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Symphony

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The principal modern meaning of symphony (Italian, sinfonia, from Greek sun-, together, and phoneia, sound) is a sonata for the orchestra. The orchestral symphony originated in the operatic overture, which in the middle of the 18th century began to assimilate the essentials of the sonata style. At first such sonata-style overtures consisted of three movements, viz. a moderately quick binary movement, a short slow movement, and a lively finale. Thus Mozart, at the age of twelve, used his 7th symphony as the overture to La finta semplice, and Haydn's maturest symphonies are still called overtures in some early editions. La finta giardiniera, written by Mozart in his eighteenth year, marks the differentiation of the opera overture from the independent symphony, since it contains the usual first movement and slow movement, but the curtain rises with what sounds like the beginning of the finale.

The term was used by the Greeks, firstly, to denote the general conception of concord, both between successive sounds and in the unison of simultaneous sounds; secondly, in the special sense of concordant pairs of successive sounds (i.e. the "perfect intervals" of modern music; the 4th, 5th and octave); and thirdly as dealing with the concord of the octave, thus meaning the art of singing in octaves, or magadizi'ng, as opposed to singing and playing in unison. In Roman times the word appears in the general sense which still survives in poetry, viz, as harmonious concourse of voices and instruments. It also appears to mean a concert. In St Luke xv. 25, it is distinguished from xbpo~, and the passage is appropriately translated in the English Bible as "music and dancing." Polybius and others seem to use it as the name of a musical instrument.

In the 17th century the term is used, like concerto, for certain vocal compositions accompanied by instruments, e.g. the Kleine geistliche Concerte and Symphoniae sacrae of Schütz. Most of Schütz's works of this class are for from one to three solo voices in various combinations with instruments. The Geistliche Concerte are generally accompanied by figured bass and are to German texts; and the voices may in many cases be choral[?]. The Symphoniae sacrae are to Latin texts and are written for various combinations of instruments, while the voice parts are evidently for solo singers. The word symphony is sometimes used for the instrumental ritornello of songs and vocal movements in aria form. In this sense it already appears in No. 28 of the second book of Schütz's Geistliche Concerte.

The sonata style was not at first invariably associated with what we now call sonata form, nor indeed was that form at first the most favourable to the dramatic expression desirable for operatic music. Hence the overtures of Gluck are generally in forms based on the contrast of loosely knit passages of various textures; forms which he probably learned from San Martini, and which may be found in the concertos of Vivaldi, so many of which were freely transcribed by Johann Sebastian Bach. These methods are no less evident in the symphonies of Philipp Emmanuel Bach, which thus occupy an analogous place, away from the normal line of the sonata style. The differentiation between symphony and overture was of immense importance in raising the dignity of the symphony; but the style was more essential than the form; and in Mozart's and Haydn's mature works we find the sonata form as firmly established in the overture as in the symphony, while nevertheless the styles and scope of the two forms are quite distinct. Mozart's most elaborate overture, that of Die Zauberflöte, could not possibly be the first movement of one of his later symphonies; nor could the finale of his "Jupiter" symphony (which has often been compared with that overture because of its use of fugalo) conceivably be used as the prelude to an opera.

See also: Sonata form

This page originally came from a well-known 1911 encyclopedia.


A symphony or symphony orchestra is an orchestra, particularly one that plays or is equipped to play symphonies. There is no particular significance to prefixes such as symphony or philharmonic in the name of an orchestra, though they can be useful in distinguishing orchestras, such as the London Symphony Orchestra and London Philharmonic Orchestra.

Going to hear a symphony orchestra play is sometimes called "going to the symphony," whether or not an actual symphony is on the programme.

A concert hall that is dedicated to a particular symphony orchestra may also be called a symphony.



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