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(a very good musicology question suggested by BenV, from the definition phase of the "Classical Music" area51 proposal).

Beethoven's ninth Symphony (opus 125) is one of the most well-known works of classical music. His last movement uses a choir together with the orchestra.

It is usually considered the first "choral" symphony. Are there no other examples or forerunners of this idea before 1824?

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Ah, I finally get to see the answer to my question :) – BenV May 3 '11 at 19:33
@BenV: Welcome! Hope you don't mind my impersonation. – ogerard May 3 '11 at 19:37
Not at all! I'm just a little upset that somehow I didn't commit to this proposal and missed out on the private beta. Glad to see it's up and running though! – BenV May 3 '11 at 19:39

4 Answers 4

up vote 6 down vote accepted

Beethoven's own "Choral Fantasy" came before the Ninth Symphony. It's a weird (and wonderful) piece composed for a particular occasion (actually composed to fill out a concert that was already far too long).

The piano starts it as a solo and plays an improvisatory cadenza that's three or four minutes long. Then the orchestra quietly starts in, builds up in volume, and plays a tune that sounds very much like the Ninth Symphony theme, followed by variations. Finally the chorus enters for a big finish.

That was in 1808. In 1820 composer / pianist Daniel Steibelt wrote and performed a piano concerto with a choral finale, still a few years before Beethoven's Ninth.

In short, a lot of strange things were going on around the turn of the century. The word "symphony" itself changed its meaning from a generic piece for many instruments (like the "Pastoral Symphony" in Handel's "Messiah") to a specific form. In Handel's day, calling a piece a "choral symphony" would be like calling it a "piece for instruments and no singers with singers". For centuries there have been pieces for chorus accompanied by orchestra, but we may never know who was the first to write a piece for orchestra accompanied by chorus.

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Thanks a lot for this clear perspective on the symphony form. I think it essentially answers the part of the question that can be answered. It also gives me the desire to hear the Choral Fantasy. Any advice for a recording? – ogerard May 3 '11 at 4:16
Find one done by a pianist you like and you can't go wrong. – Mark Lutton May 31 '11 at 0:13

I have to say no.

As you said, Beethoven's 9th symphony was the first choral symphony but it was not the first piece to combine chorus and orchestra.

There were already pieces from the Baroque that combined them, as the same definition of cantata says:

  • Cantata: A sung piece, or choral work with or without vocal soloists, usually with orchestral accompaniment.
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And you could have added the Missa (like the Missa Solemnis), Oratorio and Motet forms. But I would appreciate a scholarly reference about this premiere. – ogerard Apr 30 '11 at 8:27
And you forgot the great of them all: opera! Opera has existed since the 16th century, so point in case. – Noldorin May 3 '11 at 19:56

Wikipedia, following the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, reports correctly that there was a choral symphony published by a now obscure composer, Peter von Winter, in 1814, ten years before Beethoven's 9th. It is called the Schlachtsymphonie or "battle symphony."

Beethoven also introduced a chorus at the very end of his Fantasy for Piano, Chorus, and Orchestra, written in 1808.

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Let's make a distinction here. A symphony is a composition in a specific type of musical form written for an orchestra, which is a type of musical ensemble.

To state it simply, a symphony is a very specific type of long song, whereas an orchestra is a type of band.

There are many kinds of musical pieces written to be played by orchestras that are not symphonies. These include concertos, sonatas, suites, oratorios, and cantatas.

These days the term symphony is used incorrectly to describe an orchestra. People say "I'm going to see the Atlanta Symphony" when what they mean is "I'm going to see the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra". The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra is an orchestra that plays symphonies, as opposed to an orchestra that plays ballets or an orchestra that plays operas or an orchestra that plays oratorios or cantatas.

Calling an orchestra a "symphony" is a modern mistake, something that's appeared in the last thirty years or so.

Here's my point: Yes, Beethoven's Ninth is, basically, the first symphony to feature a chorus.

There are many pieces going back centuries before Beethoven that feature an orchestra and a chorus, but those musical works are not symphonies. They are oratorios, or operas, or ballets, or other forms. Bach's B-minor Mass features a chorus and an orchestra, but Bach's B-minor Mass is not a symphony, it is a Mass. Handel's Messiah features a chorus and an orchestra, but Handel's Messiah is not a symphony, it is an oratorio. Beethoven's Choral Fantasy is not a symphony.

And by way of establishing my credentials, I'm the volunteer business administrator for the Atlanta Baroque Orchestra, which has been performing for fifteen years. They are an orchestra, but they only rarely play symphonies. They more often play concertos, suites, cantatas, and other forms.

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You might be correct that there are no symphonies before Beethoven's Ninth that feature a chorus, but the question was about forerunners of this idea, which strictly speaking does not have to be symphony, but a musical piece for orchestra that inroduces some choral elements. You say that Choral Fantasy is not a symphony - what genre is it? – awe Aug 16 '11 at 7:51
"Fantasy", "Fantasia", "Tocatta", and in later times, "Tone Poem" are catch-all terms for a piece that does not have a clearly defined structure or genre and does not fit into a nice, neat category. – Wheat Williams Aug 16 '11 at 15:15
While the definition of the term "symphony" evolved over time, it refers to a piece with a certain agreed-upon musical structure, both within individual movements and describing the relationship of one movement to the next. So "symphony" refers to the structure of the music and the chord progressions, not to the instrumentation, per se. Widor wrote some symphonies for solo organ and no orchestra at all, for instance. – Wheat Williams Aug 16 '11 at 15:15
If you want to learn about what characterizes a symphony, this comes under the area of music theory called form and analysis, and there are lots of books on that subject. – Wheat Williams Aug 16 '11 at 15:20

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