What is… Sonata Form?

Stephen Johnson gets to grips with classical music's technical terms

Illustration: Adam Howling

Sonata form is a structure of musical composition which is split into three distinct sections: an exposition, a development and a recapitulation. The theme is introduced and developed, before later returning to its initial form again. It was a particularly popular style of composition during the Classical era. 

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Look up ‘sonata form’ in one of the shorter dictionaries, and you’ll probably conclude that it’s a matter of correct procedure, rather like the protocol for a royal garden party – especially when you get to the stuff about ‘subjects’ and their correct presentation. We learn that there should be three parts. In the first – the ‘Exposition’ – the subjects, or themes, are introduced. Properly there are two of these, distinct in character (and in the key). They are put through a process called ‘Development’. Then comes the ‘Recapitulation’, in which the two subjects return and make their farewells; after which one feels like adding, ‘Carriages at Six’.

Yet this form emerged during one of the most turbulent periods in history: the build-up to and aftermath of the French Revolution. When sonata form’s greatest exponent, Beethoven, was born in 1770, composers were still liveried servants; by the time he died in 1827 he had become the embodiment of the ‘Artist-Hero’ – the democratic revolutionary who, through his art, might yet succeed where Napoleon had failed. And it was in sonata form, in the first movement of his Eroica Symphony, that he was later felt to have perfected the musical expression of the revolutionary struggle.

So what’s the essence: structural decorum or revolutionary dynamics? Writings of and about Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven or Schubert suggest that these first masters of sonata form had no notion they were using it, still less of any abstract ‘do’s and ‘don’t’s. In fact, the business of theoretical vivisection didn’t really get underway until the mid-19th century.

In any case, apply the textbook rules retrospectively to the ‘sonata forms’ of the Viennese Big Four and you’ll soon find they don’t quite fit. Better to follow the example of Charles Rosen in The Classical Style and see sonata form more as a kind of dynamic principle: a mode of thinking rather than a set of rules to contain that thought. Or better still borrow a phrase from William Blake: ‘Without contraries there is no progression.’ That’s it: contrast, conflict, challenge – order questioned, shattered even, then recreated on a higher, better plane. Yet even in the Eroica there’s room for ambiguity and doubt, which is why the likes of Mahler and Shostakovich could continue to use sonata form – or something like it – as a vehicle for their troubled thoughts.

This article was first published in the May 2011 issue of BBC Music Magazine

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