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Elements Of Music: Sonata Essay, Research Paper

The Sonata Christian Corah


In the late 1700’s and early 1800’s the Baroque period gave way to the classical era, introducing many revolutionary new scientific discoveries and theories. This drastically changed the peoples social views and brought on the “age of enlightenment.” With this change in social philosophy came changes in musical trends. One of the most important new trends of the time was a more common use of the sonata. During the Classical era, the sonata evolved into a more restricted role, and in doing so, embodied the new style of musical form for the time.

The sonata originated in Italy and gradually gained popularity over the rest of Europe. During the Baroque period the sonata was composed of several dance movements, however, in the Classical era it changed to a fast-slow style movement, with each movement composed in one of four forms popular during the Classical period. These forms consisted of sonata-allegro, rondo, ternary, and theme and variations. Through history many characteristics of the sonata have remained unchanged; “most sonatas have been instrumental music, without voice parts, absolute music without program; concert or divisional music, without social function; solo or chamber music for one to four players, without or multiple performance of the parts; cyclic music, in two to four movements rather than one; and broadly conceived music, exhibiting some of the most extended designs of absolute music”(Newman 479). The sonata was played by, and written for, amateur musicians who “practiced and performed for polite society in the comfort of their own homes”(Wright 196). The sonata is a type of chamber music, that gained popularity during the classical era. Sonata translates as, “something played” as opposed to it close cousin, the cantata, which means “something sung”. It was also during this time that the keyboard sonata evolved from harpsichord and clavichord and finally, to the piano (Newman 485). During 1830s the popularity of piano music increased drastically. This was because the Industrial Revolution allowed piano manufacturers to developed methods for building many more pianos at lower costs. Pianos were no longer so expensive that ownership was reserved exclusively for the wealthy. Middle class could also own them and make music at home greatly expanding the musical audience. The sonata was still used at court and to a lesser extent in the church. These locations are mainly due to the Baroque era, however, during the Classical period the sonata took on distinctly different functions. The sonata was a,”diversion of the amateur or dilettante, a launching vehicle for the professional composer and performer, a training resource for the student; an occasional item in private and public concerts; and a conventional music accessory in the church”(Newman 486). The sonata was basically used during small social gatherings, or as musical training. Another, and likely most important function of the sonata was as way for composers to become known. “Every musician who aspired to join the company of composers working for the public generally began his career with keyboard compositions, namely with solo sonatas”(Newman 487).

The first composers to significantly development the sonata during the Classical era were Haydn and Mozart. Little is known about Haydn’s piano sonatas, even though his piano sonatas and string quartets stand apart from most of his other compositions. Haydn’s initial works for the keyboard are reminiscent of the sonata and intended as an instructional aid (Larson 336). Following these, he composed fourteen sonatas. It is unknown who the sonatas were written for. They are difficult pieces to play and display few baroque concerto characteristics. However, they do exhibit “Haydn’s originality and independence of fashion” (Larson 336).

Mozart was one of the sonata’s first great composers, creating short keyboard compositions while still a young child. These compositions are “somewhat mechanical in their textures (with heavy reliance on sequential patterns; much here seems to represent the attentive boy’s exploration of harmonic and textural possibilities”(Plath 687). As the popularity of sonata’s grew, even composers in London began to write pieces in sonata form. The sonatas which were written in London share many of the same characteristics and advancements displaying a, “remarkable grasp of the principles of J.S. Bach’s symphonic style”(Plath 687). Mozart also composed a number of sonatas for use in church which were written for three part strings with the organ continue. Initially these pieces were very short, however, his last church sonatas had larger orchestral support. While living in Vienna, Mozart composed some of his greatest piano sonatas, which shared some characteristics with those composed by Bach. Mozart went on to compose more sonatas while on a trip to Mannheim and Paris. He composed piano sonatas for the Cannabich’s daughter Rosa. Mozart noted that he designed the Andante to depict her. In this composition the contrasts in dynamics, and a sense “expressive affection” are clearly discernable (Plath 697). While Mozart was in Paris, he composed six more piano and violin sonatas. These compositions reflect the local style of the time. Mozart composed only one piece in E minor, “with its paired textures and hesitant wistful manner representing a world of delicate sensibility, its concluding minuet in particular, a rondo or an elegant, pathetic melody of a French cast with a gentle second episode in E major providing harmonic balm”(Plath 697). Mozart’s last sonatas are thought to be composed for the Prussian princess between 1789 and 1791, however, the truth remains unknown.

Another composer who contributed in developing the sonata was Muzio Clementi. Clementi was an acclaimed composer known for his many keyboard pieces. His sonatas gained popularity due to his frequent public concerts. Clementi’s compositions consisted primarily of sonatas and keyboard pieces which extended “from the simplest gallant writing to the rhetorical passion of the romantic piano music”(Plantinga 487). Clementi’s earlier sonatas contain intense dynamics and melodies with broad ranging notes (Plantinga, 462). These elements are also characteristic of those in Beethoven’s early compositions a decade later. Also found in Clementi’s works is “an enduring fondness for uncompromising counterpoint, for two part running figurations, and for various kinds of virtuoso passage work” (Plantinga 487). These sonatas demonstrate Clementi’s mastery of the techniques used in the sonata. They also show movements which demonstrate stable structure. The movements show advancements in structural integrity and a successful blending of the diverse techniques used in previous sonatas (Plantinga 487). Clementi’s later sonatas are renown for their modernness, experimental form, and extensiveness. In 1802, Clementi published three large-scale sonatas. “They are technically demanding and experimental in form. All three of these sonatas are notably long; all show multiple themes and extended stretches of passage work only tenuously related to those themes, creating an effect of prolixity new to Clementi’s music” (Plantinga 488). In his later years of composing, Clementi earned a reputation that rested almost solely on his ability to compose for the piano. He was even referred to as the, “father of the pianoforte sonata” (Plantinga 489). It has taken time for awareness of Clementi’s contribution to the development of the sonata to be recognized. Recognition of the influence Clementi had on other great composers of the sonata, such as Beethoven, has increased throughout music history. Haydn, Mozart, and Clementi set the stage for one of the greatest master composers, Ludwig van Beethoven, who also contributed immensely to the evolution of the piano sonata. Early in his life he established himself as a great pianist and composer for the piano. During this time Beethoven produced one of his most celebrated works, the Sonata Pathetique. Sonata Pathetique possessed, “a certain intellectual and imaginative quality”(Kerman 379). During this time Beethoven composed sonatas in four movements instead of three. His later works, such as the Piano Sonates in E Minor, incorporated a new feature of intimacy and delicacy (Kerman 385). A growing interest in folk music compelled Beethoven to seek a new and more sophisticated style use for the sonata (Kerman 385). This new interest acquired by Beethoven resulted in a new level of development for the sonata. Through his use of a new type of variation, Beethoven showed that the different parts express a greater individuality and a completely changed view of the original theme. “The theme seems transformed or probed to its fundamentals, rather than merely varied”(Kerman 385). Beethoven’s last great sonata was the Sonata in B Flat, also known as The Hammerklavier. Written from 1817 to 1818, it also represented a huge point of change in Beethoven’s style. “The Hammerklavier paradoxically represents a reaction, in that Beethoven reverted to the traditional four-movement pattern in place of the fluid formal experiments of the sonatas of 1814, and turned away from their tone of lyrical intimacy”(Kerman 387).

The sonata originally began as a four or five movement genre. During the classical era, it evolved into a fast-slow-fast movement style, and eventually developed into music composed almost solely for the keyboard. Though during the Classical era it was performed mostly by amateurs for a more modest audience, or simply for practice alone, the sonata was able to gain worldwide fame and play a key role in the development of Classical music. The sonata has played an essential role in the careers of many of the traditionally accepted great composers of the Baroque and Classical eras. Joseph Kerman expresses what the sonata embodies most when he states that the sonata was able to establish, ” a new basic level of human contact through basic song” (Kerman, 385).


Kerman, Joseph and Alan Tyson. “Beethoven, Ludwig van.” The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. vol. 2. London: Macmillan Publishers, 1980.

Larson, Peter. “Haydn, Joseph.” The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. vol. 8 London: Macmillan Publishers, 1980.

Newman, William S. “Classical Sonata.” The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. vol. 17. London: Macmillan Publishers, 1980.

Plantinga, Leon. “Clementim, Muzio.” The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. vol. 4. London: Macmillan Publishers, 1980.

Plath, Wolfgang. “Wolfgang Amadeus.” The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. vol. 12. London: Macmillan Publishers, 1980. The New Oxford History of Music. 10 vol. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1954-86.

Wright, Craig. “Listening to Music.” 2nd edition. St. Paul: West Publishing Company, 1996.

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