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Young People's Concert: What Is Sonata Form?   [back to script index]

This script and many others are included in the Young People's Concert book, available here.


It's wonderful to be back with you again, after what I hope was a nice restful summer vacation, and since you're all looking so bright and ready to work, I've picked a real hard subject for this opening program.

We're going to dig into that terrifying old thing called sonata form. I've avoided this subject for years, not so much because it's difficult, but because so many words have already been spilled about it in so many music appreciation classes, where sonata form often winds up sounding like a road map with a lot of strange names like "exposition" and "recapitulation," and what not. But I hope that by the end of today's session, the idea of the word sonata is going to have much more meaning for you than that.

Here's the way we're going to do it. We're going to start out by playing for you the first movement of Mozart's great Symphony in C major—the last symphony he ever wrote—which is known as the Jupiter symphony. I'm not going to tell you anything about it in advance; we'll just play it for your pleasure. Then, at the very end of the program we'll play it for you again, and by that time I hope you'll be hearing it with new ears.

But you're probably wondering why we're playing a symphony on a program that's about sonatas. Well, the answer to that one is easy; a symphony is a sonata. You see, a sonata is a piece, usually in several movements, that has a certain basic musical form; and when that form is used in a piece for a solo instrument, like a piano, or violin or flute, or a solo instrument with piano accompaniment, the piece is called a sonata.

Now when the same form is used in a piece for three instruments, it's called a trio; and for four instruments, it's called a quartet; for five, a quintet, and so on. But when this form is used in a piece for a full orchestra, it's called a symphony. Simple. A symphony is merely a sonata for orchestra. And that's all I'm going to tell you for the moment. Now let's just sit back and enjoy this glorious, first movement of Mozart's Jupiter Symphony.

[ORCH: Mozart - Jupiter Symphony]


Now that we've had the pure pleasure of listening to that divine Mozart, let's get to work and find out why that music gives us such pleasure. The thing that interests us most today about it is its form—the musical shape of the piece. You know, the shape of a musical composition is the hardest thing for most people to grasp; they can remember a tune or a rhythm easily enough—even harmonies and counterpoints. But the form is harder to understand because grasping the form of a piece means seeing it all at once, or I should say hearing it all at once, which is of course impossible since music takes place in time instead of in space. So how could you hear it all at once. You can see the form of a painting, or a church, more or less all at once because their forms exist in space. Then you look at this stage, for instance you see its whole form instantly and you can take pleasure in its proportions and its balances.

But with a piece of music it takes time to hear the form; you have to keep in your head all the notes you've already heard while you're listening to the new ones, so that by the time the piece is over, it all adds up to one continuous form. Maybe that sounds impossible, but it's not. Of course, it's not easy, either. But if you know a little about the form in advance, (for instance, if you know the piece is going to be in sonata form) it all becomes much easier, because you can almost predict what musical shapes are going to happen. That's what we're going to do now, by finding out what a sonata is.

This word sonata originally meant simply a piece of music. It comes from the Latin word sonare, to sound; so a sonata is anything that is sounded by instruments, as opposed to a cantata, which is anything that is sung (from the Latin word, cantare, to sing).

But it's only in the last two hundred years or so that the word sonata has acquired a special meaning, which describes the form of a piece, and in particular, the first movement of the piece. And this first movement form, which is known as sonata form, laid the foundations of the symphony as we have known it from that time, almost two hundred years ago right into our own twentieth century.

How can we explain this immense popularity and growth of sonata form over two hundred years? What makes it so satisfying, so complete? Two things really: first, its perfect three-part balance, remember that, and second, the excitement of its contrasting elements. Balance and contrast—in these two words we have the main secrets of the sonata form.

Let's consider first that three-part design; this is something we can see all around us. Think of a bridge with two great towers rising on either side of the river, and the connecting span sweeping over the water between them. That's a three-part form. One. Two. Three. You must all have felt the pleasure and satisfaction that comes from looking at such a three-part structure. Or think of an elm tree, with its central trunk, and the umbrella-shaped branches arching out on both sides. That's another 3-part structure. Or the three-part balance of a human face, with its centerpiece of nose and mouth, and its two mirror-like side-pieces of eyes and ears. Again three-part form, one, two, three.

[TO PIANO]


Now of course any form as basic and natural as that must be just as natural in music. An so it is; the most basic form of a simple song is usually a three-part form. Take the old nursery tune that we all know as Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. There's a first part, for instance, which we'll call A;

[PLAY: Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star]


then a middle part, which we'll call B;

[PLAY: Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star]


and finally a return to the first part, A

[PLAY: Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star]


and the song is over. There's a clear, exact three-part form: A, B, A.

Now let's see how this simple little construction grows in size when it's used in a slightly longer song-form, say a modern popular song. In fact, most pop tunes stick to this A-B-A pattern very strictly. The only difference here—and this is important, as you'll see later—is that usually the first A-section is repeated right away, before the B-section comes; so that the pattern is really A-A-B-A, instead of just A-B-A. But it's still made out of those same three parts, A-B-A, only the first part is played twice in a row. Let's take a pop tune—in fact—let's take a typical Beatles tune, and see what happens. First there is an A section

[SING: Lennon/McCartney - And I Love Her]


That's A. Now what happens? That A section is repeated exactly the same.

[SING: Lennon/McCartney - And I Love Her]


That's the end of the repeated A section. Right? Right. Now comes the contrasting B section

[SING: Lennon/McCartney - And I Love Her]


I think that's how it goes. That's the B section and that brings us back to the A section again in all its glory.

[SING: Lennon/McCartney - And I Love Her]


Well, that's a small step forward from Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, it's small, but it's a step. It's grown in size, and it has that extra deluxe feature—the repeat of the first A section, which Twinkle, Twinkle does not. Now let's follow the growth of a three-part song even further, as it expands into a big operatic aria—for example, the famous aria from Carmen that is sung by the other woman, Micaela. This is a little more sophisticated; it doesn't break up quite so neatly into an exact A-B-A but I'm sure you'll be able to follow its three parts, just as easily as the Beatles song: the sweet, lyrical first part the more excited and dramatic middle part, and the return again to the quiet first part. And here to sing it for us is Miss Veronica Tyler, who made her television debut on one of our Young Performers Concerts just a few years ago. We're delighted to have her back with us again singing Micaela's aria from Carmen.

[ORCH: Bizet - Carmen: Micaels's Aria]


Well, now that we have learned to recognize a three-part song form, which I'm sure we have, I think we're ready to take the plunge into sonata form itself. Because a typical sonata movement is really only a more expanded version of a three-part form, even to the balancing of its two A-sections on either side of the central B section. And here's where those nasty road map names come in — I'm sorry but they have to: the first part, or A-section is called the exposition: this is where the themes of the movement are stated for the first time—or exposed, if you will: therefore the word exposition. This is then followed by a B section, in which one or some or all of those themes are developed in different ways; and so it is called the development section. And finally, just as you expected, we get the A section stated again; and this third part is usually called—watch out!— the recapitulation. Wow, that's a tough one. Actually, I'm not too crazy about those terms, either but what can we do? We have to use the words that are most commonly used in order to be understood; so I guess we're stuck with those words - exposition, development, and recapitulation for our A-B-A.

But whatever words we use, the idea of the three parts is still clear and simple; the feeling of balance we get from two similar sections situated on either side of the central development section, just as the ears are situated in a balancing position to the nose. But you remember I said that there were two main secrets to the sonata; balance, and contrast. And this idea of contrast is just as important as the other idea of balance; it's what gives the sonata form its drama and excitement.

[TO PIANO]


Now how does this contrast take place? I'll show you; and here we're going to have to get technical for a minute or two. But I'm sure you won't mind that; because what I'm going to show you now is very important—in fact this is the root of this whole sonata business. And that is the sense of key, or tonality. Most music that we hear is written in one key or another; not so much the concert music that's written these days, but most of the music you are likely to hear is written in a key. For instance, the Beatle song we played before is in this key:

[SING: Lennon/McCartney - And I Love Her]


That's F-major. But it could also be in G-major:

[SING: Lennon/McCartney - And I Love Her]


Or it could be in C-major:

[SING: Lennon/McCartney - And I Love Her]


or in any of twelve other different major keys. Not twelve others, twelve in all. But whatever key it's in—let's say C-major—you feel a key-note, a center, or home plate, where the music belongs, starts out from there, and gets back to. That home plate center is called the tonic.

[PLAY]


The tonic note is the first note of the scale,

[PLAY]


and the tonic chord is the chord you build on to that note.

[PLAY]


Now all the other notes of the scale also have names; but I won't bother you with them except for this one, which I'd like you to remember: the dominant. That's the name given to the fifth note of any scale—

[PLAY AND COUNT]


1, 2, 3, 4, 5 —in this key of C-major the fifth note happens to be G

[PLAY]


and the dominant chord is the chord that's built on that note.

[PLAY]


That's the dominant. Now comes the main event—how these two key-centers, the tonic and the dominant, are related to each other. If I play a tonic and a dominant chord, in that order, what do you feel?

[PLAY]


Something is left unfinished, unresolved, isn't it? You feel a desperate urge to get back to the tonic, where you started, don't you?

Okay—let's play them in reverse order—dominant to tonic

[PLAY]


and now you feel satisfied, don't you? So you see, that tonic is like a magnet; you can pull away from it, going to all kinds of other chords,

[PLAY]


other keys, or tonal centers; but in the end the tonic always pulls you back.

[PLAY]


And out of this magnetic pull, away from and back to the tonic, classical sonata form is built. That's where the drama lies, the tension—in the contrast of keys with one another. Let's see how this works in an actual piece of music by Mozart.

The composer will naturally begin his sonata in the key of the tonic, and his opening theme will be in that key, as in this famous C-major Sonata by Mozart. Here's the main theme.

[PLAY: Mozart - Sonata in C major]


But now, like a magician, he begins to lure us away from the tonic to a new key—the dominant.

[PLAY: Mozart - Sonata in C major]


There we are in the dominant key—G-major.

[PLAY: Mozart - Sonata in C major]


And in this new key Mozart gives us a new theme, his second theme, which goes like this:

[PLAY: Mozart - Sonata in C major]


and then finally, still in the key of G-major, he gives us a little fanfare-like tune with which he closes the exposition.

[PLAY: Mozart - Sonata in C major]


So there we are, solidly established in the dominant key of G-major and the exposition part of this movement is over.

Now at this point in the classical sonata we usually bump smack into a repeat sign, which means go back to the beginning and play that whole A Section or exposition you have just heard, all over again. Just like the Beatles: Remember? A-A-B-A. You repeat that phrase. And so for the second time, we hear the full exposition - first theme, second theme, and closing theme; starting in the tonic and winding up in the dominant. But there's no point in playing it for you now. You've all just heard it. So you go on to the next section.

Actually this whole exposition we've just heard is like a drama, the drama of running away from home—a pulling away from that magnet we call the tonic. Now the next act coming up, the development, intensifies that drama, wandering even farther away from home, through even more distant keys, but then finally giving in and coming home in the third act—or recapitulation. That's the drama of it all. So in the second part, or development section of this Mozart sonata, the composer lets his imagination roam free; the themes he has stated in the exposition wander around in one foreign key after another—like a trip around the world. Now because this particular sonata of Mozart's is a very short one, the development section is also very short. In fact the only theme Mozart does develop is that little fanfare tune we just heard—the closing theme of the exposition

[PLAY: Mozart - Sonata in C major]


but now in the development, he puts it through its paces...like this.

[PLAY: Mozart - Sonata in C major]


Which brings us to the third and last section of this three-part sonata form—the recapitulation. And this is the moment when that magnet we were talking about finally wins out and draws us back home, to the tonic; and the whole exposition is repeated or recapitulated. Only this time we must hear it all in the tonic key, even the second theme and the closing theme, which we originally heard in the dominant; so that when the movement is over, we are safely at home, in C major where we began.

Of course Mozart, like all geniuses is full of surprises. He doesn't always play the game according to the rules. In fact he often gives us more musical pleasure by breaking rules than by obeying them. In this C-major Sonata of his, where the recapitulation should be in the tonic in the key of C, Mozart holds out on us; he is still resisting that magnet of the tonic; and so he gives us the recapitulation in the unexpected key of F.

[PLAY: Mozart - Sonata in C major]


But now Mozart yields, and the magnet wins after all. The rest of this little movement is all safe and warm, back home in C-major.

[PLAY: Mozart - Sonata in C major]


Now that wasn't too terribly hard, was it? It's certainly hard to play. It sounds easier that it is. But it's not very hard to follow the form. Do you see now what I mean by balance and contrast? The balance of the three-part form (the exposition, the development, and the recapitulation), and the contrast of the tonic with the dominant. Of course there's much more to it than we can explain in this brief hour: The contrasting key is not always in the dominant; rules get broken right and left. And then there's the whole business of introductions and codas—which means extra sections at the beginning and end of a sonata movement; but you've got plenty of time to learn about those. What matters now is that you see the two main things: the magnetic effect of the tonic, and the A-B-A form. Armed with only that information, you should be able to recognize and follow any classical sonata form movement.

Just to see if I'm right, I'm going to throw you a curve and play you the last movement of Prokofiev's Classical Symphony—a modern work, but a deliciously spoofing imitation of the 18th-century classical sonata form. It has an exposition consisting of a first theme in the tonic, a second theme in the dominant, and a closing theme in the dominant. Then that whole exposition section is repeated exactly; then a development section in which these themes are tossed around; and then finally the recapitulation which is the whole exposition again, only all in the tonic. It is a perfect example: sonata form at its simplest and clearest A-B-A. See if you can follow it.

[ORCH: Prokofieff - Classical Symphony]


I hope I was right in thinking you were able to follow the form of that movement by Prokofiev. If I was wrong, you'll have another chance in a moment to try your luck. If I was right, you are well on your way toward being a real music listener. Because, as I said before, anyone can enjoy a tune or a rhythm, that's easy. To enjoy the form of a piece of music is much harder. Then you have to be a real music listener. But a real music listener can see or hear the form of a piece just as clearly as a person can see the three-part form of a bridge.

Now, confident that you are all new experts on the subject of sonata form, we're going to keep our promise and play for you the opening movement again of the Jupiter Symphony with which we began this program, the great C-major symphony. Only this time, because this particular movement is so much more expanded—so much more fully developed and elaborate than the movements we've been listening to—we have decided to enlist the aid of these nine young students from The Mannes College of Music, who are holding up blank signs at the moment.

Now, what they're going to do, is as the music unreels itself, as each new section comes up, these nine charming youngsters, who as you can see have formed for you a very clear 3-part form already, are going to announce each section in turn, by turning the sign around. If any of you still have doubts about sonata form, these sign-bearers should clear them up for you. The only other thing I have to tell you about before we play is that for reasons of time we will not obey the repeat sign at the end of the exposition. Instead of being Beatles A-A-B-A, we're going to be just plain A-B-A. Otherwise, you're on your own; and I hope you do indeed hear this piece now with new ears.

[ORCH: Mozart - Jupiter Symphony]




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