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The Early History of the Symphony: Origins and Evolving Structure

I have been an online writer for over six years. I am a composer, musician, and a passionate advocate for the arts.

Read all about the early history of the symphony orchestra.

Read all about the early history of the symphony orchestra.

Symphony Overview

What is a symphony? It is an instrumental composition of extended length that is almost always written for orchestra.

With a history spanning over 300 years, the symphony today is widely viewed as the pinnacle of instrumental classical music. Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, Mahler, and Bruckner are virtually synonymous with the genre, and the compositions they produced for the symphony are timeless.

The symphony provided these great composers a structure to work with and to transcend, and it allowed them to unleash their creativity upon the world via some of the greatest musical compositions in existence. The origins of the symphony predate these composers' works, but nevertheless, the earliest symphony composers had a tremendous amount of influence on the above-mentioned composers.

Portrait of Giovanni Battista Sammartini one of the earliest symphony composers.

Portrait of Giovanni Battista Sammartini one of the earliest symphony composers.

The First Symphonies

The first symphonies came into existence in the 1730s around Milan and the surrounding Lombardy region. Ironically, the symphony can trace a large part of its origin to opera, the pinnacle of vocal classical music. Overtures, which were played at the beginning of Italian operas, were called Sinfonia's, and that is where the modern symphony gets its name.

The first symphonies usually included only three movements and were written for much smaller orchestras (25–30 people), and they had much shorter lengths (10–20 minutes) than what their successors wrote symphonies for. They usually followed a fast-slow-fast movement structure with the first movement usually being an allegro, the second movement an andante, and the finale would be a dance movement based on a dance that was popular at the time like a gigue or a minuet.

The most prominent composer of the earliest symphonies was Italian composer Giovanni Battista Sammartini. Sammartini incorporated the fast-slow-fast movement structures to most of his symphonic works, and he started using an earlier version of sonata-form for his first movements. Sonata-form was a frequently used structure for the first movements of many subsequent symphonies. The popularity and success of the symphony allowed it to spread across Europe and continue to grow as a musical medium.

The Symphony in Mannheim

As the symphony was making its way around Europe, one of its more notable destinations, before it became associated with Vienna and Paris, was in the German town of Mannheim. In the mid-1700s, Mannheim was one of the most active musical centers in Europe, and its orchestra had developed a reputation as one of Europe's finest under Bohemian composer Johann Stamitz.

Mannheim's significance with the history of the symphony not only has to do with the genre, but it also has to do with the development of the orchestra, the primary vehicle of the symphony. Mannheim's orchestra was renown for its great versatility and dynamic range, setting a new standard which the rest of Europe was forced to try to keep up with

. The ability of the orchestra to go from playing very quietly to very loudly was called the Mannheim Crescendo by European contemporaries, and many subsequent composers began to take advantage of this sound by including it in their compositions. By raising the bar of orchestra performances, it encouraged more composers to try and write symphonies.

Stamitz also contributed to the growth of the symphony by being the first composer to start regularly composing four-movement symphonies. The extra movement he added was the minuet and trio, which he would place as the third movement before concluding his symphonies with a Presto finale.

Stamitz also expanded the length of the sonata-form in the first movements of his symphonies and offered greater contrast between the two theme groups that are included in sonata-form when compared to his predecessors (this can be heard in Stamitz's Symphony in E-flat op. 11 #3). He also increased the size of the orchestra by adding more instruments and new instruments to the symphony, such as oboes and horns.

Bust of Joseph Haydn, father of the symphony.

Bust of Joseph Haydn, father of the symphony.

The Symphony and Joseph Haydn

The symphony undertook its most significant growth under Austrian composer Joseph Haydn. By the end of Haydn's life, he had written over 100 symphonies, and he had shaped the genre into how we largely recognize it today. History remembers Haydn as the father of the symphony for the quality of his works and because the earliest symphonies performed regularly during the birth of the common practice period in the 19th century were Haydn's.

Haydn standardized the four-movement form. A typical Haydn symphony would be structured in the following way:

  • First Movement: Sonata-allegro form
  • Second Movement: Andante in a ternary form or a modified theme and variations
  • Third Movement: Minuet and trio
  • Fourth Movement: Finale usually in a rondo-form but occasionally sonata-form

With this outline, Haydn would increase the expressiveness of the symphony as well as set a standard for all subsequent composers of symphonic music.

Haydn's symphonic writing grew over the duration of his career. The growth of his symphonic writing is easier to hear when his compositional output is broken into 3 time periods: early, middle, and late.

  • The Early Symphonies (1757–1768): Haydn, at this time, thought of the symphony as a form with which he could experiment with compositionally, and he thought of it as light entertainment for people of high society. Unique to the symphony, though, Haydn's early symphonies sought to showcase the skills of his players by featuring solo passages for his performers and his versatility as a composer by being able to create new and fresh material for every symphony.
  • The Middle Symphonies (1769–1781): As public perception of the symphony began to change, Haydn's views on the symphony began to change as well. Haydn began regarding the symphony as a more serious art form, and as result he began placing greater musical demands on his musicians, using more contrapuntal compositional techniques, more contrasting dynamics and musical expressions, and more intricate rhythms. Haydn also began to incorporate the elements of the new Sturm and Drang literary movement into his symphonies. (Sturm and Drang translate to storm and stress, this movement highlights expressing extreme emotion). By incorporating Sturm and Drang into his symphonies, Haydn was able to heighten the emotion of his music and provide strongly contrasting musical sections.
  • The Late Symphonies (1785–1802): These symphonies, primarily the Paris and London symphonies, are the pinnacle of Haydn's compositional career. By the time Haydn was writing these symphonies, he had added more instruments to the orchestra, mostly flute and bassoons, and sometimes he would incorporate clarinets, timpani, and trumpets. His harmonic language was the most advanced it had ever been in his career, and his musical idea development had been refined to its highest level. These symphonies are Haydn's most memorable, and today they are still frequently performed in concert halls around the world.

Although Haydn is the earliest composer to have written symphonies that were regularly performed during his life and after he died, he was not the originator of the symphony (a common misconception). Currently, there is no single person who can be credited with inventing the symphony; rather, it began as a popular concert event in Italy and spread throughout Europe and eventually to the rest of the world, growing and evolving along the way.

By the time Haydn had died, the symphony had become the pinnacle of instrumental classical music. The door was open for Beethoven and many other great composers to take the reigns on symphonic writing and transform it into the art form we recognize it as today.

Recommended Listening:

  • Sammartini: Symphony 32 in F Major
  • Stamitz: Symphony in E-flat Major op. 11 # 3
  • Haydn (Early): Symphony 8 (Le Soir)
  • Haydn (Middle): Symphony 45 (Farewell)
  • Haydn (Late): Symphony 92 (Oxford)


No name on November 13, 2018:

You saved my "development of the symphony" assignment. Thanks heaps.

DON VENTURA on May 12, 2018:

don't understand why Sammartino isn't given more credit as the originator of opera, even though the form became more sophisticated with time.

peter on April 26, 2018:


Sam Haarish on February 22, 2018:

I have learned more..Thanks..

Maria on February 21, 2018:

It tells you above, Stamitz added an additional movement - the trio or minuet (which subsequently Beethoven substituted it with a Scherzo)

Ady on January 11, 2018:

Yes yes yes, but WHY did Haydn write symphonies in specifically 4 movements (after using 3 movements for a time)

El Chapo on April 06, 2017:

text me amelia grigs

Tapio Tuomela on August 20, 2016:

Thanks for the article. Just two comments: Stamitz did not add the oboe in the Mannheim orchestra, it already existed before, e.g. in most J.S.Bach's orchestral music.

As for Symphony, Alessandro Scarlatti established the three-mvt-symphony as an ouverture of his operas already starting in 1690's.

Music-and-Art-45 (author) from USA, Illinois on August 09, 2012:

Thank you Kathleen, I really appreciate it. I plan to keep writing about music, theory, literature, films, and plenty of other art related topics. I really appreciate all the support I'm getting just for the first hub, so again thank you.

Kathleen Cochran from Atlanta, Georgia on August 09, 2012:

OK, if all your hubs are this quality, I'll be reading every one of them. Welcome to HP. Can't wait for what you are going to contribute!


Music-and-Art-45 (author) from USA, Illinois on August 06, 2012:

Thank you, that's greatly appreciated easylearningweb

Amelia Griggs from U.S. on August 06, 2012:

Interesting and useful hub on the history of symphonies... you're off to a great start. Welcome to hubpages and good luck with your writing!



Music-and-Art-45 (author) from USA, Illinois on August 06, 2012:

Thanks John I appreciate that. The orchestral suite also played a role in the development of the symphony as well.

John Sarkis from Winter Haven, FL on August 06, 2012:

Nice article Music and art 45

Additionally, the name 'symphony' was really just an issue of semantics, because, in previous times it was known as the overture and the suite; the overture and suite were the symphonies during Bach and Telemann's time - same thing - different name.

Voted up and welcome to HP