AskDefine | Define symphonic

Dictionary Definition

symphonic adj
1 relating to or characteristic or suggestive of a symphony; "symphonic choir"
2 harmonious in sound; "the symphonic hum of a million insects" [syn: symphonious]

User Contributed Dictionary



symphony + -ic


  • IPA: /sɪmˈfɑnɪk/
  • Rhymes: -ɒnɪk


  1. relating to a symphony
    • 1923: George Bernard Shaw, The Perfect Wagnerite - Finally, Mozart's most dramatic finales and concerted numbers are more or less in sonata form, like symphonic movements, and must therefore be classed as musical prose.

Related terms

symphonic poem

Extensive Definition

A symphony is a musical composition, often extended and usually for orchestra. "Symphony" does not imply a specific form. Although many symphonies are tonal works in four movements with the first in sonata form, and this is often described by music theorists as the structure of a "classical" symphony, even some symphonies by the acknowledged classical masters of the form Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven do not conform to this model.

History of the form


The word "symphony" derives from Greek , meaning "sounding together". Isidore of Seville was the first to use the Latin word symphonia as the name of a two-headed drum, and from ca. 1155 to 1377 the French form symphonie was the name of the organistrum or hurdy-gurdy. In late medieval England, symphony was used in both of these senses, whereas by the sixteenth century it was equated with the dulcimer. In German, Symphonie was a generic term for spinets and virginals from the late 16th century to the 18th century (Marcuse 1975, 501). In the sense of "sounding together" the word also appears in the titles of some works by 16th- and 17th-century composers including Giovanni Gabrieli (the Sacrae symphoniae) and Heinrich Schütz (the Symphoniae sacrae).
In the 17th century, for most of the Baroque period, the terms symphony and sinfonia were used for a range of different compositions, including instrumental pieces used in operas, sonatas and concertos—usually part of a larger work. The opera sinfonia, or Italian overture had, by the 18th century, a standard structure of three contrasting movements: fast; slow; fast and dance-like. It is this form that is often considered as the direct forerunner of the orchestral symphony. The terms "overture", "symphony" and "sinfonia" were widely regarded as interchangeable for much of the 18th century.
Another important progenitor of the symphony was the ripieno concerto—a relatively little-explored form resembling a concerto for strings and continuo, but with no solo instruments. The earliest known ripieno concerti are by Giuseppe Torelli (his set of six, opus five, 1698). Antonio Vivaldi also wrote works of this type. Perhaps the best known ripieno concerto is Johann Sebastian Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 3.

The 18th century symphony

Early symphonies, in common with both overtures and ripieno concertos, have three movements, in the tempi quick-slow-quick. However, unlike the ripieno concerto, which uses the usual ritornello form of the concerto, at least the first movement of these symphonies is in binary form. They are distinguishable from Italian overtures in that they were written to stand on their own in concert performances, rather than to introduce a stage work—although a piece originally written as an overture was sometimes later used as a symphony, and vice versa. The vast majority of these early symphonies are in a major key.
Symphonies at this time, whether for concert, opera, or church use, were not considered the major works on a program: often, as with concerti, they were divided up between other works, or drawn from suites or overtures. Vocal music was dominant, and symphonies provided preludes, interludes, and postludes. At the time most symphonies were relatively short, lasting between 10 and 20 minutes.
The "Italian" style of symphony, often used as overture and entr'acte in opera houses, became a standard three movement form: a fast movement, the "allegro"; a slow movement; and then another fast movement. Mozart's early symphonies are in this layout. The early three-movement form was eventually replaced by a four-movement layout which was dominant in the latter part of the 18th century and most of the 19th century. This symphonic form was influenced by Germanic practice, and would come to be associated with the "classical style" of Haydn and Mozart. The important changes were the addition of a "dance" movement and the change in character of the first movement to becoming "first among equals."
The normal four movement form became, then:
  1. Quick, in a binary form or later sonata form
  2. Slow
  3. Minuet and trio in ternary form
  4. Quick, sometimes also in sonata form, or a rondo or sonata-rondo
Variations on this layout were common, for instance the order of the middle two movements, or the addition of a slow introduction to the first movement. The first known symphony to introduce the minuet as the third movement is a work in D major of 1740 by Georg Matthias Monn, while the first composer to consistently add a minuet as part of a four-movement form was Johann Stamitz.
The composition of early symphonies was centred on Vienna and Mannheim. Early exponents of the form in Vienna included Georg Christoph Wagenseil, Wenzel Raimund Birck and Georg Monn, while the Mannheim school included Johann Stamitz. Symphonies were written throughout Europe, however, with examples by Giovanni Battista Sammartini, Andrea Luchesi and Antonio Brioschi from Italy, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach from northern Germany, Leopold Mozart from Salzburg, François-Joseph Gossec from Paris, and Johann Christian Bach and Karl Friedrich Abel from London.
Later significant Viennese composers of symphonies include Johann Baptist Vanhal, Karl Ditters von Dittersdorf and Leopold Hoffmann. The most important symphonists of the latter part of the 18th century are Joseph Haydn, who wrote at least 108 symphonies over the course of 36 years (Webster and Feder 2001), and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who wrote at least 56 symphonies in 24 years (Eisen and Sadie 2001).

The 19th century symphony

With the rise of established professional orchestras, the symphony assumed a more prominent place in concert life between approximately 1790 and 1820. Ludwig van Beethoven's first Academy Concert advertised "Christ on the Mount of Olives" as the featured work, rather than his performances of two of his symphonies and a piano concerto.
Beethoven dramatically expanded the symphony. His Symphony No. 3 (the Eroica), has a scale and emotional range which sets it apart from earlier works. His Symphony No. 9 takes the unprecedented step of including parts for vocal soloists and choir in the last movement, making it a choral symphony. Hector Berlioz, who coined the term "choral symphony," built on this concept in his "dramatic symphony" Roméo et Juliette while explaining his intent in the five-paragraph introduction in that work's score. Beethoven and Franz Schubert replaced the usual genteel minuet with a livelier scherzo. In Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony, a program work, the composer inserted a "storm" section before the final movement; Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, also a programme work, has both a march and a waltz, and five movements instead of the customary four.
Robert Schumann and Felix Mendelssohn were two leading German composers whose symphonies added the expanded harmonic vocabulary of Romantic music. Some composers also wrote explicitly programmatic symphonies, such as the French Hector Berlioz and the Hungarian Franz Liszt. Johannes Brahms, who took Schumann and Mendelssohn as his point of departure, composed symphonies with very high levels of structural unity; other important symphonists of the late 19th century included Anton Bruckner, Antonín Dvořák and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.
By the end of the 19th century some French organists named some of their organ compositions symphony: their instruments (many built by Aristide Cavaillé-Coll) allowed an orchestral approach. Charles-Marie Widor's and Louis Vierne's orchestral symphonies are heard much less often than their organ symphonies.

The 20th century symphony

Gustav Mahler, at the beginning of the 20th century, wrote large-scale long symphonies (his eighth is nicknamed the "Symphony of a Thousand" because of the forces required to perform it). The twentieth century also saw further diversification in the style and content of works which composers labelled as "symphonies". Some composers, including Sergei Rachmaninoff and Carl Nielsen, continued to write in the traditional four-movement form, while other composers took different approaches: Jean Sibelius' Symphony No. 7, his last, is in one movement.
There remained, however, certain tendencies: symphonies were still on the whole orchestral works. Symphonies with vocal parts, or parts for solo instrumentalists, were the exception rather than the rule. Designating a work a "symphony" still implied a degree of sophistication, and seriousness of purpose. The word sinfonietta came into use to designate a work that was "lighter" than a "symphony" (Leoš Janáček's Sinfonietta is one of the best known examples).
The 20th century saw an increase in the number of works which could reasonably have been titled symphonies, but which the composer gave another designation. Concerto for Orchestra by Béla Bartók, and Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde are sometimes analysed as symphonies.
Composers continue to write works which they call "symphonies", although exactly what qualifies a work as a symphony is not well-defined. As can be seen from examples as diverse as those by Witold Lutosławski, Olivier Messiaen, Luciano Berio, Glenn Branca and Philip Glass, it can denote an artistic purpose other than conformity with any symphonic tradition.

See also



  • Bukofzer, Manfred F. 1947. Music in the Baroque Era: From Monteverdi to Bach. New York: W. W. Norton.
  • Eisen, Cliff, and Stanley Sadie. 2001. "Mozart (3): (Johann Chrysostum) Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart". The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. S. Sadie and J. Tyrrell. London: Macmillan.
  • Marcuse, Sybil. 1975. Musical Instruments: A Comprehensive Dictionary. Revised edition. The Norton Library. New York: W. W. Norton. ISBN 0-393-00758-8.
  • Newman, William S. 1972. The Sonata in the Baroque Era. New York: W. W. Norton.
  • Tarr, Edward H. 1974. Unpaginated editorial notes to his edition of Giuseppe Torelli, Sinfonia a 4, G. 33, in C major. London: Musica Rara.
  • Webster, James, and Georg Feder. 2001. "Haydn, (Franz) Joseph". The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. S. Sadie and J. Tyrrell. London: Macmillan.

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