Last time we saw one way of putting a piece together – namely by stitching different sections one after another, with each section having its own tempo ( = speed, for those who are joining us now), meter and character. This is sometimes called “Through-composed”, and is in fact not the most common way of constructing works, though you can encounter through-composed works ranging from the 15th to the 21st century.
Today I’d like to show you another way of building a musical composition, and this one will serve us for many guides to come. Please let me introduce the Sonata form. She’s Italian, about 250 years old*, but is very well preserved and has made numerous public appearances well into her 230s (and is still called upon today in times of need). Though she may appear slightly intimidating to those unacquainted with her (which adds to her air of mystery), she’s actually really nice, and a true and loyal companion to those who know her well.
Now, seriously, the Sonata form is a structure – a blueprint or a mold of a musical piece, into which the actual music (melodies, harmonies, rhythms) is poured. One would not necessarily be aware of its existence solely by listening (a bit like not being immediately aware of the skeleton of a human or an animal), but it is what holds together the many pieces written in Sonata form, and over the years it has proven itself to be one of the most reliably successful types of musical architecture.
So, what is it like? I’ll first do a dry breakdown (you don’t need to process all this information right now – it will be much easier when we apply it to an actual piece of music):
A movement written in Sonata form will almost certainly** contain three basic sections:
The exposition, as its name suggests, will introduce the main themes of the work (usually two), those will be developed in the development (like, duh) and the recapitulation (often shortened by musicians and/or lazy bloggers to ‘recap’) will be a more-or-less straightforward repetition of the exposition. And that’s it. (There are two optional sections – an Introduction, to come before the exposition, and a Coda (‘tail’ in Italian), to come after the recap – but those are not obligatory and need not appear in every Sonata-form movement.)
The exposition has an inner sub-division as well. Normally it will contain:
- A first subject section
- A connecting section (a.k.a. as a bridge or a transition, which leads into the ->)
- Second subject section
- Codetta (meaning ‘little coda’, acting as a closure to the exposition).
The first and the second subject are basically two melodies that will form most of the melodic material of the movement (the term melody might be misleading, as some of those ‘subjects’ are not melodies one could sing, really [though some of them are, certainly], so the more neutral ‘subject’ is usually used). The transition and the codetta might contain new melodic material as well, though they need not, and if they do, it will usually be less ‘melodic’ than that of the main subjects.
The development has no prescribed structure, and can vary a lot between each work. With some composers/works it will contain the most interesting music in the movement, whereas with others it will be short and bear less musical weight. It’s something best approached on a per-development basis.
The recap is an altered repeat of the exposition. There is one inherent alteration that is almost always present (see 01:52 in the guide), and for the rest, the composer might include as many variations and deviations from the original material as he’d like – though usually all four sections of the exposition will be present.
So that’s the basic outline (of course, many many variations are possible, but this is a good place to start). Before we dig into the Mozart, I’d like to offer an additional way of looking into the structure of the sonata form – it doesn’t replace the one above, but rather co-exists with it, while possibly providing a better explanation of the driving force behind the form – and it requires looking at the relationship of the various keys inside the movement. This is a slightly more tricky concept to explain (we’ll need first to define what a musical key is), so feel free to jump from here to the guide itself – but it’s also quite a basic one, and I think might prove useful to us in the future (and I did end up using the key concept in the guide).
So, keys. If you imagine a piano keyboard (here’s a picture: )
…you will see that it is built from groups of seven white and five black keys which are repeated again and again (so for instance, one group could be all the notes from A to A, and no matter from which note you start, the interval (= distance) between it and its next occurrence is called an ‘octave’ [from ‘octava’, Latin for eighth – meaning that the upper A is the eighth white note one encounters starting from the lower A***])
In tonal music, which is most of the music written between 1600 and 1900 and a significant part of the music written after 1900, not all the notes inside any single octave are equally important. Instead there is a stable hierarchy of sounds, including one most important note (which is like a musical home base/center of gravity), two notes that are nearly as important (the fourth note and the fifth note above the base note – so D and E respectively, if one starts with A – each one with a different function), with the rest having their own places too. I won’t go too deeply into this, as it would then become long enough for a separate post (which would be quite boring, as it’s rather technical stuff), and the small details don’t matter so much to us. The one thing that is of interest is that within each key we have one supremely important ‘home’ note (called the Tonic – though there’s no gin anywhere), which defines the ‘sound’ of the key, and also its name – a key based on, say, C would be called C major or C minor.
Knowing this, one could look at the Sonata form the point of view of keys:
- The first subject is (almost) always in the main key – the subject announces the key to the listeners, establishing the home base.
- The transition, which wouldn’t be of much interest if we looked at it from a purely melodic point of view, suddenly becomes much more important, as it now has a crucial mission – to get us out of the home key as quickly as possible (like Gandalf having to get Bilbo out of his house by the second chapter of ‘The Hobbit’, otherwise we wouldn’t be having all the interesting and dangerous adventures). It moves (the musical term is ‘modulates’) to a new key and establishes it as the new home base. Generally, the new key will be based on the second most-important note of the scale – the fifth above the tonic (called the Dominant, as a noun).
- The second subject will be then in the new key, establishing it even more,
- as will be the codetta.
- The development will usually be an area where one leaves the safe harbor of either key and goes exploring. Not necessarily – but most key-related drama will usually take place in the development (where it joins the melodic perturbations – so the development is quite often the area of least stability in a sonata movement). Towards the end of the development the composer would usually start to gravitate towards the first home key, stopping just one step short of getting there (a cliffhanger) —- and we go on to
- The recapitulation
- which would then start with a return both of the first subject and the main key (to give us as much as possible a feeling of a homecoming).
- The transition in the recap is a curious thing. If the composer would just copy it from the exposition (something he may well do with the first subject), he would once again arrive at the key of the dominant – something which he really doesn’t want to do now. It is the main key of the work that is our area of interest in the recap (slightly like Bilbo who, after getting back to the Shire, had to deal with his furniture being sold at an auction and other such domestic affairs, but wouldn’t go adventuring again; at least no till the Lord of the Rings :P). So, the composer now has to write new music, in order to make the transition modulate from the home key into the… home key (which is sometimes more of a feat than it sounds).
- The second subject would now appear in the home key (so, transposed from the exposition),
- as would the codetta, firmly finishing the movement in the home key.
So there we are. We have two different looks at the sonata form, one from the melodic / structural point of view, one from the underlining point of view of keys. And in order to put this in practice (it’s high time, as the post is getting rather long), I’ve chosen the shortest, cleanest sonata-form movement I know of – the third movement of Mozart’s Sonata in F major, K.280 (ah, I forgot about this little conundrum – the word sonata has a double meaning – it is both the structure we just discussed, and a name for a work of several movements (= parts), at least one of which is written in sonata form. A standard sonata (as a work) would have three movements – fast, slow, fast – the first usually being in sonata form, the second and/or third only sometimes so).
Here it is, performed by Sviatoslav Richter in Prague, in 1966:
00:00-00:41 is our exposition. The inner division would be:
00:00-00:08 – the first subject. It consist of two elements – a pointy, jumpy one, with a repeated-notes motif in the beginning (00:00-00:02) followed by a virtuoso passage (00:03-00:04) – these two forming the first half of the section; the first element is then repeated one octave lower (00:04-00:06) (this might demonstrate what I meant at the footnote below regarding octaves), and there’s another brilliant passage, upwards this time (00:06-00:07) with quick three chords forming the cadence (00:08). You could think of the two halves of the phrase as a question and an answer (the answer repeating the first half of the question, like we all sometimes do). All this is in our main key of F major, and as you see, fairly microscopic :]
00:08-00:19 – the transition. We have a new texture here – the left hand playing repeated notes, the right hand a slightly longer melodic element (the writing reminds very much of writing for woodwinds – the left hand imitating a bassoon and the right hand being two oboes). This element is played twice – 00:08-00:10, and then 00:10-00:12 an octave higher. We’re still in F major, but now comes the modulation: it is so light-footed and quick it’s really hard to catch, but the main part of it is the four short upward passages at 00:12-00:14, with the longer twirling passage at 00:15 already starting the cadence in the new key – C major (the dominant, or fifth note above the tonic, as expected). The cadence is then underlined by three repeats of the last two chords at 00:16-00:19, each one echoed by two imitating notes in the left hand (I find this sort of noteplay wonderful – as if the voices were calling to each other: “You’re there?” “I’m here!” “We’re here!” “You’re there?” “We’re here!” “I’m here!”)
00:20-00:35 – the second subject section. We’re now in the new key of C major, though the first, very rhythmical, element starts slightly off-key (00:20-00:22) lending a somewhat uncertain, questioning character to the otherwise very brave and energetic (and slightly woodpecker-ish) motif (note the same motif of three repeated notes we had in the beginning, here with an added rhythmical spice). But we’re getting into C major proper right away at 00:22, with a wonderful sense of resolution and stability (the very active left hand compensating for its 2 seconds of silence, and giving a solid support to the jumpy right hand). This lasts precisely 4 seconds, and at 00:26 the first motif of the second subject returns, now in both hands (you can just hear the second woodpecker joining in), but still with its slightly questioning character – and the resolution, when it comes now, is even fuller (and louder), the left hand playing in the lowest region of the keyboard (Mozart’s keyboard, this being 1774, was quite a bit shorter than that of the modern piano). Note the small variation in the right hand between 00:24 and 00:29. To close off the second subject section, we have yet another virtuoso passage going downward, repeated twice, at 00:31 and 00:33.
00:35-00:41 – the codetta. Note the complete change of texture between the mischievous fast runs of the last seconds and the relatively well-behaved first seconds of the codetta (00:35-00:38, where the texture again reminds of woodwinds, and we have the same sort of call-and-answer game between the two hands). This obviously cannot last for long, and at 00:38 he bursts again into short passages, finishing the exposition with a last, happy repeat of the repeated-notes motif we had both in the first and the second subjects.
00:41-01:22 – is a full repeat of the entire exposition. Those repeats are quite common in sonata form movements, and modern opinions divide – some say it’s an inherent part of the structure and not playing them is a blasphemy, while others take a more relaxed approach and say it should be left to the discretion of the performer (Brahms, who once conducting his first symphony in Germany (I think it was Hamburg, but I’m not certain), omitted the repeat of the exposition, was asked why, and calmly replied: “well, they have heard it this season already.” So there you go.) In a movement that lasts about a minute and forty-five seconds, repeating makes a lot of sense.
01:22-01:37 – is the development. I’m serious, it’s fifteen seconds long. And yet Mozart manages to pack a lot of various stuff into it. We begin with the second subject, which is now in minor (hear the change in mood?). The woodpecker motif is answered at 01:24 with quite a vehemence in the left hand passages. It is then repeated at 01:26, being even further off-key (more uncertainty), and at 01:28 Mozart bursts into a longer section of passages. He takes the fist half of what the left hand had just played (01:24), and repeats it four times, switching hands: r.h (02:28), l.h. (01:29), r.h. (01:30), l.h. (01:31). Harmonically, these four repeats form two groups (or sequences, again like a call and an answer, repeated twice, and passing though various keys on the way, without stopping in any). It is followed by more sequences – a short, imploring motif at the right hand, repeated four times (01:33-01:35), which is then repeated by the left hand (01:35-01:37). We have come a long way from the lightness and wit of the exposition, and the change in mood is almost palpable – we have righteous anger, supplication, defiance and whatnot.
Which all evaporate without a trace at 01:38, as we’re back at the first subject and back to F major- meaning we’re already at the recap! Wait, but wasn’t he supposed to prepare the return or something, make a smoother transition and so on? Well, yes, he was supposed to, I guess, but, you know, he probably just wasn’t in the mood! – and him being the composer he can basically do whatever his muse/genius/intuition/sense of humor suggests him to do. And, as we said, the movement is really tiny, so many things can be done away with.
The recap is really really simple. We have a full repeat of the first subject section (01:38-01:46) and then just a small change in the transition (if you remember, that’s the one required alteration, as he doesn’t want to modulate into C major now, but rather stay in F major, the home key). The change comes at 01:52, when he takes the four short passages in the right hand (01:50-01:52) and repeats them again, only higher (but not an octave higher – that wouldn’t help – just a fourth higher, a fourth being an interval encompassing four notes, which is exactly what he needs in order to get from the fifth note of the scale (C), where he arrived at after the first four passages, to the eighth (F). [That’s a very technical point, so you needn’t spend too much thought on it, but if you’d like, just go to the keyboard picture above and count the notes – from F to C and from C upwards to F – including every time the C and the F in your calculations]).
The rest of the movement is a repeat of the exposition, just transposed to the home key of F major. Second subject is at 01:59 and the codetta at 02:14 (but wait, there’s one interesting thing there – when the woodpecker motif is repeated in both hands at 02:06, he moves to a lower region of the keyboard instead of moving to an even higher one, like he did in the exposition. The reason is purely technical/mechanical – you might remember me saying his keyboard was shorter than ours. Well, he simply didn’t have any higher! so by necessity he had to jump down – which gives that entire sections a darker color (especially at 02:13-02:14, when he goes really low). He then recoups the lost altitude by jumping up an octave and a half in the transition to the codetta at 02:14, as opposed to just a half-octave jump at the exposition, at 00:35). The movement ends at 02:21 (the last bar being a slightly prolonged version of the last bar of the exposition, which was really quite abrupt, and would probably not do for a proper ending; compare 00:39-00:40 with 02:19-02:21).
The rest is a full repeat of the development and the recap – those were less common than repeats of the exposition, but not rare by any means in Mozart’s or Haydn’s sonatas (much rarer in Beethoven’s, as Beethoven often added mighty codas after the recap, which would not work well combined with a repeat),
And that’s it! It’s a wonderful, quirky movement, full of energy, joy-of-life and humor (and a small portion of drama), and to think that it is firmly rooted in a nearly perfect example of the sonata-form blueprint makes it, to me, even more marvelous. But that could just be me, dunno :]
Till next week. And if you liked it and think any of your non-musicians friends might enjoy it – please feel very free to forward the link (this is half a blatant solicitation, half a very earnest wish to spread this very cool music).
*Lest I be accused of serious ignorance in all things History-of-Music-al, I’ll add that the Sonata existed in the Baroque period as well (so we should be adding about 100-120 years to her already venerable age), but back then it meant several different types of compositions, none of which could truly be considered an ancestor of the Sonata form we discussed today (which emerged in the Classical period, formally counted from 1750), so for our needs we might safely say she’s 250, and not make her blush even more.
** In truth, I don’t know of any sonata-form movements that don’t contain these three sections, but then again, there’s a huge lot of music out there and a I don’t know a very large part of it, so I’m leaving myself an escape path just in case.
*** The upper A and the lower A (and all the A’s on the keyboard) are to our ears one sound, just repeated at different pitches (higher/lower). This relationship between the various notes on the keyboard is based on a physical phenomenon, without which, I would wager a guess, music as we know it would not exist. The phenomenon is that if you take two strings, one exactly twice as long (or as short) as the other, and make them vibrate, they would produce what to our ears would seem as the same sound, a perfect consonance, just with the shorter string sounding higher than the longer one. You can produce other musical intervals with different lengths of strings: the one between A and E (the middle of the octave +1 note) is based on a 2:3 length ratio, for example. It’s a fascinating and/but huge subject; so I’ll leave it here for now. Let me know if you’d like me to write more about this.
The letters, by the way, (A, B and so on) are not arbitrary designations, but are the actual names of the different notes in English; the black ones are called ‘flats’, if below the white note, or ‘sharps’ if above (those are also the terms used by musicians to describe notes that are out-of-tune – a flat note is too low, a sharp one is too high) – so the black note above D would be D-sharp, and the one below G would be G-flat, and as you might guess, a D-sharp can also be defined as E-flat and a G-flat as F-sharp – depending on the key we’re in. Slightly mind-warping at first, but one gets used to it fairly quickly :]