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The Symphony

What is a Symphony?

A symphony is a long piece of music that has four parts that are called movements. Symphonies all have the same basic structure but the length, style and complexity (how complicated it is) have changed over time.


The four movements follow this structure:

  • First Movement - Usually fast

[Always in Sonata Form which means that there are two main ideas (or themes) that are presented (or stated),  one of them is changed (or developed) and then the two are restated with a big ending.]

  • Second Movement - Usually slow

  • Third Movement - A Dance 

  • Fourth Movement - Finale (pronounced fih nah lee) which means ending. The style of the fourth movement is the composer's choice 

Who invented the symphony?

The symphony was invented by Franz Joseph Haydn in the Classical Period. Haydn wrote more than 100 symphonies and they were usually about 10-20 minutes long.

The History

Mozart developed and expanded on Haydn's ideas and because his symphonies were a little longer - about half an hour - and a little more complicated he only wrote 41 symphonies. The fact that he lived for a short time (35 years) probably also had something to do with it.

Beethoven started writing symphonies in the Classical Period style but by his third symphony he was writing in the style of the Romantic Period. This meant that his symphonies got longer and much more complicated. His last symphony - The Ninth - lasts for almost an hour and includes a chorus of singers.

You can see the changes by looking at the scores (music notes) in the videos below. Before you even hear a note you can see how there are more notes in Beethoven's symphony!

After Beethoven, many composers had a hard time writing symphonies - especially writing more than nine. Schumann, Schubert, Brahms and Tchaikovsky all wrote popular symphonies during the Romantic Period.

In the Modern Period, Gustav Mahler wrote symphonies that were really long - over an hour - and used lots and lots of instruments and voices.

The symphony has remained an important and popular form in music. Composers of classical music today still write symphonies.

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