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  Symphony (Greek, ‘sounding together’) originally was used to describe any group of instruments playing together. In medieval European paintings, for example, a ‘symphony’ is a group of angels playing instruments in Heaven, the exact equivalent of a choir. In 16th-century Europe, the word was used in this sense, to mean the musicians accompanying opera or religious music. It was not till the 18th century that the word began to refer not to the players but to the music itself. The first symphonies of this kind were short pieces based on the styles of the music used to introduce operas at the time: a busy fast movement, a gentle slow movement and a dance movement. In the 1730s, composers began to write more substantial symphonies, adding a fourth movement and giving each work overall unity, so that symphonies were indivisible wholes, in contrast to the looser, multi-movement suites (or ‘overtures’, as they were confusingly then known).

The 18th-century symphony was predominantly a German and Austrian form, perfected at the many small courts of central Europe (and at some large ones, notably Mannheim with its magnificent orchestra, and Esterhazy where Haydn was Music Director). By the end of the century, in the hands of composers like Haydn and Mozart, it had become a large-scale, substantial form, second in importance in a composer\'s output only to opera and church music. This importance was enhanced by Beethoven, who added a feeling of sublimity and striving, making the symphony seem a statement almost of philosophical as well as musical identity. Such an interpretation appealed to 19th-century Romantics, many of whom used the symphony to give abstract expression to their most lofty thoughts and aspirations—as Mahler said, at the end of the century, a symphony should ‘contain the world’. (Other composers, for example Mendelssohn and his followers, wrote less grand, more ‘entertaining’ symphonies—a tradition which has continued to the present.)

Because of the closely argued, developmental style of symphonic writing perfected by such composers as Brahms and Mahler, 20th-century composers at first felt that the form was unsuitable for experimental and modernist styles. Symphonies went on being written, but they were usually by composers seen as ‘traditionalists’ rather than innovators: Nielsen and Sibelius in Scandinavia, Shostakovich in Russia, Vaughan Williams in the UK, and Hanson and Harris in the USA. Concerto, opera and symphonic poem were the main orchestral forms which appealed to experimentalists, and a host of new forms were developed exploring the possibilities of chamber music and music theatre. The imminent death of the symphony was proclaimed by musical jeremiahs as often as that of the novel in literary circles. But all that has happened is that the symphony is no longer the predominant large orchestral form. It continues to thrive, and young composers no longer blush to write its name at the head of complex scores. Indeed, the symphonies of Witold Lutoslavski, Bohuslav Martinu, Peter Maxwell Davies, Igor Stravinsky, Michael Tippett and others, though markedly different in style and aims both from each other and from the symphonies of (say) Bruckner and Dvořák in the previous century, are among this century\'s most fully-achieved, most durable orchestral works. KMcL



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