An old jokebook defines a symphony as a musical composition in four movements: In, Down, Up and Out. The International Cyclopedia of Music and Musicians defines it as a “sonata for orchestra.” Does that help? Not much, because now we must define what a sonata is.
I think we’ll get farther if, having compared Beethoven to Shakespeare, we now compare a symphony to a play, Shakespearean or not. What do we demand of a play? First, that the characters be vital, possessing traits and shortcomings which interest us. And second, that whatever happens to these characters be so presented as to convince us of the truth and the importance of these happenings. What counts in a play, then, is characters and plot.
What counts in a symphony is twofold as well. We must first take pleasure in the themes (or melodies) which the composer states, and, second, we must be moved by the development, variations, and combinations— in short, the adventures to which the themes are subjected. The themes are the characters of the symphony. What happens to them is the plot.
The plot is more important than the characters. This is another way of saying that the effectiveness of a symphony does not necessarily depend on beautiful melodies, though, to be sure, a good tune doesn’t do a symphony any harm. But it is possible to write a symphony without endowing it with the kind of long lyric melody that you might find in a song. Indeed, many symphonic themes are short. Purposely so: being short, they can more easily be manipulated. Three notes plus one—and that’s the main theme of the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth. In the Ninth it’s a two-note downward plunge.
Beethoven’s symphonies consist of four movements. Each one is so designed that together they form a composition which is balanced. The first movement is usually of a dramatic nature. It may start with an Introduction (as in the Second or the Seventh Symphony) or it might plunge right in, stating the main theme at once (as does the Fifth or the Third). There occur, as often as not, two main themes within that movement, the first of which is likely to be energetic in character and the second gentle and lyrical. These themes are first stated (Exposition) and then restated to fix them in your memory. Presently they are, like the characters in a play, subject to various changes and combinations and progressions. They are presented in different orchestrations. They may be lengthened or shortened. Only parts of the theme may be used. This is the Development section, and here Beethoven has wrought his most fascinating magic. At the end of the Development there is a Recapitulation: the themes are once more heard, more or less in their original form. The movement may conclude with a little “good-by” section called Coda, literally “a tail.”
The second movement is a slow composition, a song, often hushed in mood. Beethoven’s slow movements—one cannot express in words how beautiful they are! They awaken in us feelings of which we did not know we were capable. They are a gift, the best that life can give.
The third movement, by contrast, is gay, sometimes boisterous. Before Beethoven, third movements were usually dance music, especially minuets. Beethoven expanded the form and called it a Scherzo, a joke. It isn’t always a joke; rather, the joke is sometimes bitter. Within this movement you find contrast as well, in that the Scherzo contains a slower section which is called the Trio.
The last movement brings the denouement of the play. This Finale can take many forms. Often, the composer states a theme and then proceeds to a series of Variations on that theme. Last movements are usually fast. They rush on to the conclusion, be it happy or tragic, victorious or defeated. In Beethoven the conclusion is almost invariably victorious.
No great artist can be a cynic. These symphonies, victorious in their message, saying yes to life, have proved to be one of the most enduring blessings bestowed on all of us.
UPDATE 13 January 2012: Did you know that the word “symphony” is related to the word “Amen” that we use in our prayers? Click here to learn more (scroll to the bottom of the post)