A symphony, as defined by Wikipedia, is an extended musical composition in Western classical music, most often written for orchestra and which is typically done in four movements or sections – an opening sonata or allegro, an adagio or a slow movement, a minuet or scherzo with trio, and an allegro, ronda or sonata. It was during the 18th century when the first symphonies emerged. Beethoven was the first composer to make one movement run into the next, elevating the genre to become what is often considered the main event in a classical music concert.
What symphonies have in common across time, according to BBC, is that they are about ‘becoming’ ‒ taking the listener on a journey which is like attending a play in several acts, or reading a book in several chapters: all different, but contributing to a satisfying whole. In a four-part televised series, the British public broadcasting company named the top-ten great symphonies. From the ten, reports The Guardian, Mark Elder choses the form’s five key works that have shaped our history and identity, namely:
- Haydn, Symphony no. 22, ‘The Philosopher’ (1764) – The work is scored for two horns, two English horns, and strings. The horns play a prominent role in all but the second movement, and Haydn’s choice of E flat major may have been dictated by the fact that the valveless horns of the time sounded best when played as E flat instruments.
- Beethoven, Symphony no. 3, ‘Eroica’ (1804) – It is scored for two flutes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two oboes, two trumpets, three horns, timpani and strings.
- Tchaikovsky, Symphony no. 6, ‘Pathétique’ (1893) – The symphony is scored for 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 3 flutes, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, tam-tam, cymbals, bass drum, and strings.
- Mahler, Symphony no. 9 (1909-10) – The four-movement piece is scored for 4 flutes, a piccolo, 4 oboes, 5 clarinets, 4 bassoons, 4 horns, a tuba, timpani, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones bass drum, snare drum, cymbals, 3 bells, glockenspiel, triangle, tam-tam, 2 harps, and strings.
- Shostakovich, Symphony no. 7, ‘Leningrad’ (1941) – Scored for percussion, brass, strings, woodwinds, and keyboard the piece became very popular in both the Soviet Union and the West as a symbol of resistance to Nazi totalitarianism.