What is a Symphony?

Originally used in a variety of ways, the term “symphony” now primarily refers to a symphony orchestra — a large ensemble that includes strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion — or a work written for such an orchestra with several distinct characteristics. It is usually a multi-movement work for a medium to large orchestra with no less than three but no more than five movements. It is sometimes referred to as an orchestral sonata.

Haydn and Mozart were two of the most important symphony composers of the eighteenth century. Over the course of nearly 40 years, Haydn composed what are now considered to be 106 symphonies. Haydn composed a wide range of symphonies in a variety of styles. His London symphonies are particularly well-known.

Mozart composed his first symphony when he was eight years old, and he continued to compose them for nearly 25 years. He, like Haydn, experimented with various styles. The Paris Symphony, number 31, and the Jupiter Symphony, number 41, are two of his favorites.

Beethoven’s First Symphony was composed in 1801, and his symphonic output, despite the fact that he only wrote nine symphonies, has left an indelible mark on the genre. In his Ninth Symphony, he uses a chorus and soloists to perform a setting of Friedrich Schiller’s poem “Ode a die Freude,” or “Ode to Joy.” Beethoven also expanded the form’s scope in other ways, such as the emotional scope and length of the first movement.

The four symphonies Johannes Brahms, as well as Franz Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony in B minor D 759 and Symphony in C Major D944 — known as the “Great Symphony” — are notable 19th-century works. The six symphonies Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky, written at the end of the nineteenth century, are also timeless works.

Gustav Mahler, Jean Sibelius, Sergei Prokofiev, and Igor Stravinsky experimented with symphonic concept extensions in the twentieth century. The tonal tradition was continued Edward Elgar and Ralph Vaughan Williams, while atonality was explored in works like Anton Webern’s Symphony, Opus 21, and Milton Babbit’s unfinished Symphony.

Symphony orchestras are common in large cities, and there are a number of notable orchestras in the United States and around the world, though not all of their names include the word “symphony.” The Los Angeles Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Boston Symphony Orchestra, and New York Philharmonic are notable orchestras in the United States.