The Classical Symphony

An abstract image called "symphony of lights" composed of hundreds of tiny bands of brightly colored lights against a black backdrop.

Format of the Classical Symphony

  1. Allegro in sonata-allegro form, sometimes preceded by a slow introduction
  2. A slow movement in A-B-A or theme and variations form
  3. Menuet and trio in triple meter
  4. Finale, a vivacious allegro molto or presto in rondo or sonata-allegro form

History and Development of the Classical Symphony

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Beethoven elevated the symphony from an everyday genre produced in large quantities to a supreme form in which composers strove to reach the highest potential of music in just a few works. Beethoven began with two works directly emulating his models Mozart and Haydn, then seven more symphonies, starting with the Third Symphony (“Eroica”) that expanded the scope and ambition of the genre. His Symphony No. 5 is perhaps the most famous symphony ever written; its transition from the emotionally stormy C minor opening movement to a triumphant major-key finale provided a model adopted by later symphonists such as Brahms and Mahler. His Symphony No. 6 is a programmatic work, featuring instrumental imitations of bird calls and a storm, and a convention-defying fifth movement. His Symphony No. 9 takes the step unprecedented since the early baroque era of including parts for vocal soloists and choir in the last movement, making it a choral symphony.

Of the symphonies of Franz Schubert, two are core repertory items and are frequently performed. Of the Eighth Symphony (1822), Schubert completed only the first two movements; this highly romantic work is usually called by its nickname “The Unfinished.” His last completed symphony, the Ninth (1826) is a massive work in the classical idiom.

Of the early romantics, Felix Mendelssohn (five symphonies) and Robert Schumann (four) continued to write symphonies in the classical mold, though using their own musical language. In contrast, Hector Berlioz favored programmatic works, including his “dramatic symphony” Roméo et Juliette and the highly original Symphonie fantastique. The latter is also a programme work and has both a march and a waltz and five movements instead of the customary four. His fourth and last symphony, the Grande symphonie funèbre et triomphale (originally titled Symphonie militaire) was composed in 1840 for a 200-piece marching military band, to be performed out of doors, and is an early example of a band symphony. Berlioz later added optional string parts and a choral finale. In 1851, Richard Wagnerdeclared that all of these post-Beethoven symphonies were no more than an epilogue, offering nothing substantially new. Indeed, after Schumann’s last symphony, the “Rhenish” composed in 1850, for two decades the Lisztian symphonic poem appeared to have displaced the symphony as the leading form of large-scale instrumental music. If the symphony had been eclipsed, it was not long before it re-emerged in a “second age” in the 1870s and 1880s, with the symphonies of Anton Bruckner, Johannes Brahms, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Alexander Borodin, Antonín Dvořák, and César Franck—works which continued to dominate the concert repertory for at least a century.

Over the course of the nineteenth century, composers continued to add to the size of the symphonic orchestra. Around the beginning of the century, a full-scale orchestra would consist of the string section plus pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, trumpets, and lastly a set of timpani. This is, for instance, the scoring used in Beethoven’s symphonies numbered 1, 2, 4, 7, and 8 (instrumentation of Beethoven symphonies taken from the chapter headings for each symphony in Hopkins 1981). Trombones, which had previously been confined to church and theater music, came to be added to the symphonic orchestra, notably in Beethoven’s 5th, 6th, and 9th symphonies. The combination of bass drum, triangle, and cymbals (sometimes also: piccolo), which eighteenth century composers employed as a coloristic effect in so-called “Turkish music,” came to be increasingly used during the second half of the nineteenth century without any such connotations of genre. By the time of Mahler, it was possible for a composer to write a symphony scored for “a veritable compendium of orchestral instruments.”  In addition to increasing in variety of instruments, nineteenth-century symphonies were gradually augmented with more string players and more wind parts, so that that the orchestra grew substantially in sheer numbers, as concert halls likewise grew.

Listen: Mozart’s Symphony No. 34 in C

Listen to the Saint Paul Orchestra play Mozart’s Symphony No. 34 in C.

A copy of the score can be viewed here.

The symphony features the fanfares and flourishes typical of the “festive symphony” or “trumpet symphony,” which is characteristic of Austrian symphonic writing in C major. This is the first of Mozart’s C-major symphonies to exhibit this character, but the style would be revisited in his subsequent two works in this key, the 36th and 41st symphonies.

The first movement is written in sonata form but also contains many styles and formal aspects of an Italian overture. There is no expositional repeat. The expositional coda contains an overture-like crescendo which is not included in the recapitulation. The development is based entirely on new material. The recapitulation on the exposition’s first theme is abbreviated and interrupted by a brief development of that theme. Finally, the movement’s coda contains nearly all of this first theme creating the appearance of a reverse-recapitulation common in Italian overtures.