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Joseph Karl Stieler Portrait of Ludwig van Beethoven.

A symphony is a large-scale orchestral work. The symphonic form is a sonata written for the full orchestra, whereas the work for one or two instruments is named a "Sonata". In a sense, a symphony is anything that a composer chooses to call by that name; but the form, as developed from about 1750 to 1950, typically:

  • is played by an orchestra of fifty to a hundred musicians, including sections of strings (violin, viola, cello, bass), woodwinds (clarinet, oboe, bassoon, flute, piccolo), brass (French horns, trumpets, trombones, tuba), percussion (tympani, other drums, cymbals, triangle). The instrumental sections are more or less coequal and have conversations or dialogues with each other, as contrasted with a concerto, in which a solo instrument conducts a dialogue with the rest of the orchestra
  • lasts about twenty to ninety minutes[1]
  • has a detectable structure to it; it is not simply a long medley of tunes. The pattern of key changes and recurring themes are often described as taking the listener on a musical journey.
  • is usually "absolute music," without a specific story line to it (unlike "program music," such as Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade or Smetana's Ma Vlast)
  • is usually in four separate parts, called movements, with the first movement following a pattern called "Sonata-allegro form." In 18th century symphonies, the second movement was the slow movement, followed by a minuet and trio (or scherzo and trio) in ternary form, and then a fast final movement, in either sonata form or rondo form.

These characterizations are not absolute, however, as many composers have experimented with the format of the symphony:

  • Beethoven added programmatic features to his Sixth Symphony (as well as an extra movement), and a chorus to the finale of his Ninth
  • Berlioz greatly expanded the size of the orchestra for his "Symphonie Fantastique", and used a programmatic structure
  • Composers such as Mahler, Schoenberg, and Richard Strauss experimented with the number of movements and their size and scope

Some famous, familiar, and easily appreciated symphonies include:

  • Mozart's Symphony No. 40 in G minor, his penultimate symphony, and one of only two of his symphonies written in a minor key (the other, Symphony No. 25, was also in G minor)
  • Beethoven's Symphony No. 5, perhaps the best-recognized classical work ever written.
  • Beethoven's Symphony No. 9, with the choral "Ode to Joy" in the fourth movement. This piece was conducted by Leonard Bernstein to celebrate the fall of the Berlin wall, with the lyrics changed slightly to "Ode to Freedom".
  • Dvořák's Symphony No. 9, "From the New World," with themes that have the flavor of black spirituals to them.[2]

Other composers known for their symphonies include Joseph Haydn, Franz Schubert, Jean Sibelius, Gustav Mahler, Anton Bruckner, Cesar Franck, Sergei Prokofiev, and Dmitri Shostakovich.

The twentieth century vogue for atonal music has to some extent obscured the continuing composition of "traditional" symphonies. Some twentieth century symphonies written in a tonal idiom, more or less in a traditional symphonic mould, and enjoyable to non-expert listeners include:

  • Charles Ives, 1913, New England Holidays
  • Howard Hansen, 1930, Symphony No. 2 ("Romantic")
  • Meredith Willson, 1936, Symphony No. 1, "A Symphony of San Francisco"
  • Alan Hohvaness, 1955, Symphony No. 2, "Mysterious Mountain"
  • Henryk Górecki, 1976, Symphony No. 3, "A Symphony of Sorrowful Songs"
  • John Corigliano, 1990, Symphony No. 1

Notes and references

  1. The compact disc originally had a maximum playing time of 74 minutes. A story holds that the size of the disc was influenced by the wish that Beethoven's Ninth Symphony fit onto a single disc. Sony's then-president Norio Ohga was a devotee of classical music and a friend of conductor Herbert von Karajan. Urban legends investigators seem to conclude that it's not quite as simple as that but that the story does have some truth to it; e.g. CD length, Snopes.
  2. Dvořák was not a musicologist, and, oddly, believed that "Negro" and "Indian" music were similar. He himself regarded the music as Indian-themed, with connections to The Song of Hiawatha.