9 Classical Period: The Symphony

Learning Objectives

  • Explain how public concerts contributed to the development of the genre of the symphony.
  • Identify the essential features of the symphony that appealed to eighteenth-century audiences.
  • Analyze symphonies by Joseph Boulogne and Joseph Haydn.
  • Summarize the sonata form procedure and explain how the individual sections (exposition, development, recapitulation) relate to the whole.
  • Compare and contrast sonata form symphonic movements by Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven.
  • Identify other instrumental genres popularized during the Classical Period.

Original content by Francis Scully

Listening to Entertainment

The Birth of Public Concerts in the Classical Period and the Birth of the Symphony

As you can hear, by pursuing the goals of natural simplicity, pleasing variety, and clarity, classical composers were making a conscious effort to make their music accessible and entertaining for a wide audience of listeners. While these composers may have been responding to Enlightenment ideals about the “pursuit of happiness,” they also had a financial incentive.

In the mid- to late 1700s, an important social shift was happening in Europe that had a direct impact on concert life during the Classical Period. During this era, the economic middle class began to expand. They had more education and more disposable income. Composers and musical entrepreneurs began to form concert societies to put on public concerts. This may seem hard for us to imagine now, but in the 1700s, the idea of a “public” concert—that is, a concert that was open to anyone who had the money to buy a ticket—was a new thing.

Many intrepid composers, including Beethoven and Mozart, helped to organize these concerts and they made money from the ticket sales. These concerts featured a variety of musical genres, but instrumental music was a big draw. If a composer hoped to make money from concert ticket sales, they needed a piece of music that would impress and excite the audience. A new genre emerges during the classical period that will serve this purpose. This key new genre written for these public concerts was the symphony. A symphony is a large, multi-movement composition for orchestra, often in four movements (definition from Clark, et al. Understanding Music, p. 308).

We’ll listen to some symphonies, but let’s first look at some of the characteristics of the symphony that make it appeal to the ticket-buying public. A symphony is a big piece in several ways. Though it’s divided into separate parts (usually, four individual movements), a typical Classical Period symphony can last between 25 and 35 minutes.

Symphonies also use a full orchestra (sometimes called a “symphony orchestra,” because it’s an orchestra that plays symphonies), which can feature forty musicians and up to many more. Before the days of microphones and amplification, the way to make a big sound was to have more musicians. Even today, there’s something incredibly impressive about seeing a stage packed with musicians compared to, say, a three-piece ensemble. The advantage of this large orchestra of course is that it offers variety. Variety in soft to loud dynamics and variety in tone and color.

Dividing one large piece into several smaller sections called movements also offers listeners variety in tempo and moods.

The typical movement scheme of a classical symphony looks something like this:

  • 1st movement: Fast tempo, though sometimes first movements may feature a short, slow introduction. This is generally the longest and most substantial movement of the four.
  • 2nd movement: Slow tempo, with serene emotional character.
  • 3rd movement: Minuet, which is a traditional court dance in triple meter.
  • 4th movement: Fast and lighter, a kind of playful sorbet after the main musical meal.

It should be noted that the best symphonies of the Classical Period were not just mindless entertainment music. These pieces balanced technical sophistication, which would appeal to a middle-class audience that fancied itself educated and cultivated, but with all of the pleasure that comes from the excitement, variety, and tunefulness that Classical Period composers could provide. (We all watch “mindless” entertainment TV from time to time, but the best shows and movies are the ones that entertain us while also making us think, challenging us, and providing opportunities for us to reflect on our lives.)

We’ll hear two symphonies from Classical Period composers to get a feel for how the genre works.

Joseph Boulogne (1745-1799)

Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint Georges
Figure 9.1: Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint Georges, 1789 | Artists: D’après Mather Brown (1761–1831) & William Ward (1766–1826) | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: Public Domain

Boulogne Biography

One of the important figures in presenting and performing public concerts in the French capital of Paris in the early part of the classical period was the composer and violinist Joseph Boulogne. Born in the French colony of Guadeloupe as the illegitimate son of a French plantation owner and enslaved African, Boulogne was of mixed-race ancestry. He was brought to Paris by his father, educated, and trained in the arts of fencing and music. While he was barred from certain professional appointments due to the prevailing racism of the time, Boulogne’s talent as a violin virtuoso led to some important positions. He became the first violinist and conductor of the Concert de La Loge Olympique, an orchestra that performed many important public concerts (including the premieres of several symphonies by Haydn). He was also music tutor to Marie Antoinette, queen of France. As leader of an orchestra, he composed several symphonies as well as violin concertos for himself to perform as soloists. He was one of the great violin virtuosos of his era.

Symphony No. 1 by Joseph Boulogne (1779)

We’ll listen to Boulogne’s Symphony no. 1 (1779). Unlike most later symphonies, this piece is in three movements, fast-slow-fast. As you listen, see if you can notice some of the hallmarks of classical-period style: the simplicity and clarity of the melodic ideas, the pleasing variety (contrasts between loud and soft), and the clarity of the form and texture.

Video 9.1: Symphony No. 1 in G Major, Op. 11 by Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint Georges:

1st movement (0:00-4:45): Just notice the contrasts between soft and loud and the different rhythms of the themes. For example, the very beginning of the piece contrasts right away with a forceful loud chord in the orchestra followed by a little tip-toeing tune in the violins. Later in the piece (around 0:39 in this recording), there’s a more lyrical, song-like melody which contrasts strongly with the opening melody.

2nd movement (4:46-10:46): This movement features a sweet and peaceful melody. It’s relaxing. At 5:58, you hear an example of clear-cut section endings. The music clearly indicates that the section comes to an end.

3rd movement (10:47-14:39): An exuberant closer. The melodies are almost folk-like, even simpler than in the first movement.

Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)

Joseph Haydn
Figure 9.2: Joseph Haydn, 1791 | Artist: Thomas Hardy | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: Public Domain

Joseph Haydn (pronounced like “Hi-din” not “HEY-din”) is generally considered the “father of the symphony,” not because he invented the genre, but because he wrote so many of them (at least 104!) and his symphonies were by far the most popular symphonies around Europe in the late eighteenth century. We’ll listen to his Symphony no. 99, which is part of a collection of twelve symphonies that Haydn wrote especially for a series of public concerts in London, England.

Haydn Biography

Haydn did not come from a musical family, but because of his beautiful voice, he was sent to Vienna to be a choir boy at St. Stephen’s Cathedral.

He was employed for most of his musical career under the patronage of Prince Paul Anton Esterhazy, who was a passionate music lover. For 30 years, Haydn oversaw all musical activities at this court. Haydn wrote music for the prince’s chapel, private opera house, orchestral performances, and Marionette Theater, and administrated musical activities. His compositional output is astounding and includes 104 symphonies, 83 string quartets, numerous sonatas, and over 20 operas.

Characteristics of Haydn’s music: compositional ingenuity, humor, and wit.

Key works: 104 symphonies (“Father of the Symphony”), 2 oratorios (The Creation and The Seasons), tons of chamber music, 6 masses, trumpet concerto, and 20 operas.

Haydn’s Symphony No. 99 in E-flat Major (1793)

I’ll make a couple of observations about the piece and its individual movements and then you can listen to the whole thing.

1st movement Adagio-Vivace Assai (0:00-9:02): This symphony begins with a grandiose, slow introduction (Adagio) before it launches into the main part of the piece, which begins at 2:13. This movement has two main themes.

Audio Ex. 9.1: The 1st theme sounds like this:

Audio Ex. 9.2: The 2nd theme sounds like this:

Listening Guide

As you listen to the entire work, note the following.

At about 6:00, Haydn begins to “develop” those themes. You’ll recognize the tunes you’ve already heard, but Haydn will mess around with them. Then at about 7:20, you’ll hear a decisive return to the first theme that we heard at 2:13.

2nd movement Adagio (9:05-16:58): The movement opens with a tender, graceful melody. But don’t be fooled by this. It’s not “all one mood.” At 13:51, there’s a turbulent outburst section, but then the music finds a way to return to the initial theme. Notice also lots of wonderful solo moments for the woodwinds and occasional “conversations” between woodwinds and strings.

3rd movement, Minuet, Allegretto (17:00-21:12): A nice light “dance” movement. Notice the simplicity and clarity of the melody—two measures soft, then two measures loud.

4th movement Vivace (21:13-25:37): A rollicking, fast movement to send audiences into the night with a smile on their faces. We hear one simple, tuneful theme, but pay attention to how Haydn “develops” this theme. You’ll hear the rhythms of this theme all over the rest of the movement even when you don’t hear the full-blown theme in its original state.

Video 9.2: Haydn’s Symphony No. 99 in E-flat Major

The Symphony and Sonata Form

In the classical period, the first movement of a symphony (or string quartet or piano sonata) is generally the most dramatic and longest (duration) movement. This was true of both the Boulogne and the Haydn symphonies we heard. The form of the first movement of a classical symphony is almost always sonata form. Sonata form is an ingenious way of organizing musical material that developed in the Classical Period. Remember that in the Classical Period, reason, balance, and clarity were of utmost importance, so it makes sense that this brilliant way of presenting musical ideas would come out of this time period.

One of the amazing breakthroughs of sonata form is that it is going to allow composers to present contrasting emotions—that is, to present more than one emotion—within one movement. This is a bit of an unusual twist compared to a lot of the popular music that we listen to. A typical popular song usually sets one predominant mood or emotional character, and that mood persists throughout the 3-4 minutes of the song. With a piece of music in sonata form, the music may start with a certain mood, but it almost invariably changes mood along the way.

In summary, the sonata form (1) was an effective way of clearly organizing musical material and (2) provided a way for composers to present two or more contrasting emotions within one movement.

Sonata Form

Sonata form has three large sections, and it is not unlike an ABA’ form, where the return of the A section is slightly altered. But sonata form differs from ABA’ in important ways, so we actually have formal names for each of the three parts: Exposition, Development, and Recapitulation.

Sonata form is really where we first encounter the concept of theme. Remember, from our fundamentals discussion of melody—the key idea behind composers’ use of theme is that they can be repeated and developed.

What distinguishes sonata form is the way it allows for the juxtaposition of different themes. Sonata form is also a dynamic form because tonality plays an important role in the movement. For example, a piece may begin in the key of D major, but at some point it will probably change to the key of A major. This can be difficult for the trained or untrained listener to hear, but it’s an important part of how sonata form functions, and surely we feel the change even if it’s not on the conscious level.

Part I: Exposition

In the exposition, a composer presents (“exposes”) all of the important musical material in the piece. By musical material, I mean the important themes. The exposition is played through and often repeated (that is, the musicians get to the end of the exposition and flip the page back and play the entire section again).

The first theme is presented in the original, or home key (e.g., if the symphony is in the key of g minor, the first theme will be in g minor). Keep in mind that theme can be a tune or even just a memorable motive. The first theme is established at the beginning and it is likely played twice. Here’s an example of the first theme from Mozart’s Symphony No. 40.

Audio Ex. 9.3: Mozart, Symphony No. 40 1st theme

Bridge/Transition—Then, there is a transitional section. The purpose of this music here is to change key.

When we get to the second theme group, we have fully arrived from the transition into a new key. For example, we started in G minor, and now the second theme will be in B-flat major. Now, you will hear a brand-new melodic idea and it will also have a new harmonic center. Probably also, the second theme will have a contrasting rhythmic quality from the first theme.

Here’s an example of the second theme from Mozart’s Symphony No. 40:

Audio Ex. 9.4: Mozart, Symphony No. 40, 2nd theme

Closing theme—The closing theme section is also in the same key of the second theme. This section serves to bring the exposition to a close and solidifies the key of the second theme group. In Mozart’s Symphony No. 40, the closing theme is also in B-flat major. Very often, the closing theme is made up of material from the first theme. In the Symphony No. 40 by Mozart, we hear the short two-note motive from the 1st theme repeated in the closing theme. Here’s the two-note motive (played twice) that you’ll hear throughout the movement:

Audio Ex. 9.5: Mozart, Symphony No. 40, two-note motive

Part II: Development

In the development, musical material that was presented in the exposition is now “developed.” You will recognize the basic shapes of the original themes, but they will sound different because a composer will break them apart, put the themes in different instruments, and combine themes with another melody in polyphonic texture, which creates a sense of conflict and drama. The composer might also transform a theme by rearranging some of the notes or by adding new notes to a part of a theme.

Notice, we aren’t likely to hear anything completely new, just the composer playing around with music that we’ve already heard in the exposition. We arrive at the development in the key of the second theme, but we will likely change keys several times within the development section. The point of the development section is to create a dramatic sense of conflict. The development eventually transitions back to ORIGINAL key for the…

Part III: Recapitulation

The recapitulation, sometimes called “recap” for short, is like a repeat of the exposition, but with one important difference—all of the music now is in the original key. That is, the recapitulation doesn’t change key like the exposition.

The first theme is back in the original key just like we heard at the beginning of the piece.

The bridge/transition does not modulate (change key). The music for the transition section has to be altered because recall that in the exposition, this music helped to change key, but we don’t want to change key in the recap.

The second theme group is in the tonic (original) key.

The closing theme is also in the tonic key.

Part IV (Optional): Coda

The coda is an optional, post-mortem wrap-up to help bring a close to the whole piece.

Let’s hear the first movement of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 again, now following Mozart’s use of the sonata form.

Video 9.3: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart—Symphony No. 40 in G Minor (1788)—1st Movement

Listening Chart (timings in brackets refer to the above linked recording):


[0:07–0:34] 1st Theme. The theme is heard once in its entirety. Then it is repeated and segues directly into the…

[0:35–0:51] Transition. The music changes key from G minor to the key of Bb Major. The music of the transition comes to a complete stop (classical composers want it to be easy to follow the form).

[0:52–1:24] 2nd Theme. After the transition comes to a complete stop, we hear the lyrical and softer 2nd theme in B-flat major. Listen to how Mozart divides parts of the melody between strings and woodwind instruments (variety).

[1:52–1:55] Closing Theme. Listen to the woodwinds echoing the strings. You can hear the 2-note motive from the 1st theme in the woodwinds. Repeated cadences at the end of this section make it very clear that the exposition is coming to a close.

The entire exposition now is repeated [1:56–3:46]. In the repeat, try to identify the different sections of the exposition on your own.

Development [3:47–4:56]:

Here Mozart is going to develop his musical material. Hear how Mozart varies the music in these different sections of the development.

[3:47–3:59] Presentation of 1st theme in descending sequence changing keys—piano dynamic (soft)

[4:00–4:24] Polyphonic exploration of 1st theme. An “outburst” in forte dynamic (loud).

[4:25–4:39] Tradeoff of 1st theme motive between strings and woodwinds—piano dynamic

[4:40–4:47] Tradeoff between high and low strings—forte

[4:48–4:55] Melodic line in the woodwinds which descends in pitch re-transitions seamlessly back to the…


[4:57–5:26] 1st Theme (as in exposition). We are back in the home key of G minor now.

[5:28–6:01] Transition. This section is considerably longer than the analogous section in the exposition. Mozart has to do some harmonic twists and turns this time to not change key as he does in the exposition.

[6:03–6:41] 2nd Theme. Now the 2nd theme in the recap is also in G minor.

[6:42–7:10] Closing Theme. The closing theme in the recap is also in the original home key (G minor).

[7:11–end(7:27)] Coda. This movement features the short, optional section that helps to bring the movement to a close.

As an exercise, use the progress bar in the player to find the 2nd theme in the exposition at 0:52, then compare it with the 2nd theme in the recapitulation at 6:03. Do you hear that the same music in the recap is lower-pitched and in a minor key?

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

Close up of Mozart
Figure 9.3: Mozart ca. 1780, detail from portrait | Artist: Johann Nepomuk della Croce | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: Public Domain

Mozart Biography

 Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born in Salzburg, Austria (west of Vienna). His father, Leopold Mozart, was a court composer and musician for the Archbishop of Salzburg. Wolfgang and sister Nannerl were child prodigy musicians and were taken all over Europe and put on display to perform. Mozart wrote his first symphony when he was 8 years old. Later, he worked in the court of Salzburg, but he was unhappy in this position and he left this situation when he was 25 and moved to Vienna to become a freelance musician. He also moved to Vienna to escape his controlling father and marry Constanze Weber (against Leopold’s wishes). He made his living teaching and giving public concerts. He was underappreciated in his lifetime and had constant money troubles. He died (scholars are still uncertain of the cause) suddenly at age 35 and was buried in a communal pauper’s grave. At the time of his death, he was writing a Requiem mass, which he did not complete, commissioned by an anonymous patron.

Key Works: Several operatic masterpieces: Le Nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, Cosi Fan Tutte, The Magic Flute; 41 symphonies; 27 piano concertos; 5 violin concertos; string quartets; sonatas; several masses for church performance (including the uncompleted Requiem).

Now, let’s hear how Joseph Haydn works in the sonata form.

Though Haydn was older than Mozart, he lived a good deal longer. He composed 104 symphonies and is considered the “father” of the symphony. His last twelve symphonies (Symphonies No. 93–104) were composed when he was a famous musician all around Europe and were written specifically for a series of public concerts in London, England. Consequently, these symphonies are known as the “London Symphonies.”

We listened to this symphony previously, but let’s hear it again and examine the sections of the sonata form first movement now that we have learned more about the form. This is a good time to point out that your understanding of this music will only improve with repeated listening.

Video 9.4: Haydn—Symphony No. 99 (1793), 1st movement

This piece has a slow introduction. The sonata form begins right when the fast section starts. We’ve already listened to this piece, but this is a different performance. The notes, rhythms, melodies, etc. are the same, of course, but you might notice that the performers in this video do certain things slightly differently.

1st Movement:

Introduction [0:01–1:39]


[1:40–2:02] 1st Theme.

[2:02–3:00] Transition. Notice again that the music comes to a complete stop before the 2nd theme. The music changes key.

[3:01–3:17] 2nd Theme. This theme is a little lighter than the 1st theme.

[3:17–3:32] Closing Theme.

[3:33–5:21] Full repeat of the exposition.

[5:24–6:41] Development

[6:42–end] Recapitulation. Notice that the recapitulation is considerably more condensed and compressed than the exposition. Haydn takes less time with the transition to the second theme, and there is no coda in this movement.

Other Instrumental Genres

With the classical period, we have solidified many of the main genres of instrumental music. All of the institutions—the opera house and the concert hall—are firmly in place.

Classical Period composers of course wrote plenty of pieces in the concerto genre. For example, Mozart wrote 27 piano concertos in his career. A piano concerto is of course a concerto for piano solo and orchestra.

Watch a few minutes of Mozart’s great Piano Concerto No. 20 in D Minor to get an idea of how a Classical Period concerto sounds. The basic idea, contrast between soloist and orchestra, is of course still the main feature.

Video 9.5: Mozart: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (D-Minor) K.466 (note that the video should play when clicking the play button)

So far we’ve looked at large instrumental genres, such as the concerto and the symphony, but it bears some mentioning that there’s so much great instrumental music written for smaller ensembles. Music that would be performed in a room (sometimes called a “chamber”) or smaller auditorium is known as chamber music.

Also, during the classical period, people didn’t have CD or mp3 players; they bought pianos and they played string quartets together. People sold sheet music. If you wanted to hear the “top 40” in 1785, you had to play it yourself.

Here are some important genres of chamber music:

A sonata is a piece for a single instrument or small group of instruments. The term is a very general term, which you recognize from the earlier discussion of sonata form. Sonata form refers to the form that a lot of movements in sonatas and symphonies use. You might come across piano sonatas (written for solo piano), violin and piano sonatas (violin and piano), cello sonatas (cello and piano), etc. Sonatas frequently have a solo instrument and keyboard or are for keyboard alone.

A string quartet is a piece for four string instruments: two violins, a viola, and a cello. It is a large-scale piece like the symphony, usually in four movements (fast sonata form, slow movement, minuet, fast 4th movement), but obviously it is more intimate and without the tone color possibilities of the orchestra.

Our three classical masters, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, all produced numerous masterworks for string quartet, solo piano sonatas, and piano trios (piano, cello, and violin).

Here’s a great example of the first movement of a string quartet by Joseph Haydn:

Video 9.6: Haydn Op. 20 No. 3—First Movement

It’s a fast movement in sonata form, but the experience of tone and color is different from the orchestra. It’s not as loud and varied in color, but it’s more intimate than a symphony.


Adapted from Understanding Music: Past and Present
By Jeffrey Klubal and Elizabeth Kramer,
Edited by Johnathan Kulp
Adapted & edited by Francis Scully

Portrait of Ludwig van Beethoven,
Figure 9.4: Portrait of Ludwig van Beethoven, 1820 | Artist: Joseph Karl Stieler | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: Public Domain

The Music of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Beethoven was born in Bonn in December of 1770. As you can see from the map at the beginning of this chapter, Bonn sat at the Western edge of the Germanic lands, on the Rhine River. Those in Bonn were well-acquainted with traditions of the Netherlands and of the French; they would be some of the first to hear of the revolutionary ideas coming out of France in the 1780s. The area was ruled by the Elector of Cologne. As the Kapellmeister for the Elector, Beethoven’s grandfather held the most important musical position in Bonn; he died when Beethoven was three years old. Beethoven’s father, Johann Beethoven, sang in the Electoral Chapel his entire life. While he may have provided his son with music lessons at an early stage of Ludwig’s life, it appears that Johann had given into alcoholism and depression, especially after the death of Maria Magdalena Keverich (Johann’s wife and Ludwig’s mother) in 1787.

Although hundreds of miles east of Vienna, the Electorate of Cologne was under the jurisdiction of the Austrian Habsburg empire that was ruled from this Eastern European city. The close ties between these lands made it convenient for the Elector, with the support of the music-loving Count Ferdinand Ernst Gabriel von Waldstein (1762-1823), to send Beethoven to Vienna to further his music training. Ferdinand was the youngest of an aristocratic family in Bonn. He greatly supported the arts and became a patron of Beethoven. Beethoven’s first stay in Vienna in 1787 was interrupted by the death of his mother. In 1792, he returned to Vienna for good.

Perhaps the most universally-known fact of Beethoven’s life is that he went deaf. You can read entire books on the topic; for our present purposes, the timing of his hearing loss is most important. It was at the end of the 1790s that Beethoven first recognized that he was losing his hearing. By 1801, he was writing about it to his most trusted friends. It is clear that the loss of his hearing was an existential crisis for Beethoven.

Something to Think About:

During the fall of 1802, Beethoven composed a letter to his brothers that included his last will and testament, a document that we’ve come to know as the “Heiligenstadt Testament,” named after the small town of Heiligenstadt, north of the Viennese city center, where he was staying. To view the Testament, visit Heiligenstadt Testament, which provides us insight into Beethoven’s heart and mind. Most striking is his statement that his ex­periences of social alienation, connected to his hearing loss, “drove me almost to despair, a lit­tle more of that and I would have ended my life—it was only my art that held me back.”

The idea that Beethoven found in art a reason to live suggests both his valuing of art and a certain self-awareness of what he had to offer music. Beethoven and his physicians tried various means to counter the hear­ing loss and improve his ability to function in society. By 1818, however, Beethoven was completely deaf.

Beethoven had a complex personality. Although he read the most profound phi­losophers of his day and was compelled by lofty philosophical ideals, his own writing was broken and his personal accounts show errors in basic math. He craved close human relationships yet had difficulty sustaining them. By 1810, he had secured a lifetime annuity from local noblemen, meaning that Beethoven never lacked for money. Still, his letters—as well as the accounts of contemporaries—suggest a man suspicious of others and preoccupied with the compensation he was receiving.

Overview of Beethoven’s Music

Upon arriving in Vienna in the early 1790s, Beethoven supported himself by playing piano at salons and by giving music lessons. Salons were gatherings of literary types, visual artists, musicians, and thinkers, often hosted by noblewomen for their friends. Here Beethoven both played music of his own composition and improvised upon musical themes given to him by those in attendance.

In April of 1800 Beethoven gave his first concert for his own benefit, held at the important Burgtheater. As typical for the time, the concert included a variety of types of music—vocal, orchestral, and even, in this case, chamber music. Many of the selections were by Haydn and Mozart, for Beethoven’s music from this period was profoundly influ­enced by these two composers.

Scholars have traditionally divided Beethoven’s composing into three chrono­logical periods: early, middle, and late. Like all efforts to categorize, this one pro­poses boundaries that are open to debate. Probably most controversial is the dat­ing of the end of the middle period and the beginning of the late period. Beethoven did not compose much music between 1814 and 1818, meaning that any division of those years would fall more on Beethoven’s life than on his music.

In general, the music of Beethoven’s first period (roughly until 1803) reflects the influence of Haydn and Mozart. Beethoven’s second period (1803-1814) is sometimes called his “heroic” period, based on his recovery from depression docu­mented in the “Heiligenstadt Testament” mentioned earlier. This period includes such music compositions as his Third Symphony, which Beethoven subtitled “Ero­ica” (that is, heroic), the Fifth Sym­phony, and Beethoven’s one opera, Fidelio, which took the French Revo­lution as its inspiration. Other works composed during this time include Symphonies No. 3 through No. 8 and famous piano works, such as the so­natas “Waldstein,” “Appassionata,” and “Lebewohl” and Concertos No. 4 and No. 5. He continued to write in­strumental chamber music, choral music, and songs into his heroic mid­dle period. In these works of his mid­dle period, Beethoven is often regarded as having come into his own because they display a new and original musical style. In comparison to the works of Haydn and Mozart and Beethoven’s earlier music, these longer compositions feature larger performing forces, thicker poly­phonic textures, more complex motivic relationships, more dissonance and de­layed resolution of dissonance, more syncopation and hemiola (hemiola is the momentary simultaneous sense of being in two meters at the same time), and more elaborate forms.

When Beethoven started composing again in 1818, his music was much more experimental. Some of his contemporaries believed that he had lost his ability to compose as he lost his hearing. The late piano sonatas, last five string quartets, monumental Missa Solemnis, and Symphony No. 9 in D minor (The Choral Sym­phony) are now perceived to be some of Beethoven’s most revolutionary compo­sitions, although they were not uniformly applauded during his lifetime. Beetho­ven’s late style was one of contrasts: extremely slow music next to extremely fast music and extremely complex and dissonant music next to extremely simple and consonant music.

Although this chapter will not discuss the music of Beethoven’s early period or late period in any depth, you might want to explore this music on your own. Beethoven’s first published piano sonata, the Sonata in F minor, Op. 2, No. 1 (1795), shows the influence of its dedicatee, Joseph Haydn. One of Beethoven’s last works, his famous Ninth Symphony, departs from the norms of the day by incorporating vocal soloists and a choir into a symphony, which was almost always written only for orchestral instruments. The Ninth Symphony is Beethoven’s longest; its first three movements, although innovative in many ways, use the expected forms: a fast sonata form, a scherzo (which by the early nineteenth century—as we will see in our discussion of the Fifth Symphony—had replaced the minuet and trio), and a slow theme and variations form. The finale, in which the vocalists participate, is truly revolutionary in terms of its length, the sheer extremes of the musical styles it uses, and the combination of large orchestra and choir. The text or words that Beethoven chose for the vocalists speak of joy and the hope that all humankind might live together in brotherly love. The “Ode to Joy” melody to which Beethoven set these words was later used for the hymn “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee.”

Focus Composition: Beethoven, Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op. 67 (1808)

In this chapter, we will focus on possibly Beethoven’s most famous composi­tion, his Fifth Symphony (1808). The premier of the Fifth Symphony took place at perhaps the most infamous of all of Beethoven’s concerts, an event that lasted for some four hours in an unheated theater on a bitterly cold Viennese evening. At this time, Beethoven was not on good terms with the performers, several of whom refused to rehearse with the composer in the room. In addition, the final number of the performance was finished too late to be sufficiently practiced, and in the concert, it had to be stopped and restarted. Belying its less than auspicious first performance, once published, the Fifth Symphony quickly gained the critical acclaim it has held ever since.

The most famous part of the Fifth Symphony is its commanding opening. This opening features the entire orchestra playing in unison a musical motive that we will call the short-short-short-long (SSSL) motive, because of the rhythm of its four notes. We will also refer to it as the Fate motive, because at least since the 1830s, music critics have likened it to fate knocking on the door, as discussed at http:// www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5473894. The short notes repeat the same pitch and then the long, held-out note leaps down a third. After the orches­tra releases the held note, it plays the motive again, now sequenced a step lower, then again at the original pitches, then at higher pitches. This sequenced phrase, which has become the first theme of the movement, then repeats, and the fast sonata-form movement starts to pick up steam. This is the exposition of the movement.

Opening notes of Symphony No.5
Figure 9.5: Opening notes of Symphony No. 5, Op. 67 | Composer: Ludwig van Beethoven | Source: Wikipedia | License: Public Domain

Audio Ex. 9.6: Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, opening bars

After a transition, the second theme is heard. It also starts with the SSSL motive, although the pitches heard are quite different. The horn presents the question phrase of the second theme; then, the strings respond with the answer phrase of the second theme.

You should note that the key has changed—the music is now in E flat major, which has a much more peaceful feel than C minor—and the answer phrase of the second theme is much more legato than anything yet heard in the symphony. This tune­ful legato music does not last for long, and the closing section returns to the rapid sequencing of the SSSL motive. Then the orchestra returns to the beginning of the movement for a repeat of the exposition.

The development section of this first movement does everything we might ex­pect of a development: the SSSL motive appears in sequence and is altered as the keys change rapidly. Also, we hear more polyphonic imitative in the development than elsewhere in the movement. Near the end of the development, the dynamics alternate between piano and forte, and before the listener knows it, the music has returned to the home key of C minor as well as the opening version of the SSSL mo­tive: this starts the recapitulation. The music transitions to the second theme—now still in the home key of C minor—and the closing section. Then, just when the listener expects the recapitulation to end, Beethoven extends the movement in a coda. This coda is much longer than any coda we have yet listened to in the music of Haydn or Mozart, although it is not as long as the coda to the final movement of this sympho­ny. These long codas are also another element that Beethoven is known for. He often restates the conclusive cadence many times and in many rhythmic durations.

1st Movement:

Listen and observe just how much you hear the SSSL motive throughout this movement. This movement is of course in sonata form.

Video 9.7: 1st movement, “Allegro con brio” of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony

Listening Guide


1st theme (0:00-0:31)

Transition (0:32-0:49)

2nd theme (0:50-1:19) Listen for the motive in the bass underneath the lyrical melody in the violins.

Closing theme (1:21-1:30)

Exposition is repeated (1:31-2:58)

Development (2:59-4:23)

Recapitulation (4:24-6:21)

Coda (6:22-end)

2nd Movement

The second movement is a lyrical theme and variations movement in a major key, which provides a few minutes of respite from the menacing C minor. Even though it is a new movement, we hear the SSSL motive transformed. In the second movement, the motive sounds like this:

Audio Ex. 9.7: Beethoven Symphony No. 5, 2nd movement motive:

It sounds quite a bit different from the first movement motive, but the rhythm is there—three short notes followed by one long note.

Listen to the following for the second movement from 7:20 (the first mark in the progress bar) up to 17:10:

Video 9.8: Beethoven: Symphony No. 5

3rd and 4th Movements

The third movement returns to C minor and is a scherzo. Scherzos retain the form of the minuet, having a contrasting trio section that divides the two presentations of the scherzo. Like the minuet, scherzos also have a triple feel, although they tend to be somewhat faster in tempo than the minuet.

This scherzo third movement opens with a mysterious, even spooky, opening theme played by the lower strings. The second theme returns to the SSSL motive, although now with different pitches.


Audio Ex. 9.8: Beethoven, Symphony No. 5, 3rd movement motive:

The mood changes with a very imitative and very polyphonic trio in C major, but the spooky theme reappears, alongside the fate motive, with the repeat of the scherzo. Instead of making the scherzo a discrete movement, Beethoven chose to write a musical transition between the scherzo and the final movement so that the music runs continuously from one movement to another. After suddenly getting very soft, the music gradually grows in dynamic as the motive sequences higher and higher until the fourth movement bursts onto the scene with a triumphant and loud C major theme. It seems that perhaps our hero, whether we think of the hero as the music of the symphony or perhaps as Beetho­ven himself, has finally triumphed over Fate.

The fourth movement is a rather typical fast sonata form finale with one excep­tion. The second theme of the scherzo (b), which contains the SSSL fate motive, ap­pears one final time at the end of the movement’s development section, as if to try one more time to derail the hero’s conquest. But the movement ultimately ends with a lot of loud cadences in C major, providing ample support for an interpretation of the composition as the overcoming of Fate. This is the interpretation that most com­mentators for almost two hundred years have given the symphony. It is pretty amaz­ing to think that a musical composition might express so aptly the human theme of struggle and triumph. Listen to the piece and see if you hear it the same way.

Listening: Continue listening to the third and fourth movements, beginning at 17:12 (the third mark in the progress bar) through to the end, and notice how the third movement transitions directly into the fourth movement at 22:21 without a break, thus emphasizing the sense of dramatic progression through all four movements of the piece:

Listening Guide

Third Movement (Scherzo–Allegro)

A (17:12–19:03)

B (19:04–20:30)

A (20:31–22:20)

Fourth Movement (Allegro)


1st theme (22:21–22:53)

Transition (22:54-23:20)

2nd theme (23:20–23:45): Hear the 3 short notes and 1 long note of the MOTIVE.

Closing theme (23:46–24:15)

Repeat of exposition (24:16–26:18)

Development (26:18–28:20)

Notice at 27:45 that it sounds as if the music is going back to the third movement. This doesn’t last; it erupts again and brings us to the…

Recapitulation (28:21–30:52)

The huge chords make it sound like the piece is coming to a close, but then we go into the…

Coda (30:53–end)

In the coda, Beethoven just hammers away on C major chords. He makes sure you know that the symphony is coming to a triumphant close.

Chapter Summary

By Francis Scully

In this chapter, we explored how the birth of public concerts sparked enthusiasm for a dynamic new instrumental music genre known as the symphony. Symphonies were appealing to audiences because they provided thrilling sonic variety (variety in tone color and dynamics) as well as contrasts in tempo and emotional character. While symphonies share a number of features, like a large orchestra and a four-movement structure, the symphony examples by Boulogne, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven make it clear that the genre by no means restricted creative possibilities. We also explored how symphony composers in the Classical Period employed sonata form to create emotional contrast in their music and through this form created music that was dynamic and dramatic. At the same time, the clarity of the formal procedure allowed audiences to easily follow along with the music.

Test Your Understanding



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