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History of sonata form

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History of sonata form

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This article treats the history of sonata form through the Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and Modern eras. For a definition of sonata form, see sonata form. For an account of critical thought as it relates to sonata form, see Criticism and sonata form. For discussion of works entitled or called sonata see Sonata (music).


Sonata form in the late Baroque era (ca 1710- ca 1770)

Properly speaking, the "Sonata Form" does not exist in the Baroque period, however, the forms which lead to the standard definition are present, and, in fact, there are a greater variety of harmonic patterns in Baroque works labelled "Sonata" than in the classical period that is to follow. The rich examples of the sonatas of Scarlatti provide an example of the range of possible relationships of theme and harmony possible in the 1730s and 1740s.

Sonatas were at first written mainly for the violin, and in the course of time a certain formal type was evolved, predominating until late into the eighteenth century. This type is shown in its highest perfection in the sonatas of Bach, Handel, Tartini, who followed older Italian models and employed a type attributable to masters such as Corelli and Vivaldi (Musical Form. Leichtentritt, Hugo. Page 122).

This older Italian sonata form differs considerably from the later sonata as we find it in the works of the Viennese classical masters. Between the two main types, the older Italian and the more modern Viennese sonata, various transitional types are manifest in the middle of the eighteenth century, in the works of the Mannheim composers, Stamitz, Richter, Philippe Emanuel Bach, and many others. The piano sonata had its inception with Johann Kuhnau, the predecessor of Bach as cantor of Saint Thomas' church in Leipzig. Kuhnau was the first one to transfer the Italian violin sonata to clavier music. The clavier sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti form a separate and distinct species, written mostly in one movement, in song form, and in homophonic style. Scarlatti's sonatas too represent a transition type between the older and the Viennese sonata. In Italy a distinction was made in older times between the sonata da chiesa (church sonata), written in fugal style, and the sonata da camera (chamber sonata) which was really a suite mixed with sonata elements, not derived from the dance (Leichtentritt).

The crucial elements that lead to the sonata form are: the weakening of the difference between binary and ternary form; the shift of texture away from full polyphony, many voices in imitation, to homophony, or a single dominant voice and supporting harmony; and the increasing reliance on juxtaposing different keys and textures. As different key relationships took on a more and more specific meaning, the schematic of works altered. Devices such as the "false reprise" fell out of favor, while other patterns grew in importance.

Quite probably the most influential composer on the later development of the Sonata form is C.P.E Bach whose father J.S. Bach was one of the great masters of the older baroque style. Taking the harmonic and voice leading techniques that his father had developed, he applied them to the homphonic style - allowing him to make dramatic shifts in key and mood, while maintaining an overall coherence. C.P.E. Bach becomes a decisive influence on Haydn. One of C.P.E. Bach's most lasting innovations was the shortening of the theme to a motif, which could be shaped more dramatically in pursuit of "development". By 1765, C.P.E. Bach's themes, rather than being long melodies, have taken on the style of sonata form themes: short, characteristic, and flexible. By linking the changes in the theme to the harmonic function of the section, C.P.E. Bach has laid the groundwork that composers such as Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart would exploit.

By the 1730s and 1740s the direction of instrumental works, considered less important than vocal music in most cases, were showing a movement towards taking an overall two part layout, the binary form, and adding a section of contrasting material which served as a bridge between them. The symphonies of Stamitz have a soft, piano, interlude between forte sections.

Sonata form in the Classical era (ca 1770-ca 1825)

It is the practice of the classical period, specifically Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, that forms the basis for the description of the sonata form. Their works served both as the model for the form, and as the source for new works aiming at the sonata form itself. Debates about sonata form thus reference the practice of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven extensively.

Joseph Haydn as the first of these three composers, and the most prolific, is thought of as "the Father of the Symphony" and "the Father of the String Quartet". He can also be thought of as the father of the sonata form as a means of structuring works. His string quartets and symphonies in particular display not merely the range of uses of the form, but also the way to emphasize its dramatic effect. It was Haydn who, more than any other composer, created the transition to the development, and the transition from the development to the recapitulation as moments of supreme tension and interest. It is also Haydn who begins to create larger shape for works by making every aspect of the harmony of a work implicit in the theme. This is no small innovation, in that it creates a homophonic analog to the polyphonic fugue, a seed of potential from which the composer will draw different effects. Haydn's variety of dramatic effect and ability to create tension was remarked upon in his own time. His music increasingly became seen by his contemporaries as the standard against which to measure other practice.

His set of string quartets Opus 33, is often pointed to as the first examples of the coordinated use of all of the resources of the "sonata form" in characteristic fashion. The composer himself listed them as being written on completely new principles and marking the turning point in his technique.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart applied the large scale ideas of Haydn to opera, and to the piano concerto. His greater variety of themes and desire for a wider chord vocabulary. Mozart's fluidity with the creation of themes, and the dense network of motives and their parts gave his work a surface polish which was remarked upon even by his professional rivals. His own aesthetic was to both please the public, and to create moments which would appeal to the more sensitive ear. By the end of his short life, Mozart has absorbed Haydn's technique, and applied it to his own more elongated sense of theme, for example in the Prague Symphony.

Ludwig van Beethoven was the composer who most directly inspired the writers who codified sonata form as a particular practice. While he was grounded in the fluid phrase structures and wider variety of schematic layouts possible which came from Haydn and Mozart, his deepest innovation is to work from both ends of a sonata form, conceiving of the entire structure, and then polishing themes which would support that overarching design. He continued to expand the length and weight of the sonata forms used by Haydn and Mozart, as well as frequently using motives and harmonic models drawn from the two older composers. Because of his use of increasingly characteristic rhythms and disruptive devices, he is seen as a transitional figure between the classical and Romantic periods, with which side of the gap often depending on the tastes and needs of the era.

Sonata form in the Romantic era (ca 1820 - ca 1910)

While in literature the "Romantic Period" is conventionally dated from the late 18th century to the early 19th century, in music, the overwhelming usage is to date the Romantic Period from post-Beethovenian works through the first decade of the 20th century. While not all critics and composers agree with this usage, it remains the predominant paradigm to see this period as a relatively continuous evolution in style, even though many influential composers and critics drew a sharp break around mid-century, for example Hanslick and Richard Wagner both agreed that their era was not "Romantic". Jacques Barzun has argued that the last half of the 19th century in both music and the arts should be seen as "Realist" and "Naturalist" rather than "Romantic".

In the Romantic era, sonata form was defined, and became institutionalized. Academic scholars like Adolph Bernhard Marx wrote descriptions of the form, often with a normative goal; that is, of stating how works sonata form should be composed. While the first movement form had been the subject of theoretical works, it was seen as the pinnacle of musical technique. Nineteenth century composers were often overtly trained to write in sonata form, and to favor the "Sonata-Allegro" movement form over others.

The 19th century's schematic for writing sonatas diverged from earlier Classical practice, in that it focused more on themes, than on the placement of cadences. The monothematic exposition largely disappeared, and it was expected that the themes of the first and second groups would always contrast in character. More generally, the formal outline of a sonata came to be viewed more in terms of its themes or groups of themes, rather than the sharp differentiation of tonic areas based on cadences. In the Classical period establishing the expectation of a particular cadence, and then delaying or avoiding it was a common way of creating tension, in the 19th century, with its dramatically expanded harmonic vocabulary, sliding away from a cadence did not have the same character of unexpectedness. Instead more distant key regions were established by a variety of other means, including use of increasingly dissonant chords, pedal points, texture, and alteration of the main theme itself.

In the Classical period, the contrast between theme groups, while useful, was not required. The first theme group tended to outline the tonic chord, and the second theme tended to be more "cantabile" in character, but this was far from universal - as Haydn's monothematic expositions, and Beethoven's rhythmic themes show. Because the power of harmonic opposition, both between tonic and dominant and between major and minor, had less force in the Romantic vocabulary, stereotypes of the "character" of themes became stronger. As the theory of the 19th century described the "sonata principle" as one of opposition between two groups of themes, it was thought by many that the characteristic of the first theme should be "masculine", that is strident, rhythmic and implying a dissonance, where as the second theme group should be drawn more from vocal melody, and be "feminine". It is this contrast between "rhythmic" and "singing" which Wagner argued was the core of the tension in music in his very influential work "On Conducting". This lead to the belief among many interpreters and composers that texture was the most important contrast, and that tempo should be used to emphasize this contrast: fast sections were conducted faster, slower sections were conducted or played more slowly.

As with many older terminologies, there are modern readers who find it objectionable or stereotypical to describe musical ideas in gendered terms, see Criticism and sonata form.

By requiring that harmony move with the themes, 19th century sonata form imposed a kind of discipline on composers, and also allowed audiences to feel where the music was by following the appearance of recognizable melodies. However, the sonata form, as an inherited "mold", also created a kind of tension for Romantic composers: the desire to combine poetical expression and academic rigor were often seen as being in conflict.

Later Romantic commentators and theorists detected a "sonata idea", of increasing formalization. They drew a progression of works from Haydn, through Mozart and Beethoven where by more and more movements in a multi-movement work were felt to be in "sonata-allegro form". The theory these theorists present is that originally only first movements were, and then first and often last movements, for example Mozart's "Prague" Symphony, and finally that the "sonata principle" should extend through an entire work - for example Beethoven's String Quartet Opus 59 No. 2 was said to have all four movements in Sonata-Allegro form. By this theorists such as Tovey meant the academically laid out Sonata Form. Charles Rosen has argued that, properly understood, this was always the case that the real "sonata forms", plural, were always present, though this is not universally agreed on.

As the 19th Century progressed, the complexity of sonata form grew, as new ways of moving through the harmony of a work were introduced by Johannes Brahms and Franz Liszt. Instead of focusing exclusively on keys related by the circle of fifths, they used movement along circles based on minor or major triads. Following the trend established by Beethoven, the focus became more and more on the development section. This was in line with the Romantic comparison of music to poetry. Poetic terms, such as "rhapsody" and "recital" and "tone poem" entered music, and increasingly musicians felt that they should not take the repeats in symphonies because there was no point. This changed their interpretation of previous sonata forms.

The Romantic sonata form was an especially congenial mold for Brahms, who felt a strong affinity with the composers of the Classical era. Brahms adopted and extended Beethoven's practice of modulating to more remote keys in the exposition, and combined it with the use of counterpoint in the inner voices of the music. For example, his piano quintet has the first subject in F minor, but the second subject is in C sharp minor, an augmented fifth higher. In the same work, the key scheme of the recapitulation is also altered - the second subject in the recapitulation is in F sharp minor, rather than the F minor of the first subject.

Another force acting on sonata form was the school of composers centering on Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner. They sought to integrate more roving harmonies and unprepared chords into the musical structure, in order to attain both formal coherence and a full expressive range of keys. Increasingly, themes began to have notes which were far from the original key, a procedure later labeled "extended tonality". This trend strongly influenced the next generation of composers, for instance Gustav Mahler. The first movements of several of his symphonies are described as being in sonata form, although they diverge from the standard scheme quite dramatically. Some have even argued that the entirety of his first symphony (in which material from the first movement returns in the fourth movement) is meant to a massive sonata-allegro form.

As the result of these innovations, works became more sectional, composers such as Liszt and Anton Bruckner even began to include explicit pauses in works between sections. The length of sonata movements grew starting in the 1830's. The "Prize Symphony" by Lachner, a work seldom played today, had a first movement longer than any symphonic first movement by Beethoven. The length of whole works also increased correspondingly. Another area where the sonata form expanded was in the realm of "tone poems" or "symphonic poems", which would often use the first movement form, and greatly extended their length versus traditional overtures. Berlioz's "Waverly" overture is almost as long as many middle period Haydn symphonies.

One of the debates in the 19th century was over whether it was acceptable to use the layout of a poem or other literary work to structure a work of instrumental music. The compositional school focused around Liszt and Wagner - the so called "New German School" - argued in favor of literary inspiration, while another camp, centered around Schumann, Brahms, and Hanslick argued that "pure" music should follow the forms laid out by Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. This conflict was eventually internalized and by 1900, while the debate still raged, composers such as Richard Strauss would freely combine program with symphonic structure, such as in the work "An Heroic Life".

Sonata form in the Modern era

In the Modern period, sonata form became unhooked from its traditional harmonic basis. The works of Schoenberg, Debussy, Sibelius and Richard Strauss emphasized different scales other than the traditional major-minor scale and chords which did not establish a tonality clearly. It could be argued that by the 1930's, "sonata form" was merely a rhetorical term for any movement which stated themes, took them apart, and put them back together again. However, even composers of atonal music, such as Roger Sessions and Hartman continued to use outlines which clearly pointed back to the practice of Beethoven and Haydn, even if the method and style were quite different. At the same time, composers such as Sergei Prokofiev, Benjamin Britten and Dmitri Shostakovich revived the idea of a sonata form by more complex and extended use of tonality.

In more recent times, Minimalism has searched for new ways to develop form, and new outlines which, again, while not being based on the same harmonic plan as the Classical sonata, are clearly related to it. An example is Aaron Jay Kernis's Symphony In Waves from the early 1990's.

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