Sonata Form

Sonata No. 4, 1st mvmt.    L.Beethoven (1770-1826)

Down through the aeons, various ways of structuring a piece of music have come in and out of fashion. Currently by far the most popular form is verse/chorus, verse/chorus,  rinse and repeat — namely, most every popular song written in the last 100 years.

In other ages, other forms have been popular. Indeed, down through the aeons all sorts of musical forms have been tried, but the ones that became popular and successful are ones that ‘click’ with the human brain on some level. (This is not an idea I’ve ever seen expressed in any music text, but it makes all kinda sense, don’t it?)

The ‘sonata’ form is a prime example. It was THE popular form in Mozart’s/Beethoven’s day (late 18th century). Your standard music prof will explain how (ahem ahem, monocle in place) “a sonata consists of three parts: first the ‘exposition’, then the ‘development’, and finally the ‘recapitulation’, and blah blah blah zzzzzzzzzzz…” But to me it makes so much more sense to think of it as a STORY:

The composer begins by introducing the cast of ‘characters’ — each character is a distinctive musical idea. So the composer begins by introducing a theme for Colonel Mustard, one for Gilligan, one for Scarlett O’Hare, and so on (that’s the ‘exposition’). Then all these characters ‘mix it up’ — they get into musical ‘trouble’ and interact with each other in interesting ways (that’s the ‘development’). Then they sort it all out and make nice at the end (that’s the ‘recapitulation’).

How many literary stories are structured this way? That is: introduce interesting characters, let them get into trouble, and then get them OUT of trouble? Um, a few gazillion? And that same basic structure of the ‘story’ is at least as old as Homer (5th century BCE — that’s as far back as stories have been written down). So a sonata (to me) is a musical version of a ‘story’.

Beethoven was 26 when he wrote this sonata for his student, 16-year-old Countess Annna Louise Barbara ‘Babette’ Keglevichs, perhaps commissioned by her father. (Quite a piece for a 16-year-old to tackle!) The Keglevichs’ mansion in Vienna was across the street from Ludwig’s apartment, and Babette wrote to a cousin that Ludwig sometimes arrived to give piano lessons dressed in his bathrobe, nightcap and slippers. Sadly, the Countess only lived to be 23 years old.