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Development of the symphony

These pages offer a selective listening guide to some key milestones in the development of the symphony from 1750 to 1900 for the purposes of the Eduqas A level Area of Study A and in particular for writing the 15-mark essay. It is not a comprehensive history but a brief summary of works that can be used as examples for discussing the development of the symphony in the Classical and Romantic eras.

The period includes a very wide range of the music from some of the earliest Classical works through to the latest and most radical Romantic ones. The details of this are covered in the study guide and there are no biographical or contextual notes on any of the symphonies covered. For each symphony mentioned you can access scores, notes and extracts to which you can listen.

At the bottom of this page are a list of broad essay topics outlined in the specification and referred to in the detailed notes on each symphony.

Early Classical

The Galant style originated in France. The simpler textures, regular phrasing and more basic harmonies were influential for composers such as Johann Stamitz, C.P.E Bach and Haydn.

Johann Stamitz (study guide p. 47) was also the leading composer and conductor at the court of Mannheim, which became famous for its energetic rhythms, strong thematic material and powerful use of the orchestra. The influence of this sort of writing can still be seen in Haydn’s Symphony 104 (the driving tonic filler material after the first subject in the opening movement, for example).

The Empfindsamer Stil or ‘senstitive style’) is another early Classical movement, but one which made greater use of dramatic contrasts and chromaticism in order to provoke a strong emotional reaction in the listener.

Mature Classical 

Mature Classical is the term used to describe the music typical of Haydn, Mozart and early Beethoven In this repertoire the Classical orchestra is established as is the four-movement pattern starting with a movement in sonata form followed by a slower movement, a Minuet and a lively finale.

Whilst Haydn’s earliest symphonies had tended to be relatively light-hearted showpieces, he started to incorporate more complexity and drama into his works as both Haydn and audiences more generally began to take the symphony as a genre more seriously. Influences of the literary Sturm und drang (storm and stress) movement can be found in certain works of Haydn, Mozart and  others around 1770. The music tends to be in stormy minor keys and use syncopated rhythms (it is worth noting that although this has been part of music history books for a long time, the dates don’t really add up for the literary style to have directly influenced the musical one as they emerged at pretty much the same time).

In their later symphonies, both Haydn and Mozart both added more instruments (in particular Clarinets, trumpets and timpani) and their harmony, use of contrapuntal devices and handling of symphonic structure became ever more bold and sophisticated.

Beethoven [work in progress from here]

The works of Beethoven straddle the mature Classical and Early Romantic periods. Starting in the early 1800s Beethoven began to break new ground in several ways: length of movements, complexity, size of orchestra, increased energy and drama, and a dramatic narrative style. His symphonies were extremely influential, with composers taking their lead from different aspects of his works as discussed below.

One aspect of Beethoven’s music was the way it took the basics of the Classical style (simple diatonic themes, clear structures and emphatic cadences) and made them both monumental and dramatic. This is seen particularly clearly in his third symphony, the ‘Eroica’ which begins with a simple theme based on arpeggios and turns it into a powerful drama. Beethoven’s famous fifth symphony is similarly monumental and the composer makes the blazing C major last movement the culminating triumph of a work that starts in a stormy C minor.

1804 – Beethoven Symphony No. 3 (Eroica)

1808 – Beethoven Symphony No. 5

Two other Beethoven symphonies that had a particular impact on later composers were his sixth and ninth. The ‘pastoral’ programme of the sixth symphony with its bubbling stream, storm and dancing shepherds inspired and helped justify those who wanted to bring more concrete drama and story telling into the symphony. The famous Ninth, on the other hand, was such a monumental work (ending with a huge choral finale) that many composers felt quite intimidated by the task of writing symphonies that could match up to it. It is also worth mentioning Beethoven’s Eighth symphony (1812) for its gentler minuet movement.

1808 – Beethoven Symphony No. 6 (Pastoral)

1823 – Beethoven Symphony No. 9 (Choral)

Early Romantic 

Early Romantic (up to around 1830 – discussed on p. 60 of study guide). Schubert and Mendelssohn are early Romantic composers who continued to develop the symphony, using a similar sized orchestra to Beethoven and continuing to compose within the conventional classical forms and styles. However, they were a bit more adventurous (particularly in harmony and structure) and both were masters of writing attractive, lyrical melodies. Mendelssohn’s symphonies often have an overall program but it tends to be quite vague (e.g. ‘Scottish’, ‘Italian’, ‘Reformation’)

1816 – Schubert Symphony No. 5

1833 – Mendelssohn Symphony No, 4 (Italian) [this is another set work – see separate notes]

1842 – Mendelssohn Symphony No. 3 (Scottish)

Later Romantic

Later Romantic (1830 onwards – p. 62 of study guide). Berlioz, Liszt and later Strauss all pushed the boundaries of the traditional symphony with much increased programmatic content and development of the orchestra – in the case of the second two they largely abandoned the symphony in favour of the tone poem, which offered a freer form within which to unfold their ideas. Schumann and Brahms, on the other hand, largely developed their ideas within a more traditional symphonic framework as did the later Tchaikovsky. Some later Romantic composers took inspiration from the folk music of their countries, using dance rhythms and folk-like melodies (Dvorak’s symphonies and Smetana’s tone poems are good examples). Bruckner and, slightly later, Mahler vastly increased the scale and proportion of their symphonies, with Mahler’s third, for example, weighing in at nearly 1 ½ hours, compared to a bit more than twenty minutes for a typical Mozart or Haydn symphony.

1830 – Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique

1834 – Berlioz Harald in Italy

1850 – Schumann Symphony No. 3 (Rhenish)

1850 – Liszt Prometheus

1854 – Liszt Preludes, Symphony Poem No. 3

1874 – Bruckner Symphony No. 4 (Romantic)

1875 – Smetana Ma Vlast

1883 – Brahms Symphony No. 3

1885 – Brahms Symphony No. 5

1888 – Strauss Don Juan

1888 – Mahler Symphony No. 1

1888 – Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 5

1889 – Dvorak Symphony No. 8

1893 – Dvorak Symphony No. 9 (New World)

1893 – Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 6 (Pathetique)

1894 – Mahler Symphony No. 2


The detailed notes on symphonies are organised according to the following broad topics:

A) Overall form
B) First movements / Sonata form
C) Second movements / slow movements
D) Third movements / Minuets
E) Fourth movements / Finales
F) Development of the orchestra
G) Development of harmony and tonality
H) Humour, drama, narrative and programme
I) Melody and theme
J) Texture
K) Rhythm
L) Dance, folk and national styles