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Evolution of Symphony

The Greek word symphony means 'sounding together'. The earlier genres the suite, sonata, concerto grosso and Italian overture contributed the development of the symphony towards the middle of the eighteenth century. A symphony can be described as a sonata for the orchestra. The multimovement orchestral composition idea comes from the suite. In addition, most symphonies included a movement of dance type (the minuet). Several aspects of the sonata da chiesa are reflected in the symphony. Most of the early symphonies of Haydn are in this form and start with a slow movement (or introduction). If canzona was the model for the development of sonata, the true model for the symphony was the Italian opera overture (sinfonia) developed by the Neapolitan composers in the beginning of the century. The most important composer for this development was A. Scarlatti (1659-1725). His overtures were in three sections in a tempo scheme of fast-slow-fast (first occurrence in 1696 in Dal male di bene). Later overtures by Conti have a more developed structure and use the sonata form in the first and last independent movements. With the separation of these sections into movements and the addition of a minuet, the symphony was born. From about 1730, composers such as Locatelli, Rinaldo di Capua and Sammartini were writing independent orchestral pieces for concerts using the overture formula.

It can be said that the symphony was born at Mannheim in the middle of the eighteenth century. It was at Mannheim that the Bohemian Stamitz (1717-1757), stimulated by the originally Neapolitan composer Jommelli (now in Stuttgart), first surpassed the bounds of common opera overtures. Stamitz firmly established and stabilized a new orchestral form and idiom in the symphony. His symphonies also represent the galant style. Between Stamitz and Haydn, the other main symphony writers were the Milanese GB Sammartini (1701-1775), and the Viennese GM Monn (1717-1750). GM Monn's symphony in D major (1740) is a remarkable composition in the history of the symphony. The movements are Allegro, Aria, Minuet, Allegro all in the same key. The winds are used independently. The earliest hints of the sonata principle can be seen in this symphony. Stamitz's symphonies generally have four movements including a minuet. The second movement is usually in a related key. Subdominant is a common key for the slow movement since the relaxation of tempo is matched by the tonal relaxation of the flat side. The early symphonists were concerned about introducing discontinuity into musical style. The thematic contrast, duality in affekt, changes in orchestration, timbre and rhythm were used for this purpose.

The earliest mature symphonies which still occupy a place in today's repertory are Haydn's London symphonies (the last twelve; 1790-95) and Mozart's Prague, No.39, 40 and 41 (Jupiter) (1786, 1788). Mozart gradually moved towards a weightier finale in his last two symphonies. This tendency was maintained by the following composers. The Romantic finale occupies an altogether different role from that of the era when symphonies were written to gratify the ears of princes (see below). The structure of the symphony was standardized in these works. It has four movements, the first one being the most serious and invariably in sonata form. The second movement is a contrasting slow and lyrical one, in abridged sonata form, air-and-variations, rondo or ternary form (rarely in sonata form). The third movement is a minuet (in ternary form) although in Beethoven's works it changed to an unrestrained scherzo. The last movement is a fast one and lighter than the first movement. It is often in rondo or sonata-rondo form. Sonata form or variations can be used. The key structure in classical symphony was straightforward. The first and last movements are in the same key, the slow movement in a related key.

Beethoven brought a new attitude to symphonic writing. His mastery resulted in uniqueness of each symphony he wrote. His nine symphonies are ahead of their time and the ultimate destination in symphonic writing (1800-1823). They are different from their predecessors with their extreme details, dynamic vitality, larger dimensions and more advanced orchestration. [The Battle symphony was written in the common language of the time and maybe his most popular work during his lifetime.] After Beethoven's death, for a time, it seemed that the day of the large-scale orchestral work was over. Schubert's contemporary symphonies (especially, the Great -No.7- and the Unfinished -No.8-) are close to Beethoven's symphonic writing style. The most popular types of music in the middle years of the nineteenth century were opera and solo piano pieces. The day belonged to the virtuoso (such as Paganini, Chopin, Liszt, Spohr). The only notable German symphonies of this transitional period are those of Mendelssohn and Schumann. It was Brahms who was the great mediator of classical and romantic styles in symphony writing. His four and Bruckner's nine symphonies represent a new peak at the end of the nineteenth century. One innovation in symphonic music in the nineteenth century was symphonic poem (or tone poem). A symphonic poem usually has a single movement and is based on an extramusical idea. Liszt can be said to be the creator of this genre. It usually follows the form of the first movement of a symphony. It was the favourite genre of nationalistic composers. Smetana's Ma Vlast, Borodin's In the Steppes of Central Asia, Sibelius' Finlandia, Vaughan Williams' A London Symphony are examples of this movement.

The finale problem: From Mozart's Symphony No.40 (incl. No.41), the finale of a symphony should be its culmination. In No.40, the tragedy of the first movement is further intensified rather than resolved in the last movement. Beethoven's No.5 ends in a blaze of triumph in the major mode. No.9 has the monumental last movement which is indeed the culmination of the preceding three movements. The first three movements all predict the finale and the finale starts with the quotation of the themes of the previous movements. It was obvious that after Beethoven, a symphonic finale had to carry the weight of the symphony. The centre of gravity in the symphony had moved towards the end. Playing the final movements without a break (as in No.5 -third and fourth movements-, in No.6 -third, fourth and fifth movements-) served the same purpose. (Mendelssohn in his Scottish Symphony and Schumann in his Fourth Symphony wanted no break between the movements.) The Romantic composers tried the following to put the weight to the finale in their symphonies:

Choosing a sonata form movement (instead of rondo or rondo-sonata): Brahms's No.1,2,3 and Mendelssohn's Italian (Saltarello)

Grand apotheosis with chorus: The more extensive choral writing contributed to the higher sense of climax. Berlioz in Romeo & Juliet, Mendelssohn in No.2, Liszt in Faust (Chorus Mysticus) and Dante (Magnificat) tried this.

Grand apotheosis without chorus: Bruckner contrapuntally combines the themes of the previous movements at the end of the finale in his No.8 symphony.

Inclusion of an unusual form: As Beethoven used the unusual variation form in the Eroica finale and double variation based on sonata principle in the finale of No.9; Brahms tried passacaglia in No.4; Mendelssohn had a saltarello (an Italian dance) as the finale of the Italian in A major (and it was in minor mode); Tchaikovsky finished his No.6 with a slow movement (adagio lamentoso); also Mahler has a slow movement at the end of his No.3 and No.9; and Tippett concluded his First Symphony with a fugue. Tippett even quoted directly from the finale of Beethoven's No.9 in the finale of his own Symphony No.3.

Sonata Form and the Eroica/Unfinished Symphony  

Classical Orchestra

M.Tevfik Dorak

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