Sakura Salon – The Classical Symphony

This summer, we have done a deeper dive into the Classical period, whose most famous composers were Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven.  First we started with the symphony, we have also looked at the piano sonata.  Coming weeks we will look at the Theme and Variations form, then end up with the piano concerto.

Below is more general information on the Classical Symphony!


I frequently compare a symphony with a novel in which the themes are characters. After we have made their acquaintance, we follow their evolution, the unfolding of their psychology.
—Arthur Honegger

Key Points

The symphony was one of the principal instrumental forms of the Classical era.

Quickly ascending rocket themes and steamroller effects (drawn-out crescendos) became standard in the Classical symphony.

The heart of the Classical orchestra (about thirty to forty players) was the strings, assisted by woodwinds, brass, and percussion.

Joseph Haydn wrote over 100 symphonies; among these, his last twelve—the so-called London symphonies, including the Military Symphony (No. 100)—are his masterpieces in the genre.  Haydn is known as the ‘Father of the Symphony.’

Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G minor, subtitled the Romantic, mingles Classical and Romantic elements.

Ludwig van Beethoven’s music straddles the Classical and Romantic eras. His third symphony is known as the transition point.

Historical Background
The symphony, which held the central place in Classical instrumental music, grew in dimension and significance throughout the era. With the final works of Mozart and Haydn and the nine monumental symphonies by Beethoven, it became the most important type of absolute music.

Rocket theme

Mannheim School
The symphony had its roots in the Italian opera overture of the early eighteenth century, an orchestral piece in three sections: fast-slow-fast. First played to introduce an opera, these sections eventually became separate movements, to which the early German symphonists added a number of effects that were later taken over by the classical masters. One innovation was the use of a quick, aggressively rhythmic theme rising from low to high register with such speed that it became known as a rocket theme (as in Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik). Equally important was the use of drawn-out crescendos (sometimes referred to as a steamroller effect) slowly gathering force as they rose to a climax. Both effects are generally credited to composers active at Mannheim, a German city along the Rhine River. With the addition of the minuet and trio, also a Mannheim contribution, the symphony paralleled the string quartet in following the four-movement multimovement cycle.


The Classical masters established the orchestra as we know it today: as an ensemble of the four instrumental families. The heart of the orchestra was the string family.
Woodwinds provided varying colors and assisted the strings, often doubling them.
The brass sustained the harmonies and contributed body to the sound mass, while the timpani supplied rhythmic life and vitality. The eighteenth-century orchestra numbered from thirty to forty players; thus the volume of sound was still more appropriate for the salon than the concert hall.

Classical composers created a dynamic style of orchestral writing in which all the instruments participated actively and each timbre could be heard. The interchange and imitation of themes among the various instrumental groups assumed the excitement of a witty conversation.

The Movements of the Symphony

First movement

The first movement of a Classical symphony is an Allegro in sonata-allegro form, sometimes preceded by a slow introduction (especially in the symphonies of Haydn). Sonata-allegro form, discussed in a previous Salon, is based on the opposition of two keys, made clearly audible by the contrast between two themes. Haydn, however, sometimes based a sonata-allegro movement on a single theme, which was first heard in the tonic key and then in the contrasting key. Such a movement is referred to as monothematic. Mozart, on the other hand, preferred two themes with maximum contrast, which he achieved in his Symphony No. 40 through varied instrumentation, with the first theme introduced by the strings, and the second by the woodwinds. Beethoven took the art of thematic development to new levels in his Symphony No. 5, creating a unified masterpiece from a small motivic idea.

Second movement

The slow movement of a symphony is often a three-part form (A-B-A)—as we will see in Haydn’s Symphony No. 100. Other typical forms include a theme and variations, or a modified sonata-allegro (without a development section). Generally a Largo, Adagio, or Andante, this movement is in a key other than the tonic, with colorful orchestration that often emphasizes the woodwinds. The mood is lyrical, and there is less development of themes here than in the first movement.

Third movement

Third is the minuet and trio in triple meter, a graceful A-B-A form in the tonic key; as in the string quartet, its tempo is moderate. The trio is gentler in mood, with a moderately flowing melody and a prominent wind timbre. Beethoven’s scherzo (a replacement for the minuet and trio), also in 3/4 time, is taken at a swifter pace.

Fourth movement

The fourth movement (the finale), normally a vivacious Allegro molto or Presto in rondo or sonata-allegro form, is not only faster but also lighter than the first movement and brings the cycle to a spirited ending. Sometimes the fourth movement is transformed into a triumphant finale in sonata-allegro form.



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