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Section 25.1 Sonata Form

Sonata form, also known as “first-movement form,” is “[t]he most important principle of musical form, or formal type, from the Classical period well into the 20th century,” according to the Grove Music Online. The purpose of this chapter is to serve as an introduction to formal, thematic, and harmonic aspects of sonata form. We will focus on sonata form as it existed during the height of the Classical era. Further and more detailed study of sonata form occurs in higher-level music theory courses.

Subsection 25.1.1 Diagram of Sonata Form

Below is a generalized diagram of sonata form, which serves as our starting point. Real-world examples will contain differences and elaborations.

It is fairly common for a piece in sonata form to have multiple secondary themes (ST\(\left.\text{}^{1}\right.\), ST\(\left.\text{}^{2}\right.\)). In some sonatas, the development section features new material. Some sonatas will not have a closing theme. As we work with real world examples, you will see the ways in which composers realize sonata form.

While the diagram above designates three large sections (exposition, development, recapitulation), repeat signs in sonatas from the classical era designate the sonata as a two-reprise form—the exposition repeats, then the development and recapitulation repeat as a single unit. Douglass Green, in his book Form in Tonal Music, notes the sonata’s evolution from and synthesis of rounded binary and balanced binary:

The typical sonata form, as it appeared in the 18th century, is a combination of rounded and balanced binary. It begins the return with a restatement of the opening of part one, as in the rounded binary, and it closes with a restatement of the final sections (second and closing themes) of part one transposed to the tonic, as in the balanced binary.

Subsection 25.1.2 Sonatina Form

While “sonatina” is sometimes understood to mean a short sonata or an easy sonata for beginners, in terms of form, sonatina form is sonata form without the development section. Sonatina form is sometimes encountered in the second, slow movement of a larger work like a symphony, as well as in overtures. A familiar piece in sonatina form is the “Miniature Overture” from The Nutcracker by Tchaikovsky.

Figure 25.1.1. Tchaikovsky, The Nutcracker, “Miniature Overture” (1892)
Exposition Recapitulation
PT ST CT PT ST CT
0:00 0:49 1:28 1:40 2:30 3:09

Subsection 25.1.3 Sonata Principle

Important to sonata form is sonata principle, which Charles Rosen discusses in his book Sonata Forms.

The exposition of a sonata form presents the thematic material and articulates the movement from tonic to dominant in various ways so that it takes on the character of a polarization or opposition. The essential character of this opposition may be defined as a large-scale dissonance: the material played outside the tonic (i.e., in the second group) is dissonant with respect to the center of stability, or tonic. Sonata style did not invent this concept of dissonant section, but it was the first style to make it the generating force of an entire movement. 1 Sonata Forms, Revised Edition, 1988, p. 229

Rosen continues:

The dominant is conceived as a dissonant tonality in the exposition....The polarization, in fact, leads to the concept of a dissonant section, which raises the dissonant interval or chord to a higher power: that is, a simple reintroduction of the tonic key will no longer serve as a resolution, but the section outside the tonic needs to be resolved as a whole. 2 Sonata Forms, Revised Edition, 1988, p. 244

Subsection 25.1.4 The Monothematic Sonata

Haydn was especially fond of restating the Primary Theme in the dominant where the Secondary Theme would normally occur. This reinforces the idea that the tonal design of a sonata was as important as thematic design.