Welcome to the next exciting installment of "A Guide to Attending the Symphony or Opera!" The first part, which can be found here, covered the basic guidelines one should follow when attending one of these events. This part will go over the musical forms one is likely to hear when attending a symphonic performance. Believe it or not, when you go to the symphony you aren't necessarily going to hear a symphony! But if your knowledge of classical music is minimal, there is no need to worry about this. I'll walk you through the five most common musical forms performed by today's symphony orchestras.
1. The Symphony - This is the obvious one. Wikipedia defines a symphony as "an extended musical composition in Western classical music, scored almost always for orchestra." Most symphonies are in multiple movements, or parts, with four movements being the "standard" organization. Typically, there are thematic elements that run through the entire symphony. These musical themes can be very apparent or they can be subtle and picked up only after repeated listenings. This is why, as I recommend in Part I, it is valuable to listen to a recording of the piece you're going to hear. It is truly exhilarating when you first pick up on a theme in a piece of music. You then begin to hear the piece as a whole, how each element relates to all the others, rather than as a series of nice-sounding notes. As also mentioned in Part I, do not applaud until the entire symphony is over. There will usually be breaks between each movement so if you are unsure, wait for the majority of the audience to clap, not just a few scattered clappers. A warning: some symphonies will try to trick you. There can be more (or fewer) than four movements, one movement can lead to the next attacca (meaning without pause; see the last two movements of Beethoven's 5th Symphony) or the movements may be atypically arranged. Tchaikovsky's 6th Symphony is a superb example. It has a rousing third movement which leads many to believe it is the finale. However, there is a fourth movement, a beautiful and mournful adagio. If there is raucous applause after the third movement, the solemnity of the fourth movement can be affected.
2. The Concerto - Symphonies and concertos are the most common musical forms you will encounter when going to see a live performance. Wikipedia defines a concerto as "a musical work usually composed in three parts or movements, in which (usually) one solo instrument (for instance, a piano, violin, cello or flute) is accompanied by an orchestra." So, very simply, it is like a symphony but with a soloist playing a virtuoso part along with the orchestra. As mentioned it is usually in three movements, typically arranged fast-slow-fast. The solo instrument can be anything but you will most commonly encounters violin concertos, cello concertos and piano concertos because they are the most popular. One of my favorite concertos is actually a guitar concerto by Joaquin Rodrigo called "Concierto de Aranjuez." The second movement, the adagio, is often heard in movies, TV shows and commercials. Miles Davis brilliantly interpreted the movement for trumpet on his Sketches of Spain album.
3. Choral Music - Sometimes a symphony orchestra will pair with a choral group to present choral music which can be a nice change of pace. Some choral works include soloists singing certain parts of the work. Choral music forms some of the most beautiful and uplifting music in the Western canon, particularly the cantatas by Bach. And, of course, one of the most spectacular choral works is Mozart's Requiem. It is even more moving when one considers that it is the last piece of music he ever worked on. Beethoven's 9th Symphony is both a symphony and a choral work, with the chorus entering during the last movement to sing Schiller's inspiring words.
4. Chamber Music - It is not too common for a symphony orchestra to perform chamber music and there is a very good reason for this. Chamber music gets it's name from the fact that these works were meant to be played in a chamber, or room, of a house. So, what is chamber music? Most pieces of chamber music are called trios, quartets, quintets, septets, octets, etc. It depends on how many instruments are used to play the piece with the configurations of instruments varying wildly. However, the most common form of chamber music you will hear is the string quartet, consisting of two violins, a viola and a cello. As mentioned, symphony orchestras do not often put on programs of chamber music but in any large city there will be groups of chamber musicians or organizations that put on performances. Again, most chamber music is in several movements (four movements are typical for string quartets). This is also a nice change of pace from orchestral music because one gets to hear each player individually as well as in combination with only a few other instruments. The harmonies that can be produced by a string quartet border on the divine. Also, if you want to prepare a quiet, romantic dinner at home, chamber music is an ideal choice for the stereo.
5. Lieder or Songs - This is another rare treat, especially if you like vocal music. A song can be sung by one or more soloists and can be accompanied by just a solo piano or a full orchestra. Often, songs will be arranged in cycles by a composer, with each song telling part of a larger story or following a common theme. Some famous song cycles include Schubert's Die schöne Müllerin (The Lovely Miller Maid) and Mahler's moving Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children). If a symphony orchestra performs a program that includes songs, it will often only be part of the program, say the first half, with the second half devoted to orchestral music.
I hope this post has encouraged you to get out and support your local symphony! I am by far an expert on classical music, I am merely an enthusiast. However, if there are any questions you may have feel free to ask them in the comments section. I also welcome corrections to anything I have written here. Part III, coming at some undisclosed future date, will focus exclusively on opera.
A Guide to Attending the Symphony or Opera, Part I