An Introduction to Symphonic Form

by David Bratman

  1. Sonata Form
  2. Sonata-Allegro Form
  3. Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet Overture: analysis of a sample work in sonata-allegro form
  4. 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

Sonata form is used in many types of large-scale instrumental works of the late 18th century and the 19th century, including:

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.

  1. First movement
  2. (sometimes 3). Slow movement
  3. (sometimes 2). Scherzo
  4. Finale

Sonata-Allegro Form

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.

  1. Introduction
  2. Exposition
  3. Development
  4. Recapitulation
  5. Coda

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.

Other Resources

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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