Search form

Classical Breakdown

4. What is a Symphony?

September 24, 2019

From its humble origins of occupying a small part of operas, to hour long works that can feature hundreds of musicians, the symphony can be hard to define. Bill Bukowski joins me as we explore its development up to Beethoven. Along the way we find elements of Jazz, fireworks, jokes, and more. 

Show Notes

In the early days of the Symphony (sometimes called Sinfonia) we find basso continuo, which gives some musicians only a guide of what to play using numbers, sharps, and flats. You can see it below in the bottom line from an excerpt of the sinfonia of Vivaldi's opera, Farnace.

 Basso Continuo from Vivaldi's Farnace

A few of the new concepts added to the symphony from the "Mannheim School"

  • Mannheim Crescendo - The orchestra starts soft (piano), and increases in volume to a louder dynamic (like forte). It was an unexpected way to start a symphony. 
  • Mannheim Rocket - A melody that moves quickly from a low note to a higher note (usually an arpeggio, outlining a chord). Often accompanied by sudden "burst" from the rest of the orchestra.
  • Mannheim Roller - A bass line is repeated as a melody crescendos (gets louder) and climbs higher in pitch. 
  • Mannheim Sigh - An emphasis on the first note of a group of two notes that are slurred (connected and smooth), like a satisfying sigh. 

Some orchestras have fun with Haydn's "Surprise" symphony

Beethoven's Symphony No. 9

The courtyard of the palace at Mannheim

The courtyard of the palace at Mannheim