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Types of Symphony Music

A violinist concentrates on his music.
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By the 19th century, note scholars Kenneth and Valerie McLeish, public orchestral concerts were commonplace in Europe. Musicians and audiences alike demanded a steady stream of new music and composers obliged them by creating a vast repertoire of symphonic music. Compositions can be divided into two types: absolute music and program music. Absolute or "pure" music exists for its own sake and has no references to another work or idea. Program music is descriptive and attempts to illustrate a scene or image from nature, literature or the visual arts.


The symphony is a three- or four-movement composition for orchestra that may also include parts for voice and chorus. The standard symphony has a first movement in sonata-allegro form, meaning that two main themes are introduced, developed and then restated. The middle movement is slow and sometimes followed by a movement in dance form, while the final movement uses a fast tempo (speed).

The symphonies of Haydn and Mozart are relatively short works, but in the 19th century, Beethoven expanded and complicated the form. His Third Symphony, the "Eroica" (1803), clocks in at 50 minutes, almost twice as long as any previous symphony. Due to Beethoven's influence, music critic Ted Libbey states. the symphony became the dominant orchestral form of the 19th century. Most symphonies are absolute music, although exceptions include Berlioz's "Symphonie Fantastique," subtitled "Episodes in the Life of an Artist."


Piano concertos are part of any orchestra's standard repertoire.
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A concerto is similar to a symphony but features a solo instrument with the orchestra, such as piano. Most concertos have three movements (fast-slow-fast), although Brahms' Second Piano Concerto has a fourth.

In the 18th century, according to the McLeishes, composers treated concertos as a dialogue between a soloist or instrumental group and the orchestra. The emphasis shifted in the 19th century, with the rise of virtuoso players such as the violinist Paganini; concertos evolved into a duel between a heroic individual and the orchestra. In the 20th century, composers made use of both styles.

Symphonic Poem

Strauss' symphonic poem evokes the majesty of space.
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The symphonic poem is a type of program music that is usually one movement. The form is fluid and flexible, and its major proponent was Franz Liszt (1811-86), who wrote a series of 13 symphonic poems. Liszt was inspired mainly by paintings and literature, and wrote compositions based on the works of Victor Hugo and Shakespeare.

Denis Arnold, editor of "The New Oxford Companion to Music," writes that some nationalist composers, such as Bedrich Smetana, used the symphonic poem to describe the history and landscape of their homeland. The most famous symphonic poem, however, may be Richard Strauss' "Also Sprach Zarathustra" which was used in Stanley Kubrick's film "2001: A Space Odyssey." The term "tone poem" is sometimes used interchangeably with symphonic poem.


Like the symphonic poem, an overture is also a one-movement orchestral work, but its origin is quite different. Overtures, beginning in the 17th century, were originally written as an introductory piece for an opera or ballet. Classical music commentator Ted Libbey, however, writes that with the rise of the symphony orchestra, composers began writing overtures as freestanding works, often with literary or visual associations.


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An orchestral suite is a group of pieces related either by form or theme. The suite began as a type of absolute music, with its movements consisting of dance forms such as the sarabande and gigue. Symphonic suites written in the 19th and 20th centuries tend to be program music, creating a mood-picture for the listener. A prime example of a modern suite is "The Planets" by Gustav Holst.

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