Understanding Symphonies

A. Kori Hill

Dun dun dun DUN! Four of the most recognizable notes in classical music. All thanks to Ludwig van Beethoven and his Symphony No. 5 in C minor. By the time he had passed away in 1827, Beethoven had written nine symphonies. Four of these: No. 3 “Eroica”, No. 5, No. 7, and No. 9 “Choral”, became symbols for human creativity, universal love, and the most awesome thing a classical composer could ever create.

Before Beethoven, symphonies were not nearly as epic in length and concept. Franz Joseph Haydn wrote over a hundred of them, and the forms he used became the standard for other composers. The first movement starts with a slow intro and leads into a more upbeat, serious section. The form of this movement is called sonata form and has three parts: 1) exposition, which features the central theme and secondary theme; 2) development, where the central theme is transformed via new rhythmic patterns and modulations; and 3) recapitulation, where the central theme comes back in the main key. The second movement is often slow and lyrical. The third movement is based on the minuet-trio dance form. It’s short, quick, and less serious. The last movement is typically in rondo form: the main phrase is followed by a new phrase, followed by the main phrase (ABAC, etc.), with a dance quality in compound meter.

Beethoven used those forms in his first symphony. But from his second symphony on, things started to change. First, he replaced the minuet-trio with a scherzo (“little joke”). Second, the timpani becomes more centralized. Third, his symphonies get longer, with some cases of them being written with an individual or specific setting in mind (see “Eroica” and No. 6, “Pastoral”).

Others, especially other German composers, took up Beethoven’s changes. The symphonies of Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann, Johannes Brahms, and Anton Bruckner are examples of what happens when other composers take the ideas of another and use them themselves (like Beethoven did with Haydn’s!). A tradition is created; a precedent is established.

By the late nineteenth century, writing a symphony was an indicator of a composer’s technical and artistic skill. Music critics and audiences saw classical music as not only a means of expression but a vehicle of spiritual transcendence, a way to show one’s education and cultivation (which brought with it a host of other problems).

But even with the precedents set and the narrowing of experimentation, folks in Europe and the United States put their unique spins on the symphonic form. Swing by next week for a look at an American symphonist who did just that. 

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Understanding Symphonies