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Timeline: The Birth Of The Symphony

The word "symphony" is one of the most iconic musical terms, but what makes a piece of music a symphony? The term itself is a compound word with Greek roots meaning “sounding together."

In the early Baroque, it was used interchangeably with the terms "sinfonia" — or overture — to describe the introduction of operas. Alessandro Scarlatti’s operas developed the standardization of the Italian overture, the true precursor of the modern symphony. The Italian overture had three distinct sections or movements described by tempo: fast, slow, fast.

Over time, the Italian overture was expanded into a concert symphony. It was meant to show-off the blossoming new musical style that we now associate with the classical era; balanced phrasing, clear melody and accompaniment. But the symphony finally came into its own, in large part, through the work of Franz Joseph Haydn.

Vocal music has the benefit of text, lyrics, libretto or drama to provide its structure. But how is a symphony, a large abstract instrumental work, constructed? Haydn helped to develop an instrumental form that became the blueprint for the first movement of almost every symphony, Sonata-Allegro.

We can think about instrumental structure much in the same way that we think about writing. Notes come together as motives in the same way that letters form words. These motives become phrases that interact and build on each other forming a theme. Haydn’s form, Sonata-Allegro, always begins with a first theme in the home key which transitions to a new key, presenting a contrasting second theme. This is called the exposition. 

Following this large first section is the development, a free-form exploration of ideas that is allowed to jump to any key the composer desires, usually using material presented in the earlier exposition.  The development ends by “re-transitioning” back to the home key so that the recapitulation can begin. The recap brings back the themes of the exposition, this time only in the home key. As the movement ends the listener has been on a long journey built on just a couple of musical ideas.

Sonata-Allegro Form is less a rule than a standard technique that was solidified in the music of Haydn, expanded in the work of Mozart and challenged in the output of Beethoven. It is the presence of this form in the first movement of a large work that helps to delineate whether that work is a symphony or not.

Timeline is an exploration into the development of Western music. Take a journey into the events, characters and concepts that shaped our Western musical tradition.

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