Poster Hands playing piano in a recording studio
The piano might first come to mind when you think of a sonata, but other instruments are also well-represented.
Evan Clark/MPR
Classical Basics

Music terminology with YourClassical: What is a sonata?

The sonata is one of the foundations of classical music and appears in many types of classical works. But what exactly is it?

Sonatas are usually written in three or four movements. The basic elements of a sonata are:

  • Exposition of the main theme or themes.

  • Development.

  • Recapitulation (in which the musical subject matter is stated, explored and expanded, and then restated).

The definition is thus quite broad. Here it is it broken down by the great Leonard Bernstein, during a 1964 Young People’s Concert:

“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.”

“Sonata” originally meant simply a piece composed for instruments, rather than sung (“cantata”). At the end of the Baroque era and the beginning of the Classical era (about 1760-1830), it came to mean the structure and principle of composing large-scale works. It is regarded, along with the fugue, as one of two fundamental methods of organizing music.

At this time, composers such as Ludwig van Beethoven crafted the sonata as we know it best, using “sonata form” so often that it became an expected part of larger works.

Indeed, perhaps the most famous sonata is Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 14, more popularly known as the Moonlight Sonata. It is lauded for its exquisite balance between tension and composure that creates an emotional response in the listener. Do you agree?

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Beethoven: Moonlight Sonata
Beethoven: Moonlight Sonata

Clara Schumann wrote her Piano Sonata in about 1841, but it was only published in 1991. What the world missed for those 150 years! Here’s the Third Movement, played by Isata Kanneh-Mason.

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Clara Schumann: Piano Sonata - Third Movement

 

Yes, the piano seems to grab the spotlight in the lion’s share of sonatas, but many other instruments have gotten their due.

 

Guitar

Ferdinando Carulli’s Guitar Sonata, performed here by Richard Savino:

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Ferdinando Carulli: Guitar Sonata - Rondeau


Manuel Ponce’s Sonata Mexicana, performed by Jason Vieaux:

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Manuel Ponce: Sonata Mexicana


Violin

Edvard Grieg’s Violin Sonata No. 1, performed by Augustin Dumay, violin, and Maria Joao Pires, piano:

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Edvard Grieg: Violin Sonata No. 1


Nobu Koda’s Sonata in D Minor, performed by Emily Cole, violin, and Yoko Greeney, piano:

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Nobu Kōda: Sonata in D Minor


Flute

Johann Joahim Quantz’s Flute Sonata No. 274, performed by Verena Fischer, flute; Klaus-Dieter Brandt, cello; and Leon Berben, harpsichord:

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Johann Quantz: Flute Sonata No. 274: Alla Siciliana


Johann Sebastian Bach’s Flute Sonata No. 2, performed by James Galway, flute, and Maria Graf, harp:

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Bach: Flute Sonata No. 2 - Siciliano


Cello

Johannes Brahms’ Cello Sonata No. 2, performed by Steven Isserlis, cello, and Peter Evans, piano:

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Brahms: Cello Sonata No. 2

Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Cello Sonata, performed by Sheku Kanneh-Mason, cello, and Isata Kanneh-Mason, piano:

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Sergei Rachmaninoff: Cello Sonata - Andante

 

As you can see (and hear), the sonata encompasses a wide variety of works and is a basic building block of classical music. Enjoy exploring this treasured art form.

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