About Maximapedia

Sonata Forms

SONATA FORMS, in music. The sonata forms (see SONATA above) cover the whole ground of instrumental music from C. P. E. Bach to the advent of the instrumental lyric as matured by Schumann and of the symphonic poem originated by Liszt. They also have a profound influence on classical opera and vocal music, and hence, by repulsion, upon Wagner, whose life-work consisted in emancipating the music-drama from them. The conditions which developed them were the conditions which made Gluck's reform of opera possible; for they are at once the means and the expression of that iSth-century change in the language of music which made it a truly dramatic medium. Hence our present task is the discussion of the largest and most central problems pure music has ever dealt with; and, while the external technicalities are numerous and prominent, they are significant only so long as we maintain their connexion with those problems with which the true masters (and only the true masters) of the sonata forms are concerned. Much, then, that is essential to the true sonata forms must come under the headings of instrumentation, harmony, and other musical categories. But here we must confine ourselves to the purely formal aspect, allowing only such allusion to other aspects as will help us to see behind superficial appearances.

i. The Sonata Style. The sonata forms are representative of the type of music that attracts us primarily by its design and its larger contrasts, and only in the second place by the vitality of its texture. In Bach's art the reverse is the case; we listen chiefly to the texture, and our delight in the larger designs, though essential, is seldom more than subconscious. Art-forms existed already in Bach's time, in which the shape, and not the texture, was the object of attention, but these were lighter forms. Bach himself was the greatest master of them, but he never transcended what was then their legitimate limit as an art which is related to his larger work much as decorative designs are related to architecture. Bach's suites and partitas (see SUITE) contain (apart from their great preludes, in which other principles are involved) one form embodied in several different dance rhythms, which is the germ from which the sonata was developed. It is sometimes known as the " binary " form; but as some eminent writers classify its later development as " ternary," we shall here avoid both terms, and refer to it in its earlier manifestations as the " suite " form, and in its later as the " sonata " form. In the suite it may be represented by the following diagram:

where the long horizontal line represents the main key, the short horizontal lines represent a second key, the perpendicular line represents the division into two portions, 1 and the letters represent the phrases. This form is often typified in the compass of a single melody without change of key or marked division, as in that beautiful English tune " Barbara Allen," where the half-close on the dominant in the fourth bar is symmetrically reproduced as the full close on the tonic at the end (see MELODY, example i). On a larger scale it admits of great variety and elaboration, but the style of the classical suite never allows it to become much more than the musical analogue of a pattern on a plate. The passage from the material in the main key to that in the foreign key (from A to B in the above diagram) is continuous and unnoticeable, nor is the second part of the design which leads to the return of B in the tonic noticeably different in style or movement from the earlier part. It has a slightly greater range of key, for the sake of variety, but no striking contrast. Lastly, the rhythms, and such texture as is necessary to keep the details alive, are uniform throughout.

Now, the essential advance shown by the true sonata forms involves a direct denial of all these features of the suite style. No doubt one natural consequence of working on a larger scale is that the sonata composer tends to use several contrasting themes where the suite composer used only one; and an equally natural consequence is that the shape itself is almost invariably amplified by the introduction of a recapitulation of A as well as of B in the tonic, so that our diagram would become modified into the following:

DtwtcpTTient varvmis fays But these facts do not constitute a vital difference between sonata and suite forms. They do not, for instance, enable composers like Boccherini and the later Italian violin writers to emancipate themselves from the influence of the suite forms, though the designs may be enlarged beyond the bursting point. The real difference lies, indeed, in every category of the art, but primarily* in a variety of rhythm that carries with it an entirely new sense of motion, and enables music to become not only, as hitherto, architectural in grandeur and decorative in detail, but dramatic in range. The gigue of Bach's C major suite for violoncello, and the allemande of his D major clavier partita, will show that the suite forms were amply capable of digesting a non-polyphonic style and a group of several contrasted themes; but they still show the uniformity of rhythm and texture which confines them to the older world in which visible symmetry of form is admissible only on a small scale. Haydn can write a movement, perhaps shorter than some of Bach's larger dance movements, containing only one theme and mainly polyphonic in texture, as in the finale of his tiny string quartet in D minor, Op. 42; but the transformations of his one theme will be contrasted in structure, the changes of rhythm will be a continual surprise, the passage from the first key to the second will be important and emphatic, and at every point the difference in scope between his sonata music and Bach's suite music will be as radical as that between drama and lyric. The process of this change was gradual; indeed, no artistic revolution of such importance can ever have been accomplished more smoothly and rapidly. Yet Philipp Emmanuel Bach, the first to realize the essentials of the new style, obtained his object only at the cost of older elements that are essential to artistic completeness. And Haydn himself was hardly able to reinfuse such vitality of texture as would give the new form permanent value, before he was forty years of age.

Haydn's earlier string quartets, from Op. i to Op. 33, present one of the most fascinating spectacles of historical development in all music. He was content to begin at a lower level of brilliance 1 In all stages of development it has been usual to repeat at least the first portion. The repetition is indicated by a sign and may be ignored in analysis, though Haydn, Beethoven and Brahms have sometimes produced special effects by it. The repetition of the second part is now obsolete, and that of the first nearly so.

than some of his contemporaries; because from the outset his object was the true possibilities o.f the new style, and no luxuriance of colour could blind him to the lifelessness of an art that is merely suite-form spun out. Haydn's earliest quick movements in sonata forms are often as short as any suite movement, except when he writes for orchestra, where he is influenced by the style of the operatic overture as we find it in Gluck and in the symphonies of Philipp Emmanuel Bach In his slow movements he at first more often than not worked in the style and form of the operatic aria; and in so mature a piece as the quartet in G major, Op. 17, No. 5, he not only endorses Philipp Emmanuel Bach's evident conviction that operatic recitative is within the scope of the sonata, but convinces us that he is right. It was easy for the early composers of sonatas to introduce theatrical features into their instrumental music; for the very fact that the sonata forms were in polyphonic days the forms of lighter music is a consequence of their original identity with the forms of stage-music and dance (see OVERTURE and SYMPHONY). But it needed a very great composer to realize not only the radically dramatic character of a sonata form in which the rhythm and texture is emancipated from the metrical bondage of the suite, but also its true limitations as pure instrumental music. As Haydn's work' proceeded, so did the freedom of his rhythm and its consequent inner dramatic life increase; while the external operatic influences soon disappeared, not so much because they were out of place, as because opera itself " paled its ineffectual fires " in the daylight of the pure instrumental drama with its incomparably swifter and terser action. Polyphony, on the other hand, steadily increased, and was so openly encouraged that in the first set of Haydn's quartets which is entirely free from archaism (Op. 20) three of the finales are regular fugues. And from that time onward there is hardly a work of Haydn's in which highly organised fugalo passages are not a frequent means of contrast. 2. The Sonata Form. In the last-mentioned quartets of Haydn and the works of Mozart's boyhood, the normal sonata form, as we now accept it, is firmly established, and may be represented as follows:

subject ?" subject Rapi Rapidly nujiittla/uig i" subject .- I RECAPITULATION I This diagram is, no doubt, equally true of Philipp Emmanuel Bach's form; and thus we see how little the external shape of a movement tells us as to the ripeness or genuineness of the specimen. Apart from this, much confusion of thought is caused by the unfortunate terms " first and second subject," which have misled not only many teachers but nearly all pseudoclassical composers into regarding the exposition of the movement as consisting essentially of two themes expanded to the requisite size by appropriate discourse. When we use the terms " first and second subject," then, let us be understood to mean any number of different themes, in any variety of proportion, but separable into two groups of which the first is in the tonic while the second is in another related key, which is called the complementary key. The exposition of a movement in sonata form contains, then, these two "subjects" and represents these two keys; and unless the work is too large or too emotional for merely decorative emphasis, the exposition is generally repeated. Then the development follows. It is normally founded on the materials of the exposition, but neither confines itself steadily to any key nor leaves its material as it found it. On the contrary, its function is to provide a wide range of modulation, and to put the materials into fresh light by regrouping them (see MELODY, examples 2-7). It cannot be too strongly insisted that in the sonata forms there are no rules whatever for the number of themes and their relative prominence among themselves and in their development. After the development the first subject returns in the tonic, with an effect which, after so many changes of key, is always reassuring as regards design, and sometimes intensely dramatic. The second subject follows, also in the tonic. This recapitulation is normally very exact, except for the alteration necessary to bring the second subject into the tonic instead of the complementary key, an alteration which, of course, will chiefly affect the first subject, if, indeed, the original transition was not so simple that it could be merely suppressed. In highly organized works, however, this point is often marked by some special stroke of genius, and even in the most exact recapitulations the great masters make minute changes which throw the second subject into higher relief. Modern criticism tends to dismiss the recapitulation as a conventional and obsolescent feature; but this is a great mistake. The classics, from Scarlatti to Brahms, give overwhelming proof that it is a primary instinct of composers with a living sense of form to conceive of all kinds of exposition as predestined to gain force by recapitulation, especially in any part that resembles a second subject. Haydn we shall find to be an extreme case; but we have only to regard his true second subject as residing in the very end of his exposition, and his mature work will then illustrate the point with special force. Beethoven seems to give one notorious detail to the contrary effect, in the first movement of his C minor symphony, but the passage only proves the rule more forcibly when seen in its context. The powerful phrase that announced the second subject is in the recapitulation transferred from the resounding triumph of the horns to the impotent croaking fury of the bassoons. This looks like a mere inconvenient result of the fact that in 1808 the horns could not transfer the phrase from E flat to C without a change of crook. But in earlier works Beethoven has made them change crooks on far less provocation; and besides, he could easily have contrived a dozen tone-colours more dignified than that of the bassoons. The point must, then, be one of Beethoven's touches of Shakespearian grotesqueness; and certainly it draws attention to the recapitulation. But even if we dismiss it with impatience we are then immediately confronted with a new melodic and harmonic poignancy in the subsequent crescendo, produced by changes as unobtrusive and as essential to the life of the whole as are the deviations from mechanical symmetry in the forms of leaves and flowers. With the recapitulation the bare essentials of sonata form end; but the material will probably, in works on a large scale, furnish ample means of adding a more emphatic conclusion, which is then called the coda. In Beethoven's hands the coda ranges from a dramatic non-existence, as in the distant thunder in which the first movement of the D minor sonata expires, to the mighty series of new developments and climaxes which, in the 3rd and pth symphonies and many other works, tower superbly above the normal structure. Haydn's later treatment of sonata form is very free. He shows a sense of space and breadth which, if second to Beethoven's, can only be said to be so because the terms of Haydn's art did not give it fuller expression. The scale on which he worked was so small that he soon found that a regular recapitulation took up all the room he wanted for larger growths to a brilliant climax. Moreover, he found that if his second subject began with material in sharp contrast to the first, it tended to make his movements sound too undeveloped and sectional for his taste; and so in his later works he generally makes his second subject on the same material as his first, until the very end of the exposition, where an exquisitely neat new theme forms the close. This cadence-theme also rounds off the whole movement with an appearance of regularity which has led to the belief that Haydn, like Mozart, observes a custom of rigid recapitulation from which Beethoven was the first to emancipate the form. The truth is that the brilliant new developments which oust the recapitulation almost entirely in Haydn's form are more like Beethoven's codas than anything else in earlier music, and the final appearance of the neat cadence-theme at the end is, from its very formality, the most brilliant stroke of all. Lastly, these tendencies are characteristic, not of Haydn's early, but of his late work. They have been described as " showing form in the making "; but this is far from true. They show form in an advanced state of development; and further progress was only possible by the introduction" of new qualities which at first had a decidedly restraining effect.

Mozart's greater regularity is due, not to a more formalizing tendency than Haydn's, but to the fact that he works on a larger scale and with a higher polyphony. In actual length, Mozart's movements are so much greater than Haydn's that sharply contrasted themes and regular recapitulations do not hamper him. On the contrary, they give his designs the necessary breadth. This was not more his aim than Haydn's; but he had the opportunities of a later generation and the example of Haydn's own earlier work, besides a vast experience of composition (both in contrapuntal and sonata forms) that began in his miraculous infancy and made all technical difficulties vanish before he was fifteen. At sixteen he was writing string-quartets in which his blending of polyphonic and sonata style is more surprising, though less subtle, than Haydn's. At "twenty-two he was treating form with an expansiveness which sometimes left his music perilously thin, though he was never merely redundant. The emphatic reiterations in the Paris symphony are not mannerisms or formulas; they are the naturally simple expression of a naturally simple material. In a series of easy-going works of this kind he soon learnt the conditions of breadth on a large scale; and, by the time he came under the direct influence of Haydn, every new polyphonic, rhythmic and instrumental resource enlarged the scale of his designs as fast as it increased their terseness and depth. His career was cut short, and his treatment of form reached its limit only in the direction of emotional expression. The sonata style never lost with him its dramatic character, but, while it was capable of pathos, excitement, and even vehemence, it could not concern itself with catastrophes or tragic climaxes. The G minor symphony shows poignant feeling, but its pathos is not that of a tragedy; it is there from first to last as a result, not a foreboding nor an embodiment, of sad experiences. In the still more profound and pathetic G minor quintet we see Mozart for once transcending his limits. The slow movement rises to a height not surpassed by Beethoven himself until his second period; an adequate finale is unattainable with Mozart's resources, and he knows it. He writes an introduction, beautiful, mysterious, but magnificently reserved, and so reconciles us as he best can to the enjoyment of a lighthearted finale which has only here and there a note of warmth to suggest to us any pretension of compatability with what went before.

Beethoven discovered all the new resources needed to make the sonata a means of tragic expression, and with this a means of expressing a higher rapture than had ever been conceived in music since Palestrina. He did not, as has sometimes been said, emancipate sonata forms from the stiffness of the recapitulation. On the contrary, where he alters that section it is almost invariably in order to have, not less recapitulation, but more, by stating some part of the second subject in a new key before bringing it into the tonic. Here, as has been suggested above, the effect of his devices is, both in minutiae and in surprises, to throw the second subject into higher relief. Every one of the changes which appear in the outward form of his work is a development from within; and, as far as any one principle is more fundamental than others, that development is primarily harmonic. We have elsewhere mentioned his practice of organizing remote or apparently capricious modulations on a steady sequential progression of the bass, thereby causing such harmonies to appear not as mere surprises or special effects (a form in which they have a highly artistic function in Mozart and Haydn) but as inevitable developments (see BEETHOVEN and HARMONY). The result of this and a host of similar principles is an incalculable intensification of harmonic and emotional expression. Let us compare the opening of the second subject of Haydn's quartet in A major, Op. 20, No. 6, with the corresponding passage in the first movement of Beethoven's sonata, Op. 2, No. 2. Haydn executes the masterly innovation of a second subject that before establishing its true key passes through a series of rich modulations. He begins in E minor, rapidly passing through G and A minor, and so to the dominant of E, in various phases of tender humour and cheerful climax. The keys are remote but not unrelated, the modulations are smooth, and the style is that of a witty improvization. Beethoven's second subject is intensely agitated; its modulation begins like Haydn's as regards key, but its harmonies are startling and its pace tremendous. Its regular rising bass carries it in two steps to a totally unrelated key, through which it is urged by the same relentless process with increasing speed, and when it is at last driven to the threshold of the key which it seeks as its home there is a moment of suspense before it plunges joyfully into its cadence. Such resources as this enable Beethoven to give rational dramatic force to every point in his scheme, and so they soon oust those almost symbolical formulas of transition and cadence which are a natural feature in Mozart's music and a lifeless convention in imitations of it. The growth of Beethoven's forms is externally most evident in his new freedom of choice for the complementary key. Hitherto the only possible key for the second subject was in major movements the dominant, and in minor movements the relative major or dominant minor. A sonata which begins by treating all directly related keys as mere incidents in establishing the tonic, will very probably choose some remoter key as its main contrast; and it is worth while trying the opening of the Waldstein sonata (Op. 53) with the simple alteration of C sharp and A natural for C natural and A sharp in the bass of the twenty-first bar, so as to bring the whole transition to the second subject on to the orthodox dominant of G, in order to see, on the one hand, how utterly inadequate that key is as a contrast to the opening, and, on the other hand, how unnecessarily long the transition seems when that is the key which it is intended to establish.

3. The Sonata as a whole. The history of the Waldstein sonata marks the irrevocable transition from Mozart to Beethoven (see iv. 88); and in his rejection of the well-known Andante in F (which was originally intended for its slow movement) Beethoven draws attention to the problem of the sonata as a whole, and the grouping of its movements. The normal sonata, in its complete (or symphonic) form, consists of four movements: firstly, a quick movement in that sonata form par excellence to which our discussion has been hitherto confined; then two middle movements, interchangeable in position, the one a slow movement in some lighter form, and the other a dance movement (the minuet, or scherzo) which in earlier examples is of hardly wider range than a suite movement. The finale is a quick movement, which may be in sonata form, but generally tends to become influenced by the lighter and more sectional rondo form, if indeed it is not a set of variations, or even, in the opposite extreme, a fugue. Aesthetically, if not historically, this general scheme is related to that of the suite, in so far as it places the most elaborate and highly organized movement first, corresponding to the allemande and courante; while the slow movement, with its more lyric character and melodious expression, corresponds to the sarabande; the minuet or scherzo to the lighter dance tunes or " Galanterien " (such as the gavotte and bourree) , and the lively finale to the gigue. But just as the whole language of the sonata is more dramatic, so are the contrasts between its movements at once sharper and more essential to its unity. Hence, the diversity of outward forms within the limits of these four movements is incalculable.

The first movement is almost always in the sonata form par excellence, because that admits of higher organization and more concentrated dramatic interest than any other. Often after such a movement a slow piece in the form conveniently known as A B A, or simple " ternary " form (i.e. a broad melody in one key, followed by a contrasted melody in another, and concluded by a recapitulation of the first) is found to be a welcome relief, and of great breadth of effect. Of course in all true classics the very simplicity of such movements will be inspired by that sense of rhythmic freedom and possibility of development that permanently raises sonata forms from the level of a mere decorative design; nor, on the other hand, is there any limit to the complexity of form possible to a slow movement, except that imposed by the inevitable length of every step in its slow progress. Still, the tendency of slow movements, even more than of finales, is to prefer a loose and sectional organization. Sonata form is frequently used in them by Haydn and Mozart with the success attainable only by the greatest masters of rhythmic flow; but even in their works the development is apt to be episodic in character, and is very often omitted.

The minuet, in Haydn's and Mozart's hands, shows a surprising amount of rhythmic variety and freedom within the limits of a dance tune; but Haydn, as is well known, sighed for its development into something larger; and, though Beethoven had long emerged from his " first period " before he could surpass the splendid minuet in Haydn's quartet in G major, Op. 77, No. i, he achieved in the scherzo of his Eroica symphony the first of a long line of movements which establish the scherzo (q.v.) as an essentially new art-form.

The only condition that affects the forms of finales is that a sonata involves a considerable stretch of time, and therefore its end must be so designed as to relieve the strain on the attention. In a drama or a story the deeper artistic necessity for this is masked by the logic of cause and effect, which automatically produces the form of an intrigue ending in a denouement. In music the necessity appears in its purest form. There is no need for finales to be less serious than first movements; or even, in certain ways, less complex; but the attention which could be aroused at the outset by problems must be maintained at the end by something like a solution. Hence the use of the lighter rondo forms, which, by dividing the work into shorter and more distinct sections, make the development easier without unduly limiting its range. Hence, also, the influence of rondo style upon such finales as are cast in true sonata form; and hence, lastly, the paradox that the fugue has occasionally been found a possible means of expression for the finale of a dramatic sonata. For the complexity of the fugue, though incessant, is purely a complexity of texture, and the mind in following that texture instinctively abandons any effort to follow the form at all, finding repose in the change of its interests.

Now, just as within the typical scheme of first and second subject development and recapitulation in the first movement, there is room for genius in the contrasting of different rhythms and proportions, so, within the limits of the simple four- movement scheme of the whole sonata is there room for genius in the contrast of various types and degrees of organization. The complete four-movement scheme seldom appears in works for less than three instruments. Beethoven was the first to adopt it for solo sonatas, and he soon thought fit to make omissions. In Haydn's work for less than four instruments it was not even necessary that the " sonata " form itself should be represented at all. Its essential spirit could be realized in the melodic and rhythmic freedom of a group or couple of more sectional movements, nor did Beethoven (in Op. 26 and Op. 2 7, No. i) consider such works unworthy of the name of sonata, or (in Op. 54) incapable of expressing some of his most original ideas. No design is known to pure instrumental music that is not possible as a movement of a sonata, if it has the characteristic freedom of rhythm and is not much over a quarter of an hour in length. There is no form that has not been so applied; and, indeed, the only instrumental form that has maintained a larger development outside than inside the scheme of the sonata is that of variations (q.v.).

As the scope and complexity of the sonata style grew, so did the interdependence of its movements become more evident. With Mozart and Haydn it is already vital, as we have seen in the crucial case of Mozart's G minor quintet; but the differences between one scheme and another are not remarkable until we study them closely; and, except in key-relationship, it would be difficult to trace anything more concrete than principles of contrast as interacting between one movement and another. But Beethoven's dramatic power finds as free expression in the contrasts between whole movements as it finds within the movements themselves. In his later works, the increase in harmonic range, with the consequent prominence of remoter key- relationships, necessitating the dwelling on these keys at greater length causes the key-system of each movement to react on the others to an extent that would be purposeless in the art of Haydn and Mozart. Thus in the B flat trio, Op. 97, we find such remote keys as G major, D flat and D major placed in positions of great functional importance, until we come to the finale, which keeps us in suspense by its very low and quiet key-colour, contrasting so oddly with its bacchanalian temper. But when the whole main body of this finale has passed before us in the drab colours of tonic, dominant and sub-dominant, the coda marvellously explains everything by opening with an enharmonic modulation to the most distant key yet attained except as a transitory modulation.

As Beethoven proceeded, his growing sense of the functional expression of musical forms enabled him to modify and strengthen them until their interaction was as free as its principles were exact. In the C sharp minor quartet (Op. 131) the opening fugue is functionally an enormously developed introduction. The following allegro, in the startling key of D major, the " artificial " flat supertonic, is a first movement, with its development suppressed, and with certain elements of rondo style as a necessary contrast to the preceding fugue. The startling effect produced by this key of D major necessitates a simple and limited key-system within the movement itself, thus accounting for the absence of a development. The remaining movements fall into their place among the keys that lie between the keys of D major and C sharp minor. Thus the slow movement (to which the brief allegro moderato forms a dramatic introduction) is a great set of variations in A major, and the strictness of its variation form allows no change of key until the two brilliant bursts of remoter harmony, F and C, in the coda. Then follows a scherzo of extremely simple design, in E major, with a small part of its trio in A. A short introduction in G sharp minor, the dominant, completes the circle of related keys and leads to the finale which (though cast in a compound of rondo and sonata form that would allow it a free range of modulation) contents itself with very simple changes, until towards the end, where it systematically demonstrates the exact relationship of that first surprising key of D major to C sharp minor.

4. The Unity of the Sonata. The gigantic emotional range of Beethoven's work is- beyond the scope of technical discussion, except in so far as the technical devices themselves suggest their emotional possibilities. The struggle between decadence and reaction since the time of Beethoven indicates on the one side the desire to rival or surpass Beethoven in emotional expression without developing the necessary artistic resources; and, on the other side, a tendency to regard form as a scheme which the artist first sets up and then fills out with material. Early in the 1pth century these tendencies gave rise to controversies which are not yet settled; and before we discuss what has taken place since Beethoven we must consider the connexion between sonata movements in a last new light.

Historical views of art are apt to be too exclusively progressive and to regard higher and lower degrees of organization in an art-form as differing like truth and falsehood. But in trying to prove that the megatherium could not survive under present conditions, we must beware of arguing that it never existed; nor must we cite the fact that man is a higher organism in order to argue that a jelly-fish is neither organic nor alive. Organization in art, as elsewhere, may be alive and healthy in its lowest forms. The uniformity of key in the suite forms is low organization; but it is not inorganic until a mild seeker after novelty, like A. G. Muffat, tries to introduce more keys than it will hold. The interdependence of movements in Haydn and Mozart is not such high organization as the ideal form of the future, in which there is no more breaking up of large instrumental works into separate movements at all; but neither is it a mere survival from the decorative contrasts of the suite. Evolutionists must not forget that in art, as in nature, the survival of the fit means the adaptability to environment. And the immortal works of art bring their proper environment with them into later ages.

The large instrumental forms have, until recent times, remained grouped into sonata movements, because their expression is so concentrated and their motion so swift that they cannot, within the limits of a single design, give the mind time to dwell on the larger contrasts they themselves imply. Thus, in the " Sonata Appassionata," the contrast between the first subject and the main theme of the second is magnificent; but that calm second theme lasts just the third part of a minute before it breaks off. Now, though the third part of a minute bears about the same proportion to the whole design as five hundred lines does to the design of Paradise Lost; though, moreover, this theme recurs three times later on, once in an exact recapitulation, and twice transformed in terribly tragic climaxes; yet the mind refuses to be whirled in less than ten minutes through a musical tragedy of such Shakespearian power without opportunity for repose in a larger scheme of contrasts than any attainable by the perfection and breadth of the single design within these limits. Hence the need for the following slow set of variations on an intensely quiet tune, which, by its rigorous confinement to the tonic of a nearly related key, its perfect squareness of rhythm, and the absolute simplicity and strictness of its variations, reveals the true pathos of the first movement by contrast with its own awful repose; until its last chord, the first in a new key, falls like a stroke of fate, and carries us headlong into the torrent of a finale in which nothing dares oppose itself to those sublime forces that make the terror of tragedy more beautiful than any mere appeal for sympathy. Thus the dramatic interdependence of sonata movements is very strict. Yet the treatment by each movement of its own thematic material is so complete that there is little or no scope for one movement to make use of the themes of another. Such instances as may be suspected in Beethoven's later works (for example, the similarity of opening themes in various movements of the sonatas, Op. 106 * and Op. no) are too subtle to be felt more than subconsciously; while the device of clearly quoting an earlier movement occurs only in three intensely dramatic situations (the introductions to the finales in Op. 101, the violoncello sonata, Op. 102, No. i, and the gth symphony) where its whole point is that of a surprise.

5. The Sonata since Beethoven. It is unlikely that really vital sonata work will ever be based on a kind of Wagnerian Leitmotif system, until the whole character of instrumental form shall have attained the state of things in which the movements are not separated at all. There has been no ambitious or " progressive " composer since Beethoven who has not, almost as a matter of etiquette, introduced the ghosts of his earlier movements into his finale, and defended the procedure as the legitimate consequence of Beethoven's Op. 101. But, while there is no a priori reason for condemning such devices, they illustrate no principle, new or old. The nearest approach to some such principle is furnished once by Schumann, who always ingeniously adapts the outward forms of the sonata to his own peculiar style of epigrammatic and antithetic expression, discarding as beyond his scope the finer aspects of freedom and continuity of rhythm, and constructing works which bear much the same relation to the classical sonata as an elaborate mosaic bears to an easel-picture. Dealing thus with a looser and more artificial typeof organization, Schumann was ablein his D minor symphony to construct a large work in which the movements are thermatically connected to an extent which in more highly organized works would appear like poverty of invention, but which here furnishes a rich source of interest. Many other experiments have been tried since Beethoven, by composers whose easy mastery is that of the artist who, from long practice in putting material into a ready-made form, becomes interested in the construction of new ready-made forms into which he can continue to put the same material. A sense of beauty is not a thing to be despised, even in pseudo-classical art; and neither the many beautiful, if mannered, works of Spohr, which disguise one stereotyped form in a bewildering variety of instrumental 1 In Op. 106 the first two notes of the slow movement were an afterthought added (as Beethoven told his publisher) for the purpose of producing such a connexion.

and literary externals, nor the far more important and essentially varied works of Mendelssohn deserve the contempt which has been the modern correction for their high position in their day. But we must not forget that the subject of sonata forms is no mere province, but covers the whole of classical instrumental music; and we must here pay attention only to the broadest essentials of its central classics, mentioning what diverges from them only in order to illustrate them. Schubert's tendencies are highly interesting, but it would carry us too far to attempt to add to what is said of them in the articles on Music and SCHUBERT.

The last great master of the sonata style is Brahms. A larger scale and more dramatic scope than Beethoven's seems unattainable within the limits of any music identifiable with the classical forms; and the new developments of Brahms lie too deep for more than a bare suggestion of their scope here. Much of the light that can as yet be shed upon them will come through the study of Counterpoint and Contrapuntal Forms (q.v.). Outwardly we may see a further evolution of the coherence of the key-system of works as wholes; and we may especially notice how Brahms's modern use of key-relationships makes him carry on the development of a first movement rather in a single remote key (or group of keys) than in an incessant flow of modulations which, unless worked out on an enormous scale (as in the 2nd and 4th symphonies), will no longer present vivid enough colours to contrast with those of the exposition. Beethoven's last works already show this tendency to confine the development to one region of key. Another point, fairly easy of analysis, is Brahms's unlimited new resources in the transformation of themes. Illustrations of this, as of older principles of thematic development, may be found in musical type in the article MELODY (examples 8-10). But no mere formal analysis or argument will go further to explain the greatness of Brahms than to explain that of Beethoven, Haydn or Mozart. Yet by that outward sign of dramatic mastery in the true sonata style, that variety of rhythmic motion which we have taken as our criterion, Brahms has not only shown in every work his kinship with Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, but in one particular work he has given us documentary evidence of his faith in it. In his last years he revised, or rather recomposed, his first piece of chamber music, the trio in B major, Op. 8. The new material differs from the old, not only as a fresh creative impulse, but also in the simple fact that it moves literally four times as fast. Such rapidity is not shown by any external display of energy; indeed there is incomparably more repose in the new version than in the old. But the comparison of the two clearly demonstrates that the true sonata style is, now, as at the outset, primarily a matter of swift action and rhythmic variety; and nothing more certainly indicates the difference between the true style and the lifelessness of decadence or academicism than this sense of motion and proportion.

In so far as the tendencies of modern instrumental music represent an artistic ideal which is foreign to that of the sonata without being false, they represent a different type of motion, wider in its sweep, and consequently slower in its steps. The forms such a motion will produce may owe much to the sonata when they are realized, but they will certainly be beyond recognition different. In all probability they constitute the almost unconscious aims of the writers of symphonic poems (q.v.) from Liszt onwards, just as the classical sonata constituted the half-conscious aim of more than one quaint writer of i8 thcentury programme-music. But the growing importance and maturity of the symphonic poem does not exclude the continued development of the sonata forms, nor has it so far realized sufficient consistency and independence of style to take as high a place in a sound artistic consciousness. The wider sweep of what we may conveniently call " ultra-symphonic " rhythm owes its origin to Wagner's life-work, which consisted in evolving it as the only musical medium by which opera could be emancipated from the necessity of keeping step with instrumental music. Small wonder, then, that the new art of our time is as yet, like that of Haydn's youth, stage-struck; and that all our popular criteria suffer from the same obsession. One thing is certain, that there is more artistic value and vitality in a symphonic poem which, whatever its defects of taste, moves at the new pace and embodies, however imperfectly, such forms as that pace is fit for, than in any number of works in which the sonata form appears as a clumsy mould for ideas that belong to a different mode of thought. If from the beginnings exemplified by the symphonic poems of the present day a new art-form arises in pure instrumental music that shall stand to the classical sonata as the classical sonata stands to the suite, then we may expect a new epoch no less glorious than that which seems to have closed with Brahms. Until this aim is realized the sonata forms will represent the highest and purest ideal of an art-form that music, if not all art, has ever realized.


Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)

Privacy Policy | Cookie Policy | GDPR