Classical Music Detonates: Haydn, Mozart, and the Explosion of the Sonata Form


Two Classical composers are discussed in this blog post: Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791). In addition to short biographies of these two musicians, this post will also describe the Sonata form, one of the main instrumental schemas of the eighteenth century.

Haydn and Mozart are widely regarded as two of the most influential figures in all of Western music due principally to their influence on the Sonata form. This post attempts to zoom in on some of the details here.

Phil Goulding’s book, Classical Music: The 50 Greatest Composers and Their 1,000 Greatest Works, is a sort of advice manual for listening to, and understanding, Classical music. I found it to be a useful guide because it attempts to explain Classical music to the uninitiated, a task very much like my own for this class [History of Music 2].

One way Goulding goes about doing this is by offering concise descriptions of famous composers. Concerning Haydn and Mozart, he writes the following summaries that are meant to read like titles:

Haydn: A Near Immortal; Father of the Symphony and the String Quartet

Mozart: The Supreme Natural Musical Genius (27)

Goulding also offers concise descriptions for the instrumental forms, including the sonata-form. Here he is on that matter:

…special attention must be paid this one [the Sonata form], important not only to the music of this period but also to the music that followed (97).

The main reason the Sonata form is important to a discussion about Classical music is that its structure infiltrated all the ensemble types of the period. This means that string quartets, symphonies, concertos, and other ensemble types, began employing this beautiful form. With it, composers found near-limitless musical expression.

Non-musicians can understand what the Sonata form is simply by comparing it to the Song form used by singer-songwriters of today. As listeners, we know that pop songs are going to proceed through a verse, go into a chorus, then into another verse and chorus, then into a bridge that includes a solo or a rap, and finally, finish out with a chorus that repeats and fades.

The Sonata form provided a similar sort of utility for Classical composers, and the Classical composers most responsible for exploiting this utility were Haydn and Mozart.

Classical Detonates

The Sonata Form

The Sonata form was so named because it was derived from the sonata, which was a musical piece composed for a solo instrument such as piano, violin, or cello. The Sonata form was typically set up in three chapters known as the exposition, the development, and the recapitulation.

  • During the exposition, composers arranged two themes in two different keys, thus establishing two main musical characters.
  • During the development section, composers would twist, distort, reverse, and otherwise vary the two principal themes, thus establishing a period of musical uncertainty.
  • For the recapitulation, composers would reprise the original two themes, only this time in one key, thus establishing continuity, unity, and a feeling of musical completeness for the whole work.

Composers loved this form; they used it all the time. Proof of this fondness is the fact that they adopted the Sonata form as the architecture-of-choice for symphonies, arguably the most important type of music from this period. Symphonies were huge compositions constructed in large-scale parts called movements, and the first movement was almost always constructed with Sonata form.

The Sonata form, therefore, was sometimes called the first-movement form. It was also called the Sonata-allegro form because the first movement was usually fast. (Allegro means “fast.” in Italian.)

These overlapping and shifting nomenclatures are one of the unfortunate realities of musicology. For our purposes here, I’ll just keep calling it the Sonata form.

The Sonata form was to reach full maturity through the efforts of Franz Joseph Haydn.


Franz Joseph Haydn was born in 1732 in Rohrau, Austria–a small town near the border with Hungary. He died old, rich, and famous in the city of Vienna in 1809.

Austria is the country of birth for Mozart, too. But that’s where the similarities between the two end. Because, unlike Mozart, who was cared for and crafted into an expert by his father, Haydn learned music piecemeal, and from several teachers over a span of many years. He was mostly self-taught.

Author and musicologist Donald H. Van Ess, writer of The Heritage of Musical Style, explains Haydn’s and Mozart’s similarities and differences as follows:

“In outlining some of the major aspects of Haydn’s life, one automatically tends to draw comparisons with Haydn’s compatriot of the classic age, Mozart. The two composers are poles apart in terms of family background, early childhood, music education, and personality. However, both used the same classic music language–the neat phrases, clear-cut rhythm, cadences, and the same forms. [Including the sonata-form] However, the distinctive personal traits–the bold, happy, outgoing side of Haydn’s nature and the highly refined, more sensitive nature of Mozart–are perceptible in their respective music” (204).

Haydn’s nature aside, he was slow to bloom into musical maturity, very much unlike Mozart. Through his late twenties, Haydn slogged away performing street serenades, giving harpsichord lessons, and working orchestral jobs.

His hard work paid off eventually when he was noticed by the right people. Those right people were the members of the Esterhazy family, one of the noble families of Hungary. Haydn was to spend thirty years of his life–from 1761 to 1790–in their employ. The Esterhazy’s, like many of Europe’s royal families, had musicians on staff and performance spaces in their castles.   (Van Ness 205).

The arrangement between artists and wealthy supporters was known as the patronage system. It featured composers writing music for parties, weddings, funerals, and any other aristocratic function that needed entertainment. Often composers would provide whole symphonies or operas in their patron’s honor.  

Fortunately for Haydn, the Esterhazy family loved him and his music, especially Prince Nikolaus, who was a musician himself. Nikolaus played the baryton, a cello-like instrument featuring guitar-like frets.  

But it is not these baryton pieces that Haydn is well known for. He is best known for innovations he made to the symphony. Indeed, Haydn is known to musicologists as the Father of the Modern Symphony.

Part of the reason why is that he wrote 104 of them, which, considering the scale and scope of the typical symphonic composition, is a staggering number. Haydn composed symphonies steadily throughout his fifty-year career. He started out writing them in the rococo style of the Baroque period, shifted through the galant and pre-classical tastes of mid-century, and culminated his symphonic prowess with the mature Classical style of the late eighteenth century (Van Ness 206).

Haydn was an innovator through this whole process.

So, to be clear, Haydn did not invent the symphony, he just improved upon it until it was extremely good. For comparison, Steve Jobs did not invent the computer, he just improved upon it until it was an iPad.

Haydn began composing symphonies with a commitment to clear, logically ordered melodic stylings and a rejection of opulent, haphazardly ordered melodic noodling. In other words, Haydn made the symphony into a modern entity that was in accordance with the time.

Perhaps his most important contribution to the symphony was the establishment of the development section as the de facto bridge figure for the first movement. In this part of the symphony, the two themes laid out by the exposition are fully exploited for their utility and artistic content. Only a deft and capable composer can perform the maneuvers required for a proper development section–Haydn was quite deft and capable.

Listen to the first movement of Symphony No. 103, one of Haydn’s London Symphonies, so named because it was part of a set of twelve commissioned for a concert series in that English city.  This particular London Symphony is nicknamed The Drumroll for reasons that will become obvious while listening. (Turek 202).

During the late eighteenth century, there was only one other composer in Haydn’s league, and that was Mozart.


Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born in Salzburg, Austria in 1756. He died young, in debt, and with modest fame in 1791 in the city of Prague. He was just 35.

As a child, Mozart was the ultimate wonder kid. His father, Leopold Mozart (1719-1787), trained him and his sister, Nannerl (1751-1829), to be proficient, performing musicians in their youths. Little Mozart took to this life with vigor. So exceptional was his talent that he composed by the age of 5, toured Europe by the age 7, wrote a symphony by the age of 8, performed for the royal families of France and England by the age of 9, and, by the age of 16, wrote his first opera (Norton 540; Burkholder et al. 541).

If you are a musician familiar with the rigors of learning how to read and play music, take a moment to think about the details here. Read that last paragraph again and let the facts infiltrate your mind. Just think about what you yourself accomplished at age 5, 7, 8, 9 and 16, then let the truth of Mozart’s genius sink into your bones. Just say this sentence over and over again until you understand, “an eight-year-old boy composed a symphony.”

In my opinion, the person who put Mozart’s genius best was my Music History 1 and 2 professor at IUP (Indiana University of Pennsylvania), who during a lecture, exclaimed, “Mozart was a freak!” (Dr. Irving Godt 1923-2006).

In the ultimate “buddy cop” narrative, Haydn and Mozart were respectful of each other and in perpetual awe of one another. Both wrote large-scale works in each other’s honor.

In conversation with Mozart’s dad, Haydn said that Mozart was “the greatest composer known to me in person or in name; he has taste and, what is more, the greatest knowledge of composition” (Norton 541).

Mozart returned the compliment to the old master according to an anecdote from Mozart’s early biographer, Franz Niemetschek. Niemetschek wrote of an interaction between Mozart and another composer, who happened to be complaining about one of Haydn’s musical passages by saying, “I would not have done that.” Mozart is reported to have said this in response, “Neither would I but do you know why? Because neither of us could have thought of anything so appropriate” (“Haydn and Mozart: Mozart’s view of Haydn” para. 5).

Let’s listen to Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G minor with the same attention to detail that we paid to Haydn’s Drumroll symphony:


The combined efforts of Haydn and Mozart detonated an explosion-of-change upon the European music scene. The primary beneficiary of this blow-up was Ludwig van Beethoven, a composer Phil Goulding called, “The Immortal Thunderer” (27).

Beethoven’s thundering and musical prowess will be covered in a later post.

Works Cited

Burkholder, P.J., Grout, D.J., Palisca, C.V. A History of Western Music. 9th ed. W.W. Norton and Company: New York, 2014. Print.

Goulding, P.G. Classical Music: The 50 Greatest Composers and Their 1,000 Greatest Works. New York: Fawcett Books. 1992. Print.

“Haydn and Mozart” The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 9 Jan. 2016. Web.

Haydn, Franz Joseph. Symphony No. 103 in E-Flat Major “Drumroll.” Perf. Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and Sir Colin Davis. Rec. 1994. Universal International Music B.V. 2 CDs. Haydn: The London Symphonies – Nos. 95, 96, 98 & 102 – 104.

Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus. Symphony No. 40 in G Minor. Perf. Berliner Philharmoniker and Herbert von Karajan. Rec. 1997. Deutsche Grammophon GmbH, Hamburg. 2 Cds. Mozart, W.A.: Symphonies Nos.35 – 41.

Norton / The Norton/Grove Concise Encyclopedia of Music. Edited by Sadie, Stanley, and Alison Latham W.W. Norton and Company: New York 1994. Print.

“Symphony No. 103 (Haydn)” The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 10 Jan. 2016. Web.

Taruskin, R. (2010). Music in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. New York: Oxford University Press. Print.

Van Nes D. J. The Heritage of Musical Style. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, Inc. 1971. Print.

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