The sinfonia characteristica (or sinfonia caractéristique, characteristic symphony) was a type of symphony composed mainly in the eighteenth century which was embellished with a printed text (either one line or many paragraphs long) which pointed the listener in a specific direction, so that the music would convey a thematic expression, i.e., “tell a story”. Music scholar Richard Will has identified over 225 such works written between 1750 – 1815, the majority of subjects being these five: pastoral, military, hunts, storms, and national or regional expressions.
Ludwig van Beethoven's Symphony No. 6 (1808), the Pastoral, includes subtitles written by the composer for each movement:
I. Cheerful Impressions on Arriving in the Country
II. By the Brook
III. Peasants' Merrymaking
IV. The Storm
V. The Shepherd's Hymm; Happy, thankful feelings after the storm
As a term, “characteristic symphony” is the forerunner of the “program symphony” of the nineteenth century which gained major prominence with Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique.
The opposite of the "characteristic" or "program" symphony is "absolute music", a generic term which describes music that does not convey a dramatic narrative as suggested by the composer in words, but is about "itself". The most prominent adherent of absolute music in the nineteenth century was Johannes Brahms.
- Will, Richard. The Characteristic Symphony in the Age of Haydn and Beethoven (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), p. 1.