The word symphony derives from Greekσυμφωνία, meaning "agreement or concord of sound", "concert of vocal or instrumental music", from σύμφωνος, "harmonious" (Oxford English Dictionary). This Greek word was used to describe an instrument mentioned in the Book of Daniel once identified by scholars as a bagpipe (this is identified as the root of the name of the Italian zampogna) (Stainer and Galpin 1914,[page needed]). However, more recent scholarly opinion points out that the word in the Book of Daniel is siphonia (from Greek siphon, reed), and concludes that the bagpipe did not exist at so early a time, though the name of the "zampogna" could still have been derived from this word (Marcuse 1975, 501 & 597). In late Greek and medieval theory, the word was used for consonance, as opposed to diaphonia, which was the word for dissonance (Brown 2001). In the Middle Ages and later, the Latin form symphonia was used to describe various instruments, especially those capable of producing more than one sound simultaneously (Brown 2001). Isidore of Seville was the first to use the word symphonia as the name of a two-headed drum, and from ca. 1155 to 1377 the French form symphonie was the name of the organistrum or hurdy-gurdy. In late medieval England, symphony was used in both of these senses, whereas by the sixteenth century it was equated with the dulcimer. In German, Symphonie was a generic term for spinets and virginals from the late 16th century to the 18th century (Marcuse 1975, 501). In the sense of "sounding together," the word begins to appear in the titles of some works by 16th- and 17th-century composers including Giovanni Gabrieli (Sacrae symphoniae, 1597, and Symphoniae sacrae, liber secundus, 1615), Adriano Banchieri (Eclesiastiche sinfonie, 1607), Lodovico Grossi da Viadana (Sinfonie musicali, 1610), and Heinrich Schütz (Symphoniae sacrae, 1629).
In the 17th century, for most of the Baroque period, the terms symphony and sinfonia were used for a range of different compositions, including instrumental pieces used in operas, sonatas and concertos—usually part of a larger work. The opera sinfonia, or Italian overture had, by the 18th century, a standard structure of three contrasting movements: fast, slow, fast and dance-like. It is this form that is often considered as the direct forerunner of the orchestral symphony. The terms "overture", "symphony" and "sinfonia" were widely regarded as interchangeable for much of the 18th century.
Early symphonies, in common with both overtures and ripieno concertos, have three movements, in the tempi quick-slow-quick. However, unlike the ripieno concerto, which uses the usual ritornello form of the concerto, at least the first movement of these symphonies is in binary form. They are distinguishable from Italian overtures in that they were written to stand on their own in concert performances, rather than to introduce a stage work, although a piece originally written as an overture was sometimes later used as a symphony, and vice versa.
Symphonies at this time, whether for concert, opera, or church use, were not considered the major works on a program: often, as with concerti, they were divided up between other works, or drawn from suites or overtures. Vocal music was dominant, and symphonies provided preludes, interludes, and postludes.
The "Italian" style of symphony, often used as overture and entr'acte in opera houses, became a standard three movement form: a fast movement, a slow movement, and then another fast movement. Mozart's early symphonies are in this layout. The early three-movement form was eventually replaced by a four-movement layout, through the addition of an additional middle movement (Prout 1895, 249), which was dominant in the latter part of the 18th century and most of the 19th century. This symphonic form was influenced by Germanic practice, and would come to be associated with the "classical style" of Haydn and Mozart. "Normative macro-symphonic form may be defined as the four-movement form, in general, employed in the later symphonies of Haydn and Mozart, and in those of Beethoven" (Jackson 1999, 26).
The normal four-movement form became, then (Jackson 1999, 26; Stein 1979, 106):
Variations on this layout were common, for instance the order of the middle two movements, or the addition of a slow introduction to the first movement. Older composers such as Haydn and Mozart restricted their use of the four-movement form to orchestral or multi-instrument chamber music such as quartets, though since Beethoven solo sonatas are as often written in four as in three movements (Prout 1895, 249). Tchaikovsky's Third Symphony has a five-movement form through the addition of an "Alla tedesca" 'movement' between the first and the second (Jackson 1999, 26).
With the rise of established professional orchestras, the symphony assumed a more prominent place in concert life between approximately 1790 and 1820.
Beethoven dramatically expanded the symphony. His Symphony No. 3 (the Eroica), has a scale and emotional range that sets it apart from earlier works. His Symphony No. 5 is arguably the most famous symphony ever written. His Symphony No. 9 takes the unprecedented step (for a symphony) of including parts for vocal soloists and choir in the last movement, making it a choral symphony (however, a minor composer, Daniel Steibelt had written a piano concerto with a choral finale four years earlier, in 1820). Hector Berlioz, who coined the term "choral symphony," built on this concept in his "dramatic symphony" Roméo et Juliette while explaining his intent in the five-paragraph introduction in that work's score (Berlioz 1857, 1). In Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony, a program work, the composer inserted a "storm" section before the final movement; Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique, a work famous for its exceptional orchestration is also a programme work and has both a march and a waltz and five movements instead of the customary four.
Notable early-romantic symphonists include Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, and Schumann. Late-romantic symphonists include Bruckner, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, and Dvořák.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Gustav Mahler wrote long, large-scale symphonies (his eighth is nicknamed the "Symphony of a Thousand" because of the forces required to perform it). The 20th century also saw further diversification in the style and content of works that composers labeled symphonies (Anon. 2008). Some composers, including Dmitri Shostakovich, Sergei Rachmaninoff and Carl Nielsen, continued to write in the traditional four-movement form, while other composers took different approaches: Jean Sibelius' Symphony No. 7, his last, is in one movement, whereas Alan Hovhaness's Symphony No. 9, Saint Vartan (1949–50) is in twenty-four.
There remained, however, certain tendencies: symphonies were still, almost always, orchestral works. Designating a work a "symphony" still implied a degree of sophistication and seriousness of purpose. The word sinfonietta came into use to designate a work that was "lighter" than a symphony, such as Prokofiev's Sinfonietta.
There have also been diversification in the size of orchestra required. While Mahler's symphonies call for extravagant resources, Arnold Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony No. 1 and John Coolidge Adams's Chamber Symphony are scored for chamber groups.
Anon. 2008. "Symphony." The Oxford Dictionary of Music, 2nd ed. rev., edited by Michael Kennedy, associate editor Joyce Bourne. Oxford Music Online (Accessed 24 July 2008) (Subscription access)
Berlioz, Hector. 1857. Roméo et Juliette: Sinfonie dramatique: avec choeurs, solos de chant et prologue en récitatif choral, op. 17. Partition de piano par Th. Ritter. Winterthur: J. Rieter-Biedermann.
Brown, Howard Mayer. 2001. "Symphonia". The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell. London: Macmillan Publishers.
Bukofzer, Manfred F. 1947. Music in the Baroque Era: From Monteverdi to Bach. New York: W. W. Norton.
Eisen, Cliff, and Stanley Sadie. 2001. "Mozart (3): (Johann Chrysostum) Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart". The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell. London: Macmillan.
Hansen, Richard K. 2005. The American Wind Band: A Cultural History. Chicago, Ill: GIA Publications. ISBN 1579994679.
Jackson, Timothy L. 1999. Tchaikovsky, Symphony no. 6 (Pathétique). Cambridge Music Handbooks. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 052164111X (cloth); ISBN 0521646766 (pbk).
Marcuse, Sybil. 1975. Musical Instruments: A Comprehensive Dictionary. Revised edition. The Norton Library. New York: W. W. Norton. ISBN 0-393-00758-8.
Newman, William S. 1972. The Sonata in the Baroque Era. New York: W. W. Norton.
Prout, Ebenezer. 1895. Applied Forms: A Sequel to 'Musical Form', third edition. Augener's Edition, no. 9183. London: Augener. Facsimile reprint, New York: AMS Press, 1971. ISBN 0404051383
Schubert, Giselher. 2001. "Hindemith, Paul." The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell. London: Macmillan.