Musical Form: Classical & Romantic Eras: Symphony

A symphony is an extended musical composition in Western classical music, generally scored for orchestra or concert band. A symphony usually contains at least one movement or episode composed according to the sonata principle. Many symphonies are tonal works in four movements with the first in sonata form, which is often described by music theorists as the structure of a “classical” symphony, although many symphonies by the acknowledged classical masters of the form, Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Ludwig van Beethoven do not conform to this model.


12 Great Symphonies

1. Mahler: Symphony No. 9 in D major

If you’ve never heard Mahler’s Symphony No. 9, grab a blanket, sit by the fire, and melt into the lush orchestration Mahler so masterfully created. Mahler wrote this symphony knowing that the end of his life was near. Some believe the fourth movement represents the five psychological stages of death: denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Mahler undoubtedly fits the romantic style to the “t”; heart-wrenching tension followed by ever-so-sweet resolve. Learn more about the life of Mahler in this Mahler profile.

The symphony is in four movements:

  1. Andante comodo (D major)
  2. Im Tempo eines gemächlichen Ländlers. Etwas täppisch und sehr derb (C major)
  3. Rondo-Burleske: Allegro assai. Sehr trotzig (A minor)
  4. Adagio. Sehr langsam und noch zurückhaltend (D-flat major)

2. Haydn: Symphony No. 34 in D minor, Hob. I/34

One of Haydn’s lesser known works, this flawless piece from the classical period is perfectly balanced with emotion and art. The first movement melodies float above rivers of low tones. The upbeat rhythms of the second movement are sure to make you dance; it’s any Haydn lover’s “pop” music. The third movement menuetto brings images of courtly balls and high tea. The final movement expertly brings closure to the symphony and sends the audience home happy and content. Learn more about Haydn in this Haydn profile.

  1. Adagio,
  2. Allegro
  3. Menuet – Trio
  4. Presto assai

3. Beethoven: Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67

Although a bit overplayed, something this good should not be excluded. Everyone knows the first movement when they hear it, as for the following movements, that’s another story. The second movement is not as “heavy” as the first making it an excellent relief without losing its harmonic brilliance. The third movement includes similar rhythmic patterns as the first which creates a continuity. The triumphant orchestration in the forth movement concludes the symphony in absolute victory. Learn more about the life of Beethoven in this Beethoven profile.

  1. Allegro con brio
  2. Andante con moto
  3. Scherzo. Allegro
  4. Allegro

4. Mozart: Symphony No. 25 in G minor, K. 183/173dB

Also a lesser known work, this Mozart symphony combines classical form with Mozart’s flamboyant expressions. The first movement, although expressive, maintains a lightness in the sound. The orchestration in the second movement gives its pastoral sound. The third movement opens with a unison melody which remains throughout its entirety. The finale gives you the feeling of being “rushed”…only in a good way. This symphony is a must have for those who love Mozart. Learn more about the life of Mozart in this Mozart profile.

  1. Allegro con brio
  2. Andante
  3. Menuetto & Trio
  4. Allegro

5. Barber: Symphony No. 1 in G Major

Samuel Barber, a 20th century American composer, wrote this symphony in 1936. Its orchestration is similar to that of Mahler’s 9th, and its complex chords and layered instrumentation gives chills down your spine. This symphony is a great addition to any symphony collection. Samuel Barber Info.

  1. Allegro ma non troppo
  2. Allegro molto
  3. Andante tranquillo
  4. Con moto: Passacaille

6. Haydn: Symphony No. 94 in G major, Hob. I/94

Haydn skillfully creates another thoroughly enjoyable symphony, the “Surprise” Symphony. It comes from the original German nickname “Paukenschlag” meaning bass base drum impact. The first movement’s soft melodies and lifting harmonies may possibly put one to sleep. Haydn, knowing this, created a simple melody followed by a large “impact” in the second movement to wake those who fell asleep. The third and fourth movements provide a delightful ending to this classical symphony.

I. Adagio – Vivace assai
II. Andante
III. Menuetto: Allegro molto
IV. Finale: Allegro molto

7. Dvořák: Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 95, B. 178

“New World Symphony”

Dvorak created this symphony in 1893. It’s hard to believe something that can sound this modern is over 100 years old. Dvorak composed the symphony in the spirit of the folklore African Americans and American Indians after coming to America. He achieved his greatest success at the world premier of this symphony with the New York Philharmonic on American soil. Learn more about the life of Dvorak in this Dvorak profile.

  1. Adagio
  2. Largo
  3. Scherzo: Molto vivace – Poco sostenuto
  4. Allegro con fuoco

8. Ives: Symphony No. 1 in D minor

Ives wrote this symphony after being influenced by Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 (mvmt. 2), Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 (mvmt. 3), Schubert’s “Unfinished” symphony (mvmt. 1), and Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” (mvmt. 4). He clearly had good taste! It is interesting to see how one person can interpret all of these symphonies and put them into “his own words”. This symphony is a must have for any collection. Charles Ives Info.

  1. Allegro2. Adagio molto (Sostenuto)
  2. Scherzo: Vivace4. Allegro molto

9. Brahms: Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 73

Brahms was heavily influenced by Beethoven. This symphony, although not widely successful, was most significant after Schumann. It follows the “regular” four movement structure as most symphonies do. Its richness in orchestration lies between Beethoven and Mahler. In the first movement, Brahms presents three different motifs simultaneously as the main theme. The fourth movement has a flavor of the final movement in Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. Learn more about Brahms in this Brahms profile.

  1. Allegro non troppo (D major)
  2. Adagio non troppo (B major)
  3. Allegretto grazioso (quasi andantino) (G major)
  4. Allegro con spirito (D major)

10. Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125

“Ode to Joy” Choral Symphony

Last but not least, there is Beethoven’s ninth symphony. Possibly Beethoven’s greatest work, almost everyone knows the “Ode to Joy” chorus of the final movement. Beethoven took the symphony to a new level by adding choir to the orchestration. The text in the final movement was from Schiller’s “An die Freude”. Any symphonic library isn’t complete until there is a recording of this symphony. Its wide range of dynamics and orchestration provides hours of enjoyment.

The symphony is in four movements, marked as follows:

  1. Allegro ma non troppo, un poco maestoso
  2. Scherzo: Molto vivace – Presto
  3. Adagio molto e cantabile – Andante moderato – Tempo primo – Andante moderato – Adagio – Lo stesso tempo
  4. Recitative: (Presto – Allegro ma non troppo – Vivace – Adagio cantabile – Allegro assai – Presto: O Freunde) – Allegro molto assai: Freude, schöner Götterfunken – Alla marcia – Allegro assai vivace: Froh, wie seine Sonnen – Andante maestoso: Seid umschlungen, Millionen! – Adagio ma non troppo, ma divoto: Ihr, stürzt nieder – Allegro energico, sempre ben marcato: (Freude, schöner GötterfunkenSeid umschlungen, Millionen!) – Allegro ma non tanto: Freude, Tochter aus Elysium! – Prestissimo, Maestoso, Molto prestissimo: Seid umschlungen, Millionen!


11. Haydn: Symphony No. 94 in G major “Surprise”

Haydn’s music contains many jokes, and the Surprise Symphony includes probably the most famous of all: a sudden fortissimo chord at the end of the otherwise piano opening theme in the variation-form second movement. The music then returns to its original quiet dynamic, as if nothing had happened, and the ensuing variations do not repeat the joke. (In German it is commonly referred to as the Symphony “mit dem Paukenschlag“—”with the kettledrum stroke”).

In Haydn’s old age, his biographer George August Griesinger, asked him whether he wrote this “surprise” to awaken the audience. Haydn replied:

No, but I was interested in surprising the public with something new, and in making a brilliant debut, so that my student Pleyel, who was at that time engaged by an orchestra in London (in 1792) and whose concerts had opened a week before mine, should not outdo me. The first Allegro of my symphony had already met with countless Bravos, but the enthusiasm reached its highest peak at the Andante with the Drum Stroke. Encore! Encore! sounded in every throat, and Pleyel himself complimented me on my idea.

I. Adagio – Vivace assai
II. Andante
III. Menuetto: Allegro molto
IV. Finale: Allegro molto

Austro-Hungarian Haydn Orchestra, Adam Fischer

12. Mozart: Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K. 550

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote his Symphony No. 40 in G minor, KV. 550, in 1788. It is sometimes referred to as the “Great G minor symphony,” to distinguish it from the “Little G minor symphony,” No. 25. The two are the only extant minor key symphonies Mozart wrote.

  1. Molto allegro
  2. Andante
  3. Menuetto. Allegretto — Trio
  4. Finale. Allegro assai

The Chamber Orchestra of Europe
Conductor – Nicolaus Harnoncourt
Grosser Musikvereinsaal Wien
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