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The Classical Era solidified the form of the symphony as a four movement orchestral work. Beethoven composed some of his symphonies in Classical style – absolute music within the Classical symphony form (Symphony 4, Symphony 7 and Symphony 8).

Other Beethoven symphonies laid the foundation for the Romantic Era by expanding the symphony form and becoming programmatic in nature (Symphony 5, Symphony 6 and Symphony 9).

Symphony composers during the Romantic Era seemed to split along the lines of Beethoven, some composers choosing the traditional Classical form, others opting for adapting the form to suit their programmatic needs.

Progression of Symphony Form

Classical Form, Absolute Music

The following are examples of Romantic composers who continued to use the Classical form of the symphony developed by Haydn and Mozart and used by Beethoven in Symphonies 4, 7 and 8.

Franz Schubert composed his Symphony 3 at a young age during his free time while working as a schoolmaster.

This is a Classical four-movement symphony, the first of which is in Sonata Allegro form. The only minor adaptation in form is that the second movement is slightly faster than the normal slow movement.

  • Movement 1, Adagio maestoso/Allegro con brio – Sonata Allegro form
  • Movement 2, Allegretto – Slow movement
  • Movement 3, Menuetto – Dance form
  • Movement 4, Presto Vivace – Sonata Allegro form

Felix Mendelssohn was inspired to compose Symphony 4, “Italian Symphony,” (and several watercolor paintings and sketches) after a 10-month trip to Italy. During this time he visited several cities, witnessed the coronation of a Pope, and spent Holy Week at the Vatican.

This symphony captures mostly Mendelssohn’s impressions and emotions experienced during the first 3 movements. The last movement is the only specifically Italian movement, based on the Italian Dance, saltarello.

This is a Classical four-movement symphony, the first of which is in Sonata Allegro form.

  • Movement 1, Allegro Vivace – Sonata Allegro form
  • Movement 2, Andante con moto – Slow movement
  • Movement 3, Con moto Moderato – Minuet
  • Movement 4, Saltarello – Italian Dance

Robert Schumann composed Symphony 2 after having a nervous breakdown where he “heard drums and trumpets” continually. The entire symphony features dotted rhythms, giving it an agitated feel. This is a significantly personal expression in music of Schumann’s experience with mental health issues.

This is a Classical four-movement symphony, the first of which is in Sonata Allegro form. The slow movement (Adagio Espressivo) and dance movement (Scherzo) are in reverse order of the traditional Classical form.

  • Movement 1, Allegro ma non troppo – Introduction, the Sonata Allegro form
  • Movement 2, Scherzo
  • Movement 3, Adagio Espressivo
  • Movement 4, Allegro Molto Vivace

Johannes Brahms Symphony 3, like many of Brahms’ symphonies, contains some consistent thematic material throughout all movements.

This is a Classical four-movement symphony, the first of which is in Sonata Allegro form. The opening of Movement 3 resembles a Minuet, but the development becomes much more rubato and free than dance form.

  • Movement 1, Allegro con brio – Sonata Allegro form
  • Movement 2, Andante
  • Movement 3, Poco allegretto
  • Movement 4, Allegro/Un poco sostenuto

Many of Anton Bruckner’s symphonies follow the traditional Classical four movement form, although each movement is expanded. His Symphony 7 was well received during Bruckner’s life.

  • Movement 1, Allegro moderato
  • Movement 2, Adagio: Sehr feierlich und sehr langsam
  • Movement 3, Scherzo: Sehr schnell
  • Movement 4, Finale: Bewegt, doch nicht schnell

Antonin Dvorak wrote his Symphony 9, “New World Symphony” while living in the United States. The symphony uses melodies inspired by the folk music of American Indians and Spirituals.

Symphony 9 has four movements, the first of which is in sonata form. Its Romantic elements are the use of folk music and expansion of form.

  • Movement 1, Adagio – Allegro molto
  • Movement 2, Largo
  • Movement 3, Scherzo: Molto Vivace – Poco Sustenuto
  • Movement 4, Finale: Allegro con Fuoco

Expanded Form, Programmatic

The following are examples of Romantic composers who continued to expand the form of the Classical symphony, as Beethoven had in his Symphonies 5, 6 and 9, to better express their programmatic material.

Hector Berlioz is best known for his Symphonie Fantastique, a 5 movement symphony that describes his infatuation with Harriet Smithson, who he eventually married. This symphony introduces the concept of idee fixe, which is a theme that represents Harriet and appears in all movements. This concept was later expanded by Richard Wagner into the leitmotif.

  • Movement 1, “Dream, Passion,” introduces the idee fixe with a light, dreamy sound.
  • Movement 2, “Dance,” describes Berlioz attending a dance, but unable to escape thoughts of Harriet.
  • Movement 3, “The Scenery of the Field”, describes Berlioz in the country trying to forget about his unrequited love.
  • Movement 4, “March to a Decapitation Stand,” describes a drug-induced nightmare where Berlioz is executed for murdering Harriet.
  • Movement 5, “Dream of the Witch’s Banquet,” describes a scene where witches and monsters gather for his funeral – Harriet appears, but in a terrifying form.

This symphony was shocking when it was first performed because of the personal nature and how its content violated social taboos.

Franz Liszt composed Dante Symphony as a musical depiction of Dante Alighieri’s poem Divine Comedy. Liszt truncates the 4 movement symphony form to only 2 movements, depicting the Inferno and Purgatorio sections of the poem.

Liszt originally wanted to compose all 3 sections of the poem, ending with a movement depicting Paradisio (Heaven), but his friend and fellow composer Richard Wagner convinced him that no mere mortal could possibly composer a piece describing Heaven and do it justice! The Purgatorio movement ends with a Magnificat section that hints of the splendor that awaits in Heaven.

  • Movement 1, Inferno
  • Movement 2, Purgatorio

While Bruckner’s Symphony 4, “Romantic”, has the traditional four movements of a Classical symphony, it is highly programmatic and, at over an hour in length, the form is greatly expanded.

  • Movement 1, Allegro – Bruckner described this movement with the following impressions: “Medieval city—dawn—morning calls sound from the towers—the gates open—on proud steeds the knights ride into the open—woodland magic embraces them—forest murmurs—bird songs—and thus the Romantic picture unfolds.”
  • Movement 2, Andante, quasi Allegretto – Described by Bruckner as “Song, Prayer and Serenade”
  • Movement 3, Scherzo – “Hunting Scene”
  • Movement 4, Finale – “Folk Festival”

Peter Tchaikovsky’s Symphony 3 was nicknamed the “Polish Symphony” for the Polish dance used in the Finale, but features a German dance in the second movement and definitely exudes the regular Russian energy that we expect from Tchaikovsky throughout. This symphony has 5 movements instead of the regular 4 of the Classical form.

  • Movement 1, Introduzione. Moderato assai – Allegro brillante
  • Movement 2, Alla tedesca. Allegro moderato e semplice
  • Movement 3, Andante elegiaco
  • Movement 4, Scherzo. Allegro vivo
  • Movement 5, Finale. Allegro con fuoco

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