The Symphony

General Lifespan
1745-Present

Definition/History, etc.
A symphony is any piece of music played by an orchestra - usually in several movements. Done!

Well that was simple enough - but now I have two more words to define...

A movement is a complete section of music (usually all one overall speed and style) that you DON'T clap after. I know it may feel as though you should clap after some movements are done - but don't. You may be shunned by society and ridiculed behind your back for years should you commit such a musical mistake (yes, it IS possible to commit a musical mistake while in the audience.)

I guess you could applaud between movements at home where no one could hear you, but I don't recommend it - intermovement clapping could be habit forming and you wouldn't want to mess up if you actually go out in public. Also the people who recorded the music you are listening to in your home can't hear you!

You're just like those people who clap at the end of movies. THE ACTORS CAN'T HEAR YOU!!!! If you feel the need to applaud a lot - go down to your local jazz club. There you can clap after every solo (five, maybe six times each song!) And the live performers CAN hear you. And they like to hear clapping. Anyway...

An orchestra is a group of musicians - frequently in tuxes and black dresses who play a variety of instruments. The first orchestras had the fewest people (there were just less people around back then...) But they had strings! (violin, viola, cello, and bass) All orchestras have string sections. It is a rule. Later, as more musicians became available, more were added. Mozart and Haydn added trumpets, drums, flutes, and more.

Then Beethoven came along and added a whole load of new people - musicians and also singers.* Sometimes you'll see a 180+ piece orchestra playing Mozart (this happened a lot in the 1950's - I don't know why.) It's wrong. Mozart had somewhere around 40 people in his orchestras.

Symphonies started round about 1720 - but you probably wouldn't recognize those early ones. The "modern" symphony started with Haydn in about 1745. Haydn is THE symphony man He wrote 108** of them. Mozart is also a big name in the symphony scene - he only wrote 41 - but then again, Mozart died early (age 38). The next big name is Beethoven. He only wrote 9 symphonies but each of his is much longer than any of Haydn's symphonies.

Some other people to remember are Dvorak, Bruckner, and Zappa. Yes, Frank Zappa wrote one (I have the CD). The point here is symphonies are not dead. People still write them. I doubt though that a modern symphony - no matter how good - would ever be as popular as Beethoven's 9th or 5th.

Composers of Symphonies
Cripes - nearly everyone.

Remember
A symphony is any piece of music played by an orchestra - usually in several movements. (Didn't I hear that somewhere before?)

* There is no faster way to hack off a singer than to make a differentiation between "singers" and "musicians" - implying that a singer is not a musician. Try it. It's fun.

** This may not be the actual number of symphonies Haydn wrote. Frequently, the evil, unscrupulous publishers back then would print Haydn's name on the symphonies they published just to sell more copies. If you believe Haydn wrote all the symphonies with Haydn's name on them, you would have more than 250. The sources I've read all place the number between 104 and 108.

Post scripts!

Though I try to get the idea across in as few words as possible, I've gotten some great feedback containing more precision. I present it here for your additional reading pleasure:

RE: Symphonies, you could mention that they are generally 4 movements (most are) although some have three and occasionally there is a 5 or 6 movement one, i.e. Bruckner, Beethoven's 6th. And then there are Carl Neilson and Charles Ives (especially) who broke all the rules entirely.

- Roy Holton

Mini-Faq

What kinds of songs do orchestras play?
None. A song is a very specific kind of music. It requires singing.
How does one refer to those ...things... the orchestra plays?
They are "pieces" of music, or "works".
It says "opus" on the program... what the heck is that?
Opus means "work"... but it is usually paired with a number to tell you which work it was (more or less) serially. A very low Opus number can mean it was done early in a career. I'd only use that trick when talking about one composer... as the number can get mashed up trying to compare different composers. But Opus 5 from composer A was almost certainly done before Opus 47 from composer A.
Where's the saxophones?
There aren't any. There are political and traditional reasons for this. But to be fair, there aren't any violas in a marching band.
In the string section, is a double bass twice as big as a bass?
Nope. The Double bass is the same thing as the bass. An upright bass is also technically the same instument - used in a non-orchestral setting. You need to call it an upright bass in a jazz combo to differentiate it from the electric bass... whose name was shortened to 'bass'. In an orchestra, there is no electric bass - do the double bass can take that name.
What about "string bass"?
Yes, yes. String bass... well - it seems there is more than one kind of bass in an orchestra. Bass flute, bass clarinet, bass trombone, bass oon... umm... Anyway, yes - to avoid confusion, you may choose to call it a string bass - so people don't think you're talking about the bass drum.

Extra notes that are not validatable... let's call them "opinions".

From Tony Ybarra:

Making your kid listen to classical music is not going to make him more cultured or smarter. No more than feeding him snails will make him French. Music stems from culture, not the other way around.

The Nutcracker is not real ballet. It is traditionally performed by students during the off season as a fundraiser. It is marketed towards non-ballet attending audiences. So don't try to act like some big arts aficionado once a year at Christmastime.