrea Luchesi and Antonio Brioschi from Italy, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach from northern Germany, Leopold Mozart from Salzburg, François-Joseph Gossec from Paris, and Johann Christian Bach and Carl Friedrich Abel from London.
Later significant Viennese composers of symphonies include Johann Baptist Vanhal, Karl Ditters von Dittersdorf and Leopold Hoffmann. The most important symphonists of the latter part of the 18th century are Joseph Haydn, who wrote at least 108 symphonies over the course of 36 years (Webster and Feder 2001), and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who wrote at least 56 symphonies in 24 years (Eisen and Sadie 2001).
Beethoven dramatically expanded the symphony. His Symphony No. 3 (the Eroica), has a scale and emotional range which sets it apart from earlier works. His Symphony No. 9 takes the unprecedented step of including parts for vocal soloists and choir in the last movement, making it a choral symphony. Hector Berlioz, who coined the term "choral symphony," built on this concept in his "dramatic symphony" Roméo et Juliette while explaining his intent in the five-paragraph introduction in that work's score (Berlioz 1857, 1). Beethoven and Franz Schubert replaced the usual genteel minuet with a livelier scherzo. In Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony, a program work, the composer inserted a "storm" section before the final movement; Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, also a programme work, has both a march and a waltz, and five movements instead of the customary four.
Robert Schumann and Felix Mendelssohn were two leading German composers whose symphonies added the expanded harmonic vocabulary of Romantic music. Some composers also wrote explicitly programmatic symphonies, such as the French Hector Berlioz and the Hungarian Franz Liszt. Johannes Brahms, who took Schumann and Mendelssohn as his point of departure, composed symphonies with very high levels of structural unity; other important symphonists of the late 19th century included Anton Bruckner, Antonín Dvořák and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.
By the end of the 19th century, some French organists named some of their organ compositions symphony: their instruments (many built by Aristide Cavaillé-Coll) allowed an orchestral approach. Charles-Marie Widor's and Louis Vierne's orchestral symphonies are heard much less often than their organ symphonies.
There remained, however, certain tendencies: symphonies were still, on the whole, orchestral works. Symphonies with vocal parts, or parts for solo instrumentalists, were the exception rather than the rule. Designating a work a "symphony" still implied a degree of sophistication, and seriousness of purpose. The word sinfonietta came into use to designate a work that was "lighter" than a "symphony".
In the 20th and early 21st century symphonies have been written for Wind Ensemble and Band. In Europe one example is Paul Hindemith's Symphony in B-flat for band (1951)., whereas in America Alan Hovhaness's Symphonies Nos. 4, 7, 14 and 23 are a good example of composers providing amateur-playable symphonic works for the school and college wind band movement.
Composers continue to write works which they call "symphonies", although exactly what qualifies a work as a symphony is not well-defined. As can be seen from examples as diverse as those by Witold Lutosławski, Olivier Messiaen, Henri Dutilleux, Luciano Berio, Glenn Branca and Philip Glass, it can denote an artistic purpose other than conformity with any symphonic tradition.