symphony = long classical work?

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Thu Dec 9 03:37:33 UTC 2010

At 12:39 AM -0500 12/3/10, Herb Stahlke wrote:
>In an Advent liturgy built around selections from Handel's Messiah, I
>came across the wording
>Quiet descends upon the concert hall as the conductor raises his baton
>to begin the overture of a familiar symphony--Handel's Messiah.
>I googled "Handel symphony" and the first several pages were all links
>to performances of Messiah and the names of the symphony orchestras
>performing.  I didn't find symphony used in this sense.  OED also does
>not have this meaning, although there are one or two meanings found up
>into the mid 19th c. that are close.  I couldn't find the usage in
>Wiktionary or Urban Dictionary.
>Is "symphony" going the way of "novel" or is this a nonce occurrence?
More on "symphony" and "sinfonia":  At a very nice brass quintet
performance of holiday-themed music today, one of the performers
introduced Handel's sinfonia "The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba" from
the oratorio Solomon, explaining that in the Baroque era the sinfonia
was always an instrumental interlude of that sort, which only later
developed into a more grandiose free-standing composition.  This is
borne out in the OED entry:

a. A passage for instruments alone (or, by extension, for a single
instrument) occurring in a vocal composition as an introduction,
interlude, or close to an accompaniment (partly = RITORNELLO); also,
a short instrumental movement occurring between vocal movements, as
the 'Pastoral Symphony' in Handel's 'Messiah'; also formerly applied
to a more extended instrumental piece, often in several movements,
forming the overture to an opera or other vocal work of large
dimensions (cf. next sense). [Nice cites from Pepys's diary, 1661-62,
e.g. "Having vialls and other instruments to play a symphony between
every verse of the anthem."]

b. An elaborate orchestral composition in three or more movements,
originally developed from the operative overture (see prec. sense),
similar in form to a sonata, but usually of grander dimensions and
broader style.  [First cite, 1789.]

So not only is a Baroque sinfonia/symphony distinct from a
(Classical-era) symphony, as noted earlier on this thread (sorry, I
must have deleted the relevant message making that point), but the
former gave rise to the latter.  Learn something new every day.

(Of course none of this is to dispute Herb's observation that the
above uses of "symphony" may well represent a more contemporary
broadening of the post 1789 meaning rather than a retention of the
earlier one.)


The American Dialect Society -

More information about the Ads-l mailing list