Bach to Basics: I. The Symphony

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be exploring three of the building blocks of the classical music canon: the symphonythe concerto, and chamber music. Stay sharp! At the end, you’ll be able to test your knowledge with a special quiz…



chalkboard with classical symphony movements

For much of music history, the symphony has followed a specific structure comprised of 4 movements. Each movement had conventions governing tempo, meter, the organization of the different melodies, tonality, and more, with the goal of creating a unified musical entity.

In spite of these seemingly strict rules, composers managed to infuse the form with personality and even surprises…


play button orchestraPapa Haydn, Father of the Symphony

With over 106 symphonies to his name, Haydn’s role in developing the nascent genre is clear. Dive in with his witty “Surprise” symphony!

Mozart’s final three symphonies are perfect executions of the genre. No. 41, “Jupiter,” is perhaps the most well-known:

▶️ Click here to watch Sir Simon Rattle conduct all three of Mozart’s final symphonies! 


By the second half of the nineteenth century, composers had begun to break away from the form established during the Classical era. Small-scale innovations of organization and orchestration gave way to a looser framework in which emotional expression took precedence over formal structure. The genre developed quickly during this period at the hands of Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Dvořák, Mahler, and more…

Beethoven’s Ninth

comic strip Peanuts about Beethoven's ninth symphony
Excerpt from Charles Schulz’ comic strip Peanuts, 1967.

Few works have marked music history and pop culture like Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. Though far from his only masterpiece in the genre, Beethoven’s final work in the genre is epic and innovative on an unprecedented scale: in addition to including a full chorus alongside the orchestra, the final movement has been described as a sort of “symphony within a symphony,” with the structure of the full piece compressed into a single movement.




Click here to watch Gustavo Dudamel conduct Beethoven’s iconic Symphony No. 9!

Conducting despite having lost most of his hearing, Beethoven didn’t notice the audience’s wild applause until someone gestured towards the public behind him.

Dive a little deeper into the Romantic symphony with full cycles by three of its greatest composers: 

playlist button with Beethoven
Gustavo Dudamel conducts Beethoven’s symphonies
playlist button with Tchaikovsky
Valery Gergiev conducts Tchaikovsky’s symphonies
playlist button with Dvorak
The symphonies of Antonin Dvořák







The symphony remained a stalwart of the concert hall well into the twentieth century. Let’s look at a few case studies…

The Curse of the Ninth

Beethoven, Schubert, Dvořák, Mahler… all composers who passed away part-way through composing their tenth symphony, cementing classical music’s most entrenched superstition. Click here to read our playlist article about this wild, widespread legend!

The Symphony of a Thousand

Beethoven wasn’t the only composer to experiment with epic proportions.

huge orchestra and chorus at the American premiere of Mahler's Symphony No. 8
The US premiere of Mahler’s 8th, 1916

Nearly a century after The Ninth, Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 called for so many performers it was dubbed the “Symphony of a Thousand”…

As the composer himself wrote in 1906, “It is so unique in content and form that it does not lend itself to description. Imagine that the universe begins to sound and ring out. These no longer are human voices, rather planets and suns that are circling.”

This performance led by Yannick Nézet-Seguin gives you an idea of its scale—both physical and philosophical:

Shostakovich and the Politics of the Symphony

Arguably the most prolific composer of symphonies post-1900, Shostakovich’s fifteen symphonies trace not only his development as a composer but also the experience of an artist working within the confines of Stalin’s USSR. The cycle runs the full gamut of styles and themes, from the pristine, chamber-like orchestration of his first symphony (his graduation piece at the Petrograd Conservatory) to his politically-charged, genre-bending thirteenth, which sets poetry condemning a mass slaughter in the Ukraine long-denied by Soviet authorities.

Intrigued? Learn more about the tense and trying period with the documentary The War Symphonies!

And to get an idea of what Shostakovich’s symphonies sounded like, let’s listen to an excerpt from his well-known Symphony No. 5…

Stay tuned for the next two episodes…

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