We think of the symphony as the focal point of a concert, a long piece to which the second half of a concert is entirely devoted. Ask one’s self by what standard one might judge a composer, and we usually come up with the symphony. But it was quite different in the eighteenth century, and for much if not most of the nineteenth century. The works tended to be fairly short and played at the start of a concert, or of the second half, not as its culmination. And this practice lasted longer than you might expect, right up to the last quarter of the nineteenth century in some places. As we shall see, however, that does not necessarily mean that people did not appreciate the genre.
Let’s look at an example, this one from London in 1791, a concert in the main concert locale of the time, where a symphony opened each half:
Note that ‘overture’ and ‘symphony’ were used for pretty much the same music in this period—it basically meant an instrumental opening number. Remember that the symphony grew out of the opera overture (there were no concert overtures as yet) and that the first movement of a symphony, an Allegro, shared many of the same characteristics of the overture. Here we can take it for granted that the Haydn ‘overture’ was in fact a symphony, especially since he was writing such works for his London patrons. The ‘Finale’ at the end of the concert might have been an overture or a symphony or an outer movement from a symphony; the main point being that it end the concert with the appropriate brio.
A further problem here is figuring out just what this practice meant about how people viewed the symphony. On one hand, some scholars say that the symphony was just a way to get a concert started and get people seated, before the main pieces started—mostly excerpts from operas. In fact, in 1802 a report from Vienna published in the main German music magazine said flat out that symphonies didn’t really count, since nobody was ready to listen when they were performed.
Yet on the other hand, there is a contrasting opinion that people did listen more than the cynics think, and that the symphony did indeed call people to attention because they like it so much. When one recalls the flair with which Mozart’s overtures catch the ear, one gets a sense of how they did in fact get people to listen fast.
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Page last updated: 30 March 2005