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Thread: What typical features does a symphony have?

  1. #1
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    Default What typical features does a symphony have?

    I was wondering if there is any kind of rule regarding..:
    Keys used in the piece (Like it should be closely related keys, like Gm>Cm,Dm)
    Number of movements (is there anything similar such as the sonata form?)
    Any other regulations, written/unwritten rules?

    I'm asking about classical & romantic pieces, up to the 18th century.

    Thanks for the answers in advance
    Last edited by ancore; Aug-27-2018 at 19:34.

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    I guess it depends on what era it was written in. And even then, the "rules" came later.

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    Senior Member Merl's Avatar
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    OT: A start , a middle and an end. Next question.

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    Quote Originally Posted by ancore View Post
    I was wondering if there is any kind of rule regarding..:
    Keys used in the piece (Like it should be closely related keys, like Gm>Cm,Dm)
    Number of movements (is there anything similar such as the sonata form?)
    Any other regulations, written/unwritten rules?

    I'm asking about classical & romantic pieces, up to the 18th century.

    Thanks for the answers in advance
    Well, as you can probably guess from the answers so far, the term 'symphony' is somewhat generic and encompasses a lot of different works so is a hard thing to pin down. There is really a huge amount of variety in the compositions that have been written under this name.

    That said, I think you can make a few generalities about the most common features of classical/romantic (and even many 20th century) symphonies.

    -Usually in 3-4 movements
    -First movement is usually in sonata form.
    -Second movement is usually a 'slow' movement, often in an ABA form or a theme and variations form.
    -Third movement is usually in triple meter, in earlier works based on a 'Minuet' dance, but this evolved later into faster and more playful 'Scherzo' movement. These are usually also in ABA form with a central 'Trio' section.
    -The order of the slow and Minuet/Scherzo movements are sometimes reversed, or in a three-movement symphony, one of these may be omitted.
    -The fourth or final movement is usually a fast or rhythmic or triumphant finale to the work as a whole, often in the Rondo form.
    -There aren't any particular keys required, but typically the symphony will begin and end in the same key, with the middle movements being in 'related' keys (though it is really up to the composer to establish that relationship) giving the overall form an arch-like structure that gives a sense of having, as Merl above points out, a start, a middle and an end, or in other words, a musical journey that begins at a starting point, moves off to explore new areas and ends by returning home again.

    This is just a rough outline and a broad generalization - I'm sure other posters here can go into a lot more detail than this or point out how often any one of these is not the case. But as mentioned, this is only a starting point - every symphony is unique and the form only really serves as a jumping off point for a composer's creativity and invention which involves breaking the rules and surprising the audience as often as it does conforming to the expectations.
    Last edited by Thomyum2; Aug-27-2018 at 20:56.

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    Thanks for the answer! Was really useful

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    Senior Member JAS's Avatar
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    Some interesting, and brief, history of the Symphony: https://www.wqxr.org/story/what-was-...-who-wrote-it/

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    Senior Member MacLeod's Avatar
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    You might enjoy this documentary...well, part 1 at least.



    It's not until about 18:45 that the documentary tells us about the origins of the symphony, but the tale about Haydn is worth hearing.
    Last edited by MacLeod; Aug-28-2018 at 07:54.
    "I left TC for a hiatus, but since no-one noticed my absence, I came back again."

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    One might think of a musical symphony as an extreme study of contrasting themes, one dramatic (yin, male), the other lyrical (yang, female). The two themes are generally presented one after the other (dramatic usually followed by lyrical) and then taken on a journey through various transmogrifications that include various keys and forms and tempi.

    Sonata form is the basic form of the opening movement (of three or four) found in the "standard" 18th century (Haydn, Mozart, CPE Bach) symphony (and many later Romantic and even Modern era symphonies). This form generally introduces the dramatic theme in a key (major or minor) for which the symphony is named. After statement of the dramatic theme, a modulation passage shifts to a related key (major or minor) and gives us the lyrical theme. After statement of that second theme, the entire opening (called an Exposition) is repeated. Following that we launch into Development, where the two themes are put through various paces, transformed in various ways, even interlaced at times. Developments tend to be smaller and less complex in the Mozart and Haydn symphonies, but Beethoven expanded possibilities of development which set a norm for composers following him. After the development we return to a statement of the two original themes (the Recapitulation) but with one important change: the second theme, the lyrical theme, is now played in the key of the original theme (or the major or minor version of that key -- you'll understand this better with a more comprehensive look at Sonata Form). Sometimes there is a Coda, a brief "something else" attached to the end. (Again, Beethoven liked adding Codas.) Just as there is sometimes a brief introduction passage, often beginning slowly, before the Dramatic Theme is presented. And, generally, this opening movement is played in a fast tempo, usually "Allegro". In fact, Sonata Form is often called "Sonata Allegro Form." And that is the basis of the majority of first (opening) movements of the traditional symphony.

    You can easily track this form in the opening movement of Beethoven's Fifth, the most famous symphony of them all. Here the opening theme is often called a motif, the famous four notes -- three Gs and an E-flat. The Lyrical Theme which follows a French horn passage takes on a lilting grace which seems to me to be Beethoven saying "Ich bin Ludwig van Beethoven" or "I am Ludwig van Beethoven."

    Another easy to track and great Sonata Allegro Form is the opening movement of Tchaikovsky's 6th Symphony. Here the Dramatic Theme and the contrasting Lyric Theme are quite distinct. Too, you'll be able to easily identify when the Development section starts by the crashing chord that introduces it. You'll hear the two themes mashed about to finally return in all their glory in the Recapitulation. Give this movement a listen.

    The additional movements of the symphony are generally in other forms such as Theme and Variations, Rondo, or Minuet and Trio. Each form is designed to show off the themes of the beginning in a variety of outfits. It's all rather ingenious, which is why I myself am not much of a symphony writer. Oh well ….

    I find it fun to track symphonic themes through the various forms of the Symphony. Maybe you will, too.

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    I don't know what the correct answer is but I expect to feel that a symphony is a whole and that there is some sort of worked-through narrative. I'm not talking about a story - as the language is musical and therefore literally abstract. Symphonies generally give me a sense that we have been on a journey and have reached an end changed in some way. A suite will not do this and a tone poems tend to follow a non-musical logic. Even though I love a lot of contemporary and modern music I believe Sibelius and Mahler were the last truly great symphonists.

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