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What the heck is a symphony?

Updated: Mar 1, 2023

My friend, performer and transcriber Christopher Steig, calls the symphony "the pinnacle of instrumental music in the classical idiom." But what the heck is a symphony?

The symphony is, at is core, an instrumental composition that was designed to be performed by a large ensemble. It usually consists of strings (violins, cellos, etc), woodwinds (flutes, clarinets etc), brass (trumpets, trombones, etc), and percussion instruments. The classical symphony hit its stride during the 18th and 19th centuries, which was a time of great cultural, political, and social change across Europe.

Nothing happens in a vacuum. In Europe at this time, ideas of the Enlightenment like the belief in progress, individual freedom, and the power of reason dominated intellectual discourse. The classical era saw the emergence of the modern nation-state, the growth of commerce and industry, and the rise of a new middle class.

The arts reflected these beliefs, because artis are people creating in a zeitgeist. This era was artistically characterized by a focus on balance, proportion, and clarity. The Symphony was the perfect form for the Enlightenment: perfectly balanced in 4 contrasting parts with a clear formal structure. Composers like Mozart and Haydn were key players, writing music that embodied these ideals and became cultural icons of the Enlightenment.


The classical symphony was characterized by a standard form that consisted of four "movements," or distinct sections, each with its own distinct personality.

The first movement was typically fast-paced and full of energy, often in sonata form (one of the most popular forms for structured music). This movement was exciting, meant to grab your attention.

The second movement was a total contrast, typically slower and more contemplative, and was often in a different key from the first movement. These movements can be stunningly beautiful.

The third movement was typically a minuet, which was a dance form characterized by a graceful and elegant melody.

And finally, the fourth movement was a triumphant finale, often revisiting themes from the earlier movements and bringing the entire piece together.


But as we all know, music isn't static, and younger generations rebel against those who came before. Mozart became bland and boring as Beethoven scorned the emotional restraint beloved in the Classical forms. He and other composers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries started messing with the traditional form, creating Symphonies that broke traditional form. The minuet movement was often replaced with a "scherzo," which literally translates to "joke" and is usually a fast, quick movement. Other forms like the rondo or waltz also made appearances.

Kids these days!

And of course it never stops. In the 20th and 21st centuries, composers rejected the overwhelmingly emotional displays of Beethoven and even questioned the value of form itself. The Enlightenment was such old news by now that it was called the "Classical" era (somehow that stuck and future generations referred to all music stemming from this tradition as "classical" music, even though we've gone through several distinct eras since then!).

But there's just something about the symphony. As other musical forms became popular the symphony adapted, incorporating elements of jazz, rock, and other popular music styles.

The musical evolution of the symphony reflects the changing cultural and musical values of different eras, but its continued popularity is a testament to an appeal form.

Artists oscillate between creating form, pushing the boundaries of form, breaking it entirely, and revisiting the pieces in nostalgic homage.

The symphony remains a living, breathing entity, with composers and performers constantly finding new ways to make it their own. Some consider Pat Metheny's The Way Up to be a modern symphony, and... well, listen to my conversation with Christopher Steig in Episode 3 of Zeitgeist Radio for more!

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