The Definition of a Sonata

The term sonata comes from the Italian word “to sound” – suonare.

The “definition” of a sonata has changed through time, but it has always referred to compositions that are played by an instrument or instruments (not vocals).

Beware – don’t confuse the term Sonata with Sonata Form – they are 2 different things entirely!

The Baroque Sonata

In the 16th century, the term “sonata” simply meant any composition that was played by instruments (as opposed to a sung piece called a cantata).
Have a listen to this example of a sonata by J.S. Bach:

The Baroque sonatas had 3-6 movements (similar to a suite).
They were written in 2 forms:

Sonata da camera (chamber sonata) – written for 2 or more instrumentalists with keyboard accompaniment.
These often used dance rhythms and contained a significant number of short movements.
In many ways, the sonata da camera developed into the suite.

Sonata da chiesa (church sonata) – these tended to be more serious in their character.
They were usually 4 movements:

Slow – Fast – Slow – Fast

It is from the sonata da chiesa that the classical sonata developed.

Have a listen to this Baroque sonata for violin with harpsichord accompaniment:

Other examples of sonata that were popular in the Baroque period include:

  • Unaccompanied Sonatas for violin and cello – J.S. Bach wrote a number of these
  • Keyboard Sonatas – composers, such as D. Scarlatti and CPE Bach wrote many.
  • Trio Sonatas – these were written for 2 violins (or wind, such as recorder/flute) with a harpsichord accompaniment called the continuo.

Classical Sonata

In the Classical period, the sonata was a very popular form of composition.

Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven all wrote sonatas.
Haydn and Mozart usually (but not always) wrote sonatas in 3 movements.

Beethoven extended this structure to 4 movements, which in many ways became the “template” for sonata writing moving forward.

Let’s have a look at the “typical” 4 movement structure of a Beethoven sonata using his sonata in F minor (Opus 2: no.1) as a worked example.

1st movement

The first movement is usually Allegro and composed in sonata form.
Have a listen to the opening of the 1st movement:

Beethoven F minor piano sonata op 2 no 1 opening sheet musicBeethoven Piano Sonata 1st Movement

2nd movement

The second movement is usually Adagio (slow).
Have a listen to the opening of the 2nd movement of Beethoven’s F minor sonata:

Beethoven F minor piano sonata op 2 no 1 adagio opening bars sheet musicBeethoven Piano Sonata 2nd Movement

3rd movement

The third movement tends to take the form of a dance of some sorts – often a minuet and trio. It could also be a scherzo.

Beethoven F minor piano sonata op 2 no 1 minuet and trio opening bars sheet musicBeethoven Piano Sonata 3rd Movement

4th movement

The final movement tends to be fast.
Often, it is Allegro, but in this case it is prestissimo!!

Beethoven F minor piano sonata op 2 no 1 prestissimo opening bars sheet musicBeethoven Piano Sonata 4th Movement

Romantic period Sonatas

Sonatas were a very popular form of composition in the Romantic period.
Liszt, Chopin, Brahms and Schubert all wrote sonatas.

The Romantic period sonatas are full of increased chromaticism, dramatic contrasts and complex performing techniques.

Have a listen to this performance of a Liszt piano sonata performed by Valentina Lisitsa.
Within the 1st minute of the piece you can clearly hear the drama and complexity of the music.

Liszt Piano Sonata in B minor

Sonatas with a solo instrument and piano became increasingly popular in the Romantic period – these were known as ensemble sonatas.

20th Century Sonatas

The 20th century was a period of great experimentation in classical music.
Composers wrote in a wider range of forms (e.g. preludes, etudes, nocturnes, etc..).
As a result, the sonata became less used as a form of composition.

For example, Claude Debussy (the late Romantic and early 20th century composer) wrote a large number of very significant pieces for piano, but none were sonatas!
In fact, there are only 3 sonatas in his entire catalogue of works.

The examples of sonatas we do see in the 20th century push the boundaries of tonality.
Examples of sonatas by Prokofiev and Scriabin are certainly worth listening to.
Have a listen to this performance of Prokofiev’s piano sonata no.2 by Sviatoslav Richter:

Prokofiev Piano Sonata No. 2

The Future of The Sonata

The sonata has been a very significant form of composition for several hundred years.
It is true that from the 20th century onwards fewer composers have chosen to use it as a means of composition.
However, sonatas written for different instruments across different musical time periods still form a vital part of the repertoire of instrumentalists throughout the world.