Symphony - Origins


The word symphony is derived from Greek συμφωνία, 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 believed by scholars to have been a bagpipe — the word was identified, for example, as the root of the name of the Italian zampogna (Stainer and Galpin 1914, 145–46). 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 16th 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's Sacrae symphoniae, and Symphoniae sacrae, liber secundus, published in 1597 and 1615, respectively; Adriano Banchieri's Eclesiastiche sinfonie, dette canzoni in aria francese, per sonare, et cantare, op. 16, published in 1607; Lodovico Grossi da Viadana's Sinfonie musicali, op. 18, published in 1610; and Heinrich Schütz's Symphoniae sacrae, op. 6, and Symphoniarum sacrarum secunda pars, op. 10, published in 1629 and 1647, respectively. Except for Viadana's collection, which contained purely instrumental and secular music, these were all collections of sacred vocal works, some with instrumental accompaniment.

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 (Larue, Bonds, Walsh, and Wilson 2001).

Another important progenitor of the symphony was the ripieno concerto—a form resembling a concerto for strings and continuo, but with no solo instruments. The earliest-known ripieno concerti are Giuseppe Torelli's set of six, op. 5, published in 1698. Perhaps the best-known ripieno concerto is Johann Sebastian Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 3.

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