Most of you who do not make a habit of listening to classical music will have heard of a Symphony, and know that it is some sort of portentous orchestral piece listened to by highbrow types wearing appreciative frowns. But I suspect that a much smaller proportion have some clear idea of what a Symphony actually is, and why it is at all important. If you are interested to learn a little more, this post is for you. But be forewarned – I am not a trained musicologist, so if you like what you read here, don’t treat it as gospel, but rather as inspiration to read further, from more authoritative sources.

The term “Symphony” actually has its roots in words of ancient Greek origin originally used to describe certain musical instruments. They have been applied to pipes, stringed instruments, a primitive hurdy-gurdy, and even drums. By the middle ages, similar words were being used for musical compositions of various forms. It is not until the eighteenth century that composers – most prominently Haydn and Mozart – began using the term Symphony to describe a particular form of orchestral composition that we may find familiar today.

Beginning in the Renaissance, the wealthiest European monarchs and princely classes began to assemble troupes of resident musicians in their courts. Although churches had for centuries maintained elaborate choirs, and travelling troubadours have been mentioned in the historical record since time immemorial, it was really only in this period that the concept of what we would now identify as an orchestra began to take shape. Since orchestras didn’t heretofore exist, it follows that composers of orchestral music also didn’t exist either, and the two had to develop and evolve hand in hand. Court composers composed, as a rule, at their masters’ pleasure. They wrote what they were told to write, rather than what they were inspired to write. The purpose of the “orchestra” was mainly to provide music to dance to, although special pieces were sometimes commissioned from the court composer for ceremonial occasions.

As music and musicianship grew, so the scope of compositions began to grow in order to highlight the advancing skills of the performers. Musical forms began to develop which would showcase these talents, and compositional styles emerged which would enable these performers to express their talents in the form of extended playing pieces where they would elaborate both their own playing skills, and the composer’s evolving compositional ideas. Specialist composers began to emerge, culminating in Johann Sebastian Bach, who would go on to codify many of the compositional and structural building blocks which continue to underpin all western music today. It might surprise many readers to learn that today’s pop & rock music adheres very firmly to the principles first set forth by Bach, far more so than do its modern classical counterparts.

By the late 18th century, specialist composers had fully emerged, brimming – indeed exploding – with musical ideas. Many of those ideas involved utilizing the seemingly unlimited expressive potential of the musical ensemble we call an orchestra, but there were few accepted musical forms which composers could use to realize these ambitions. What emerged was the Symphony. Musical forms did exist for shorter, simpler pieces. What the new classical symphonists did was to establish ways of stitching together groups of smaller pieces to make an interesting new whole, which they called a Symphony.

Haydn and Mozart established that a Symphony could be constructed by taking a simple, but highly structured established form such as a Sonata (think Lennon & McCartney) and combining it first with a slower piece and then with a faster piece by way of contrast, and concluding with an up-tempo musical form (such as a Rondo) which has a propensity to drive towards a satisfying and natural conclusion. Eventually, composers would learn to link the four “movements” together by thematic, harmonic, or tonal elements. In any case, the idea was that the four movements would together express musical ideas that exceeded the sum of their parts.

In the next century, particularly thanks to Beethoven, the Symphony grew to become the ultimate expression of compositional ideas. When a composer designates a work a Symphony, it implies both the deployment of the highest levels of musical sophistication, and great seriousness of purpose. Indeed many composers were (and are) reluctant to apply the term to compositions which in their minds failed to meet their personal expectations of what the form demands.

So what, then does the form demand? As time has gone on, the answer to that has grown increasingly abstract. In my view, what it demands more than anything else is structure, which sounds terribly pompous, so I need to describe what I mean by that. Structure is the framework upon which the music expresses its message. I think the easiest possible way to explain that is to listen to the first movement of Beethoven’s 5th symphony (with Carlos Kleiber conducting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, if you can get hold of it). Everybody knows the famous 4-note motif which open the piece – DA-DA-DA-DAAAAA!, and then repeats one tone lower. The entire first movement is all about Beethoven explaining to us what he means by that 4-note motif. The piece sets about exploring and developing it in different ways. We hear it in different keys, at different pitches, played by different instruments and by the orchestra in unison, at different tempi, as the main theme and as part of the orchestra’s chattering accompaniment. It starts off famously as an interrogatory statement – three notes and then down a third with a portentous dwell on the fourth note. By the end of the movement the motif has modulated into a triumphant phrase – three notes and then up a fourth, with the fourth note punched out like an exclamation point. The opening of the movement has asked a (musical) question, then went on to explore the matter in some detail, and finished with a definitive answer. This is what I mean by structure. By the time the movement is over, I feel I know all I need to know about the 4-note motif, or at at least all that Beethoven has to say about tit.

A symphony can be a mammoth piece – some are over an hour long. Four movements is traditional, but five or six are common. What is needed to make a symphony work is that its musical message must be properly conveyed across its whole. It needs to feel incomplete if any parts are missing. It needs to feel wrong if the movements are played in the wrong order. And above all it needs to give up its mysteries reluctantly; it doesn’t want to be a cheap date – it wants your commitment too. A symphony is all about that structure, how its musical ideas are developed both within the individual movements, and also across the entirety of the work. These musical ideas may not be overt – indeed they can be totally hidden in such a way that experts have never managed to fully uncover them in over a hundred years. It may even be that the composer himself only knows those things in his subconscious. Some symphonies are programmatic – which is to say that the composer himself has acknowledged that it sets about telling a particular story – a fine example is the 7th Symphony of Shostakovich which represents the siege of Leningrad in WWII. Some symphonies express acknowledged thoughts, emotions, and musical recollections evoking a particular subject – such as Mendelssohn’s Italian (No 4) and Scottish (No 3) symphonies and Corigliano’s 1st symphony (prompted by the AIDS epidemic). Many entire symphonic oevres were prompted by profoundly religious (i.e Bruckner) or existential (i.e Mahler) emotions.

You can’t talk about the Symphony without talking about the dreaded “curse of the ninth”. Beethoven wrote nine symphonies then died. Shortly afterwards, Schubert died with his 9 symphonies (one unfinished) in the bag. Then came Dvorak, Bruckner, and Mahler. There are others, including the English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. Arnold Schoenberg wrote “It seems that the Ninth is a limit. He who wants to go beyond it must pass away … Those who have written a Ninth stood too close to the hereafter.” Some composers went to great lengths to avoid writing a ninth symphony without getting the tenth safely in the bag immediately afterwards. These include Gustav Mahler whose ninth symphony he instead titled “Das Lied Von Der Erde”. With that safely published he wrote his formal 9th symphony … and then expired with his 10th barely begun. Amusing though it might be, the “curse of the ninth” is of course a fallacy, but one which remains acknowledged by many contemporary composers as a superstition in whose eye they really don’t want to poke a stick.

Some great composers wrote little of note outside of their symphonic output. Others never once in long and productive careers turned their hand to the format – Wagner and Verdi spring to mind. There are a few who were strangely reluctant to approach the form – Stravinsky composed four of them, but pointedly refused to assign numbers to them. In any case, the most important aspect of a Symphony is that – with very few exceptions – they reflect the composer’s most sincere, and personally committed works. They are therefore often listed amongst their composer’s most significant, most important works. And they are also among the most performed and recorded.

Here are a list of Symphonies that might go easy on the ear of a new listener interested in exploring the oevre, with some recommended recordings:

Mozart: Symphony No 40 (McKerras, Prague Chamber, Telarc)
Beethoven: Symphony No 5 (Kleiber, Vienna Philharmonic, DG)
Brahms: Symphony No 4 (Kleiber, Vienna Philharmonic, DG)
Dvorak: Symphony No 8 (Kertesz, LSO, Decca)
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No 6 (Haitink, Royal Concertgebouw, Philips)

And a few that might challenge the already initiated:

Nielsen: Symphony No 5 (Davis, LSO, LSO Live!)
Mahler: Symphony No 7 (Tilson Thomas, SF Symphony, Blue Coast)
Vaughan Williams: Symphony No 5 (Boult, London Philharmonic, EMI)
Corigliano: Symphony No 1 (Barenboim, Chicago Symphony, Erato)
Shostakovich: Symphony No 7 (Haitink, London Philharmonic, Decca)