What is a Symphony?

From favorites like Beethoven’s 5th to symphonies that you’ve never heard before, this blog post and podcast episode gives a brief overview of the history of the symphony and what to expect when you head into the concert hall.

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What is a symphony?

A symphony is a specific form that many composers used when writing music. These pieces are usually large in scale, were written for a large orchestra, and are made up of four individual movements. A movement is a single piece of music, like a song on a rock album. An album may have ten short songs, while a symphony would have four larger “songs,” or movements.

The four movements of a symphony

The first movement of a symphony is usually in a form called Sonata form and is often the most significant of the four movements. The second movement is usually slow and lyrical. The third movement is usually a dance, or sometimes a “Scherzo,” which is a light, quick piece. And the final movement (the finale) is almost always fast and exciting.

History of the symphony

The symphony grew out of earlier forms and was formalized by the composer Joseph Haydn in the 1700s. Later composers like Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, and Mahler expanded what they could be.

Symphony comes from the Greek word symphonia, or “agreement of sound.” Today it refers to a specific group of musicians, such as a “symphony orchestra,” or the musical form, such as “Beethoven’s 5th symphony.”

What to expect

Since most orchestra concerts will have a symphony as their headline piece, you should know what to expect when going to see one. They are usually the longest piece on a concert, but they can vary wildly in size, length, and complexity. This is because of how much the form has developed over time.

For example: “Classical” symphonies, written before 1800, tend to be shorter and lighter. These are usually pieces by Haydn or Mozart, and the orchestra will be relatively small. Symphonies written between 1800 and 1900 are “Romantic”, and they grow larger and larger throughout the century. This time period is where most symphonies come from, and notable composers include Schubert, Mendelssohn, R. Schumann, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky.

You can learn more about some selected symphonies by visiting our Program Notes Archive. There, you will find short introductions where you can learn more about many pieces.

The FCS podcast is dedicated to teaching about orchestras and the music they play in an approachable way. We would love your feedback as we continue to improve our content to help make classical music accessible. You can reach out to us on Facebook and Instagram, or by visiting the FCS contact page here.