In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Symphony

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Shorter Surveys
  • Dictionaries

Music Symphony
Nicolas Waldvogel
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 April 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0093


In its simplest definition, a symphony is an extended orchestral work in several movements. The origins of the genre have been a matter of speculation. Opera overtures in the early 18th century were often called sinfonias. They contributed, together with the ripieno concerto, to the emergence of a simple, striking, and powerful orchestral style meant for the concert hall—hundreds of works that were not always called symphonies or one of its cognates. The new genre took on increasing importance in the latter part of the century with the development of orchestras, concert halls, and concert series in major cities. Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven were all active in Vienna; they had multiple chances to interact, and, by the beginning of the 19th century, their symphonies were published and performed all across Europe. This is how the stylistic notion of the four-movement Classical Viennese symphony came to be. Beethoven’s nine symphonies exerted tremendous influence throughout the 19th century. Schubert, Berlioz, Schumann, Brahms, and Bruckner, among others, felt that they had to measure themselves against his works. They idealized the compositional unity found in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, for instance, and emulated it through elaborate systems of recurring motives (Berlioz, Tchaikovsky) or large-scale harmonic and cyclic designs (Brahms, Franck, Bruckner, Mahler). Also a Beethovenian legacy was the predominant four-movement scheme (with a scherzo in either the second or the third position. Toward the end of the century, the influence of Liszt and Wagner came to the fore. Their chromatic language, orchestral palette, and programmatic ideals would inspire an entire generation of composers. The persistent notion that the symphony should be devoid of literary or extramusical content was much discussed, but rarely observed in practice. With the end of World War I, many composers sought to reappraise the genre. Not unlike opera, the symphony was seen as emblematic of the political and social order that had brought devastation to Europe. This quest for renewal is evident in the shorter symphonies of Stravinsky or the chamber symphonies of Schoenberg. At the same time, concert organizers and conductors increasingly favored a small number of great works from the 19th century and many composers shifted their creative attention away from the symphony toward smaller ensembles and more novel forms. The reaction was less pronounced in Russia, Great Britain, and the United States, where the tradition of the large-scale four-movement symphony was perpetuated by Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Vaughan Williams, and Copland, among many others.

General Overviews

The most detailed overview, although incomplete, is by A. Peter Brown (four volumes). Brown 2002 details the symphonies of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert. Brown 2003 follows the Viennese repertoire in the second half of the 19th century (essentially from Brahms to Mahler). Rounding up the 19th century, Brown 2007 is dedicated to German and Nordic centers, and Brown 2008 centers on Great Britain, Russia, and France. Another four-volume overview can be found in Handbuch der Musikalischen Gattungen. It is broader in scope (from the early 18th century to the end of the 20th century) but generally less detailed. Two volumes deal with the 18th century: Kunze 1993 and Gruber, et al. 2006. The 19th and 20th centuries are covered in Steinbeck 2002a and Steinbeck 2002b.

  • Brown, A. Peter. The Symphonic Repertoire: The First Golden Age of the Viennese Symphony: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. Vol. 2. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002.

    NNNDiscusses almost all of the symphonies of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert. Places the works in their context. Analyzes each symphony individually, with great attention to singularities of form, in particular. Carefully avoids a “great man” approach. Extensive bibliography and numerous illustrations.

  • Brown, A. Peter. The Symphonic Repertoire: The Second Golden Age of the Viennese Symphony: Brahms, Bruckner, Dvořák, Mahler, and Selected Contemporaries. Vol. 4. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003.

    NNNStarts with the growth of symphonic concerts in German-speaking countries. Brown then addresses the Germanic tradition in the aftermath of Beethoven: from Dvořák and Brahms to the second Viennese School (including Mahler). Includes lesser-known symphonies by Fibich, Janaceck, Zemlinsky, Schmidt, and Schreker.

  • Brown, A. Peter. The Symphonic Repertoire: The European Symphony from ca. 1800 to ca. 1930: Germany and the Nordic Countries. Vol. 3A. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007.

    NNNThis volume groups the works of Weber, Spohr, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Wagner, Lindblad, Berwald, Grieg, Svendsen, Hartmann, Gade, Berlioz, Liszt, Raff, and Richard Strauss. The unusual assortment stems from a focus on northern Europe, on the “avant garde” of Berlioz, Liszt, Raff, and Richard Strauss as well as on the German composers not covered in the preceding volume.

  • Brown, A. Peter, with Brian Hart. The Symphonic Repertoire: The European Symphony from ca. 1800 to ca. 1930: Great Britain, Russia, and France. Vol. 3B. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008.

    NNNAttempts to cover most of the non-Germanic tradition of the 19th century and early 20th century. Great attention to lesser-known works by, for instance Potter, Bennett, Stanford, Parry, Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin, Balakirev, Kalinnikov, Gounod, Bizet, Saint-Saëns, d’Indy, and Magnard.

  • Gruber, Gernot, Matthias Schmidt, and Mario Aschauer. Die Sinfonie zur Zeit der Wiener Klassik. Laaber, Germany: Laaber-Verlag, 2006.

    NNNA cultural history of the symphony at the end of the 18th century. Examines the entire output across many centers, for instance the works of Vogler, Clementi, Stamitz (father and sons), Gossec, and Pleyel. The importance of the Viennese classics is deliberately minimized (not a single musical example by Haydn, Mozart, or Beethoven but many by other composers).

  • Kunze, Stefan. Die Sinfonie im 18. Jahrhundert: Von der Opernsinfonie zur Konzertsinfonie. Laaber, Germany: Laaber-Verlag, 1993.

    NNNDescribes the ambiguous terminology of the symphony at the beginning of the 18th century. Examines the three-movement Italian overture and the great demand for orchestral works in various capitals. Finishes with the theory of the symphony in the second half of the century. Beautifully laid out in large format, with illustrations, tables, and so on.

  • Steinbeck, Wolfram. Romantische und nationale Symphonik. Laaber, Germany: Laaber-Verlag, 2002a.

    NNNStructured by large concepts: the symphony in the aftermath of Beethoven; symphonies with programs, topics, or vocal elements; “pure” symphonies; and national schools at the end of the 19th century. The chapters on Russian and French composers are particularly thorough.

  • Steinbeck, Wolfram. Stationen der Symphonik seit 1900. Laaber, Germany: Laaber-Verlag, 2002b.

    NNNClassifies the 20th-century symphony into stylistic or critical categories (the more traditional approach is by countries). Distinguishes between “Crisis” (Scriabin, Strauss, Sibelius, Mahler), “Dissociation” (Schoenberg, Stravinsky), or “Plurality” (Nielsen, Ives, Shostakovich). Ends with recent symphonies by Berio, Isan Yun, and Rihm. The large format is particularly satisfactory for recent orchestral scores.

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