What Is a Symphony?

Written by Richard Murison

Most of you who do not make a habit of listening to classical music will have heard of a Symphony, and know that it is some sort of portentous orchestral piece listened to by highbrow types wearing appreciative frowns.  But I suspect that a much smaller proportion have some clear idea of what a Symphony actually is, and why it is at all important.  If you are interested to learn a little more, this post is for you.  But be forewarned – I am not a trained musicologist, so if you like what you read here, don’t treat it as gospel, but rather as inspiration to read further, and from more authoritative sources.

The term “Symphony” actually has its roots in words of ancient Greek origin originally used to describe certain musical instruments.  They have been applied to pipes, stringed instruments, a primitive hurdy-gurdy, and even drums.  By the Middle Ages, similar words were being used for musical compositions of various forms.  It is not until the eighteenth century that composers – most prominently Haydn and Mozart – began using the term Symphony to describe a particular form of orchestral composition that we find familiar today.

Beginning in the Renaissance, the wealthiest European monarchs and princely classes began to assemble troupes of resident musicians in their courts.  Although churches had for centuries maintained elaborate choirs, and travelling troubadours have been mentioned in the historical record since time immemorial, it was really only in this period that the concept of what we would now identify as an orchestra began to take shape.  Since orchestras didn’t heretofore exist, it follows that composers of orchestral music also didn’t exist either, and the two had to develop and evolve hand in hand.  Court composers composed, as a rule, at their masters’ pleasure.  They wrote what they were told to write, rather than what they were inspired to write.  The purpose of the “orchestra” was mainly to provide music for social functions, although special pieces were often commissioned for ceremonial occasions.

As music and musicianship grew, so the scope of compositions began to grow in order to highlight the advancing skills of the performers.  Musical forms began to develop which would showcase these talents, and compositional styles emerged which would enable these performers to express their abilities in the form of extended playing pieces where they could elaborate both their own playing skills, and the composer’s evolving compositional ideas.  Specialist composers began to emerge, leading eventually to Johann Sebastian Bach, who would codify many of the compositional and structural building blocks which continue to underpin all western music today.  It might surprise many readers to learn that today’s pop & rock music adheres very firmly to the principles first codified by Bach (but based on much older traditions), far more so than do its modern classical counterparts.

By the late 18th century, specialist composers had fully emerged, brimming – indeed exploding – with musical ideas.  Many of those ideas involved utilizing the seemingly unlimited expressive potential of the ensemble we call an orchestra, but there were few accepted musical forms which composers could use to realize these ambitions.  What emerged was the Symphony.  Musical forms did exist for shorter, simpler pieces.  But what the new classical symphonists did was to establish ways of stitching together groups of smaller pieces to make an interesting new whole, which they called a Symphony.

Haydn and Mozart established that a Symphony could be constructed by taking a simple, but highly structured established form such as a Sonata (think Lennon & McCartney) and combining it with both a slower piece and a faster piece by way of contrast, and concluding with an up-tempo musical form which has a propensity to drive towards a satisfying and natural conclusion.  Eventually, composers would learn to link the “movements” together using thematic, harmonic, or tonal elements.  In any case, the idea was that the four movements would together express musical ideas that exceeded the sum of their parts.

In the next century, particularly thanks to Beethoven, the Symphony grew to become the ultimate form for the expression of compositional ideas.  When a composer designates a work a Symphony, it implies both the deployment of the highest levels of technical sophistication, and great seriousness of purpose.  Indeed many composers were (and are) reluctant to apply the term to compositions which in their minds failed to meet their personal expectations of what the form demands.

So what, then, does the form demand?  As time has gone on, the answer to that question has grown increasingly abstract.  In my view, what it demands more than anything else is structure, which sounds terribly pompous, so I need to describe what I mean by that.  Structure is the framework upon which the music expresses its message.

I think the easiest possible way to explain that is to listen to the first movement of Beethoven’s 5th symphony.  Everybody knows the famous 4-note motif which opens the piece – DA-DA-DA-DAAAAA!, DA-DA-DA-DAAAAA!!  The entire first movement is all about Beethoven elaborating on what he means by that 4-note motif.  The piece sets about exploring and developing it in different ways.  We hear it in different keys, at different pitches, played by different instruments and by the orchestra in unison, at different tempi, as the main theme and as part of the orchestra’s chattering accompaniment.

It starts off famously as an interrogatory statement – three notes and then down a third with a portentous dwell on the fourth note.  By the end of the movement the motif has modulated into a triumphant phrase – three notes and then up a fourth, with the fourth note punched out like an exclamation point.  The opening of the movement has asked a (musical) question, then went on to explore the matter in some detail, and finished with a definitive answer.  This is what I mean by structure.  By the time the movement is over, I feel I know all I need to know about the 4-note motif, or at least all that Beethoven has to say about it.  While the foregoing is fresh in your mind, take five minutes to listen to it on YouTube – Claudio Abbado is conducting the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra:


A symphony can be a mammoth piece – some are over an hour long.  Four movements is traditional, but five or six, or even as few as one, are common.  What is needed to make a symphony work is that its musical message must be properly conveyed across its whole.  It needs to feel incomplete if any parts are missing.  It needs to feel wrong if the movements are played in the wrong order.  And above all it needs to give up its mysteries reluctantly; it doesn’t want to be a cheap date – it wants your commitment too.

A symphony is all about that structure, how its musical ideas are developed both within the individual movements, and also across the entirety of the work.  These musical ideas may not be overt – indeed they can be totally hidden in such a way that experts have never managed to fully uncover them in over a hundred years.  It may even be that the composer himself only fully understands those things at a subconscious level, and the resultant work is his only means of expressing them.

Many symphonies are programmatic – which is to say that the composer himself has acknowledged that it sets about telling a particular story – a fine example is the 11th Symphony of Shostakovich which describes the events of the year 1905 in St. Petersburg, with its “bloody Sunday” uprising.  Some symphonies express acknowledged thoughts, emotions, and musical recollections evoking a particular subject – such as Mendelssohn’s Italian (No 4) and Scottish (No 3) symphonies and John Corigliano’s 1st symphony (prompted by the AIDS epidemic).  Many entire symphonic oevres were inspired by profoundly religious (i.e. Bruckner) or existential (i.e. Mahler) emotions.

Some great composers wrote little of note outside of their symphonic output.  Bruckner, for example, wrote a number of highly regarded choral works, but no other major orchestral works.  Others never once over the span of long and productive careers turned their hand to the format – Wagner and Verdi spring to mind.  There are a few who were unusually reluctant to approach the form – Stravinsky composed four symphonies, but pointedly refused to assign numbers to them.  But in general, the most important aspect of a Symphony is that – with very few exceptions – they reflect the composer’s most sincere, and personally committed works.  They are therefore often listed amongst their composer’s most significant, and most important works.  And they are usually among the most performed and recorded.

You can’t talk about the Symphony without talking about the dreaded “curse of the ninth”.  Beethoven wrote nine symphonies then died.  Shortly afterwards, Schubert died with his own 9th symphony in the bag.  As did Dvorak, Bruckner, Mahler, and the English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams.  We can add the minor composer Louis Spohr to the list too.  Arnold Schoenberg wrote “It seems that the Ninth is a limit. He who wants to go beyond it must pass away … Those who have written a Ninth stood too close to the hereafter.

Some composers went to great lengths to avoid writing a ninth symphony without getting the tenth safely in the bag immediately afterwards. These include Gustav Mahler whose ninth symphonic work he instead titled Das Lied Von Der Erde (Songs of the Earth).  With that safely published he wrote his formal 9th symphony … and then expired with his 10th barely begun.  But hang on a minute … Bruckner’s symphonic output includes symphonies No.0 and No.00 as well as Nos. 1-9.  And if you had suggested to Schubert or Dvorak that they had written nine symphonies they might have asked you what you were smoking.  There appears to have been a tendency to try to arrange, after the fact, for a dead composer’s symphonic output to add up to nine.  So the whole thing does not stand up at all to close inspection.  Amusing though it might be, the “curse of the ninth” is an abject fallacy, but one which remains acknowledged by many contemporary composers as a superstition in whose eye they really don’t want to poke a stick.

I’ll sign off with a handful of Symphonies that might go easy on the ear of a new listener interested in exploring the oevre, with some recommended recordings:

Mozart: Symphony No 40 (McKerras, Prague Chamber, Telarc)

Beethoven: Symphony No 5 (Kleiber, Vienna Philharmonic, DG)

Rachmaninov: Symphony No 2 (Previn, London Symphony Orchestra, EMI)

Dvorak: Symphony No 8 (Kertesz, LSO, Decca)

Tchaikovsky: Symphony No 6 (Haitink, Royal Concertgebouw, Philips)

And another handful that represent progressively greater departures from the mainstream:

Vaughan Williams: Symphony No 5 (Boult, London Philharmonic, EMI)

Mahler: Symphony No 7 (Tilson Thomas, SF Symphony, SFS Media)

Bruckner: Symphony No 8 (Celibidache, Munich PO, EMI)

Nielsen: Symphony No 4 (Davis, London Symphony Orchestra, LSO Live!)

Corigliano: Symphony No 1 (Shimoni, Yomiuri Nippon SO, Avex)

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