The word ‘symphony’ derives from ‘sinfonia’, which in the 17th and early-18th centuries was the name given to the passage of orchestral music played before an opera – effectively, what we refer to today as an overture.
It was around the 1730s that first ever standalone symphonies – works performed by themselves – started to appear. Typically consisting of three movements (fast, slow, fast) and rarely lasting more than 10-15 minutes, the first symphonies were performed by orchestras of around 25 musicians.
The Italian Giovanni Battista Sammartini (1698-1775 and pictured above) is the most prominent of the composers who first wrote symphonies, penning 78 in all. Dating from the same period is the Bohemian composer Johann Stamitz (1717-57), who was employed at the court of Mannheim, a music stronghold at the time. In his symphonies – 58 in all – Stamitz increased the size of the orchestra and usually structured them around four movements.
In the hands of Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) the symphony would develop further in terms of size and scope, becoming a melting pot for all manner of styles. Mozart (1756-91) and, a little later, Haydn’s pupil Beethoven (1770-1827) would continue the development, culminating in the latter’s vast ‘Choral’ Symphony No. 9 of 1824.
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About Jeremy Pound
Jeremy Pound is currently BBC Music Magazine’s acting editor, having initially joined the magazine as deputy editor in August 2004. Before that he was the features editor of Classic CD magazine, and has written for a colourful array of publications ranging from Music Teacher to History Revealed, Total Football and Environment Action; in 2018, he edited and co-wrote The King’s Singers: Gold 50th anniversary book A former chorister at New College, Oxford, he later returned to the same university to study classics. Choral music remains a particular passion, as do early 20th-century English composers.