What makes a symphony?

Open navigator

Please turn on JavaScript. Media requires JavaScript to play.

1. Why are symphonies important?

Most of us know a tune from a symphony, even if we don't know who it's by, or where it comes from. It could be the memorable cor anglais solo in that old bread commercial, which others might know as the song, 'Going Home'; or the drip slowly sliding down the outside of that big can of motor oil; or the Scottish bank advert with the catchy theme for plucked strings. In fact, we've been listening to themes from, respectively, Dvořák's 'New World' Symphony, Mahler's 7th, and the 'Playful Pizzicato' from Britten's Simple Symphony.

For classical music lovers, symphonies are the staple diet of concert-going. A typical concert programme might consist of an overture, a concerto and – after the interval – a symphony. There is a sense that a symphony is the real meat of a concert – the opportunity taken by composers to use all their technical skills to take listeners on a journey through the depths of their musical thinking. But when did symphonies start, and how have they changed over time? Is there a future for the symphony?

2. How do we define a symphony?

Stephen Johnson reviews the historical development ‒ and the meaning ‒ of the symphony from its earliest days to the present.

Over the course of 300 years, the term 'symphony' progressed from being a 'catch-all' phrase to describe an orchestral work in several movements, to something more standardised in the 18th century, before developing again through the 19th, sometimes including soloists and choruses; the form continued to develop in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as the more formal structures began to loosen again. What symphonies have in common across time is that they are about 'becoming' ‒ taking the listener on a journey which is like attending a play in several acts, or reading a book in several chapters: all different, but contributing to a satisfying whole.

3. Timeline: the symphony in history

Timeline spans: Classical 1730-1820; Romantic 1815-1910; Modern 1890-1930; C20th 1901-2000; Contemporary 1974-2014

The first symphonies as we know them began to emerge in the 18th century; and composers are still writing symphonies today.

Looking back, we can see that symphonies fall into distinct periods, which reflect musical developments furthered by each new generation of composers. And as time has gone on, composers have written symphonies on ever-expanding canvases: the 20th-century British composer Havergal Brian's 'Gothic' Symphony lasts three hours and is scored for 830 performers ‒ it received a rare performance at the BBC Proms in 2011. And among symphonies you can hear regularly in the concert hall, Mahler's works stand out: his Symphony No.3 lasts 100 minutes and the 8th (dubbed the 'Symphony of a Thousand') boasts a huge orchestra, soloists and chorus.

4. Top Ten great symphonies

Who are some of the great figures of symphonic music? Click on the hotspots to find out, and hear their music.

This content uses functionality that is not supported by your current browser. Consider upgrading your browser.

European capitals have been home to the world's great symphonists: Paris, Helsinki, Moscow and Prague are represented here, as well as a great concentration of composing talent in the Austro-Hungarian capital, Vienna.

5. Why do composers write symphonies?

For the last 300 years, composers have turned to the symphonic form. What keeps it alive?

Join Tom Service and Stephen Johnson in the Royal Albert Hall's Elgar Room to hear what they think keeps the symphonic form alive.

In 18th-century Europe, old certainties ‒ political and intellectual ‒ were being challenged by Enlightenment thinking. The symphony begins to emerge as a form which tries to reflect and make sense of that new turbulence. If Baroque music was about order, the new music was about instability. This marked the end of the Classical era and the beginning of the Romantic era. The new symphonies by composers such as Beethoven, Berlioz and Brahms delivered an intensely emotional message in a highly intellectually sophisticated way, but without telling the listener what to think ‒ a form of democratisation of music. Far from being dead, the symphony remains a potent form for composers today.

6. Why are symphonies important in our culture?

History's challenge to today's composers

‘O Symphony, what do you want of me?’ That’s a paraphrase of an 18th-century quote, but I can imagine any composer uttering it silently as they hunch over the manuscript paper, keyboard, sequencer, or software programme before they start writing a piece they have decided to call ‘symphony’. Today’s would-be-symphonists have to lug around a monstrous, Hydra-headed beast that’s pumped up with symphonic steroids, whose weight, richness, and diversity has been growing – magnificently, grotesquely, seriously, ironically – over the centuries. It’s amazing that any composer is brave enough to take up the challenge of attempting to slay it.

Continuous transformation

Except they do, and they are, right now, as you’re reading this. As Stephen Johnson has rightly said, it’s the privilege of every successive generation to indulge in the fantasy that they are living at the ne plus ultra of musical possibility, and it’s been disproved by every subsequent generation of composers. There are hundreds of composers for whom the principle of ‘the symphony’ means entering a world of musical possibility that can never fully be explored; as Julian Anderson wrote about his own Symphony, it means investigating ideas of ‘continuous transformation’, of ‘gradual growth and change’. Those concepts are, in some sense, common to all symphonists.

A secure future for the symphony

So the symphony – as specific form, as aesthetic idea, as limitless set of musical possibilities – will go on mattering in our culture. But that sense of the symphony’s boundlessness is not a new idea. For Sibelius, the genius of the symphony was to be found in ‘its strictness and style and deep logic, which requires that all its motifs must be linked to each other’, whereas for Mahler, conversely, ‘the symphony must be like the world. It must encompass everything.' The point is, they’re both right. The symphony can embody both of those extremes of specificity and universalism. And it can be everything in between – and much, much more…