What Happened to the Symphony?

Could you still remember that time when people would put on extravagant gowns and coattails, wear their immaculate white powdered wigs, walk or ride a carriage to the theater, and listen quietly in their seats to the music of a large, powerful, symphonic orchestra?

Those days have seemingly completely passed us by. Aside from fashion changes (wigs, really?), barely anybody looks forward to hearing a symphony. Nowadays, people want to listen to music, which is more upbeat, something we could dance to and sing along with, something that is more entertaining.

However, the symphony was not willing to die down quietly. You may not realize it, but we can actually hear symphonies – yes, even new ones – today.

What exactly is a “symphony”? The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as “a long piece of music that […] is usually played by an orchestra.” Many people today look at the orchestra with a strange mix of admiration and pity. It is a prestigious group, and beautiful to look at (especially professional orchestras), but many feel like it is a dying industry. In the recent years, more and more orchestras have been shut down by patrons and by government institutions due to lack of funding and support.


Two of the more “news-worthy” groups that have experienced this are The European Union Youth Orchestra (EUYO), and practically the entire arts and culture department in Brazil, which was dissolved and placed under a different ministry earlier this 2016. There are many more groups that shut down without reaching the eyes and ears of the international music community, and their loss is probably only minimally mourned, which is a shame. Orchestral music is a part of our culture and history, and we should take care of it.

However, we digress; let us return to the symphony. The symphony as we know it was created some time in the 18th century. It played a lot of roles in the public sphere, such as during church services. However, its strongest role was to play for the aristocracy. Vienna, which was the seat of classical music at that time, had hundreds of noble families. These families made it a point to support musical establishments to show off their wealth and good taste.

Many promising composers, orchestral groups and instrumentalists were funded by such noblemen. The orchestra evolved from a group of random available instrumentalists to a more rigid ensemble with a specific number of specific instruments divided into sections. The symphony also evolved from any long piece of complex music into variations of a four-movement form, consisting of an opening allegro sonata, a slow movement (adagio), a scherzo or minuet, and a final rondo, allegro or sonata.

In the 19th century, Beethoven elevated the symphony from mere everyday music into a supreme form of musical composition, which musicians and composers alike strove towards. It’s no wonder, many of Beethoven’s symphonies, such as the Fifth and the Ninth symphonies, are alive even to this day. The romantics of this century, including Schumann, Mendelssohn, Wagner, Saint-Saens, Dvorak and Tchaikovsky continued the epic music Beethoven made famous. These names became standard among concert repertoire for much of that century.

Sometime in the early 20th century, the TV was invented and changed the world of entertainment. The Walt Disney Company was also founded soon after and provided many populations with beloved tales and music. It was during this time that orchestral geniuses such as Mahler, Shostakovich, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev and Schoenberg began making their names. Unfortunately, symphonic music stared declining in the mid- to latter-part of the 20th century when bands and groups such as the Beatles and ABBA made their names. Unwilling to die so quickly, symphonies started appearing on cartoons, such as Disney’s Silly Symphonies, Disney’s Fantasia, and on a few Bugs Bunny shows.

Symphony instruments

Since then, there was not much new that happened in this face of the music industry. People’s tastes changed, people wanted music that was physically (rather than purely mentally) stimulating, and the music grew with the times.

Is the symphony really gone? Have we reached a dead end after the geniuses of the 20th century? Many musicologists and music lovers don’t think so. This is what they propose: symphonic music has changed face, but its main form, function and purpose remains the same. Symphonic music, they say, has evolved into orchestral film soundtracks.

It does not seem too far off, does it? Listen to the works of John Williams (Jurassic Park, Star Wars and Schindler’s List), James Horner (Glory, Avatar), Hans Zimmer (Pirates of the Caribbean, Mission Impossible and Batman), Howard Shore (Lord of the Rings), Ennio Morricone (The Mission, Cinema Paradiso) and the like. Their music is complex, performed by an orchestra, and tells a story through sound.

People dress up – albeit without the wigs – go to the theater, and watch and listen attentively to the movie. Many such movie themes have become classic favorites of people who may or may not have seen the original movie. Try singing or humming the first part of the Raiders of the Lost Ark theme – it would be a miracle if nobody around you will recognize it and possibly either smile at you or strike a conversation!

Symphonic music is not dead. Lately, it has just changed forms and goes around under a different name without us realizing it. The orchestra is as integral to our lives as it ever has been. The difference is that whereas in times past people had to plan when and where they could listen to music, now, we can just plug in our headphones and whip out our beloved soundtracks.

That is what happened to the symphony.