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Sonata form

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Sonata form refers to both the standard layout of an entire musical composition and more specifically to the standardized form of the first movement. The latter is also referred to as sonata-allegro form. Sonata form is both a way of organizing the composition of a work and a way of analyzing an existing work. While described and named in the early 19th century, the models for the form were works of the classical period, most specifically Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, and the form is rooted in the schematics described in the late 18th century. The standard description of the sonata form is rooted in the common practice period of harmony, though more modern descriptions of theorists such as Heinrich Schenker and Charles Rosen argue that there is a single tonal background which defines all sonata movements.

This is not to be confused with the term sonata, which applies both to a genre of works, and to works which exemplify sonata form. This article deals with the formal outline as it would be taught in a composition class.


Use of the term

A sonata-allegro movement is divided into sections. It may begin with an introduction, which is generally slower than the main movement, and then proceeds to the exposition. The exposition presents the primary thematic material for the movement: one or two theme groups, often in contrasting styles and in opposing keys, bridged by a transition. The exposition typically concludes with a closing theme and/or a codetta. The transition leads to the development where the harmonic and textural possibilities of the thematic material are explored, and which then transitions to the recapitulation where the thematic material returns in the tonic key. The work may conclude with a coda, or "tail" beyond the final cadence of the recapitulation.

Sonata form is also used to describe the layout of a multi-movement work. The three movement or concerto form has a sonata-allegro first movement, a slow movement as the second movement, and a fast movement, though not necessarily an allegro, as the final movement. The four movement or symphony form adds a dance movement either before or after the slow movement.

Pieces for orchestra that bear the form of a sonata are referred to as concertos or symphonies, with or without soloists, respectively. Chamber works in sonata form are typically named after the ensemble: for example, string quartet, piano trio, wind quintet, or for the instrument playing with piano accompaniment. For example, a "cello sonata" generally refers to a sonata for cello and piano, whereas a "sonata for cello solo" would be for the cello alone.

The terms Sonata-Allegro, Sonata Form, First Movement Form, all describe the same process. The sonata form became almost standard for the first movement of a symphony, especially in the period 1780 to 1900. These movements are also often marked allegro, hence the names 'Sonata-Allegro Form' and 'First Movement Form'.

Outline of sonata form

The standard description of the sonata form is as follows:

Introduction: This section is optional, or may be reduced to a minimum. If it is extended, it is generally slower than the main section, and focuses on the dominant key. It may or may not contain material which is later stated in the exposition. The introduction increases the weight of the movement, and also permits the composer to begin the exposition with a theme that would be too light to start on its own, as in Symphony No. 103 (Haydn: Drumroll Symphony). Usually, but not always, the introduction is excluded from the exposition repeat.

Occasionally the material of introduction reappears in its original tempo later in the movement. Often, this occurs in the coda, as in Mozart's string quintet K. 593, the Drumroll Symphony, or Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 8 (Pathetique).

Exposition: the primary thematic material for the movement is presented. This section can be further divided into:

  • First subject group this consists of one or more themes, all of them in the home key. So if the piece is in C major, all of the music in the first group will be in C major.
  • Transition in this section the composer modulates from the key of the first subject to the key of the second.
  • Second subject group one or more themes in a different key to the first group. If the first group is in a major key, the second group will usually be in the dominant, or which ever key is to fill the dominant role in the movement. In pieces in a major key this will be the perfect fifth higher, for example if the original key is C major, the key of the music of the second group will be G major. If the first group is in a minor key, the second group will generally be in the relative major, so that if the original key is C minor, the second group will be in E flat major. The material of the second subject is often different in rhythm or mood from that of the first subject (frequently, it is more lyrical).
  • Codetta the purpose of this section is to bring the exposition section to a close with a perfect cadence in the same key as the second group. Often the codetta contains a sequence of themes, each of which arrives at a perfect cadence. The whole of the exposition may then be repeated. Often the last measure or measures of the exposition are slightly different between the repeats, one to point back to the tonic, where the exposition began, and the second to point towards the development.

Development: generally starts in the same key as the exposition ended, and may move through many different keys during its course. It will usually consist of one or more themes from the exposition altered and occasionally juxtaposed and may include new material or themes - though exactly what is acceptable practice is a famous point of contention. Alterations include taking material through distant keys, breaking down of themes and sequencing of motifs, and so forth.

The development varies greatly in length from piece to piece, sometimes being relatively short compared to the exposition and in other cases quite long and detailed. However, it almost always shows a greater degree of tonal, harmonic and rhythmic instability than the other sections. At the end, the music will turn towards the home key and enter the recapitulation. The transition from the development to the recapitulation is a key moment in the work.

Recapitulation: this is an altered repeat of the exposition, and consists of:

  • First subject group usually in exactly the same form as it appeared in the exposition.
  • Transition now altered so that it does not change key, but remains in the piece's home key.
  • Second subject group and codetta usually in the same form as in the exposition, but now in the same key as the first group. If the first group was in a minor key, the second group and codetta may be shifted into the minor for the recapitulation. On rare occasions may be in the parallel major key (for example, C minor/C major).

Coda: After the final cadence of the recapitulation, the movement may continue into a "tail", which will contain material from the movement proper. Codas, when present, vary considerably in length, but, like introductions, are not part of the "argument" of the work, however it ends with a perfect cadence in the home key. Codas may be quite brief tailpieces, or they may very long and elaborate; a famous example is the finale of Beethoven's Symphony No. 8. Further examples of extended codas from Beethoven include the first movement from the Piano Sonata No. 23 (Appassionata) and also the third movements from the Piano Sonata No. 14 (Moonlight) and the Piano Sonata No. 17 (Tempest).

Some, in lieu of the above terminology, refer to the "principal theme" and "second theme" (abbreviated P. and S., respectively) instead of the first and second subject groups as well as the "closing" (abbreviated Cl.) instead of the codetta. Parts of the sonata form are also sometimes called the "main" and "subordinate theme" or the first and second "subjects".

Monothematic expositions

It is not necessarily the case that the move to the dominant key in the exposition is marked by a new theme. Haydn in particular was fond of using the opening theme, often in a truncated or otherwise altered form, to announce the move to the dominant. Mozart, despite his prodigious melodic gift, also occasionally wrote such expositions, for instance in the piano sonata K. 570 or the string quintet K. 593. Such expositions are often called monothematic, meaning that one theme serves to establish the opposition between tonic and dominant keys. This term is misleading: most "monothematic" works have multiple themes: most works so labelled have additional themes in the second subject group. Only on occasion (for example, in Haydn's string quartet Op. 50 no. 1) did composers perform the tour de force of writing a complete sonata exposition with just one theme: another more recent example is Edmund Rubbra's 2nd Symphony.

That monothematic expositions usually have additional theme is used by Charles Rosen to illustrate his theory that the Classical sonata form's crucial element is that the arrival of the dominant be dramatized in some way. Using a new theme was a very common way to achieve this effect, but other resources such as changes in texture, salient cadences and so on were also accepted practice.

Modulation to keys other than the dominant

The key of the second subject may be something other than the dominant or the relative major. About halfway through his career, Beethoven began to experiment with other tonal relationships between the tonic and the second subject group. Most commonly, both in Beethoven and other composers, the mediant or submediant, rather than the dominant, is used for the second group. For instance, the Waldstein sonata, in C major, modulates to the mediant E major, while the Hammerklavier sonata, in B-flat major, modulates to the submediant G major.

Modulations within the first subject group

The first subject group need not be entirely in the tonic key. In the more complex sonata expositions there can be brief modulations to fairly remote keys, followed by reassertion of the tonic. Thus, Mozart's String quintet in C, K. 515 visits C minor, D-flat major, and D major before finally moving to the dominant of G major.

Sonata form in concertos

An important variant on traditional sonata-allegro form is found in the first movement of the Classical concerto. Here, the orchestra usually prepares for the entrance of the soloist by playing some of the themes that will be heard during the main part of the movement, a sort of introduction but in the main tempo. The soloist then enters, sometimes with material of its own (as in Mozart's twentieth piano concerto memorably, and others), and continues with a sonata-form exposition usually, but not always, closely related to that opening orchestral introduction. (With Mozart, for instance, some of the most memorable themes of that opening orchestral tutti are held off until the development. In his twenty-fifth piano concerto one of them, which hadn't been heard since then, becomes the main subject of the development. One of the earliest books ever devoted to his concertos, by Cuthbert Girdlestone, pointed this out often.)

Towards the end of the recapitulation, there is usually a cadenza for the soloist alone. This has an improvisatory character (it may or may not actually be improvised) and serves, generally, to prolong the harmonic tension on a dominant chord before the orchestra ends the piece in the tonic.

The history of sonata form

Main article: History of sonata form

The term sonata is first found in the seventeenth century, when instrumental music had just begun to separate itself from vocal music. Originally "sonata" (derived from the Italian word, suonare, to play) meant a piece for playing, in distinction to "cantata," a piece for singing. For some time the term sonata did not imply a definite type of form.

Sonata form came to dominate many forms of musical composition during the Classical era, and was defined and made central to concert music in the Romantic era. It has continued to be influential through the subsequent history of classical music through the modern period. The 20th century saw a wealth of scholarship that sought to place the structure of the sonata form on basic tonal laws.

Sonata form and other musical forms

Sonata form shares characteristics with both binary form and ternary form. In terms of key relationships, it is very like binary form, with a first half moving from the home key to the dominant and the second half moving back again (this is why sonata form is sometimes known as compound binary form); in other ways it is very like ternary form, being divided into three sections, the first (exposition) of a particular character, the second (development) in contrast to it, the third section (recapitulation) the same as the first.

The early binary sonatas (more than 500) by Dominico Scarlatti provide excellent examples of the transition from binary to sonata-allegro form. Among the many sonatas are numerous examples of the true sonata form being crafted into place. During the 18th century many other composers like Scarlatti were discovering this same musical form by experimenting at their keyboards harmonically and melodically.

Theory of the sonata form

The sonata form is a guide to composers as to the schematic for their works, for interpreters to understand the grammar and meaning of a work, and listeners to understand the significance of musical events. A host of musical details are determined by the harmonic meaning of a particular note, chord or phrase. The sonata form, because it describes the shape and hiearchy of a movement, tells performers what to emphasize and how to shape phrases of music. The theory of the "sonata form" begins with the description, in the 1700's, of schematics for works, and was codified in the early 19th century. This codified form is still used as the basic pedagogy of the sonata form.

In the 20th century, emphasis moved from the study of themes and keys to how harmony changed through the course of a work and the importance of cadences and transitions in establishing a sense of "closeness" and "distance in a sonata". The work of Heinrich Schenker and his ideas about "foreground", "middleground" and "background" became enormously influential in the teaching of composition and interpretation. Schenker believed that inevitability was the key hallmark of a successful composer, and that therefore works in the sonata form would demonstrate an inevitable logic.

In the simplest example, playing of a cadence should be in relationship to the importance of that cadence in the overall form of the work. More important cadences are emphasized by pauses, dynamics, sustaining and so on. False or deceptive cadences are given some of the characteristics of a real cadence, and then this impression is undercut by going forward more quickly. For this reason changes in performance practice bring changes to the understanding of the relative importance of various aspects of the sonata form. In the classical era, the importance of sections and cadences and underlying harmonic progressions gives way to an emphasis on themes. The clarity of strongly differentiated major and minor sections gives way to a more equivocal sense of key and mode. These changes produce changes in performance practice: when sections are clear, then there is less need to emphasize the points of articulation. When they are less clear, greater importance is placed on varying the tempo during the course of the music to give "shape" to the music.

Over the last half century a critical tradition of examining scores, autographs, annotations and the historical record has changed, sometimes subtly, occasionally dramatically, the way in which the sonata form is viewed. It has led to changes in the way works are edited, for example, the phrasing of Beethoven's Piano works has undergone a shift to longer and longer phrases which are not always in lock step with the cadences and other formal markers of the sections of the underlying sonata form. Compare the recordings of Schnabel from the beginning of the recording era, with those of Barenboim, and then Pratt shows a distinct shift in how the structure of the sonata form is presented to the listener over time.

For composers, the sonata form is like the plot of a play or movie script, describing when the crucial plot points are, and the kinds of material that should be used to connect them into a coherent and orderly whole. At different times the sonata form has been taken to be quite rigid, and at other times a freer interpretation has been generally considered permissible. Questions such as whether themes may be presented in the "wrong" keys or the "reverse order" show eras with a stricter understanding of sonata form.

Musical criticism and sonata form

Due to its centrality to classical music, the sonata form has been a topic of interest to musical critics ever since its origin. For full discussion, see Criticism and sonata form.

See also

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