KUSC’s Alan Chapman has a lot to say about music, but can he say it in 60 seconds? That’s the Chapman Challenge. We ask a question and Alan has a minute to answer it.
Today’s question is: Why do symphonies have movements?
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First let’s go back to the early 18th century. Italian opera composers would begin their operas with an instrumental piece in three parts: a fast section – a slow section – and another fast one. We’d call it an overture. They called it a sinfonia, which happens to be the Italian word for symphony.
And if you separate those parts, you have the basis for the movements of a symphony, which retains that contrast of tempos and that attractive symmetry: fast-slow-fast.
But wait! You’re probably more accustomed to symphonies with four movements. That’s because Viennese composers of the Classical period had an affection for a dance from 17th century France, the minuet. So a Viennese classical symphony has a minuet placed between the slow movement and the concluding fast movement. Beethoven would crank up the tempo of the minuet and rename it “scherzo,” the Italian word for joke or jest.
There have been departures, but these Italian and Viennese models account for the vast majority of symphonies.
That’s today’s Chapman Challenge. Is there a question you’d like to have answered in 60 seconds? Send it to us at [email protected].