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What Makes a Symphony - Part I

January 20, 2014 by Christine Gengaro, Ph.D.

Some of my favorite pieces of music are symphonies. It’s hard to believe, though, that the word “symphony” refers to everything from a three-movement Sammartini symphony from the 1730s to Mozart’s mature symphonies of the 1780s to Beethoven’s Ninth to Mahler’s Eighth. To say the symphony has undergone a lot of development in its nearly three centuries of existence is an understatement. Consideration of this word “symphony” and all it encompasses also brings up the question: what is the essence of the “symphony,” and do all these disparate pieces display that same essence?

 

The words “sinfonia” and “symphony” have meant different things at different times, but if we look at the etymology of the word “symphony” we see the Greek “syn” (together) and “phone” (sounding). From this, we might assume that a symphony features many people playing together—and this is something that is nearly always true about symphonies. The groups that play these symphonies vary greatly, from small, four-part string orchestras to the lush multi-sectional late Romantic orchestra. And yet in all cases, the members of the orchestra make sound together. So, there’s at least one thing all symphonies have in common. I think it’s probably also safe to assume that musical instruments are involved. One wouldn’t call a strictly vocal work a “symphony.” As we see in the history of the genre, voices can be part of a symphony, but they are not required. Instruments, however, are de rigueur.

 

The etymology of “symphony” gives us no clue of how many sections there might be in a symphony, and this is something that has changed over time. The early symphonies seem to take Baroque concertos and opera sinfonias (like overtures) as models, and these things had three movements or sections, usually in a fast-slow-fast pattern. G.B. Sammartini, an Italian composer wrote symphonies in the 1730s favored the three-movement structure, although he was responsible for two innovations that seem to have influenced the Italian school of symphonists. First, it is in his symphonies that we see recognizable sonata form—a harmonic plan that became the norm in the Classical period (I’ll explain it below), and he was one of the first composers to understand that the last movement of a stand-alone symphony had to be a little more final than the last movement of an opera sinfonia. After all, a sinfonia was meant to lead into another piece of music, while a symphony finale was the end.

 

The three-movement plan, however, did not become the standard. In the Classical period, the four-movement structure reigned supreme. The basic layout included an Allegro first movement (in sonata form), a slow second movement (no fixed form here), a minuet and trio third movement, and a fast finale, in either sonata form or rondo form. This is the layout that both Mozart and Haydn favored. We think of these composers as the masters of the symphony in the Classical period, and they definitely were. Mozart wrote 41 pieces in the genre, and if he had lived as long as Haydn he might have beat the older man’s total of 104.

 

The sonata form was the dominant recipe for writing symphony first movements (and sometimes last movements as well). The sonata form has three parts: an exposition, a development, and a recapitulation. Simply put, the exposition introduces us to two themes, often of a contrasting nature—the first one is very rhythmic and straightforward, while the second one may be more whimsical and lyrical, and they’re usually in different keys. In the development section, the composer plays these themes in various ways, breaking them down, featuring them in different key areas, putting them through their paces, so to speak. When the recapitulation begins, it sounds almost like the beginning of the exposition again. The first theme is presented, and when the second theme appears, it is now in the key of the first theme. The two themes, which started out differently, are now a little more alike.

 

The concept, as I like to explain it in my music appreciation classes, mirrors the dramatic structure of certain kinds of movies. Think of a rom-com or a buddy comedy. Two characters are introduced (the exposition): one is a straight-laced, by-the-book kind of person, and the other by contrast is a free spirit. Perhaps they don’t get along (usually they don’t—movies need conflict!). These two characters enter into an adventure together (the development): they need to raise money for the failing business, or find the bad guys, or survive the trek through the jungle. When they emerge from their experiences we see them in a new light (the recapitulation): now they are friends or lovers or have at least found mutual respect for each other. How do we know? They are more alike, on the same page, agreeing on something. Music does this by putting them in the same key.

 

There are plenty of variations on the sonata form, of course. Haydn sometimes favored sonata forms with one theme instead of two; it’s an idea that changes the game a little bit (and, sadly, makes my movie analogy fall flat). The dramatic structure of sonata form is just one part of the symphony, but it shows us something that most symphonies have in common: the plan to fully explore and develop a theme or themes throughout a large-scale work. Although many symphonies—certainly over 90% of those in the Classical period—are not “about” any story or narrative, the idea of examining and investigating themes seems to be part of what’s expected in the genre.

 

But the structure wasn’t set in stone. If we’re trying to find the quintessential Classical symphony, we’ll end up figuring out that the body of work in the genre is actually pretty diverse. Some composers also liked to add the slow introduction at the beginning. There are plenty of examples of composers changing the order of the symphony’s middle movements. And when Beethoven entered the picture, well, that’s when things really started to change.

 

Beethoven’s First Symphony seems to pick right up where Mozart’s last symphony left off. In fact Mozart’s last and Beethoven’s first share the same key and a similar opening phrase. But it didn’t take long before Beethoven was changing things pretty radically. Beethoven’s Third Symphony, the Eroica, can almost be viewed in retrospect as a dividing line between the Classical symphony and the Romantic symphony. The Eroica’s first movement alone could have engulfed the entirety of a Haydn or Mozart symphony. Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony showed a consistency of motivic development throughout all four movements. His Sixth Symphony, the Pastoral, had five movements, and each had a title! Beethoven’s final symphony, the Ninth, crossed a line some people thought should not be crossed (I’m looking at you, Johannes Brahms); Beethoven added voices: a choir and four soloists.

 

And that was just the development that took place in the symphony’s first seventy-five years!

 

In 1830, three years after Beethoven’s death, French composer Hector Berlioz took Beethoven’s Sixth as a model and composed Symphonie Fantastique, a five-movement programmatic symphony. Berlioz devised the semi-autobiographical story of a young artist who falls in love with a mysterious woman, and then despairs that she doesn’t love him. Berlioz named each movement of his symphony, just as Beethoven did in the Pastoral Symphony. Berlioz’s orchestra had even more instruments than Beethoven’s, and Berlioz was a master of using the different timbres of the instruments to create ever-more fascinating orchestral color. There is a musical theme that appears in all movements, an idée fixe, that represents the woman. Thematic unity didn’t start out an important part of the symphony back in the 1730s, but a century later, it was all the rage.

 

In the hands of Brahms and Bruckner, the symphony went back to its non-verbal roots, but kept getting bigger, in terms of instruments, scope, thematic unity, and thematic transformation. One of the great late nineteenth-century symphonies is Dvorák’s Ninth, better known as the New World Symphony. What this symphony offers in terms of dramatic range, excitement, and yes, also lyricism, is incredible. There is only the barest hint of a program or story Dvorák is telling (influences of Native American and African-American music he encountered in America), but who needs to be told what the music “means” when it’s so expressive as it is? Dvorák also takes the concept of thematic unity even further, bringing back themes among the symphony’s four movements.

 

So that’s the symphony from its beginnings in the 1700s until about 1900. We still have instruments “sounding together”—although we sometimes have voices too. We still have the exploration of musical themes, although at this point, it’s getting pretty complex. Sometimes we have stories, sometimes we don't. And we still have sonata form, although it’s been stretched and changed so much, sometimes it’s hard to recognize. What will happen in the twentieth century? And in the twenty-first? Tune in next week to find out.

Dr. Christine Gengaro is an award-winning educator, and a successful writer and musician. She has been on the faculty of Los Angeles City College since 2004. A graduate of the Ph.D. program in historical musicology at the University of Southern California, Dr. Gengaro currently serves as the program annotator for the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. She has also written notes and other materials for the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, Camerata Pacifica, and the Mozartwoche concert series in Vienna. Her research interests include music and film, music and literature, and classical music in popular media.

Dr. Gengaro's first book, Listening to Stanley Kubrick: the Music in His Films, was published by Scarecrow Press in 2013.

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