A symphony is an extended composition usually for orchestra and often comprised of multiple movements or sections based on related harmonic/key centers. As instrumental music became more prevalent in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the symphony became an important genre. Though many symphonies were composed as "absolute" music containing no extramusical aspect or narrative, some composers (Beethoven, Mahler, Shostakovich, for example) did compose symphonies with very definite programmatic narratives.
With the decline of Rome and the ascendancy of Christianity in Europe during the third and fourth centuries, the seeds that would blossom into the great art of the Western world were planted deeply into the fertile soil of religious faith and practice. Arnold Toynbee's assertion that the Church was "the chrysalis out of which our Western society emerged," attests to the role that Christian thought played in the development of Western musical theory, aesthetics, and axiology.
Greek philosophy (which came to the early Christian Church via Rome) that music was a medium that had connections to the forces of nature and possessed the power to affect human thought and conduct, was assimilated into early church culture and reiterated in the writings of several Christian philosophers, most notably Anicius Boethius (ca. 480-524) and St. Augustine (354-430). Boethius' treatise De Institutione musica stood as an authoritative source of understanding for writers of medieval times with regards to harmonization the physical world (musica mundana), the mind and body (musica humana) and tones/music (musica instrumentalis).
The evolution of music and its integration into liturgical practice throughout the Middle Ages gave rise to new attitudes about music and its purpose and function; most notably the idea that music was to be the "servant" of religion. For the Church elders of the Middle Ages, music was deemed good only when it "opens the mind to Christian teachings and disposes the soul to holy thoughts." The church in the Middle Ages was highly concerned with the potentially “corrupting” elements of music and as a result certain factions within Church hierarchy that felt art in general, and music in particular, was inimical to religion.
It was thought that instrumental music could not elicit the spirit of divinity as well as vocal music, therefore instrumental music was for the most part excluded in liturgical services in the early church. This preference for vocal music was a significant factor as to why Gregorian Chant and Plainsong became the predominant mediums for liturgical music for hundreds of years.
The evolution of musical thought eventually led to a highly "romantic" view of music and composition. Romanticism celebrates metaphor, ambiguity, suggestion, allusion and symbol and as a result, instrumental music, which was shunned by the early Church, became favorable over music with text due to its "incomparable power of suggestion" and mystery. It could be said that the invisible, vibratory world of instrumental music corresponds to the unseen, vibratory incorporeal world. Instrumental music eventually became a referred mode of expression resulting in the development of forms such as sonata, concerto and symphony.
The term: Symphony
The word symphony is derived from the Greek Συμφωνία, a combination of syn- ('συν', with, together) and phone ('φωνή', sound, sounding), by way of the Latin symphonia. The term was used by the Greeks, firstly to denote the general conception of concord, both between successive sounds and in the unison of simultaneous sounds; secondly, in the special sense of concordant pairs of successive sounds (i.e. the "perfect intervals" of modern music; the fourth, fifth and octave); and thirdly as dealing with the concord of the octave, thus meaning the art of singing in octaves, as opposed to singing and playing in unison. In Roman times the word appears in the general sense which still survives in poetry, that is, as harmonious concourse of voices and instruments. It also appears to mean a concert. In the Gospel of Luke, chapter xv verse 25, it is distinguished from χορῶν, and the passage is appropriately translated in the English Bible as "music and dancing." Polybius and others seem to use it as the name of a musical instrument.
In the sense of "sounding together," the word appears in the titles of works by Giovanni Gabrieli (the Sacrae symphoniae) and Heinrich Schütz (the Symphoniae sacre) among others. Through the seventeenth century, the Italian word sinfonia was applied to a number of works, including overtures, instrumental ritornello sections of arias, concertos, and works which would later be classified as concertos or sonatas.
In a more modern usage, a symphony or symphony orchestra is an orchestra, particularly one that plays or is equipped to play symphonies. Going to hear a symphony orchestra play is sometimes called "going to the symphony," whether or not an actual symphony is on the program.
History of the form
In the seventeenth century, the majority of the Baroque period, the terms symphony and sinfonia were used to describe a range of different works, including operas, sonatas, and concertos. The common factor in this variety of usage was that symphonies or sinfonias were usually part of a larger work. The most direct forerunner of the symphony is commonly considered to be the opera sinfonia, which by the eighteenth century had a standard structure of three contrasting movements: fast, slow, and fast dance-like, much like the modern symphony. The terms overture, symphony, and sinfonia were widely regarded as interchangeable for much of the eighteenth century.
The eighteenth century symphony
The form that we now recognize as the symphony took shape in the early eighteenth century. It is commonly regarded to have grown from the Italian overture, a three-movement piece used to open operas, often used by Alessandro Scarlatti among others. Another important progenitor of the symphony was the ripieno concerto—a relatively little-explored form resembling a concerto for strings and continuo, but with no solo instruments. The earliest known ripieno concerti are by Giuseppe Torelli (his set of six, opus five, 1698). Antonio Vivaldi also wrote works of this type. Perhaps the best known ripieno concerto is Johann Sebastian Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 3.
Early symphonies, in common with both Italian overtures and concertos, have three movements, in the tempi quick-slow-quick. However, unlike the ripieno concerto, which uses the usual ritornello form of the concerto, at least the first movement of these symphonies is in some sort of binary form. They are distinguished from Italian overtures in that they were written for concert performance, rather than to introduce a stage work, although for much of the 18th century the terms overture and symphony were used interchangeably, and a piece originally written as one was sometimes later used as the other. The vast majority of these early symphonies are in a major key.
Symphonies at this time, whether for concert, opera, or church use, were not considered the major works on a program: often, as with concerti, they were divided up between other works, or drawn from suites or overtures. Vocal music was considered the heart of the musical experience, and symphonies were supposed to provide preludes, interludes, and postludes to this. At the time most symphonies were relatively short, running between 10 and 20 minutes at the most.
The "Italian" style of symphony, often used as overture and entr'acte in opera houses, became a standard three movement form: a fast movement, the "allegro"; a slow movement; and then another fast movement. Mozart's early symphonies are in this layout. The early three-movement form was eventually replaced by a four-movement layout which was dominant in the latter part of the eighteenth century and most of the nineteenth century. This symphonic form was influenced by Germanic practice, and would come to be associated with the "classical style" of Haydn and Mozart. The important changes were the addition of a "dance" movement and the change in character of the first movement to becoming "first among equals."
The normal four movement form became, then:
- Quick, in a binary form or later sonata form
- Minuet and trio (later developed into the scherzo and trio), in ternary form
- Quick, sometimes also in sonata form. Other common possibilities are Rondo form or sonata-rondo
Even in the mid-eighteenth century, variations on this layout were not uncommon; in particular, the middle two movements sometimes switched places, or a slow introduction was added to the beginning, sometimes resulting in a four-movement, slow-quick-slow-quick form.
The first symphony to introduce the minuet as the third movement appears to be a 1740 work in D major by Georg Matthias Monn. However, this is an isolated example: the first composer to consistently use the minuet as part of a four-movement form was Johann Stamitz.
Two major centers for early symphony writing were Vienna, where early exponents of the form included Georg Christoph Wagenseil, Wenzel Raimund Birck, and Georg Matthias Monn; and Mannheim, home of the so-called Mannheim School. Symphonies were written throughout Europe, however, with Giovanni Battista Sammartini, Andrea Luchesi, and Antonio Brioschi active in Italy, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach in northern Germany, Leopold Mozart in Salzburg, François-Joseph Gossec in Paris, and Johann Christian Bach and Karl Friedrich Abel in London.
Later significant Viennese composers of symphonies include Johann Baptist Vanhal, Karl Ditters von Dittersdorf, and Leopold Hoffmann. The most important symphonists of the latter part of the eighteenth century, however, are considered to be Joseph Haydn, who wrote 106 symphonies over the course of 40 years, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Their many widely performed and emulated works are commonly considered the apotheosis of the Classical style.
The nineteenth century symphony
In the late eighteenth century, vocal music, particularly cantatas and operas, were considered the major form of concert music, with concerti being next. With the rise of standing orchestras, the symphony assumed a larger and larger place in concert life. The period of transition was from approximately 1790 to 1820. For Ludwig van Beethoven his first Academy Concert had "Christ on the Mount of Olives" as the featured work, rather than the two symphonies and piano concerto he had performed on the same concert.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) took the symphony into uncharted territory by expanding, often dramatically, each of its parts. His nine symphonies set the standard for symphonic writing for generations afterwards. After two symphonies rather in the style of Haydn, his Symphony No. 3 (the Eroica), has a scale and emotional range which sets it apart from earlier works, often cited as ushering in the Romantic era. His Symphony No. 9 takes the unprecedented step of including parts for vocal soloists and choir in the last movement. Beethoven, together with Franz Schubert, was also responsible for replacing the genteel minuet with the livelier scherzo as an inner movement (most often the third of four). The scherzo, with its greater scope for emotional expression, was more suited to the Romantic style.
The next generation of symphonists desired to combine the expanded harmonic vocabulary developed by chromatic composers such as John Field, Ludwig Spohr, and Carl Maria von Weber, with the structural innovations of Beethoven. Robert Schumann and Felix Mendelssohn were two leading Germanic composers whose works attempted this fusion. At the same time a more experimental form of symphonic writing was coming into being, featuring a greater number of symphonies with textual meaning or specific programs. While "program symphonies" had been written as early as 1790, their place and role became expanded with Hector Berlioz' Symphonie Fantastique (1830) and then Liszt's program symphonies, such as the Dante Symphony and the Faust Symphony (both 1857).
This period corresponds with what is generally labelled the "Romantic" period, and ends around the middle of the nineteenth century, though the term "Romantic" is often used in music to correspond with the longer musical era from Beethoven all the way through Sergei Rachmaninoff.
In the second half of the nineteenth century, symphonies included movements using a much-expanded but often strict Sonata Form. Johannes Brahms, who took Schumann and Mendelssohn as his point of departure, set the standard for composing symphonies which very high levels of structural unity. At the same time symphonies grew in length, and became the centerpiece of the expanding number of symphony orchestras. Other important symphonists of the late nineteenth century include Anton Bruckner, Felix Draeseke, Antonín Dvořák, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, and Camille Saint-Saëns.
By the end of the nineteenth century French organists like Widor named some of their organ compositions symphony too: the "romantic" type of organs they played on (like the ones built by Cavaillé-Coll) allowed a thorough orchestral approach and sound, so these composers didn't think of their symphonies as inferior to those written for execution by a symphonic orchestra. In the cases of Widor and Vierne in particular it is much less usual to hear their symphonies for "orchestra alone," of which Vierne wrote one and Widor several, than those they wrote for organ.
The twentieth century symphony
In the nineteenth century the symphonies got bigger and bigger, both in play time and size of the orchestra. That development finished with Gustav Mahler in the beginning of the twentieth century. The twentieth century saw further diversification in the style and content of works which composers labelled "symphonies"—the idea that the "symphony" was a definite form which had certain standards was eroded, and the symphony instead came to be any major orchestral work which its composer saw fit to label such. While some composers—such as Sergei Rachmaninoff and Carl Nielsen, continued to write in the traditional four-movement form, other composers took different approaches. Gustav Mahler, whose second symphony written at the end of the nineteenth century is in five movements, continued to write novel works in the form: his third symphony, like the second, has parts for soloists and choir and is in six movements, the fifth, seventh, and tenth symphonies are in five movements, and the eighth symphony, which in another age would more likely have been called a cantata or oratorio, is in two large parts, with vocalists singing for virtually the duration of the work. Jean Sibelius' Symphony No. 7, his last, is in just one movement.
Despite this diversification, there remained certain tendencies—symphonies were still limited to being works for orchestra. Vocal parts were sometimes used alongside the orchestra, but remained rare, and the use of solo instruments was virtually unheard of. Notable exceptions were the "organ symphonies" composed for solo organ by French composers such as Louis Vierne and Charles-Marie Widor which exploited the power and increased resources of the modern organ to present an orchestral effect. Designating a work a "symphony" still implied a degree of weightiness—very short or very frivolous works were rarely called symphonies. The label sinfonietta came into use to designate a work that was "lighter" than the term "symphony" implied (Leoš Janáček's Sinfonietta is one of the best known examples).
Along with a widening of what could be considered a symphony, the twentieth century saw an increase in the number of works which could reasonably be called symphonies but which were given some other name by their composer. The Concerto for Orchestra by Béla Bartók is just one such example (Bartók never wrote a work he called a symphony). Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde is sung throughout but would likely have been christened a symphony, with justification, but for the Curse of the Ninth. Some present-day composers continue to write works which they call "symphonies" (Philip Glass, for example, has written eight as of 2005), but the tendency in the twentieth century has been for the symphony to be less a recognizable form with its own conventions and norms, and more a label which composers apply to orchestral works of a certain ambition, or even non-orchestral works. Glenn Branca, for example, composes symphonies for electric guitars and percussion, which blend droning industrial cacophony and microtonality with quasi-mysticism and advanced mathematics.
The main characteristics of the classical symphony, as it existed by the end of the eighteenth century in the German-speaking world were:
- 4 movements, of which the first would usually be a fast movement in sonata form, the second a slow movement, the third either a minuet and trio or a ternary dance-like (scherzo) movement in "simple triple" metre, finishing with a fourth, fast movement in rondo and/or sonata form.
- Instrumental, to be played by an orchestra of the relatively moderate size customary at the time.
After Beethoven started experimenting with the movement structure and with programmatic features in his Sixth Symphony, and later added singers to the last movement of his Ninth Symphony, the possibilities for moulding the symphony format appeared limitless, starting from the early Romantic era, for example:
- More variation in the movement structure: More movements and/or multi-layered movement structure (Berlioz, Roméo et Juliette; Mahler, Second and Eighth Symphonies); Single-movement structure and/or movements succeeding without interruption (Sibelius, Seventh Symphony; Richard Strauss, Eine Alpensinfonie; Carl Nielsen, Fourth Symphony)
- More variation in the instrumentation: Small full-blown romantic orchestras (Berlioz, Mahler, Bruckner); Solo and/or choral singing extended to several or all movements of a symphony (Mendelssohn, Second Symphony; Berlioz, Roméo et Julliette; Shostakovich, 14th Symphony; Mahler, Symphony No. 8)
- Unusual or new instruments (Cowbells and a guitar in Mahler's Sixth Symphony; Ondes Martenot in the Turangalîla-Symphonie by Olivier Messiaen)
- Symphonies not for a symphony orchestra (symphonies to be played on a single organ by Charles-Marie Widor and Louis Vierne and also the Symphony for Solo Piano by Charles-Valentin Alkan)
- Extend the programmatic layer: even after the tone poem had split from the symphony genre as such, symphonies were published with extended programs, explicit (as in Berlioz' Roméo et Juliette, after Shakespeare, as well as in his Symphonie Fantastique) with reference to literary, poetic and folklore devices (as in John Kenneth Graham's symphony cycle), or more implicit, like a succession of sentiments (as in Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony, or Carl Nielsen's The Four Temperaments)
Importance of the symphony
In the early development of the Christian church, a prevailing attitude was that instrumental music did not possess the power to elicit the spirit of divinity as effectively as vocal music, hence instrumental music was for the most part excluded in liturgical practice in the early church. This preference for vocal music was a significant factor as to why Gregorian Chant and Plainsong became the predominant mediums for liturgical music for hundreds of years.
However, as attitudes about music and art evolved towards a more Romantic ethos, music that celebrated metaphor, ambiguity, suggestion, allusion, and symbol became increasingly prevalent. As a result, instrumental music, which had been shunned by the early Church, was now favored over music with words due to its "incomparable power of suggestion" and mystery. The development of symphonic composition was a direct result of the Romantic spirit in music.
Composers of symphonies
Among composers of symphonies are (listed in chronological order of birth):
- Giuseppe Torelli, Italian composer of the Sinfonia à 4, the first real symphony.
- Giovanni Battista Sammartini (around 1701-1775), Italian composer.
- Antonio Brioschi, Italian composer.
- William Boyce (1710-1779), whose opus 2 is a set of eight "symphonies," although they started life as overtures to other works.
- Ignaz Holzbauer (1711-1783)
- Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-1788), son of Johann Sebastian Bach, composer of around 20 symphonies.
- Georg Christoph Wagenseil (1715-1777)
- Georg Matthias Monn (1717-1750), whose symphony in D of 1740 is the first to include a minuet as a third movement.
- Johann Stamitz (1717-1757), the first composer to regularly include a minuet as the third movement of his symphonies.
- Wenzel Raimund Birck (1718-1763)
- Leopold Mozart (1719-1787), who wrote symphonies in which he included thrillingly incorporated French horns.
- Karl Friedrich Abel (1725-1787), active in London.
- Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), one of the best known Classical composers of symphonies, he wrote 106 examples, combining wit and structural clarity.
- Franz Ignaz Beck (1734-1809), composer of about 25 symphonies, many of which were ahead of their time.
- François-Joseph Gossec (1734-1829), French composer of over 60 symphonies.
- Johann Christian Bach (1735-1782), son of Johann Sebastian Bach, active in London.
- Michael Haydn (1737-1806) the younger brother of Joseph Haydn was also a prolific composer and wrote 40 symphonies
- Leopold Hoffmann (1738-1793)
- Johann Baptist Vanhal (1739-1813), Bohemian composer of at least 24 symphonies.
- Karl Ditters von Dittersdorf (1739-1799)
- Andrea Luchesi (1741-1801)
- Antonio Rosetti (c.1750-1792), Bohemian composer, wrote many symphonies, concertos (notably for horn), and vocal works.
- Muzio Clementi (1752-1832), Italian composer of symphonies.
- Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791), one of the best known Classical symphonists. Writer of 41 such works, his last three reach the pinnacle of eighteenth-century symphonic writing.
- Pavel Vranický (1756-1808), Bohemian composer of about 50 symphonies.
- Ignaz Pleyel (1757-1831) Austrian composer, in his time a famous pupil of Haydn.
- Étienne Méhul (1763-1817), French composer of at least four symphonies.
- Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), often considered the greatest of all symphonists, he wrote 9 numbered symphonies plus sketches for a tenth—see Category of Beethoven symphonies.
- George Onslow (1784-1853), French composer of four symphonies in a style combining echoes of Beethoven and Schubert.
- Louis Spohr (1784-1859), well known as a symphonist in his day, though his ten works in the genre are largely forgotten today.
- Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826), German composer, wrote two symphonies.
- Cipriani Potter (1792 - 1871), English composer of nine symphonies.
- Franz Schubert (1797-1828), composer of nine surviving symphonies, with the Symphony No. 8 (the Unfinished) and Symphony No. 9 (the Great) the largest in scale and best known.
- Franz Lachner (1803-1890) wrote eight symphonies between 1828 & 1851. His 5th symphony won him the prize offered by the Vienna Gesellschaft der Musicfreunde in 1835.
- Hector Berlioz (1803-1869), best remembered for his Symphonie Fantastique, perhaps the first true programmatic symphony.
- Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847), composer of 12 complete string symphonies (the 13th was left unfinished) and five numbered symphonies, sketches for a 6th (1847).
- Robert Schumann (1810-1856), who wrote four numbered symphonies, the last of which experimented with cyclic form.
- Franz Liszt (1811-1886), wrote two programmatic symphonies, the Faust Symphony and the Dante Symphony.
- Sir William Sterndale Bennett (1816-1875), English composer of one symphony.
- César Franck (1822-1890), wrote one symphony best known for its use of cyclic form.
- Joachim Raff (1822-1882), composer of 11 symphonies, several with programmatic elements, well known in his day, but now largely forgotten.
- Anton Bruckner (1824-1896), composer of 11 large-scale symphonies, including Nos. 00 and 0.
- Anton Rubinstein (1829-1894), composer of six symphonies, with the second, the Ocean, and the sixth being the best known (though neither as well known now as they were in Rubinstein's day).
- Georges Bizet (1833-1875), French composer remembered by his Opera Carmen, wrote 1 symphony at the age of 17.
- Johannes Brahms (1833-1897), composer of four symphonies, considered to be the artistic heir of Beethoven. Regarded as one of the great symphonists of the Romantic period.
- Felix Draeseke (1835-1913), composer of the New German School wrote four symphonies.
- Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921), composer of five symphonies (three of which are numbered while the other two are not), of which the best known is the third, his Symphony n°3 with organ.
- Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893), who wrote six numbered symphonies plus the Manfred Symphony.
- Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904), who wrote nine symphonies, of which the most famous is the ninth (From the New World). He successfully combined Bohemian folk elements with large-scale structure.
- Ernest Chausson (1855-1899), French composer of one symphony and sketches for a second.
- Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934), completed two symphonies, with sketches for a third made into a performing version by Anthony Payne.
- Hans Rott (1858-1884), Austrian composer of a symphony (1879/1880), which features many stylistic similarities to the later symphonies of his friend and fellow student Gustav Mahler. A Symphony No.2 was planned.
- Gustav Mahler (1860-1911), completed nine large-scale symphonies, plus an incomplete tenth—see Category of Mahler symphonies. His third symphony is his longest symphony at 95 minutes, and his eighth, the Symphony of a Thousand, premiered with over one thousand performers.
- Felix Weingartner (1863-1942), composer of seven symphonies and a sinfonietta.
- Carl Nielsen (1865-1931), composer of six symphonies.
- Jean Sibelius (1865-1957), composer of the Kullervo Symphony, and of seven numbered symphonies (a No. 8 was destroyed by the composer in 1929).
- Vasily Kalinnikov (1866-1901), Russian composer of two symphonies.
- Albert Roussel (1869-1937), French composer of four symphonies.
- Wilhelm Stenhammar (1871-1927), Swedish composer of two symphonies, one disowned by him.
- Alexander von Zemlinsky (1871-1942), Austrian composer of 3 symphonies, a symphony in all but name called Die Seejungfrau (1902), and a Sinfonietta (1934).
- Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958), composer of nine symphonies.
- Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943), composer of three symphonies in a late-Romantic style.
- Josef Suk (1874-1934), Czech composer of two symphonies—in E major opus 14, and in C minor (the Asrael Symphony, opus 27).
- Franz Schmidt (1874-1939), Austrian composer of four symphonies.
- Charles Ives (1874-1954), American composer of four symphonies, his 'Holiday Symphony' referred to as his 5th, and his 'Universe Symphony' later reconstructed.
- Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951), Austrian composer of two chamber symphonies and several sketches for unpublished symphonies. Alban Berg thought of Schoenberg's tone poem Pelleas und Melisande (1902) as a symphony.
- Julián Carrillo (1875-1965), Mexican Composer, wrote two symphonies plus three atonal symphonies written in the "Thirteen Sound" technique.
- Richard Wetz (1875-1935), German late romantic composer of three symphonies.
- Mieczysław Karłowicz (1876-1909), Polish composer of only one symphony, in e minor Op.7 "Rebirth" (1897).
- Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari (1876-1948), Italian-German composer of the Sinfonia da Camera (1901); an early composer in the genre of the twentieth century chamber symphony.
- Havergal Brian (1876-1972), English composer of 32 symphonies, most of which he wrote in his seventies and eighties. His first symphony 'The Gothic is the largest one ever written.
- Artur Kapp (1878-1952), Estonian composer. Generally considered to be one of the founders of Estonian symphonic music.
- Franz Schreker (1879-1934), Austrian composer of the Chamber Symphony.
- Nikolai Myaskovsky (1881-1950), Soviet composer (moved from Poland at a very young age) and composer of 27 symphonies.
- George Enescu (1881-1955), Romanian composer. Wrote three acknowledged and complete symphonies, four earlier ones and two later ones—the last completed by Pascal Bentoiu.
- Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), wrote three purely orchestral symphonies plus the Symphony of Psalms for chorus and orchestra; his Symphonies of Wind Instruments uses the word symphony in its old sense of "sounding together."
- Sir Arnold Bax (1883-1953), English composer of seven symphonies.
- Anton Webern (1883-1945), Austrian Composer of one symphony (1928).
- Wilhelm Furtwängler (1886-1954), German composer of three symphonies, plus a Symphonic Concerto for Piano and Orchestra.
- Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959), Brazilian composer of 12 symphonies.
- Bohuslav Martinů (1890-1959), Czech composer of six symphonies.
- Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953), Soviet composer of seven symphonies, plus a Symphony-Concerto for Cello and Orchestra—see Category of Prokofiev symphonies.
- Arthur Honegger (1892-1955), Swiss-French composer of five symphonies.
- Walter Piston (1894-1976), American composer of eight symphonies.
- Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942), Czech composer of eight symphonies (the last two in short score).
- Paul Hindemith (1895-1963), German composer of several works with descriptive titles designated symphonies, of which the best known is Mathis der Maler, as well as the Symphony in E-flat of 1939 and the Symphony in B-flat for Concert Band.
- Howard Hanson (1896-1981), American composer of seven symphonies (No. 1 Nordic, No. 2 Romantic—his most famous, No. 4 Requiem, No. 5 Sinfonia Sacra, and No. 7 Sea Symphony).
- Roger Sessions (1896-1985), American composer of nine symphonies, all but the first two of which are written using some form of the twelve-tone technique.
- Viktor Ullmann (1898-1944), Czech Composer of two symphonies (1944, both are reconstructions from the short score of the Piano Sonatas No. 5 and Piano Sonatas No. 7 by Bernard Wulff).
- Hanns Eisler (1898-1962), German Composer of a Little Symphony (1932), a Chamber Symphony (1940) and a German Symphony for choir and orchestra (1930-1958).
- Roy Harris (1898-1979), American composer of 15 symphonies, of which Symphony No. 3 is by far the most famous.
- Pavel Haas (1899-1944), Czech Composer of an unfinished Symphony (1940/1941, orchestration completed by Zdenek Zouhar).
- Carlos Chávez (1899-1978), Mexican composer of six symphonies.
- Kurt Weill (1900-1950), German and later American composer of two symphonies
- Aaron Copland (1900-1990), American composer of three symphonies. The fourth movement of No. 3 is based on his famous Fanfare for the Common Man.
- Ernst Krenek (1900-1991), Austrian composer of five symphonies.
- Kurt Weill (1900-1950), German Composer of two symphonies.
- Edmund Rubbra (1901-1986), English composer of 11 symphonies.
- Sir William Walton (1902-1983), English composer of two symphonies.
- Aram Khachaturian (1903-1978), world-famous Armenian composer, wrote three symphonies.
- Cemal Reşit Rey (1904-1985), Turkish composer of two symphonies.
- Sir Michael Tippett (1905-1998), English composer of four symphonies.
- Eduard Tubin (1905-1982), Estonian composer of ten symphonies.
- Karl Amadeus Hartmann (1905-1963), German composer of eight symphonies.
- Paul Creston (1906-1985), American composer of six symphonies.
- Benjamin Frankel (1906-1973), English composer of eight symphonies.
- Janis Ivanovs (1906-1983), Latvian composer of 21 symphonies.
- Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975), Soviet composer of 15 symphonies—see Category of Shostakovich symphonies.
- Ahmet Adnan Saygun (1907-1991), Turkish composer of five symphonies.
- Vagn Holmboe (1909-1996), Danish composer of 13 symphonies, four symphonies for strings and three chamber symphonies (these seven works not discarded, but not included by him among the other 13).
- Samuel Barber, (1910-1981), American composer of two symphonies.
- William Schuman (1910-1992), American composer of ten symphonies.
- Bernard Herrmann (1911-1975), American composer of one symphony (1940).
- Alan Hovhaness (1911-2000), American composer of 67 symphonies. The most prolific twentieth century symphonist.
- Allan Pettersson (1911-1980), Swedish composer of 17 expressive symphonies.
- Benjamin Britten (1913-1976), British composer of several symphonies, including the Sinfonia da Requiem (1940) and the Cello Symphony (1963).
- Witold Lutosławski (1913-1994), Polish composer, wrote four symphonies.
- Sir Andrzej Panufnik (1914 - 1991), Polish composer of ten symphonies.
- David Diamond (1915-2005), American composer of 11 symphonies.
- Henri Dutilleux (1916), French composer of two symphonies.
- Sven Einar Englund (1916-1999), Finnish composer of seven symphonies.
- Lou Harrison (1917-2003), American composer of four symphonies.
- Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990), American composer and conductor, composed three symphonies.
- Mieczyslaw Weinberg (1919-1996), Polish composer who emigrated to the Soviet Union, composer of 20 symphonies for full orchestra and four chamber symphonies.
- Malcolm Arnold (1921-2006), British composer of nine symphonies.
- Fritz Geißler (1921-1984), German composer, wrote 11 symphonies.
- Robert Simpson (1921-1997), British composer, wrote 11 symphonies.
- Peter Mennin (1923-1983), American composer, wrote nine symphonies.
- Luciano Berio (1925-2003) Italian composer of the famous Sinfonia (1968-69).
- Hans Werner Henze (born 1926), German Composer of ten symphonies.
- Rowan Taylor (1927-2005), American composer, considered the most prolific composer of all time, wrote 265 symphonies.
- Einojuhani Rautavaara (born 1929), Finnish composer of eight symphonies.
- John Williams (born 1932), American Composer of a symphony (1966).
- Krzysztof Penderecki (born 1933), Polish composer of eight symphonies (as of 2005).
- Henryk Górecki (born 1933), Polish composer of three symphonies.
- Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998), Russian Composer of Symphonies, Nos. 1-8 (1972-98).
- Sir Peter Maxwell Davies (born 1934), British Composer of a Sinfonia (1962), a Sinfonia Concertante (1982), a Sinfonietta (1983) and eight numbered-symphonies (1976-2001).
- Giya Kancheli (born 1935), Georgian composer of seven symphonies.
- Arvo Pärt (born 1935), composer of three symphonies (-1971)
- Philip Glass (born 1937), composer of eight symphonies as of 2005.
- Richard Edward Wilson (born 1941), composer of two symphonies as of 2006.
- Ilayaraaja (born 1943), Indian composer. Composer of Thiruvasagam in Symphony (Classical Collection of Hymns on Lord Shiva) for the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (London, 1993).
- Hristo Spasov Tsanoff (born 1947), composer of one symphony.
- John Coolidge Adams (born 1947), composer of a Chamber Symphony (1992) and three other works, symphonies in all but name.
- Heinz Chur (born 1948), German composer of four symphonies (1978-1991).
- Glenn Branca (born 1948) avant-garde composer and guitarist who composes symphonies for orchestras of electric guitars and percussion.
- Alla Pavlova (born 1952), Russian composer of five symphonies (as of 2006)
- Oliver Knussen (born 1953), English Composer of three symphonies.
- John Kenneth Graham (born 1955), American composer of four symphonies, orchestral tableaux of American folklore and legend.
- Nigel Keay (born 1955), New Zealand composer of the Symphony in Five Movements (1996).
- Tan Dun (born 1957), Chinese composer of the Symphony 1997.
- Aaron Jay Kernis (born 1960), American composer of two symphonies.
- Michael Torke (born 1961), American composer of one symphony (1997).
- Joe Monzo (born 1962), American composer of two completed symphonies and an unfinished 3rd.
- Evgeni Kostitsyn (born 1963), Russian composer of five symphonies.
- Robert Steadman (born 1965), UK composer of two symphonies and a chamber symphony.
- Thomas Adès (born 1971), British Composer of the Chamber Symphony For Fifteen Players Op. 2 (1991).
- Bonds, Mark Evan. Music as Thought: Listening to the Symphony in the Age of Beethoven. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006. ISBN 0691126593
- Burkholder, J. Peter, Donald Jay Grout, and Claude V. Palisca. A History of Western Music. W. W. Norton & Company, 2014. ISBN 978-0393918298
- Cuyler, Louise Elvira. The Symphony. New York, NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973. ISBN 0155850768
- Lowe, Melanie Diane. Pleasure and Meaning in the Classical Symphony. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2007. ISBN 0253348277
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