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Sonata (//; Italian: [soˈnaːta], pl. sonate; from Latin and Italian: sonare, "to sound"), in music, literally means a piece played as opposed to a cantata (Latin and Italian cantare, "to sing"), a piece sung. The term, being vague, evolved through the history of music, designating a variety of forms until the Classical era, when it took on increasing importance, and by the early 19th century came to represent a principle of composing large scale works. It was applied to most instrumental genres and regarded—alongside the fugue—as one of two fundamental methods of organizing, interpreting and analyzing concert music. Though the musical style of sonatas has changed since the Classical era, most 20th- and 21st-century sonatas still maintain the same structure.
The term sonatina, literally "small sonata", is often used for a short or technically easy sonata.
In the Baroque period, a sonata was for one or more instruments almost always with continuo. After the Baroque period most works designated as sonatas specifically are performed by a solo instrument, most often a keyboard instrument, or by a solo instrument accompanied by a keyboard instrument. In the late Baroque and early Classical periods, a work with instrument and written-out keyboard part was referred to as having an obbligato keyboard part, in order to distinguish this from use of an instrument or instruments as continuo, though this fell out of usage by the early 19th century.
Sonatas for a solo instrument other than keyboard have been composed, as have sonatas for other combinations of instruments.
In the works of Arcangelo Corelli and his contemporaries, two broad classes of sonata were established, and were first described by Sébastien de Brossard in his Dictionaire de musique (third edition, Amsterdam, ca. 1710): the sonata da chiesa (that is, suitable for use in church), which was the type "rightly known as Sonatas", and the sonata da camera (proper for use at court), which consists of a prelude followed by a succession of dances, all in the same key. Although the four, five, or six movements of the sonata da chiesa are also most often in one key, one or two of the internal movements are sometimes in a contrasting tonality (Newman 1972a, 23–24).
The sonata da chiesa, generally for one or more violins and bass, consisted normally of a slow introduction, a loosely fugued allegro, a cantabile slow movement, and a lively finale in some binary form suggesting affinity with the dance-tunes of the suite. This scheme, however, was not very clearly defined, until the works of Arcangelo Corelli when it became the essential sonata and persisted as a tradition of Italian violin music—even into the early 19th century, in the works of Boccherini.
The sonata da camera consisted almost entirely of idealized dance-tunes. On the other hand, the features of sonata da chiesa and sonata da camera then tended to be freely intermixed. Although nearly half of Bach's 1,100 surviving compositions, arrangements, and transcriptions are instrumental works, only about 4% are sonatas (Newman 1972a, 266).
The term sonata is also applied to the series of over 500 works for harpsichord solo, or sometimes for other keyboard instruments, by Domenico Scarlatti, originally published under the name Essercizi per il gravicembalo (Exercises for the Harpsichord). Most of these pieces are in one binary-form movement only, with two parts that are in the same tempo and use the same thematic material, though occasionally there will be changes in tempo within the sections. They are frequently virtuosic, and use more distant harmonic transitions and modulations than were common for other works of the time. They were admired for their great variety and invention.
Both the solo and trio sonatas of Vivaldi show parallels with the concerti he was writing at the same time. He composed over 70 sonatas, the great majority of which are of the solo type; most of the rest are trio sonatas, and a very small number are of the multivoice type (Newman 1972a, 169–70).
The sonatas of Domenico Paradies are mild and elongated works with a graceful and melodious little second movement included.
The practice of the Classical period would become decisive for the sonata; the term moved from being one of many terms indicating genres or forms, to designating the fundamental form of organization for large-scale works. This evolution stretched over fifty years. The term came to apply both to the structure of individual movements (see Sonata form and History of sonata form) and to the layout of the movements in a multi-movement work. In the transition to the Classical period there were several names given to multimovement works, including divertimento, serenade, and partita, many of which are now regarded effectively as sonatas. The usage of sonata as the standard term for such works began somewhere in the 1770s. Haydn labels his first piano sonata as such in 1771, after which the term divertimento is used sparingly in his output. The term sonata was increasingly applied to either a work for keyboard alone (see piano sonata), or for keyboard and one other instrument, often the violin or cello. It was less and less frequently applied to works with more than two instrumentalists; for example piano trios were not often labelled sonata for piano, violin, and cello.
Initially the most common layout of movements was:
However, two-movement layouts also occur, a practice Haydn uses as late as the 1790s. There was also in the early Classical period the possibility of using four movements, with a dance movement inserted before the slow movement, as in Haydn's Piano sonatas No. 6 and No. 8. Mozart's sonatas were also primarily in three movements. Of the works that Haydn labelled piano sonata, divertimento, or partita in Hob XIV, seven are in two movements, thirty-five are in three, and three are in four; and there are several in three or four movements whose authenticity is listed as "doubtful." Composers such as Boccherini would publish sonatas for piano and obbligato instrument with an optional third movement—–in Boccherini's case, 28 cello sonatas.
But increasingly instrumental works were laid out in four, not three movements, a practice seen first in string quartets and symphonies, and reaching the sonata proper in the early sonatas of Beethoven. However, two- and three-movement sonatas continued to be written throughout the Classical period: Beethoven's opus 102 pair has a two-movement C major sonata and a three-movement D major sonata. Nevertheless, works with fewer or more than four movements were increasingly felt to be exceptions; they were labelled as having movements "omitted," or had "extra" movements.
Thus, the four-movement layout was by this point standard for the string quartet, and overwhelmingly the most common for the symphony. The usual order of the four movements was:
When movements appeared out of this order they would be described as "reversed", such as the scherzo coming before the slow movement in Beethoven's 9th Symphony. This usage would be noted by critics in the early 19th century, and it was codified into teaching soon thereafter.
It is difficult to overstate the importance of Beethoven's output of sonatas: 32 piano sonatas, plus sonatas for cello and piano or violin and piano, forming a large body of music that would over time increasingly be thought essential for any serious instrumentalist to master.
In the early 19th century our current usage of the term sonata was established, both as regards form per se, and in the sense that a fully elaborated sonata serves as a norm for concert music in general, which other forms are seen in relation to. From this point forward, the word sonata in music theory labels as much the abstract musical form as particular works. Hence there are references to a symphony as a sonata for orchestra. This is referred to by William Newman as the sonata idea.
Among works expressly labeled sonata for the piano, there are the three of Frédéric Chopin, those of Felix Mendelssohn, the three of Robert Schumann, Franz Liszt's Sonata in B Minor, and later the sonatas of Johannes Brahms and Sergei Rachmaninoff.
In the early 19th century the sonata form was defined, from a combination of previous practice and the works of important Classical composers, particularly Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, but composers such as Clementi also. All works not explicitly labeled sonata were an expression of the same governing structural practice. It is during this period that the differences between the three- and the four-movement layouts became a subject of commentary, with emphasis on the concerto being laid out in three movements, and the symphony in four. The four-movement form was deemed the superior layout. The concerto form was Italianate, while the four-movement form's predominance was ascribed to Haydn, and was considered German.
Ernest Newman wrote in the essay "Brahms and the Serpent":
In this view the sonata called for no explicit analysis in Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven's era, in the same sense that Bach "knew" what a fugue was and how to compose one, whereas later composers were bound by an "academic" sense of form that was not well suited to the Romantic era's more frequent and more rapid modulations.
The role of the sonata as an extremely important form of extended musical argument would inspire composers such as Hindemith, Prokofiev, Shostakovich to compose in sonata form, and works with traditional sonata structures continue to be composed and performed.
Research into the practice and meaning of sonata form, style, and structure has been the motivation for important theoretical works by Heinrich Schenker, Arnold Schoenberg, and Charles Rosen among others; and the pedagogy of music continued to rest on an understanding and application of the rules of sonata form as almost two centuries of development in practice and theory had codified it.
The development of the classical style and its norms of composition formed the basis for much of the music theory of the 19th and 20th centuries. As an overarching formal principle, sonata was accorded the same central status as Baroque fugue; generations of composers, instrumentalists, and audiences were guided by this understanding of sonata as an enduring and dominant principle in Western music. The sonata idea begins before the term had taken on its present importance, along with the evolution of the Classical period's changing norms. The reasons for these changes, and how they relate to the evolving sense of a new formal order in music, is a matter to which research is devoted. Some common factors which were pointed to include: the shift of focus from vocal music to instrumental music; changes in performance practice, including the loss of the continuo (Rosen 1997, 196).
Crucial to most interpretations of the sonata form is the idea of a tonal center; and, as the Grove Concise Dictionary of Music puts it: "The main form of the group embodying the 'sonata principle', the most important principle of musical structure from the Classical period to the 20th century: that material first stated in a complementary key be restated in the home key" (Sadie 1988,[page needed]).
The sonata idea has been thoroughly explored by William Newman in his monumental three-volume work Sonata in the Classic Era (A History of the Sonata Idea), begun in the 1950s and published in what has become the standard edition of all three volumes in 1972.
Heinrich Schenker argued that there was an Urlinie or basic tonal melody, and a basic bass figuration. He held that when these two were present, there was basic structure, and that the sonata represented this basic structure in a whole work with a process known as interruption (Schenker 1979, 1:134).
As a practical matter, Schenker applied his ideas to the editing of the piano sonatas of Beethoven, using original manuscripts and his own theories to "correct" the available sources. The basic procedure was the use of tonal theory to infer meaning from available sources as part of the critical process, even to the extent of completing works left unfinished by their composers. While many of these changes were and are controversial, that procedure has a central role today in music theory, and is an essential part of the theory of sonata structure as taught in most music schools.