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Music In The Age of Enlightenment

Symphony and Sonata Form

Peter Kun Frary


During the Classical era a symphony was a piece for orchestra consisting of four movements in contrasting moods and tempos: fast-slow-dance-fast movement scheme. Symphonies were scored for strings (violin, viola, cello and double bass) and a small section of woodwinds, brass and and sometimes timpani.

Landscape with Roman Temple Ruins, 1773 | Hubert Robert (1733-1808) | Alte Pinakothek

Sonata Form

All Classical music is organized along a time line. Listeners perceive musical form by remembering repeated ideas and recognizing appearances of new or contrasting material. Thus, a sense of form is created through repetition, variation and contrast of musical ideas. When repetition, variation and contrast are organized in a specific pattern, we call the pattern of organization musical form. Musical forms are like a frame or template composers pour their ideas into.

The most important musical forms during the Classical era were sonata form, theme and variation, minuet and trio and rondo form. These forms were used in Classical and Romantic symphonies, chamber music and sonatas. We'll examine each of these forms as we work through the literature of the Classical era. Of these four forms, the sonata form is the most significant in the development of the symphony. Within a typical symphony, one or more movements are built on the sonata form, a specific type of A B A formal structure:

Exposition (A)

    • First theme in tonic key
    • Bridge and modulation to new key
    • Second theme in new key
    • Codetta and cadence in key of 2nd theme
    • Repeat of Exposition (repeat may be optional)

Development (B)

    • development of themes and motives
    • modulations to new keys
    • transition to recapitulation

Recapitulation (A)

    • First theme in tonic key
    • Transition
    • Second theme in tonic key
    • Coda in tonic key

Some movements in sonata form may also have a slow introduction, enhancing drama and contrast. The sonata form is also used for other instrumental works such as chamber music and sonatas for solo instruments such as piano.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart | Barbara Kraft (1764–1825) | Wikimedia Commons

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–91), a member of the First Viennese School, epitomizes classical music in his purity of form and melody. Mozart wrote forty-one symphonies and employed the sonata form in all of them. The first movement of his Symphony No. 40 in G Minor, K.550, is both a masterwork and a textbook example of the sonata form. Composed in 1788 during a six-week period along with symphonies 39 and 41, Symphony No. 40 is one of Mozart’s last three symphonies. Mozart died before hearing or conducting them.

The Stolen Kiss, Paris 1760 | Jean Honoré Fragonard (1732–1806) | Metropolitan Museum of Art

Symphony No. 40 in G Minor, K.550

Symphony No. 40 has four movements in a typical fast-slow-dance-fast format. We'll listen to the first movement, the Molto allegro. The first and second themes are introduced straight away in the exposition. Listen to the themes carefully so you can recognize their treatment in the development and reappearance in the recapitulation:

First Theme from Symphony No. 40

Second Theme from Symphony No. 40

After the first theme is presented and played with a little, an energetic bridge brings us to the second and more lyrical theme, first played by the strings and woodwinds in B-flat major:

After a flashy codetta and cadence, the exposition is repeated. The development section ensues with the first theme modulating and fragmenting into smaller but still recognizable motives. At the height of the drama, frenzied melodies duel in a call and response pattern between instruments (fugue-like). As the development winds down, the first theme is reduced to a three note motive just before the recapitulation (return of the first theme and tonic key). After the recapitulation finishes, an extended ending, the coda, gives a final tease of the theme before a huge cadence.

Symphony No. 40 in G Minor, K.550: I. Molto Allegro (0:00-7:50) | Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart | If you continue watching past 7:50 you can enjoy the other three movements of this symphony.


symphony, musical form, sonata form

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