Posted in Research for Project 3 Examples

Percussion Trio Research: Sonata Allegro Form

In my first example for several percussion instruments, I chose to write a trio for tambourine, snare drum and finger cymbals. Since I already did quite some research about them, which you can find on the blog, I will only write about the musical form of this trio – the sonata allegro form. This makes it the only single-part research I did while writing an example piece for this part of the course.

The gradual evolving of the sonata allegro form, until its use in the works of the Viennese School, spans through three periods – the baroque, rococo and classical. Initially, I wanted to write a post about the whole sonata cycle, including the older baroque forms, like Corelli’s sonata da camera and sonata da chiesa I already posted about, but I will reserve that for later parts of the course.

The origins of what we now term the sonata allegro form, used as the first, allegro movement of a sonata, is actually developed from the last, allegro movement of  violin sonatas by baroque composers of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Contrasting tonal areas and contrasting themes, although in binary form, are found in the last movements by Geminiani, Locatelli, Veracini, Tartini and others. Bellow is the illustration of the form by Stein. (Fig. 1.)

Sonata baroque.PNG

Fig. 1. Structure of the last allegro movement in baroque violin sonatas 

As the violin sonatas were imitated on the keyboard, starting with Johann Kuhnau, the above pattern is used by Scarlatti in many of his single-movement sonatas and appears in the last movements of many of the rococo clavier sonatas by W. F. Bach and C. P. E. Bach. From the same period, Stein (1999: 107) points out that the finale of Symphony in D major by George Matthias Monn, made a great new musical modification:

“The main theme returns almost unobtrusively after the development, followed by the subordinate theme transposed to the tonic.”

This musical pattern will lead to the definitive formation of the sonata allegro form that occurs in the period of classicism. By the middle of the eighteenth century, a predominant melodic line, based on contrasting themes, was differentiated from the earlier contrapuntal types, such as the fugue or toccata, that were based on a single motive. The turning point is when J. C. Bach not only took the previously mentioned points made by Monn and emphasized them in his Keyboard Sonata in G, Op. 17 No. 4 to create ternary pattern, but also used the form as the first movement of his sonata. I took a glance at many of the first movements from his other clavier sonatas, and many of the elements were already suggested there. I was really amazed by how much it anticipates the many sonata allegro movements that will follow:

All of the components were finally crystallized by Haydn, starting with the more pronounced contrast of the main and subordinate themes and their key relationship, which became the fundamental articulator of the form, is clearly established. In their first appearance, if in major key, the first theme is in tonic, the subordinate theme in dominant key, or if in minor, the first theme is in tonic, and the second in relative major. The repetition after the development repeats both themes in tonic. The development of J.C. Bach’s clavier sonata begins with the dominant transposition of the main theme, and although some of Haydn’s still begin like that, it is no longer set in stone. Haydn also made the transitions between the themes and sections as moments of supreme tension and interest. (Sfetcu, 2014)

It was also interesting to read that Mozart, when he was 8 years old, met J.C. Bach in London and became an admirer of his music. Sadie writes that, while Leopold’s letters mentioned Bach very little with only a simple statement that they knew him, Nannerl refers to a occasion when:

nannerl.PNGSadie further writes that this may be the same occasion as the one described by the English composer and organist William Jackson:

nannerls 2.PNGPalmieri (245) noted that Mozart first copied J.C. Bach’s work when he began his first, unfinished Sinfonias K.19, and later arranged his three keyboard sonatas from Op. 5 into keyboard concertos. Mozart, who will further carry on the tradition of classical sonata by absorbing Haydn’s technique and applying it to his own more elongated sense of theme (Sfetcu, 2014), often acknowledged the artistic debt he owed to J.C. Bach. With Beethoven, sonata allegro form began its transition to the romantic era, where it is found with the formal distortions and variations in structure and more distant tonal plans. Generally, though, the basic form is still the same as the one in classicism, essentially being a complex ternary structure with exposition, elaboration and recapitulation, outlined by Stein bellow. (Fig. 2)

sonata allegro.PNG

Fig. 2. The structure of sonata allegro form

Exposition starts with the statements of the principal and subordinate themes that are in contrasting, but related tonalities, connected by a transition. In the classical era, the principal theme has a characteristic angularity and a dynamic, energetic, often playful character. Among many example is Mozart Sonata K. 330. (Fig. 3)

mozart 2.PNG

Fig. 3. Mozart’s Sonata K. 330.

In romanticism, more lyrical principal theme may occasionally be found. For example, in Schubert’s Piano Sonata D. 960 (Fig. 4), the principal theme demonstrates beauty and emotional power. Sometimes the themes are almost folk-like in character. Brahms was fond of this type, which can be as an example seen in his Violin Sonata No. 3 Op. 108. 

schuberFig. 4. Schubert’s Piano Sonata D. 960

The structure of the principal theme may vary, it is usually a musical period or sentence, and it may sometimes be in simple ternary form. For example, the principal theme of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Op. 10 No. 1. (Fig. 5) can be understood this way. The theme may come to a definitive cadence, be followed by a codetta, or lead into a transition by a process of dissolution. If in the ternary form, often the return to a merges into the transition.


Fig. 5. Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 10 No. 1, bar 1-33

Transition between principal and subordinate themes can be a simple modulatory bridge passage, or it may be a transitional episode with one or more sections. Occasionally there may be no independent transition as in Beethoven’s Op. 10 No. 2. In whichever case, transition can be a valuable source of contrast in the recapitulation. (Schoenberg)

The transition leads to the subordinate theme or themes that usually together with codettas form the subordinate group. As I’ve mentioned, in classicism, the subordinate theme is traditionally set in the dominant key if the principal theme is in major, or relative major if the theme was in minor. In Beethoven’s works we already see numerous exceptions with interesting key relationships. For example in Sonata Op. 2 No. 2, the first theme is set in A major, and the second in E minor, and in his Sonata Op. 2 No. 3, it is C major and then G minor. Later composers will find even more distant relationships.

As can be seen in the above mentioned sonatas by Beethoven, except the contrasting key, the subordinate theme may also differentiate from the principle theme in other ways, like in region i.e. register, in different motive-forms, different rhythmic expression, thematic construction and articulation. If the first theme was energetic, the second will be more lyrical, or other way around. What characterizes the whole group is the evasion of definite cadences until the end of the whole exposition, which helps to join the remotely related musical materials and give them momentum. The exposition may close with an emphatic cadence, but it is often a bridge passage leading to the repetition of the exposition, or a bridge passage that leads to the development.

The elaboration or development is the contrasting middle section of the form, one of the places where sonata-allegro really differs from other complex ternary structures. It is derived from the rich thematic material that was ‘exposed’ in the previous part. As Stein writes :

“Choice of material, method of treatment, structure, key relationships, order of presentation—all these are at the discretion of the composer, and are a reflection of his own taste and judgment.” (1999: 113)

It is a place where composers shows him imaginative powers and creativity, being somewhat a fantasia section, although with great skill, it can give the impression that this section an orderly series of spontaneous associations. Development consists of a number of segments, passing through a number of keys and regions. Some segments may dominate the entire division, while other may appear for a single time. In many developments, earlier segments are longer and more stable, and while those approaching the retransition, that will lead to recapitulation, appear shorter and shorter that provide both a climactic condensation and a partial liquidation. Stein lists some of the techniques that may be used. (Fig. 6)


Fig. 6 Some of the techniques that may be employed for the development

Deceptive progressions with emphasis on dominant chords are also often used. (Shoenberg) In general, these are all used for three basic categories of the development treatment: transposition – the material from the exposition is restated in another key, transformation – material is modified to some degree without destroying its recognizable identity, and metamorphosis – much more radical alterations from the previous two.

Finally the retransition and its anticipatory chord, neutralizes the modulatory momentum of the rhythm and melody, either by stressing the dominant or some other suitable degree. Sometimes, it can appear as an upbeat-like passage above the pedal point, and also of series of segments resembling codettas that approach the closing chord that prepares us for the recapitulation.

The recapitulation returns to the original tonic with the principal and subordinate theme/group. It is important to emphasize that the latter is repeated in the tonic region as well, with minimum change. Shoenberg notes while it would seem that there is no modulation, and the transition would thus disappear, its effect is in fact heightened as it provides the only contrast to the tonic region and the surprise when it leads back to it. It is usually altered a bit not only in the tonal plan, but also shortened or lengthened.

To conclude, I should also mention, that there can be introduction before, or coda after the three sections. There are many distortions from this basic form, but I will keep that for the future posts. Finally, take a look at my example. I am quite proud of what I achieved mimicking all the sections, without actually being able to rely on pitches and a concrete tonal plan.

List of illustrations:

Fig. 1. Structure of the last allegro movement in baroque violin sonatas

Fig. 2. The structure of sonata allegro form

Fig. 3. Mozart’s Sonata K. 330.

Fig. 4. Schubert’s Piano Sonata D. 960

Fig. 5. Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 10 No. 1, bar 1-33

Fig. 6 Some of the techniques that may be employed for the development


Stein, Leon (1999) Anthology of Musical Forms – Structure & Style (Expanded Edition): The Studyand Analysis of Musical Forms. Miami: Summy-Birchard Inc.

Sfetcu, Nicolae (2014) The Music Sound. Bucurest: Nikolae Sfetcu

Sadie, Stanly (2003) Classical Music Encyclopedia. London: Flame Tree

Palmieri, Robert (2003) Piano: An Encyclopedia. London: Routledge

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