The word ‘sonata’ comes from the Italian for sounding. The word sonata has taken on various meanings through the different musical periods.
The sonata in the Baroque period During the Baroque period (roughly 1600–1750) the word ‘sonata’ was used quite loosely meaning a piece to be 'played’ rather than ‘sung’. 'Sonata' was generally applied to small instrumental works. There was no set form or number of movements.
Bach’s sonatas for unaccompanied violin and cello are an important part of the string player’s repertoire.
Domenico Scarlatti wrote over 500 highly original solo sonatas for harpsichord. They are mostly in one movement binary form.
Listen to the opening of Scarlatti’s Sonata in F minor K.466.
The trio sonata was very popular during the Baroque period (roughly 1600–1750). Many Baroque trio sonatas were written for two violins (or recorders, flute or oboe) plus continuo.
The continuo part was played by harpsichord (filling in the harmonies) sometimes with the cello playing the bassline - so there were often four players, not three. The harpsichord is a keyboard instrument where the strings are plucked rather than hammered.
Bach, Handel and Corelli all wrote trio sonatas.
Classical Period Sonata
The sonata in the Classical period In the Classical period 'sonata' came to mean a work in several movements (usually three or four), with the first movement in a special sonata form. Sonatas were a popular and important form, and many were composed for amateurs to play at home.
During the Classical period (roughly 1750-1810) the harpsichord had been largely replaced by the piano. Many piano sonatas were written and many composers wrote sonatas for solo instrument plus piano. Violin, cello, and flute sonatas were all popular.
Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven all wrote piano sonatas, violin sonatas and cello sonatas.
Classical sonata The standard Classical form is:
1st movement: Allegro (fast) in sonata form
2nd movement: Slow
3rd movement: Minuet and Trio or Scherzo
4th movement: Allegro
(A minuet and trio is a dance movement with three beats in a bar.)
First movement: sonata form The first movement of sonata form has three main sections: exposition, development and recapitulation. Most of the musical ideas come from two main themes known as the first and second subject.
In the exposition the material is 'exposed' - presented for the first time. There are two main melodies known as the first and second subject.
The first subject is in the tonic key. The second subject is in a different key, usually the dominant or the relative minor, and has a different character. The two subjects are connected by a transition or bridge passage.
In the development section the material from the exposition is transformed. The music goes through several modulations (key changes).
In the recapitulation the material from the exposition is recapped - repeated in a slightly different and shorter form. The first and second subjects are now both heard in the tonic key.
Romantic Period Sonata
During the Romantic period (roughly the 19th century) some well-known composers such as Brahms, Liszt and Chopin contributed important works to the sonata repertoire.
The ensemble sonata (for solo instrument and piano) retained much of its popularity, violin sonatas and cello sonatas in particular. Brahms and Schumann both wrote violin sonatas. Brahms also wrote two clarinet sonatas.
20th Century Sonata
During the late 19th century, the piano sonata slowly lost its popularity as composers broke away from the traditional form. Although sonatas continue to be composed, sonata form is very rarely used for the first movement. The 20th century French composer Poulenc was fond of the form and wrote sonatas for many instruments including oboe, clarinet and flute.