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The Symphony and the Classical Period

The symphony is the single most important orchestral genre, and was established during the Classical period (1760-1830), depending on which website or book you read). Mozart was one of the most important composers of symphony.

Task: Discover some basics about the Classical period. Who were the most important composers, and which other genres were significant as well as the symphony? – there are two significant ones. Also, what happened to change the Classical period orchestra – new instruments, and ones that were common in the Baroque period, which fell out of fashion in the Classical period? Make a note of what you’ve discovered in the notes pages of your score.

Start with this timeline on the Classic FM website, which is very informative.


Firstly, watch this great introduction to Mozart, and music from 1750 onwards, presented by Howard Goodall (BBC presenter and composer of various theme tunes including QI) .
What does the word ‘symphony’ mean? How does a Classical symphony work? There is a pattern to the number of movements and the order and character of them. What is this?

Starting on this website would be a good idea.

Who was Mozart?

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is surely one of the three best-known classical composers (I mean of all classical music and not just the Classical period). His short and often chaotic life has been the source of much fascination for years.

The Mozart Project Chronology is a good starting point to place his life in historical context.

The BBC Radio 3 Mozart page has a brief biography.

This Classic FM short guide sums him up quite well too, in a slightly silly manner!

Task: Have a listen to this short movement from a different symphony from the one we are to study by Mozart. What do you think of it? Remember the previous attempts that we’ve had about discussing music, and trying to demonstrate informed opinion by using technical language based on DR G SMITH. How much repetition is there? How does Mozart create contrast? Does this look like a typical orchestra, and if so, or if not, why? Email me your thoughts please – a short paragraph.

Extension Task 1: Find some other recordings or YouTube clips by Mozart and listen to them. Make a note of the piece(s) and include it as part of the previous email.

Extension Task 2: Find out a bit about the film Amadeus, which is very loosely based on Mozart’s life. It won the Oscar for Best Film in 1984. There are a variety of clips on YouTube from the film. The legend behind the script of the film has now been proved not be true but musical historians, but it doesn’t spoil the drama of the film!

Sonata Form Overview

If you’re in school and trying to listen to the Mozart, click on the Grooveshark widget below:
Symphony No 40 in G Minor KV550 (1st Movement) by Mozart by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart on Grooveshark
Genre and Structure

Mozart composed his 40th Symphony in 1788. The first movement (which we are studying for the exam) is in G minor, 4/4, Allegro (molto). It uses Sonata Form structure, which has three sections, the Exposition, Development and Recapitulation. Each of these is broken down into smaller sections (see below).

The Exposition

This section is split into four:

1st subject (1-20): in G minor, uses regular four bar phrases, falling sequence and a dominant pedal.

Bridge (21-43): starts in G minor, modulates to Bb major, using a descending sequence and dominant pedal once the music has modulated in bar 27.

2nd subject (43-70): in Bb major, more lyrical, to begin with, which shorter regular phrases, repeated, and then leading to a short monophonic passage in bar 66, finishing with a long descending scale and strong perfect cadence (chord V-I). (If you’ve forgotten how to work out what a cadence is, go up to the Handel page and watch the tutorial.)

Codetta (71-100): final section of the exposition, using lots of perfect cadences, with the 1st subject passed around the orchestra using imitation.

Task: Make sure that you have written up your score with all this relevant information on it. This must include:

  • Labelling all the subsections
  • Finding and labelling the significant modulations
  • Finding all the examples of pedals
  • Labelling the short monophonic section
  • Finding examples of perfect cadences, and labelling the chords V-I

The Development

This section is split into three, but there are no ‘names’ for the subsections:

Bar 101-117: music modulates several times, repeating the four-bar 1st subject three times in a descending sequence.

Bar 118-140: strong>1st subject alternates between violins and bass instruments, with a countermelody being played against it – polyphonic texture in two-part counterpoint, using the cycle of fifths chord sequence. The music modulates through the cycle of keys, before finishing on a dominant pedal in G minor.

Bar 141-165: one long dominant pedal, which is passed through different instruments. Around this is a three-note motif, based on the opening of the 1st subject, which is repeated sequentially, through imitation and invention, all building up the the return of the 1st subject.

Task: Make sure that you have written up your score with all this relevant information on it. This must include:

  • Finding two or more examples of sequences
  • Finding two or more examples of imitation
  • Labelling the start of the cycle of fifths chord sequence
  • Locating at least three different examples of the 1st subject

The Recapitulation

This section is a repeat of the Exposition, but with one or two notable differences:

1st subject (165-185): a near-exact repeat of the opening of the exposition, but with the addition of a bassoon countermelody.

Bridge (186-227): starts the same as the exposition bridge, but it is extended significantly, including modulations to Eb major, and F minor.

2nd subject (227-260): repeat of the exposition 2nd subject, but significantly, the music remains in G minor and does not modulate to Bb major.

Coda (261-299): significantly longer than the codetta from the exposition, with many perfect cadences, and manipulations of the three-note motif from the exposition.


Make sure that you have written up your score with all this relevant information on it. This must include:

  • Labelling all the subsections
  • Finding and labelling the significant modulations
  • Finding all the examples of pedals
  • Labelling the short monophonic section
  • Finding examples of perfect cadences, and labelling the chords V-I

Other Musical Details

The Orchestra

Mozart’s orchestra has some similarities and differences from the Baroque period:

  • The string section remains the same (1st and 2nd vln, va, vc, db)
  • There is no basso continuo (no harpsichord or organ playing the harmony)
  • Expanded woodwind section, two flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons
  • Two horns, one in G and one in Eb
  • Two instruments missing from this piece, which are in many other classical pieces of music – trumpets and timpani
Melody and Rhythm

The melodic writing is dominated by the 1st subject, and the way in which is it manipulated. This includes the use of the opening of the 1st subject, as a three-note motif. The 2nd subject provides a more lyrical contrast. The main changes to the melodic style are described above.

Phrases are usually in regular four- and two-bar patterns.

The rhythmic language is straightforward, and works within the framework of the regular phrases. Occasionally dotted rhythms are used, and there is a feeling of perpertuum mobile (perpetual motion) created by the quaver countermelody used in the middle of the development.

Harmony and Totality

All the significant information about this is mentioned in the analysis of the exposition, development and recapitulation above.


The texture is basically homophonic throughout, and this is typical of the Classical period. The main melody is usually found in the violins/flute, with other instruments providing harmonic support/accompaniment. Monophonic texture is used only briefly as mentioned above. There are some significant polyphonic sections, as mentioned above, particularly in the development section.


There is a much greater range of dynamics in this piece than seen in the Baroque period. This includes us of crescendo (gradually louder) and diminuendo (gradually quieter), as well as sf (suddenly loud). Make sure that you’ve found some different examples of dynamics in the score and highlight them.


As with all the pieces, there is a three-way process to learning everything you need to know about the piece:

  • Know the basics (C) – title, composer, key, time signature, instrumentation etc. This needs learning to start with.
  • Understand the detail (B/A) – the technical details of the piece, and how they relate to DR G SMITH. This needs you to have written up all the detail onto your score. Listening to the piece lots whilst following through the score is what is needed here.
  • Hear the detail (A/A*) – being able to recognise the sound of all the technical language in the pieces, with no score in front of you. Listening to the piece without the score is what you need to do here.

This checklist document should help you with this process.

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