Birth of the Symphony


What pops into mind when you hear the word “symphony”? Beethoven, most likely. Or Tchaikovsky or Brahms or Dvorak. But the origins of the symphony go way back to Italy in the late 1500s and early 1600s. Bach, bless him, made his contribution, but it was two of his sons who really took the concept of a unified, multi-movement orchestral work to great heights, setting the table for Haydn and Mozart – as we'll discover in this music-filled Active Minds program.


Before there were symphonies, there had to be symphony orchestras. But not the huge gatherings numbering 80-100 we know today. Such a thought back in the 1600s and early 1700s was but a pipe dream. In those days, the quality of instruments and those playing them were pretty ragged, though both began improving to the point where groups of players numbering 10-20 could perform together and stay in tune. New instruments were being invented, while older ones were being improved so that they could keep on pitch and be able to project to a larger room holding a larger audience. That all sounds very technical, but those upgrades were crucial to the concept of small and increasingly larger orchestras doing justice to a composer's music. Along the way came that word “symphony” – meaning “sounding together.” The term was used casually early on, such as in a set of instrumental and choral works from 1597, written by the late-Renaissance composer Gabrieli, who titled them “Sacrae symphoniae” (Sacred Symphonies). The Italians of the Baroque Era in the mid-1600s were inventing all sorts of things, including opera and ballet – but they also developed the concept of a small ensemble consisting of a few string players (violins, violas, cellos, basses) that would one day serve as the backbone of the modern symphony orchestra. Only later were winds, brass and percussion instruments added to the mix. Court orchestras began to form in the lavish palaces of Europe's royalty, and soon such groups became a source of pride for the master of the house. The finest musicians were imported and housed on site, able to gather and perform for guests whenever the occasion demanded entertainment: dinners, balls, formal gatherings, even games of cards! One of the best ensembles was found at Versailles during the reign of Louis XIV. His 24 King's Violins set a standard for string-playing that was the envy of every music-loving royal in Europe. During the 1720s, when Johann Sebastian Bach worked as music master at Prince Leopold's palace at Anhalt-Cothen in Central Germany, he had at his disposal a group of superb musicians (the Prince was a fine player himself). It was there that Bach wrote several large and small instrumental works, including the first of his Orchestral Suites – he titled them “Overtures.” Except for the large instrumental forces required, these Suites don't resemble today's symphonies, in that their individual movements, all in the same key, were drawn from popular dance styles and rhythms of the day. But they serve to remind us that the orchestra was growing in size and importance, to the point where public theaters and music halls soon hosted concerts for “regular people.” England, in particular, quickly became a hotbed for this new thing called the symphony. Composers such as William Boyce began writing short, charming works with that title, delighting and inspiring another Bach – Johann Christian, son of J.S. who had become a permanent resident of London. Soon, J.C. Bach was writing symphonies, as were many others on the continent, including his brother back in Germany, Carl Philipp Emanuel, who took this new genre to bigger and more powerful heights. Incidentally, back in London, J.C. Bach shared his new-found knowledge of the orchestra with a talented 9-year-old visiting London – a kid named Mozart. It was Mozart, of course, who would elevate the symphony to glorious heights. The first handful of his 41 were a pleasant bunch, written in London and, later, in Salzburg for the court musicians of the Archbishop. Once he settled in Vienna in 1781, Mozart drew inspiration from the man acknowledged as the Father of the Symphony, Franz Joseph Haydn. With his 100-plus works, Haydn shaped this previously mild form of musical entertainment into something big and serious, thanks in no small measure to the outstanding orchestra at his disposal at the palace of Prince Esterhazy in western Hungary. But his output suddenly matured big time, thanks to those symphony-loving Londoners who invited Haydn to make a pair of rock-star-like visits. Each time he thrilled the English with new, grand-scale works, each showing the larger potential for serious orchestral music. His influence on Mozart was enormous, as can be heard in the late symphonies by Wolfgang Amadeus. Those dramatic pieces would in turn make a huge impression on a young man who had arrived in Vienna just a few months after Mozart's untimely death in 1791. This talented fellow from Bonn soon took up the cause and made the whole world embrace the power and beauty of the symphony for generations to come. His name was Beethoven.

Exploration Questions

  • What was the significance of the orchestra in Mannheim, Germany in the late 1700s?
  • How did the role of the conductor change over the years?
  • Why do some early symphonies feature a harpsichord?
  • What is a concert-master, and what are his or her important duties and responsibilities?

Reflective Questions

  • Which composer best represents your taste in symphonies: Haydn? Mozart? Beethoven? Brahms?
  • Why did the symphony fade from popularity at the end of the 19th Century?
  • Why do you think some composers still feel attracted to this old-fashioned musical genre?

More to Explore

Books for Further Reading

  • Libbey, Ted. The NPR Guide to Building a Classical CD Collection. Here's a nice, breezy introduction to classical music, with an emphasis on the orchestral repertoire (and a fine companion to NPR's Encyclopedia of Classical Music). It appears that specific histories of the symphony are rare and old-fashioned, so this is a good place to learn more about great music and those who wrote it – and, along the way, discover the glories of the orchestral repertoire.
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