What is a Symphony?

Fig. 1: Cover and first page of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony

We read the word ‘symphony’ regularly in concert programmes, and hear it whenever someone talks about classical music: ‘Have you already listened to that recording of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony…?’, etc. But what actually is a symphony?

A symphony normally describes an extended composition for orchestra. The word derives from the Greek syn (‘together’) and phōnē (‘sounding’). However, ‘symphony’ was not always used to refer to large-scale orchestral works.

The Latin version of the word, ‘symphonia’, started appearing as the title of compositions including some by Giovanni Gabrieli (Sacrae symphoniae, 1597) or Heinrich Schütz (Symphoniae sacrae, 1629). For those composers of the 16th and 17th centuries, ‘symphonia’ just meant that a group of people was making music together, as for the Greek origin. Most of those compositions were vocal works, some with instrumental accompaniment.

Then, in the 17th century, the term ‘symphony’ – often also ‘sinfonia’ – was used to refer to the introductory sections of operas or instrumental introductions of works for voice and ensemble. Even though there were many different usages, the common feature of the ‘symphony’ was to denote a part of a larger framework, such as an opera or a church service.

In the 18th century, the symphony held an even more prominent position due to its appeal to the aristocracy of the time. However, the lines were blurred between ‘symphony’, ‘overture’, and ‘sinfonia’. More and more symphonies were written to be played at tea parties and for card-playing. The composer Louis Spohr recalls the moment the Duchess of Brunswick insisted in 1799 that the orchestra should always play softly when she was present so that the card-playing should not be disturbed. Programmes of the time show that the most common role of the symphony was to open the concert, yet Josef Haydn’s symphonies proved to be an exception as they were often placed at the start of the second half, where they would receive greater attention. Finally, the symphony became the chief vehicle of orchestral music in the late 18th century.

From the 19th century, the symphony gets slightly more streamlined in its characteristics; it is a work for medium- to large-sized orchestra, often consisting of three, four, or five movements, i.e. closed sections with usually a small gap in between, four being the most common. Different more formalised patterns for all those movements are getting employed and Beethoven is seen as bridging the gap between the style of Mozart and Haydn, and later composers like Brahms. But Beethoven also massively revolutionised the symphony, which has been especially noticeable from his Third Symphony, the “Eroica”, onwards. From this point, instrumental music is used to evoke images and ideas transcending the world of sound more than ever before.

Like with Beethoven’s symphonies, Johannes Brahms seems to reinvent the wheel for each of his symphonies and sets a countertrend to making the symphony even more monumental than it had already become. But his approach to musical writing has made him one of the most regarded composers Germany has ever produced.

Fig. 2: Erich Büttner’s painting about the premiere of Mahler’s “Symphony of a Thousand”

With time the term ‘symphony’ has become more and more concrete, but after a while of being streamlined, it started being bent into different directions again. Symphonies like those by Mahler, which often employ massive forces, his Eighth being nicknamed ‘Symphony of a Thousand’, are quite the opposite of some of the more intimate ones of his contemporaries.

The symphony really has become a medium for composers to showcase their skills, express their view on the world, and deal with the most personal of feelings. There are not many other genres that are as versatile as the symphony is.

United by passion for music. Come and join us for one of our concerts.


Larue, Jan, Eugene K. Wolf, Mark Evan Bonds, Stephen Walsh, and Charles Wilson. “Symphony.” Grove Music Online. 2001. Accessed June 2, 2024.



Fig.1: Beethoven, Ludwig van. “Fünfte Symphonie.” In Ludwig van Beethovens Werke, Serie 1, Nr.5. Leipzig: Breitkopf und Härtel, n.d.

Fig. 2: Büttner, Erich. Sinfonie der Tausend. 1912. Oil on hardboard. 41 x 31 cm. National Gallery, Berlin. Accessed June 2, 2024.

Subscribe to Our Newsletter

Sign up for all the latest information on Capella Edina; our concerts, recording projects, news, and fundraising. For more information please see our privacy policy.

Our site uses cookies

We use cookies and tracking tags to provide you with a better user experience. Continue browsing if you’re happy with this or find out more.