(from Gk., ‘a sounding together’ Ger. Sinfonie, Fr. symphonie, It. sinfonia, Gk.‐Lat. symphonia).
A term which has had several meanings over the centuries: (1) In 17th and 18th cents., sinfonia meant what we should now call an ‘overture’ to an opera, etc., i.e. a short instr. piece often consisting of 3 short sections or movts. in quick–slow–quick form. (2) It was also used of an orch. interlude, e.g. the ‘Pastoral’ sym. in Handel's Messiah, in a vocal work. Some 20th‐cent. composers have revived this archaic usage of the term, e.g. Stravinsky in his Symphonies of Wind Instruments (1920). (3) As the word is now generally used, it means a large‐scale orch. comp. (usually in 4 movts. but often in 1, 3, or 5, occasionally in 2), a sonata for orch., the 1st movt. and others being in sonata‐form. It is reserved by composers for their most weighty and profound orch. thoughts, but of course there are many light‐hearted, witty, and entertaining syms. The movts. of the Classical and early Romantic sym. were usually an opening allegro, followed by a slow movt., then a minuet or scherzo, finally another allegro or rondo. Frequently the slow movt. is placed 3rd, sometimes last. Early composers of the 18th‐cent. 4‐movt. sym. were Sammartini, Wagenseil, Gossec, J. C. and C. P. E. Bach, Boyce, and especially the composers of the Mannheim School, Stamitz, Cannabich, Richter, and others, who made innovations in dynamics, expanded the development of themes, and broadened the harmonic idiom. The average 18th‐cent. sym. orch. comprised str., double woodwind (cls. later), hns., and a continuo instr., usually hpd. The sym. was brought to a new peak by Joseph Haydn, who wrote 107, and was the first composer to demonstrate what later composers also seized upon, namely that the word ‘symphony’ should not imply rigidity of form or material. Some of Haydn's syms. have 6 movts.; some utilize mus. he wrote for plays; some themes are based on folk‐songs; most have slow introductions; many movts. are mono‐thematic; rondos, variations, and minuets are used; wit and humour are deployed; rare keys are explored; deep emotions are aroused. Haydn's example was followed and improved upon by Mozart, especially in his 3 last syms. of 1788, and these in turn led to even further marvels from Haydn in his last 12 syms. written for his 2 visits to Eng.Taking over from Haydn and Mozart, Beethoven raised the sym. to a new plane of emotional expression, his 3rd Symphony (Eroica, 1803–4) ending the 18th cent. at a stroke and striding forward into an age when democracy, revolution, and ethics were to become influential factors in art, while at the same time effecting a mus. revolution by its enlarged dimensions, boldness of harmony, subtlety of key relationships, and general scope. In the Pastoral Symphony, No.6 (1807–8), Beethoven reconciled perfectly the claims of ‘absolute’ and ‘descriptive’ mus., and in the 9th (1817–23) he introduced human vv. into the finale in a setting of Schiller's Ode to Joy. The floodgates were now open. Schubert's syms. bridged the way to the Romantic period. The syms. of Mendelssohn and Schumann combine classical outlines with romantic feeling and some pictorialism, as in the former's Scotch and Italian syms. and the latter's Spring and Rhenish. Brahms's 4 syms. eschew pictorial associations and uphold the virtues of classical design (though they are deeply romantic in essence and also formally unusual in places) as an antidote to the growing craze for Lisztian symphonic poems and the operas of Wagner (who wrote only one early sym. but was contemplating others when he died). Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique (1830) is one of the most remarkable works in the genre, frankly programmatic, brilliantly orchestrated, and opening up horizons which were not further explored until the picturesque late‐19th‐cent. syms. of Tchaikovsky. Yet the epitome of the Romantic sym., imbued still with classical principles while on a huge architectural scale, is to be found in the 9 syms. of Bruckner. Berlioz's pioneering was taken a stage further by Mahler, whose 10 syms. not only bridge the 19th and 20th cents. but also form a ‘transition passage’ of their own between 19th‐cent. mus. idioms and the new 20th‐cent. preoccupation with the dissolution of tonality. The crisis of the sym. in the early years of the 20th cent. is exemplified by the contrasting approaches of Sibelius and Mahler. The former expressed his faith in compression, concentration, and ‘absolute’ mus. whereas Mahler said that ‘the symphony must embrace everything’. In Sibelius, especially in the 4th and 7th syms., symphonic thought and processes are elliptical and pared to essentials. In Mahler, vv. are used in 4 of the syms., philosophical and religious theories are at the root of their inspiration, and wildly juxtaposed thematic material is brought into cohesive unity by sheer force of conviction, the instrumentation being exotic and multiple. The two attitudes, regarded as mutually exclusive, are in fact not incompatible and a compromise has governed the development of the 20th‐cent. sym., often within the works of the same composer, e.g., compare the severe ‘classicism’ of Vaughan Williams's 4th Sym. with the programmatic 7th, Sinfonia Antartica; compare Shostakovich's 5th Sym. with his 13th and 14th.From time to time throughout the 20th cent. composers and pundits have pronounced the sym. dead but it shows an encouraging refusal to lie down. Nielsen (6), Vaughan Williams (9), Bax (7), Shostakovich (15), Ives (4), W. Schuman (10), Rubbra (11), Arnold (9), Maxwell Davies (8), Henze (8), not to mention Hovhaness (well over 60), and many others show that the sym. has lost neither its attraction nor its challenge for composers. Argument frequently occurs over whether certain works designated ‘symphony’ really merit the description, e.g. Stravinsky's Symphony in 3 Movements (1945), Messiaen's Turangalîla (1946–8), etc. An answer to this is that no mus. form can be regarded as immutable. The 18th‐cent. composer (with the likely exception of Haydn) would scarcely recognize some 20th‐cent. syms. in form, but there is more to a sym. than its title. It implies an attitude of mind, a certain mental approach by the composer, and in this respect the 4 syms. of Tippett and those by Maxwell Davies, as well as many others comp. since 1960, suggest that, for some time to come, reports of the demise of the sym. will prove to have been exaggerated. (4) In the USA ‘symphony’ also means ‘symphony orchestra’. (5) Sym. concert means, pedantically, a concert at which a sym. is played, but it is generally used to mean a concert by a sym. orch., whatever it is playing.