Friday, February 26, 2016

Classical Symphonies

No. 216  of the ongoing ITYWLTMT series series of audio montages can be found in our archives at


In past montages, we have considered many symphonies – from the massive opuses by Bruckner and Mahler, to the more modest contributions in the form of “sinfonias” by Mozart and Mendelssohn. The word symphony, which literally means ‘sounding together’, was used in the Baroque period to indicate a piece of music played together by a combination of instruments. The word appears in Handel’s oratorio, the ‘Messiah’, as an instrumental interlude described as a pastoral symphony, quiet music to indicate peace in the fields in the evening.

From the mid-1700’s onwards composers started to shape up instrumental works around this pattern with each part developing as a movement in its own right. Composers such as Stamitz and two of J S Bach’s sons, C P E Bach and J C Bach, were really important in establishing the style, but it was the two great composers of the Classical period, Mozart and Haydn, who completed this development and added a further movement, a minuet and trio, before the final fast movement.

The classical symphony as we regard it today follows a formula that was honed by Joseph Haydn, who composed 104 symphonies, though – to no one’s surprise – didn’t necessarily follow the nould we so readily assign to him.

  • Movement 1: Fast, usually an allegro and in what became known as sonata form.
  • Movement 2: Slow and often in a simple form such as ternary form.
  • Movement 3: Minuet and trio, a dance borrowed from the Baroque period and in ternary form.
  • Movement 4: Fast and usually an allegro, often light-hearted in style and in a form such as rondo form, theme and variations or sonata form.

At the same time a larger orchestra became established of strings, a woodwind section of a flute, two oboes, two clarinets and two bassoons, with some brass instruments, two French horns, sometimes two trumpets and normally only timpani from the percussion section. This larger orchestra became fully established in the symphonies of Mozart and Haydn.

Today’s montage considers three classical symphonies that closely adhere to this formula. Haydn’s 22nd symphony dates from 1764, during his tenure as Vice-Kapellmeister at the court of Prince Nicolaus Esterházy. As Vice-Kapellmeister Haydn was in charge of all but religious music in the Esterházy household; in particular he was the leader of the orchestra and was expected to compose symphonies for it to perform. This ensemble numbered about fifteen players. The symphony’s nickname ("the Philosopher") is thought to derive from the melody and counterpoint of the first movement (between the horns and cor anglais), which musically allude to a question followed by an answer and paralleling the disputatio system of debate. The piece's use of a muted tick-tock effect also evokes the image of a philosopher deep in thought while time passes by.

Next, chronologically is a symphony written by the then 17-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in October 1773, shortly after the success of his opera seria Lucio Silla. Its first movement is widely known as the opening music in Miloš Forman's film Amadeus. This is one of two symphonies Mozart composed in G minor, sometimes referred to as the "little G minor" - the other is the more famous Symphony No. 40.

To complete the trio of works, we turn to a contemporary of both Mozart and Haydn, Juan Crisóstomo Jacobo Antonio de Arriaga y Balzola (1806 –1826), a Spanish Classical-era composer. He was nicknamed "the Spanish Mozart" after he died, because, like Wolfgang, he was both a child prodigy and an accomplished composer who died young. They also shared the same first and second baptismal names; and they shared the same birthday, January 27 (fifty years apart). The amount of Arriaga's music that has survived to the present day is quite small, reflecting his early death. It includes an opera, string quartets, masses and  a Symphony in D (Sinfonía a gran orquesta), which uses D major and D minor so equally that it is not in either key.

I think you will love this music too!

UPDATE - This podcast provides the background music to this YouTube video - check it out!