What is a symphony?

A symphony is the most famous of all musical forms. It means an orchestral composition in four sections with distinct pauses in between these sections. The four sections are called movements. There are symphonies with more or less than the standard four movements. The first movement is usually the most important movement of a symphony and it sets the mood of the whole symphony. It usually deals with two melodies or themes as they are called, which are displayed, developed and brought to a conclusion. The first movement is usually fast paced, magnificent and noble. The second movement is in contrast, lyrical, personal, meditative and slow moving. It is intimate in mood. The third movement is a dance and full of vivid motion. This dance movement has two melodies, one stated by the full orchestra and the other by a few instruments grouped together. The constant contrast that these two melodies produce is the charm of this movement. The last movement or finale is a blazing, triumphant fast paced piece of music of epical grandeur. The symphonic message is the triumph of the human will over tragedy and the infinite possibilities of human endeavour. Though there are symphonies that end tragically in a slow piece of music, most symphonies conclude with a blazing panorama of sound.

The great symphonies are the symphonies of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Bruckner, Mahler, Sibelius, Dvořák and Tchaikovsky. If you can listen to some symphonies of these composers you will get a good idea of the sound of the symphony. The symphony has become a part of the English language and it means a richly blended outpouring of different strands of sound. The word symphonic suggests grand scale and size. Musically it means just that – a large scale work of tremendous passion and grandeur.

I have provided a list of 10 important symphonies below. Track the movements and their pace each time you listen to one. Sometimes the movements and their lengths are written below the YouTube title in the description section. For example, if you pick up Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony, you will find 4 movements:

0:20 I. Allegro con brio

16:13 II. Marcia funebre: Adagio assai

32:02 III. Scherzo: Allegro vivace

37:57 IV. Finale: Allegro molto

Here, the time of each movement is mentioned in HH:MM (hour:minute) format. The term Allegro means fast pace and Adagio means slow pace. Vivace means lively. Likewise you may read a description of movements of each symphony from YouTube or the Internet to learn about the separate pace and mood of movements.

Why are some symphonies named Eroica or Farewell or Unfinished? Beethoven named the 3rd Symphony “Eroica” to signify heroic ascension to power by Napoleon Bonaparte. He thought Napoleon would champion free and liberal society; however he was crestfallen when Napoleon declared himself as Emperor. Similarly, Haydn named Symphony no. 45 as Farewell to ask for a leave from his patron, the Prince Esterhazy. Hence you will observe one by one the musicians in the orchestra are leaving the stage as soon as their part is over thus symbolising a leave request. Schubert did not complete his Symphony no. 8 hence it is named Unfinished. It has only 2 movements. Europeans have coined the term New World for the newly discovered Americas and Dvořák termed his Symphony no. 9 as New World Symphony.

The influence of symphonies in popular culture is immense. Mozart’s Symphony no. 40 opening movement is used by Salil Chowdhury in the ‘Itna Na Mujhse Tu Pyar Badha’ film song. In an Indian advertisement jingle of Titan watches, the 1st movement of Mozart’s Symphony no. 25 is used. Beethoven’s 9th symphony has a last movement with a chorus singing Ode to Joy written by German poet Schiller. One of the most memorable and hummable tunes, Beethoven’s 9th symphony is the most popular in the music world and the Ode to Joy section is used as the anthem of European Union (EU). Surprisingly, Beethoven was deaf when he composed his most famous 9th Symphony. It is known that he could not hear the applause when it was first played and he was instructed to face the audience to take his bow. See the film “Immortal Beloved” based on Beethoven’s life. Beethoven’s 5th Symphony is also known as Fate Symphony or Victory Symphony. Its opening bars coincidentally coded for V in Morse code. Since the 2nd World War this Symphony has become very popular signifying the victory of the allied forces. Enjoy reading and listening.

Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony ‘Eroica’

Beethoven’s 5th Symphony

Beethoven’s 9th Symphony

Mozart’s Symphony no. 40

Mozart’s Symphony no.25

Dvořák’s New World Symphony

Haydn’s Symphony no. 45 ‘Farewell’

Schubert’s Symphony no. 8 ‘Unfinished’

Mendelssohn’s Symphony no. 4 ‘Italian’

Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no. 5