An Introduction to Symphonic Form
by David Bratman
- Sonata Form
- Sonata-Allegro Form
- Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet Overture: analysis of a sample work in sonata-allegro form
- Other Resources
This outline was written with the hope of being of help to beginning listeners to classical music, who enjoy attending orchestral concerts and like what they hear, but are perhaps intimidated by the size and complexity of the music and by the terminology surrounding it. Like any beginner's introduction, this page has generalizations and simplifications. This is a simple road map, to give an idea of what sort of thing is likely to be going on during the 30-60 minutes that you're listening to a symphony or other work in sonata form.
Sonata form is used in many types of large-scale instrumental works of the late 18th century and the 19th century, including:
- Symphonies, which are technically Sonatas for Orchestra.
- Most Concertos are written in a modified 3-movement Sonata form, excluding the Minuet/Scherzo movement.
- Much Chamber music, works for small groups of performers, such as:
- String Quartets, works for four stringed instruments (2 violins, 1 viola, 1 cello).
- String Quintets and String Trios.
- Piano Quintets, Piano Quartets, Piano Trios, which are not works for multiple pianos, but shortened names for "Quintet for Piano and Strings", etc., a Piano Quintet being usually a work for 1 piano and a string quartet.
- Piano Sonatas, Violin Sonatas, etc. A Piano Sonata is for piano alone; "Violin Sonata" is usually short for "Sonata for Violin and Piano".
- Overtures, whether to operas or as stand-alone works, are usually in Sonata-Allegro form prior to the late 19th century.
However, works titled "Suite", "Serenade", etc., are not in Sonata form. Tone poems (or symphonic poems) are also usually not in Sonata form.
Sonata form has four movements.
- First movement
- Fairly fast, but usually more stately than hurried. The normal Italian tempo term is Allegro.
- Always in Sonata-Allegro form.
(sometimes 3). Slow movement
- The usual tempo terms are Andante (slow), Adagio (slower), and Lento (slowest).
- May be in any of a variety of forms. Common forms include:
- Sonata-Allegro form.
- Theme and Variations: a theme, followed by usually between 5 and 15 progressive variations, changed by differing instrumentations, embellishments, altering of the theme, etc. Sometimes by the end it's unrecognizable as the original. Differs from a Development (see Sonata-Allegro form) in that the full theme is always used.
- ABA or Song form: with a main section, a contrasting middle section, and a return to the original section.
(sometimes 2). Scherzo
- In the 18th century this was a Minuet, a genteel dance of the day (Dickinson and the Conservatives dance a Minuet in the musical 1776). Beethoven made it louder and rougher and called it a Scherzo, which means "joke". Most composers after Beethoven wrote Scherzi, except Brahms who often preferred a gentler Intermezzo.
- Always fast and lively, and often dancelike.
- Always in ABA form, with a contrasting middle section called the Trio (because in the earliest orchestral sonatas it was played by only three instruments).
- Fast and often hurried. Common tempo terms include Allegro molto (very fast) and Presto (even faster).
- May be in any of a variety of forms. Common forms include:
- Sonata-Allegro form.
- Rondo form, in which a recurring main theme alternates with other themes. Normal Rondo patterns include ABACA, ABACADA, and ABACABA.
- Almost always the Finale ends with a Coda or tailpiece, in which the home key is presented with a stamping insistency. This is the part that Allan Sherman makes fun of in The End of a Symphony (on his album Peter and the Commissar).
- Variations on Sonata Form in Symphonies
- Very early symphonies (1730-1770) are sometimes in 3 movements, missing the Minuet or the Finale. Very rarely the slow movement will come first. These works are not often played except in "Mostly Mozart" and other early-music concerts.
- In the 19th century, many composers reversed the order of the slow movement and the Scherzo. Beethoven was the first to do this, in his Symphony No. 9 (1824). Beethoven was also the first composer to make one movement run into the next, in both his 5th and his 6th (1808-09).
- At the end of the 19th century, composers began to write symphonies with new outlines. Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6 "Pathétique" (1893) was one of the first: it has 1) an ordinary first movement, 2) a Brahms-like Intermezzo, 3) a Scherzo in the form of a march instead of a dance, 4) a slow movement at the end, instead of a Finale.
- Symphonies in the 20th century have been in a great variety of forms. Some are in one movement; I know one symphony in 24 very short movements. Many composers have abandoned the usual forms altogether.
- Variations on Sonata form in chamber music begin with Beethoven, who wrote some Piano Sonatas that are not really in Sonata form at all.
- Length of Symphonies
Symphonies grew out of opera overtures, and the earliest are 8-10 minutes long. By the time of Haydn and Mozart in the late 18th century they ran 20-30 minutes. Beethoven expanded the size; his shortest are about 25 minutes, but his 3rd runs 55 minutes and his 9th runs 70 minutes. The length of CDs was supposedly picked by a record-company executive who said, "Make it long enough to fit Beethoven's Ninth." The next generation (Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann) were mostly shorter again (about 35 minutes), but Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique runs 50 minutes. Most late 19th century symphonies (Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Dvorak) run 40-50 minutes, but other composers (Bruckner, Mahler) run longer. Mahler's 3rd runs about 2 hours and is, I think, in the Guinness Book of World Records. After Mahler, most symphonies were much shorter. Prokofiev's 1st "Classical" is only 12 minutes. Most 20th century symphonies are 20-30 minutes, though others are 40-45 and a few run as long as 70 minutes.
This is the form used in the first movement (and sometimes in other movements) of all 18th and 19th century symphonies. The sections run together, but it's usually possible to tell where one ends and the next begins.
- Slow and stately, in a different tempo than the rest of the movement. The Introduction is optional. Beethoven's 4th has a long Introduction, but the Introduction in his 3rd is only two chords, and his 5th has no Introduction at all.
- As in "expository". The Exposition sets forth the themes. There are usually:
- The first theme. Usually grand and memorable.
- The second theme. A contrast to the first theme: if the first theme is grand, the second will often be slower and lyrical. It is usually in a different key.
- Much other material, including other themes, may appear between and after the themes. A closing section is called a Codetta.
- In Haydn, Mozart, and early Beethoven, the entire Exposition is often repeated verbatim, to nail the themes down in your mind. (They didn't have phonograph records in those days.) The decision on whether to play the repeat is customarily up to the conductor: some do, some don't.
- Here one or more of the themes from the Exposition are played around with and mutated. They may be played on different instruments, made faster or slower, louder or softer. They are almost always played in different keys, and chopped up into little pieces and tossed around the orchestra, often in insistent repetitions of the same tiny phrase or motive. The themes may even be played upside down (e.g. rising instead of falling notes) or backwards, in which case they're usually unrecognizable to the average listener. The Development is usually tense and dramatic.
- The Development ends with the Retransition, a particularly tense and expectant moment which leads into the ...
- Essentially a repeat of the Exposition, but with some changes. In later 19th century symphonies the Recaptulation can be very different, with themes omitted and new ones added.
- Usually more confident in style than the Exposition, which often has an air of searching or questing.
- The tailpiece. Optional, but usually present. Not as long or insistent as the one at the end of the Finale. Sometimes takes the form of a second Development.
Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet Overture
This work is a Sonata-Allegro that's fairly easy to follow. Timings are from a recording which runs 19:15 in total. Yours may be slightly different, as exact tempos vary between performances.
I wrote this analysis with the help of one in a book I have, though my interpretations of the sections are slightly different.
- Introduction. The theme is in 2 parts, a series of wind chords that are supposed to represent Friar Lawrence, and a following section in the strings and horns, with winds later.
- The theme is repeated, with the opening wind chords coming much faster than before, over pizzicato (plucked) strings.
- Transition to the Exposition, starting with the entrance of the timpani (drums). The theme is briefly developed, and after a pause the tempo starts to speed up, leading into the ...
- Exposition. The first theme, in full orchestra, is supposed to represent the Montagu-Capulet feud. After presenting it, Tchaikovsky develops it slightly, first (5:35) in what's called contrapuntal (canon-like) style, then (5:50) by tossing fragments between strings and winds -- the latter is this composer's most characteristic gimmick.
- The first theme is repeated.
- Transition to the second theme. The tension relaxes.
- The second theme, obviously representing the love of Romeo and Juliet. Like the Introduction theme, it's in two parts. The first part is long and lyrical, played on the English horn (despite its name, actually a kind of oboe) and violas. The second part, a set of short phrases, appears on the violins.
- The first part of the second theme is repeated and extended.
- Codetta to the Exposition, beginning with the harp chords. The lyrical mood peacefully dies away into silence. Tchaikovsky almost always ends his Expositions this way, so that he can make a great contrast with the Development.
- Development. Identifiable because the mood again becomes tense. Of the three themes, the Love theme is not used in the Development. The Feud theme breaks up into a scurrying mutter in the strings, and the Friar Lawrence theme is played in fragments by the winds.
- Retransition. The music reaches a climax with a cymbal crash, and Friar Lawrence is then blasted out in a broad expansive manner by a trumpet over fragments of the Feud theme: a good example of how development works, and far removed from Friar Lawrence's first quiet appearance in the Introduction.
- Recapitulation. You can tell you've reached the Recapitulation because the first theme, the Feud theme, is played in full (and loudly) for the first time since the Exposition.
- Second theme (Love theme). Notice that this time the response section comes first, and is played by winds instead of violins. The lyrical part comes second, and is played with all the emotion, and volume, that the composer can summon. This is the sort of thing that makes people either love or hate Tchaikovsky. After the full statement the mood turns tense as the music goes into the minor mode (14:40), and the Feud theme begins to reappear as the music leads into the ...
- Coda, opening section. Resumption of treatment of the Feud and Friar Lawrence themes in the manner of the Development.
- Closing section of the Coda, beginning with the funereal timpani beats. The Love theme is played in the minor mode, giving a sense of the final tragedy, and a variant of the Friar Lawrence theme is supposed to represent the peace of Heaven.
The best resource on symphonic form I have ever seen is a CD-ROM of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, with the commentary and other material written by musicologist Robert Winter. It was published by a software company called Voyager, and came in both PC and Mac versions. Unfortunately I believe it's out of print, but you may be able to find it in some libraries. It contained essays, illustrated with musical examples, on the symphony's background and construction; plus a full performance with a running written/visual commentary pointing out significant features and showing one's location in the work. A number of other works, with commentaries by Winter or others, were also issued by Voyager.
The BBC keeps a large archive of 45-minute programs, each discussing a classical work in some detail. The quality varies -- I don't think the one on "Romeo and Juliet" is very clear or helpful, but the one on Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony is excellent, for instance -- but I've found them well worth listening to.
There are a number of books discussing symphonic form and providing examples. The Symphony and the Symphonic Poem by Earl V. Moore and Theodore E. Heger is the easiest and clearest to use. It consists of a series of charts outlining the form of masterworks. It's been out of print for many years, but can be found in some music libraries, or perhaps used-book stores.
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Last Updated: Nov. 12, 2002; links updated Oct. 15, 2011
Copyright 2000-2002, David Bratman