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A concert hall, where symphonies are played.

A symphony is a large-scale musical composition for an orchestra. Since the late eighteenth century, composers have regarded the symphony as “the central form of orchestral composition”, similar to how writers of fiction regard the novel, and filmmakers the feature film.[1] According to music historian Michael Kennedy, the symphony “is reserved by composers for their most weighty and profound orchestral thoughts, but of course there are many light-hearted, witty, and entertaining symphonies.”[2] In the present day the symphony is a principal element of orchestral concerts in the United States and Europe, and the very name "symphony orchestra", a common synonym for “orchestra”, attests to the symphony’s predominance in the classical concert hall.


Baroque period 1600 - ca. 1750 In the seventeenth century, a sinfonia was, most generally, a short instrumental piece that served as an introduction to a larger work, such as an overture to an opera or a cantata. But the term also referred to instrumental works that stood alone, such as a concerto grosso (e.g., Allesandro Stradella’s sinfonie a più istrumenti). Moreover, ‘sinfonia’ and ‘concerto’ and ‘trio sonata’ were often used as synonyms. There were two general types of overture in the seventeenth century: the Italian opera sinfonia, as exemplified by Alessandro Scarlatti; and the French Overture, as exemplified by Jean-Baptiste Lully. Both types of overture were most often structured in three movements: the Italian sinfonia was fast-slow-fast, and the French Overture was slow-fast-slow. An overture, whether it was the Italian sinfonia or French Overture, was composed for a small orchestra (no more than fifteen players), was relatively easy to play, and was short in duration, typically six or seven minutes in performance time.[3]

During the eighteenth century, the overture or sinfonia as ‘symphony’—an independent, multi-movement musical piece for concert performance in which one instrument doesn’t dominate, as in a concerto—developed in various parts of Europe concurrently, particularly in Italy, as evidenced by works by Giovanni Battista Sammartini; Vienna, notably by Georg Christoph Wagenseil and Georg Matthias Monn; London, notably by J.C. Bach and Carl Friedrich Abel; North Germany, where there was a group of early symphonists including C.P.E. Bach; and in Mannheim (Germany), where early symphonies were written by Johann Stamitz most especially. At this time the symphony was a structure still under development, and repeated experimentation was expanding the complexity of this relatively new musical form. Symphonies composed in the eighteenth century up to the 1770s are referred to as “preclassic”, and their composers as “preclassical symphonists”.[4]

Why did the symphony grow in prominence? In the Baroque period secular music for the first time became more prominent than sacred music. New musical forms such as the sinfonia-as-proto-symphony registered this change wherein the concert hall, rather than the church, became the premier venue for which to compose music. The first collections of concert symphonies (still referred to as ‘sinfonias’) were published in various places of Europe, such as London, between 1740 and 1750.[5]

Growth of the new musical form was also linked to the expansion of the concept of the orchestra itself. The court orchestras during the Baroque period expanded in size to comprise up to twenty players representing different musical families, particularly strings, woodwinds, and keyboard instruments. Whereas in 1700 most orchestras were private and supported by royalty, by the end of the eighteenth century orchestras for public concerts had become more and more common, and symphonies were written to fulfil the demand for orchestral concert music.

Most preclassical symphonies were composed in three movements. Although some composers such as Monn had been experimenting with the four movement symphony as early as 1740, four movement symphonies didn’t became the norm until around 1770, the time of the birth of the "mature classic symphony".[6]

The classical symphony

Mature classic symphony 1770s

The symphony continued to grow in importance, complexity and scale during the eighteenth century. Over 16,000 symphonies were composed in this century, the majority of them between the years 1750 - 1770 by composers completely forgotten today.[7] In the period 1750 - 1770 the typical performance time of a symphony was anywhere from ten to twenty minutes.[8] For most of the eighteenth century up to the late 1770s, symphonies, when played in private settings, were generally considered background music for such social activities as card playing and socializing. Nor were symphonies the central feature of a public concert program; rather, symphonies were typically scheduled at the beginning or end of a program, when the comings and goings of audience members were most voluble and intrusive. “Music was probably not ignored on such occasions so much as paid intermittent attention,” writes music scholar Richard Will.[9]

In the second half of the eighteenth century Franz Joseph Haydn wrote at least 104 symphonies, many of which experimented with the form (some have six movements, for example); and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote 41 symphonies (the first was written when he was eight years old).[10] Haydn was the transitional point from the preclassical symphony to what is referred to as the mature classic symphony. The fourteen symphonies Haydn composed between 1757 and 1761 exemplify many characteristics of the preclassical symphony, while in some ways are already looking forward to the mature classic symphony, which Haydn (with his symphonies 42 - 56) and Mozart (inc. symphonies 25 and 29) arrived at by the mid 1770s.[11] Haydn and Mozart are considered the most celebrated composers of the classical symphony.

The strict terminology “symphony” arrived only after Haydn and Mozart had begun their symphonic labors; as late as 1766 symphonies could be advertised to the public (in London and in Holland, for example) not as symphonies but as “overtures”. By 1770, however, a program for a concert given by Mozart in Mantua uses the word “symphony”.[12] In the last quarter of the eighteenth century the term “symphony” will become firmly established, so that, for example, by 1805 Beethoven will identify his Third Symphony on the title page as “Sinfonie”.[13]

Flowering at the time of the “Age of Reason”, the classical symphony was marked by overall balance and intricate design in which structural symmetry was a general characteristic of a movement. (See, for example, the sonata-form, minuet, trio, and rondo.) The overall structure of the classical symphony was typically in four movements and conformed to this pattern: (1) fast, (2) slow, (3) moderately fast, (4) quite fast.[14] The eighteenth century orchestra performing a classical symphony required no conductor, as the musicians were guided by the concertmaster (usually the first violinist) and the basso-continuo player.[15] The classical symphony was also, compared to symphonies of subsequent centuries, "short and sweet": virtually all of Haydn’s symphonies each take no longer than 25 minutes to play, and Mozart’s, 30 minutes.

The mature symphonies of Haydn and Mozart took on new importance for listeners, who began to pay close attention to the music, as Mozart described in a letter of 3 July 1778.[16] Symphonies began to occupy the central position in the programs of public concerts during the 1780s.[17] In his lifetime Haydn achieved great fame throughout Europe for his symphonies, many of which were published in various European capital cities; but only three of Mozart’s symphonies were published in Mozart’s lifetime.[18]

Music scholars generally rate the late symphonies of both Haydn (his twelve London symphonies 1791 - 1795) and Mozart (his last four symphonies, including the Prague and the Jupiter) as the highest achievement of the mature classical symphony, which is sometimes referred to as the "Viennese Classical symphony".


Beethoven's symphonies 1800-1823

Ludwig van Beethoven wrote nine symphonies, and in the process single-handedly expanded the structure of the symphonic form. Whereas Beethoven’s first two symphonies reflect closely the established style of the mature classic symphony, his Third Symphony, the Eroica (1804), was groundbreaking in terms of performance time, complexity of orchestration, and – in the words of one music scholar contemporary with Beethoven – its “colossal ideas”.[19] Range and density of sound, rhythm, tempo, dynamics, thematic development: in Beethoven’s symphonies from the Eroica onward, all are experimented with, in the process advancing the scope and expression of the concept of the symphony. For his Fifth Symphony Beethoven expanded the size of the orchestra by adding new instruments, such as the trombone, piccolo, and the contrabassoon.[20] His Ninth Symphony (1823) was yet grander still: it was not only the longest symphony written up to then (it takes over an hour to perform), but it also featured the inclusion of human voices in the fourth movement. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony occupies a privileged position in the history of the symphony, equivalent in stature to the Mona Lisa in painting: it is a one-of-a-kind phenomenon.

In fact, Beethoven’s achievement in the symphony transcends the category of the symphony. The four-note motif that begins Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, three quick G’s and a long E-flat, is perhaps the most famous musical phrase in classical music history. The Ninth Symphony occupies an honored position not only in the history of the symphony but in the history of classical music itself. In recent years Beethoven's Ninth has been played in world capitals to mark events of great significance. For example, the newly reunified city of Berlin celebrated the Fall of the Berlin Wall with a performance of the Ninth Symphony six weeks later on Christmas Day 1989 in the Schauspielhaus[21]; and the BBC Proms revised its programme of 15 September 2001 ("The Last Night of the Proms") to include the choral finale from the Ninth Symphony to mark the tragic events of September 11, 2001.[22]

Beethoven's achievement was revolutionary also in terms of the public reception of the genre of the symphony. With the advent of his masterworks, symphonies were now and would remain the central feature of orchestra concert programs around the world. Moreover, of all the symphonists up to and including Beethoven, Beethoven achieved the singular accolade of having his complete set of symphonies published in his lifetime.[23]

Beethoven’s symphonies were marked by what is generally referred to as “personal expression”, and acted as the passageway from the intellectual mature classic symphony to the emotional, lyrical, dramatic symphonies of the Romantic Period of the nineteenth century.

The romantic symphony

The nineteeth century

After Beethoven, the symphony, in the hands of some composers, remained less a formal exercise and more a subjective expression of the composer’s inner experience. Two branches led from the pioneering work of Beethoven: symphonies written within (1) the genre of the mature classical symphony; and (2) the genre of the expansive and expressive symphony. This latter branch would characterize the main direction of the twentieth century symphony.

As for the first branch, some prominent landmarks include: Franz Schubert composed nine symphonies between the years 1813 - 1825, most of which recall the Haydn and Mozart of the classical symphony.[24] His Eighth Symphony (Unfinished, 1822), however, is a major development in the history of the nineteenth century symphony, in terms of its innovations in scoring and its basis in lyric (i.e., emotional) experience. (Various music scholars describe this symphony’s “poetic eloquence”, “creative orchestration”, “tragically pungent spell”, “profound and tender feeling” and “majestic inspiration”.)[25] Just as celebrated is Schubert's ninth symphony, The Great (1825), which has been described as “the last great Classical symphony”.[26] Felix Mendelssohn composed five symphonies between the years 1824 - 1832, which are closer in style to Mozart and the classical symphony than Beethoven and the romantic symphony. Robert Schumann composed four symphonies between the years 1841 - 1853, and while they are marked by some noteworthy experimentation, generally his symphonies reflect the style and structure of the classical symphony.

As for the second branch, the expressive symphony: Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique (subtitled “Episode in the Life of an Artist”) (1830) is an example of a “program symphony”, in which the musical piece has a thematic structure expressed by the composer (e.g., Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, the Pastoral). The symphony “tells a story” rather than communicates abstract musical ideas. Charles Gounod remarked (aptly describing the ultimate history of the genre of the symphony), “With Berlioz all impressions, all sensations, whether joyful or sad, are expressed in extremes, at the point of delirium.”[27] Franz Liszt’s Faust Symphony (1854) and Dante Symphony (1856) are also program symphonies recalling more the expressive content of Beethoven than the consistent formal structure of the classical symphony.

Synthesis of the two branches: Johannes Brahms composed four symphonies between 1876 - 1885 and is generally described as the greatest composer of symphonies in the nineteenth century. Significant influences on Brahms’s symphonies included both Schubert and Liszt[28], but it was Beethoven whom Brahms described as “that giant whose steps I always hear behind me.”[29] Brahms's symphonies wed the compositional complexity of the classical symphony with the highly expressive emotional scope of the romantic symphony.

Other high points of the nineteenth century expressive symphony include Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky, who composed six symphonies between 1866 - 1893; Anton Bruckner, who composed nine symphonies between 1865 - 1896 which especially recall Beethoven in their grandiose structures,[30]; and Antonin Dvořák, who composed nine symphonies between 1865 - 1893 which reflect the influence of Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms.

A variation on the “program symphony” was the “symphonic poem” or “tone poem”, a symphonic work not specifically classified as a symphony; the most famous composer of tone poems, which are typically in one movement, is probably Richard Strauss (e.g., Thus spake Zarathustra), whose symphonic work has been described as one of the last breaths of the romantic age.

In the expressive symphony pioneered by Beethoven, the dynamic range of the various moods is more dramatically pronounced than in the classical symphony: the joy is more boisterous, the lyrical more tender, the alarm more strident, the melancholy more depressive. The most prominent twentieth century symphonies would continue in this "dramatic" vein.

The twentieth century symphony

Post Beethoven, there was a line of thought that argued that the genre of the symphony had reached a sort of end with Beethoven. For example, the Grove Dictionary of Music of 1889 wrote, "it might seem almost superfluous to trace the history of Symphony further after Beethoven.” In the same vein, Richard Wagner in his essay Opera and Drama (1852) alluded to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony as “the very last work of its kind”.[31] Obviously, however, the genre of the symphony persisted throughout the nineteenth century, and still remained a prominent subject in the twentieth century.

For the most part the genre of the symphony was an Austro-German phenomenon for most of its history (Berlioz, for example, was one of the very few Frenchmen composing symphonies in the nineteenth century). The “great symphonic tradition” as it were led primarily to the Russians of the twentieth century (the greatest of which being Dmitry Shostakovich). However, in the twentieth century, the symphony, for the first time, became a major worldwide phenomenon, with composers across the globe trying their hand at the genre which some nineteenth century commentators had called “dead” or “defunct”.

Although some major orchestral composers of the twentieth century such as Claude Debussy and Béla Bartók never wrote a single symphony, there were many composers, in Europe and Russia as well as in Great Britain and America, who kept the idea of the symphony alive. Some of the most prominent composers who can be described as following in the tradition and spirit of the European symphony include:[32]

A full list of twentieth century composers of symphonies would consist of hundreds of names; yet no new symphony after Beethoven has gained the stature that his Ninth has, though almost two hundred years have now passed since it was written.

In the twentieth century (and beyond), the overall structure of the symphony remained as flexible as it had ever been. Symphonies, although generally structured in four movements, can, in fact, be structured according to the wishes of the composer. For example, Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony is in five movements; Mahler’s Eighth is in two movements; Shostakovich’s Fourteenth is in eleven movements; and Schnittke’s Fourth is structured as one movement. Symphonies can start or end fast or slow, and can consist, if the composer wishes, of all fast movements or all slow movements. While the average performance time of a classical symphony was around 20 to 25 minutes, the average for a nineteenth and twentieth century symphony can be fixed at around 35 to 40 minutes, with many symphonies (including all of Mahler's and many of Shostakovich’s) taking over 50 minutes to perform. (Taking a contemporary symphony completely at random, Philip Glass’s Symphony No. 3 from 1992 has a performance time of around 42 minutes.) Some twentieth century symphonies hark back to the "program symphony" (e.g., Vaughan Williams's Sinfonia Antarctica), others recall the manner of Haydn (Stravinsky's Symphony in C), some were written for children (Prokofiev’s Seventh Symphony)[33],yet others are more dark and troubled and "internal" than ever before, representative of the disjointed, moment-by-moment shifting states of mind of the composer. Shostakovich at the end of the third movement of his Symphony No. 10 goes so far as to encode his initials as the melody (in German terminology: D, S, C, H [D, E-flat, C, B]). The slow movement of a symphony (specifically, the adagio) achieved new depths of gloom and mournfulness in the twentieth century, such as in Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 15 and Schnittke’s Symphony No. 6.

Just as music scholar Gerald Abraham refers to a [European] symphonic “line” from Schubert to Mahler [34], so Alexander Ivashkin, world renowned cellist and music scholar, has written: “With Schnittke’s music we are possibly standing at the end of the great symphonic route from Mahler to Shostakovich.”[35]

Names of symphonies

A symphony is generally referred to in this manner: “Symphony No. –”, but some symphonies have also been given names or subtitles by their composers, or nicknames by others, such as Haydn’s Symphony No. 94, the so-called Surprise Symphony; Mozart’s Symphony No. 41, Jupiter; Schumann’s Third, Rheinische Symphonie; Mahler’s Second, Resurrection; Dvořák’s Ninth, From the New World; Shostakovich’s Seventh, Leningrad; and Schnittke’s Second, St. Florian. The name doesn’t take the place of the primary designation, i.e., “Symphony No. – ”, but stands alongside it.

The music of symphonies has entered popular culture, in everything from film scores to adaptations such as the disco hit A Fifth of Beethoven. As such, the public tends to remember a subtitle or nickname better than the formal title. Schubert's aforementioned Eighth Symphony is generally referred to as the Unfinished Symphony, while the fourth movement from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony is almost universally known among English speakers as Ode to Joy.

  1. Sadie, Stanley, The Grove Concise Dictionary of Music, quoted online as [1]
  2. Kennedy, Michael. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), p. 638.
  3. Carse, Adam. 18th Century Symphonies (London: Augener Ltd, 1951), p. 2; 11; 70.
  4. Stedman, Preston. The Symphony (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1992), p. 8; 18.
  5. Ibid., p. 7.
  6. Ibid., p. 21.
  7. ”Jones, David Wyn, “The Origins of the Symphony”, in Robert Layton, A Companion to the Symphony (London: Simon & Schuster, 1993), p. 3-4; Carse, p. 8; 20.
  8. Carse, p. 62.
  9. Will, Richard. The Characteristic Symphony in the Age of Haydn and Beethoven (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), p. 12.
  10. Recent research has attributed to each several formerly unknown or misattributed symphonies.
  11. Stedman, p. 42; 45; Carse, p. 23.
  12. Zaslaw, Neil, “Mozart’s earliest symphonies”, p. 11, 16-17, 20-21, essay with Mozart, Early Symphonies 1764 – 1771, The Academy of Ancient Music, Editions de L'Oiseau-Lyre, CD 417 140-2.
  13. However, on the same page and in bigger lettering Beethoven describes his work also as "Sinfonia grande". The title page of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony will have simply "Sinfonie". See [2] and [3]
  14. Stedman, p. 41; Jones, p. 10.
  15. Carse, p. 5-6; Zaslaw, p. 30-31.
  16. Will, p. 13; Landon, H. C. Robbins, “The Symphonies of Mozart”, in Layton, p. 66.
  17. Will, p. 13; 29.
  18. Jones, David Wyn, “The Symphonies of Joseph Haydn”, in Layton, p. 31; Carse, p. 25.
  20. Stedman, p. 63.
  21. Beethoven, Symphony No. 9, conducted by Leonard Bernstein, Deutsche Grammophon, CD 429 8612.
  23. Osborne, Robert, “Beethoven”, in Layton, p. 80.
  24. Stedman, p. 99.
  25. First two refs: Newbould, Brian, “Schubert”, in Layton, p. 112, 117; third ref: Truscott, Harold, “Franz Schubert”, in Robert Simpson, The Symphony: Volume One Haydn to Dvořák (Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1966), p. 201; last two refs: Weingartner, Felix, The Symphony Writers Since Beethoven (London: W. Reeves, [1925]), p. 21.
  26. Newbold, “Schubert”, in Layton, p. 119.
  28. Knapp, Raymond. Brahms and the Challenge of the Symphony (Stuyvesant, NY: Pendragon Press, 1997), p. 40-1.
  29. Harrison, Julius, “Johannes Brahms” in Simpson, p. 318.
  30. Bruckner wrote two more symphonies in 1863-1864 but withdrew them, the latter of which is now known as his Symphony No. O.
  31. Richard Wagner, Opera and Drama, 1852, p. 75; online at [4]
  32. Some composers, such as Mahler and Schnittke, left unfinished symphonies at their deaths; these are not noted in this list.
  34. Abraham, Gerald. The Concise Oxford History of Music (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), p. 796.
  35. Ivashkin, Alexander. Alfred Schnittke (London: Phaidon Press Limited, 1996), p. 216.