In order to fully appreciate the classical style, i.e., the style that was in vogue in Europe from about 1770 until circa 1800, it is necessary to understand sonata form. Sonata form is sometimes called first-movement-sonata -form because it was almost always the form used for first movements of every type of composition. And the word ‘sonata’ preceding the word ‘form’ is because its first widespread use was in the sonata. Before I discuss the structure of sonata form I should caution you not to think that composers of the classical period were writing music in some sort of contrived or formulaic manner. They certainly were not. Nonetheless, any style can be defined by certain parameters, if that is the right word. The concept of sonata form was actually thought up by music theorists after sonata form had become a lost art. It was the intention of these theorists to create an analysis of the music of the best composers of the recent past so that new composers would have a model to go by.
Music theorists have a way of taking the most uniquely creative music and describing it as if it were composed with some sort of formula in mind. This is fine as long as you don’t take it too literally. The descriptions that theorists give us are very helpful in enhancing our appreciation and enjoyment of great music.
Sonata form consists of three sections, called exposition, development, and recapitulation. There is sometimes an introduction preceding the exposition. A coda following the recapitulation is very common. The exposition is usually repeated. In some works by Mozart and Haydn, the development section and recapitulation are repeated as one unit.
In the exposition, the main themes of the work are given. Quite commonly there are only two themes, the first one being in the tonic key (the key of the piece in question), and the second one being in the dominant key. Sometimes composers will present a group of themes in the tonic key, followed by a group of themes in the dominant. There is usually some sort of connecting material between the theme or themes in the tonic, and those in the dominant. The connecting material may be in the form of scales, arpeggios, or various combinations thereof. Sometimes there is only one theme. Haydn was fond of composing a monothematic sonata form movement, though Mozart rarely did. The first movement of Symphony Number 40 is a rare example of a monothematic sonata form movement by Mozart. Mozart was fond of using multiple themes; Haydn was fond of using only two, and sometimes one. Beethoven sometimes would use only two themes, but make his second theme seem to grow out of the opening motif of the first theme, such as in the first movement of the Fifth Symphony.
The question that may arise to the reader is “What constitutes a theme?” How do you know when a particular idea is a theme, and not just a connecting passage or episode? If it is a full blown melody, then it is definitely a theme. If it is striking, or arresting in its manner, or sounds very important, it is a theme, especially if the composer makes a lot of use of it. A point I should mention here is that some books use the term ‘subject’ rather than ‘theme.” The two words are synonymous.
The move to the dominant may take place very abruptly, or may be a slow and subtle modulation to the dominant. Sometimes a composer will hint at the dominant key, and then withdraw any suggestion of it, remaining firmly in the tonic for a few measures, and then hint a bit more strongly at the dominant, until finally firmly establishing the dominant as a secondary key of the movement. Mozart was the consummate master of such things. As Charles Rosen points out in his marvelous book “The Classical Style,” Mozart was a master at creating various shadings of hinting at a key, hinting at it a bit more strongly, hinting at that key even more strongly, touching on that key, touching on it harder, being actually in that key, but not too firmly, and being firmly in the new key.
In a piece in a minor key, the second theme may be in the key of the relative major instead of the dominant. Beethoven sometimes used what are called secondary dominants for the second theme, or second group of themes. A secondary dominant is a key (or chord) which raises the level of harmonic tension, and therefore implies resolution, as does the dominant.
In a sonata form with only two themes, usually the first theme is more striking and aggressive sounding, while the second one is more lyrical. Sometimes the terms masculine and feminine are used to describe the two themes. But you should keep in mind that there are always exceptions. In fact, if you study the music of the greatest composers of the classical style, Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven, you can find exceptions to virtually everything that can be said about sonata form. Just as no human being alive will have every organ in the exact proportions given in medical textbooks, you would be hard pressed to find a sonata form movement by a great composer, that conforms in all of its features to the textbook definition of sonata form.
A concerto first movement presents a special problem to the classical composer because it was common practice for the orchestra to play a long introduction before the soloist begins. I am not using the word ‘introduction’ in the way I did earlier. It is not an introduction to the movement. It is part of the exposition, but serves as an introduction to the soloist. If the orchestra modulates to another key and presents a second theme before the soloist enters, then it has stolen some of the thunder from the soloist. Yes if it stays in the same key too long it can become monotonous. Mozart solved this problem most ingeniously by having the orchestra touch upon other keys without firmly going into them, and waiting for the soloist to be the one who introduces the second theme. Thus, a concerto first movement by Mozart has sort of a double exposition. A large portion of the exposition is played without the soloist, and the orchestra will hint at other keys, but remain in the tonic. The entry of the soloist is conceived as a dramatic moment, and the second theme, or second group of themes is withheld until the soloist enters.
In the middle section of a sonata form movement, the so-called development section, the harmony becomes very unstable. What I mean by that is that the music goes from one key to another without settling for very long on any given key. The themes are “developed” in this section. They are torn apart into their individual motifs and these motifs are recombined in various permutations and in various keys. In this respect Mozart was a bit different. His development sections seldom develop the themes. Sometimes Mozart will even present a new theme in a development section. Mozart’s development sections are an intensification of energy, sort of an episode of instability and conflict. The idea of developing themes in a piece was invented by Joseph Haydn. Beethoven was to take the idea to great lengths. Beethoven lengthened the development section and intensified it.
Near the end of a development section there is what Charles Rosen calls the retransition. This is a turning back towards the tonic key. It is a transition from the chaos of the development section to the stability of the recapitulation. In the recapitulation the themes presented earlier will be heard, and any themes that were not heard yet in the tonic key, will be heard in that key, but not necessarily in the same order. Mozart usually, but not always, presents them in the same order here. In fact, Mozart’s recapitulations are not as much a reinterpretation of the exposition as those of Haydn and Beethoven. Mozart can afford a more literal repeat in the recapitulation because his themes tend to be longer and more complex.
Haydn delighted in what has been called a false recapitulation. He was a master of such things. In what sounds like the end of the development section, Haydn will set you up, so to speak. He will make you think for sure that you are about to hear one of the themes, and in the tonic key. You may hear certain material that led directly to the main theme in the exposition. You may even hear the opening motif of the theme. Then suddenly your expectations are thwarted. You are still in the development section. This is one device that Beethoven learned well from studying Haydn’s music.
The moment that the recapitulation begins is never more than ¾ of the way through the movement, and is always conceived as a dramatic moment. If the listener’s attention has been waning, then his or her attention will suddenly be drawn back into the music as the retransition gives way to the recapitulation. In the late eighteenth century there were certain formulas that were used for the retransition. Mozart was found of using the most popular harmonic movement (chord progression) at this point. His perfect sense of form, along with his predictable chord progression at this point, make the music somewhat predictable here. And Mozart did not take delight in false recapitulations and other sudden surprises the way Haydn and Beethoven did. But the sense of inevitability or predictability at this point in Mozart’s music in no way makes it inferior to the two aforementioned composers. Usually, at the point of retransition, Mozart combines the various parts in such a beautiful way, the melodic beauty and the intricate intertwining of the parts more than makes up for the predictability.
It must say here that the three sections of a sonata form movement are not always perfectly defined in the manner that I have described above. I have already mentioned that in some movements, a new theme will appear in the development section. Also, there is sometimes a certain amount of development that takes place in the exposition or the recapitulation. In fact many sonata form movements by Mozart and Haydn, and virtually all sonata form movements by Beethoven, have what is called a secondary development section which occurs after the themes have been heard in the tonic key in the recapitulation. Not as long or intense as the first development section, the secondary one, emphasizes keys that do not raise the level or harmonic tension like most of the keys used in the actual development section. The secondary development is more of an intensification of the themes, and helps to give a sense of completeness to the work. Most sonata forms are rounded off by a coda, which may or may not contain themes from the movement. The coda will almost always stay in the tonic key throughout, and serves to give the movement a definite sense of finality.
As I mentioned above, classical composers did not compose music with the idea of sonata form in their minds. That idea was created by theorists after sonata form had become passé. Of course, many composers did have it in their minds after the theorists had expounded upon it in their books. Brahms, for one, was very conscious of sonata form. How could he help it? Brahms was a neoclassical composer, and the leading one in the second half of the nineteenth century. He was keeping the old forms alive while most composers were composing in the much looser forms of the romantic period. One thing that Brahms did was to blur the distinction between the sections of a sonata form movement. In Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, each section stands out in relief. The beginning of the exposition, as well of the beginning of the recapitulation, is conceived as a dramatic event. It is set in relief, so to speak. Like a furniture maker who smoothes over the joints so you cannot tell where two pieces of wood are glued together, Brahms smoothed over the joints in his sonata form movements.
Mozart, Haydn, and later, Beethoven, were composing with form in mind, but they did not think of it in terms of any textbook definition. A certain style had evolved in the latter half of the eighteenth century, and this style emphasized contrasting tonic and dominant keys, simplicity at the beginning and end of work, with a peak of complexity in the middle, and so on. Mozart and Haydn simply were the most ingenious and talented composers of this style, and later Beethoven expanded it and created many masterpieces in sonata form. Beethoven’s sonata form movements have a tremendous amount of variety in them. I cannot stress enough, the tremendous amount of variety of expression that is possible within the framework of sonata form!
What advice would I give to help someone better appreciate and enjoy a sonata form movement if that person admits to not having much of an ear for key changes and such? I would say, first identify the first theme. There may be an introduction. Introductions to sonata form movements tend to be slow, and the composers usually make it quite obvious where the introduction ends and the movement-proper begins. Then listen for the second theme, keeping in mind that is some pieces there are several themes to keep track of. Let us consider for a moment, a sonata form movement with two themes. The arrival of the second theme is easily identified, even by a tone deaf listener, because the composer will almost always set in relief, so to speak. There may or may not be a pause or a dramatic transition to help set it in relief, but the second theme will have a different orchestration than the first theme. And it will have different character about it.
After you have identified the two themes, listen to see if the composer plays around a bit with them (develops them) for a little while as soon as they are presented, because development, as noted above, does not only occur in the so-called development section. Next see if you can identify the point at which the exposition ends, keeping in mind that the composer usually has put a repeat sign at the end of the exposition. The problem here is that the conductor (or performers if there is no conductor) might have decided to ignore the repeat sign. See if you can identify the point at which the exposition ends, and note if it is repeated or not. Composers, at least the three main classical composers, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, usually make it obvious that the exposition is coming to an end.
Listen now to the development section. Are the themes being developed? Or is this section simply an intensification of activity, less coherent and stable than the exposition? Next try to identify the point in time when the music seems to be leading back toward repeating the exposition. The recapitulation is never a literal repeat of the exposition, thought Mozart comes close to this at times. The two themes are both heard in the tonic key now, and though there will still be some key changes, the new keys that are introduced tend to be ones that (because of their relation to the tonic key) decrease the tension rather than increase it. When you here the second theme in the recapitulation it will sound a bit different than it did in the recapitulation. Even if you don’t have an ear for key changes you should notice that the second theme now sounds a bit higher or lower in pitch, and that its orchestration is a bit different as a consequence of it being in a different key, or perhaps its orchestration is very different this time.
Now see if you can identify the point at which the movement-proper is over and the coda is tacked on. Sometimes Beethoven’s codas can be very intense and powerful, and they can be quite long, yet they remain in the tonic key. In fact, in his codas, Beethoven will sometimes hammer away relentlessly on the tonic chord till the end.
Sonata form was so influential in the last couple of decades of the eighteenth century that it began to invade every genre of music and can be found in all movements of many pieces. Composers began to create hybrids by uniting sonata form with rondo form or variation form. The most tightly knit and carefully proportioned sonata form movements are always in the first movement, whether the piece be a symphony, sonata, piece of chamber music, or whatever. When used for finales, sonata form movement is always a bit more diffuse than in first movements. Many times a slow movement will be in sonata form, but lacking a development section.
In the 1780s sonata form began even to invade church music. That is a true testament to its ubiquity in the late eighteenth century, as church music has always been resistant to change and leery of accepting secular styles. Of course this did not come without a struggle. Haydn was roundly criticized (mostly by the church elders) for bringing secular styles into the church. His masses are, for all intents and purposes, symphonies with choirs.
Schubert composed many of his early works in the new forms of the emerging romantic period, but during his last few years, he composed more consistently in the classical style, but his sonata form movements are a bit different than those of his predecessors, Haydn and Mozart, or his older contemporary, Beethoven. Schubert’s style is more of a melody-based style, even more so than Mozart. When a composer uses lyrical melodies for themes, development becomes a more difficult procedure. Schubert, and I don’t mean this as a criticism, is more diffuse, and a bit less classical in his approach.
Sonata form gradually evolved from simple binary form, and only achieved greatness when Mozart and Haydn arrived on the scene. Sonata form stands as one of the greatest artistic achievements of the human race.