Summer Symphony Showdown History: The Classical Period


Our Classical Symphony Showdown selections are Beethoven’s Symphony no. 5 and Mozart’s Symphony no. 40. Read on for more about the Classical period and these two symphonies.


Although we commonly use the term classical music to refer to the type of Western music that isn’t folk or popular music, the official Classical period (1750-1830) in music history stands out significantly in comparison to the eras that surround it. Classical music saw a shift away from the dramatic and emotional Baroque style to simpler musical structures and lighter, airier moods.

During this period, the symphony form was introduced—partially as a result of the development of the standard orchestra—and Classical composers quickly made use of this new format. Distinct, playful melodies dominated the Classical period and have helped maintain the popularity of Classical compositions.

A 1768 Enlightenment-era painting by Joseph Wright of Derby shows a science experiment being conducted by a “natural philosopher,” a forerunner of the modern scientist.

Outside of music history, this time period is known as the Age of Enlightenment. Philosophers, mainly centered in France, highlighted the value of common people in society and the power of reason in decision making and major societal problems. While these ideas led to conflicts between pre-existing values (even inspiring the French and American Revolutions), Classical music reflected the social changes occurring simultaneously.

The mid-eighteenth century saw a greater appreciation for classicism, inspired by classical Greece. These characteristics were reflected in new styles of architecture, literature, and the arts. Classicism was embedded into music with composers and audiences alike preferring lighter and clearer melodies, and an increased variety of moods, colors, and textures within a piece. Although contrast within a piece became more pronounced during the Classical period, it is important to note that compositions during this time still favored simplicity rather than complexity. This is a clear deviation from Baroque music, which emphasized complex melodies and drama. Overall, Classical music preferred “structural clarity” as opposed to complicated, layered works.

FUN FACT: THE CLASSICAL PERIOD IS OFTEN RECOGNIZED TO HAVE BEEN CENTERED IN VIENNA, AUSTRIA. BECAUSE OF THIS, IT’S SOMETIMES REFERRED TO AS THE ERA OF VIENNESE CLASSICISM. COMPOSERS OF THE CLASSICAL PERIOD, INCLUDING HAYDN, MOZART, AND BEETHOVEN, ALL WORKED IN VIENNA DURING THEIR CAREERS.

Music also began to reflect the new philosophical ideas of the Age of Enlightenment. For example, public concerts became significant facets of the Classical music scene. Although music was still being composed for the church and commissioned by Europe’s elite, public performances demonstrated a new value of providing musical entertainment for common people. The new demands of these larger audiences allowed musicians and composers to alter the ways in which music was performed. The standard orchestra began to take on a more solidified form, growing in overall size and instrumental diversity, and the harpsichord was replaced by the piano, or fortepiano, for its softer tone.

SPOTLIGHT: Classical Composers to Know

About Beethoven’s Symphony no. 5

With its shocking opening recognizable to all generations, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is one of the most famous works ever composed. However, it’s important to look beyond the “short-short-short-long” theme of the first movement to comprehend the significance of Beethoven’s entire composition. Symphony no. 5 was completed in 1808, although early ideas for the composition can be found in Beethoven’s notebooks dating back to 1800.

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) is known for meticulously, though often furiously, writing and rewriting his works until he produced something that he considered satisfactory. Even with his impending deafness, the composer was determined to achieve perfection. Symphony no. 5 is gripping, captivating, and was truly groundbreaking for its time. Beethoven’s ability to craft an entire symphony out of a single idea solidified him and his work as revolutionary.

Listen to this audio recording of Symphony no. 5 below featuring Carlos Kleiber conducting the Wiener Orchestra in 1974.

About Symphony no. 40

Across Mozart’s vast compositional spectrum, only two of his symphonic works were composed in a minor key—including his fortieth—and both of these were composed in G minor, a key he used to evoke darkness and tragedy.

In contrast to Beethoven, Mozart composed with unique efficiency. Symphony no. 40 was written (along with Symphonies 39 and 41) in less than two months over the summer of 1788. This comes as no surprise as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) is known for his pure musical genius, which was evident even from his early childhood. 

Symphony no. 40 has left audiences and reviewers in awe for centuries and continues to generate conversation to this day. Critics, including Mozart’s own biographers, have commented on the impact of Mozart’s use of agitation, stress, and grief throughout this piece, elements that are rare among the composer’s works.

Watch this performance of Mozart’s Symphony no. 40, performed by the Staatskapelle Berlin and conducted by Julien Salemkour. Note: The performance begins at 0:27.

Want to learn more about our Summer Symphony Showdown? Read more about the event here!


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