Instrumental Genres


Symphonies are multi-movement works for orchestra that first became important in the 18th century, the time of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Joseph Haydn. Haydn wrote more than 100 symphonies, and Mozart wrote about 40 symphonies in his short life (he died at age 35). By the time Ludwig van Beethoven was writing symphonies the genre was seen as the pinnacle of music, much like an epic poem is considered the most grand and complex genre of poetry. Beethoven's symphonies were much longer and more elaborate than those of his predecessors, which is part of the reason that Beethoven wrote only nine of them.

Symphony: Ludwig van Beethoven's 5th Symphony (Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67)

Symphonies typically have four movements, and the first is often in sonata form. However, there are many variations on this basic structure. Hector Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique is a five-movement work for a large orchestra that tells the story of "various episodes in the life of an artist." When music is designed to tell a story (without the aid of actors on a stage, as in opera) it is called program music, making Symphonie fantastique a program symphony.

Program Symphony: Hector Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique


The concerto emerged in the 17th century. The genre features a soloist or small solo group that is accompanied by an orchestra. Concertos provide an opportunity to display the abilities of a virtuosic soloist. Below is an example of a violin concerto by Antonio Vivaldi, who wrote more than 500 such concertos in his lifetime.

Violin Concerto: "Winter" from Vivaldi's Four Seasons Violin Concertos (Concerto No. 4 in F minor, Op. 8, RV 297)

One of the most famous concertos of all time is Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, a piano concerto inspired the the jazz of the 1920s. Concertos traditionally have three movements, but a rhapsody is typically a single movement piece that flows freely between contrasting themes and moods, almost as if it were improvised. Thus, the rhapsody concerto is a sub-genre of the concerto.

Piano Rhapsody Concerto: Rhapsody in Blue by George Gershwin


A suite is a series of instrumental pieces played together as a set. One type of suite is a set of stylized dances (sometimes called a suite de dances or Baroque suite). Although they were originally used to accompany actual dancing, over time the pieces changed and became better suited to listening than to dancing. As you listen to a movement from J.S. Bach's Cello Suite No. 6, notice that it does not have a heavy beat or regular rhythms that you would expect to find in music designed for dancing.

Suite Movement: Sarabande from Cello Suite No. 6 by J.S. Bach

Another type of suite is a collection of pieces drawn from an opera, ballet, or other large-scale work. For example, there are two suites drawn from Georges Bizet's opera Carmen (arranged by Ernest Guiraud), Tchaikovsky selected eight dances from his ballet The Nutcracker to be performed as a suite, and Edvard Grieg made two suites out of the incidental music he composed for the play Peer Gynt. As in the case of Peer Gynt, often suites of this kind are more well-known than the original works from which they were drawn.

Suites: Peer Gynt Suites Nos. 1 & 2 by Edvard Grieg

"Music is nothing else but wild sounds civilized into time and tune." - Thomas Fuller

"After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music." - Aldous Huxley

"Music in the soul can be heard by the universe." - Lao Tzu

"Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy." - Ludwig van Beethoven

"Music is the movement of sound to reach the soul for the education of its virtue." - Plato

"Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent." - Victor Hugo

"Music is nothing else but wild sounds civilized into time and tune." - Thomas Fuller

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