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What Is a Choral Symphony?

By John Markley
Updated May 23, 2024
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In music, a choral symphony is an extended composition written for a choir and orchestra. Solo singers may be utilized as well. The singer's voices can play as important a role as the instruments in some or all movements of the symphony. These symphonies are frequently dramatic or narrative in nature, often taking the text used by the singers from drama, poetry, or other literature. They are distinguished from other forms of music where vocalists feature prominently, such as operas and oratorios, by the fact that their structure is like that of a conventional symphony, with the complete work divided into movements.

The first major example of choral symphonic music is the choral finale of the fourth movement of Ludwig van Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, which uses the words from Friedrich Schiller's poem “Ode to Joy.” This part makes up only a small part of the complete work, but would serve as an inspiration to later composers. The first known person to use the term “choral symphony” was the French composer Hector Berlioz, who used it to describe his composition "Roméo et Juliette" in 1858. Other important choral symphony composers include Felix Mendelssohn and Franz Liszt in the 19th century and Sergei Rachmaninoff, Gustav Mahler, and Ralph Vaughan Williams in the 20th.

In some cases, a choral symphony is composed with a specific text already in mind, often using the emotions evoked by the music to complement the words, while in other cases the music is written first and the text added later. Many works of literature have been used as texts for choral symphonies. Examples include the poems of Walt Whitman in Ralph Vaughan Williams' "A Sea Symphony," Edgar Allan Poe's “The Bells” in the symphony of the same name by Sergei Rachmaninoff, and the Book of Psalms from the Bible in “Symphony of Psalms” by Igor Stravinsky.

Choral symphonies that take their text from an outside source do not necessarily mimic the form of the original exactly. Depending on what is necessary to fit the music or the particular themes and ideas the composer wishes to emphasize, parts of the original text may be sung out of their original order, repeated, omitted, or added to. Some choral symphonies, such as Ralph Vaughanan Williams' "Sinfonia Antartica," are not based on any text at all and use wordless choral music to evoke particular emotions or a certain atmosphere.

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