The Symphony versus programmatic music.
The word symphony has a number of meanings. You can go to the symphony, see and hear a symphony orchestra but not hear a symphony. The Symphony Orchestra is commonly thought as an orchestra with instrumental groups of strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion. We think of the BSO, the Boston Symphony Orchestra or the CSO, the Chicago Symphony orchestra. These groups commonly play symphonies, concertos, overtures and programmatic works. Sometimes a symphony concert may have an overture, a concerto, and a tone poem. That type of concert is common with no actual symphony on the program.
A symphony is also a musical form, a grouping of movements of separate pieces. Austrian composer Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) was one of the primary creators of this form he wrote over 100 symphonies. Mozart continues this form and writes 41 symphonies. This basic form set up by these masters is a work divided up into four movements normally with a clear break between these sections so that each movement is a separate piece. These movements go like this; the first movement fast, the second movement slow often song like the third movement is a dance, the fourth movement fast again. Symphony No. 25 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is an example of music in this form.
Programmatic music tells a story. There are symphonies that tell a story or have a story behind them. Good examples of this would be the Symphonie Fantastique by Hector Berlioz or Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6, famously used in Disney’s Fantasia. Larger symphony works with a story are often called tone poems. These will have a title or text that informs the listener. For example, Richard Strauss composed a tone poem called “A Hero’s Life”.
The Four Seasons by Vivaldi is a programmatic work. There are words associated with each of the four violin concertos describing the weather and the musical scene. Vivaldi wrote sonnets to describe each Concerto. The music describes the weather of each season and the human feelings associated with these changes. Concertos are normally in three movements; fast-slow-fast. Spring is generally a positive feeling; “Spring has arrived merrily”, happy bird songs, murmuring springs, flowery meadows, the goatherd sleeps as the dog barks, thunder and lightning proclaim. Summer is a hot one; “inflamed by the sun” man and flock languish, flies and wasps swarm and irritate, lighting and fierce thunder bring hailstones. Autumn “The peasant celebrates in dance and song”; liquor and slumber are enjoyed, a hunt begins at dawn, guns and dogs are heard, the beast is wounded and dies. Winter “To Shiver, frozen, amid icy snows”; harsh wind, teeth chattering, fear of failing on the ice, the ice cracks, and breaks.