Sonata is a Trigger Word

I’ve been thinking about making a sign to hang up in my music room that says, “I hereby declare I am free to never write a sonata.”

If you’re a musician, you know what a sonata is, and you know why the term looms large. Sonatas surround us, especially pianists. When I was 13, I quit studying classical piano in part because I just could not take another sonata! Too many sonatas! When I got to college to study music, I studied sonatas in music history and in my form and analysis class. I analyzed sonatas until they were no longer a piece of music, but a pile of motives, chords, and Roman numerals.

Sonatas are so important that a form is named after them: Sonata form, or Sonata-Allegro form if you want to get fancy. Why is this form named Sonata Form? Because it’s used in sonatas of course! It is a self-defining definition.

Sonatas are for solo instruments, unless the instrument is not piano. Then sonatas are played by a “solo” instrument with piano accompaniment. Except modern sonatas may leave out the piano. Orchestras can also play sonatas. Well, actually they can play sonata FORM, but only in symphonies, which are basically an orchestral version of a sonata.

Let me see if I can clarify this. Sonata form contains two themes: an A theme and a B theme. Except when they don’t. The “A” theme is in the tonic key, while the “B” theme is in the dominant key of the A theme. Except when it isn’t. There might be some connective musical material between the themes, or there might not be. Anyway, the development section comes next and uses material from the A and B themes and mixes it up. But sometimes new material is brought in. Then there’s a “recapitulation” section when the “A” theme returns in the original key and the “B” theme continues on in the same key, different from the first time around when it was in the dominant. That is what normally happens, but not always. The piece may or may not have an introduction and a coda. A full sonata is a four-movement piece with a first movement that uses sonata form, but sometimes there are only three, or even just two, movements. Sometimes the last movement also uses sonata form. A symphony using “sonata form” might have three, or four, or six movements. However many the composer wants! Got it?

In my form and analysis class, I had to write a long paper analyzing the first movement of a Mozart piano sonata: the themes, the keys he used, all that connective material, how he played with the themes in the development section, and most of all what made his sonata “different.” Different from what? A textbook example of a sonata does not exist in real life. I have never played nor listened to a sonata that checked all the boxes as they “should” be, according to what is taught in class about sonata form. I’ve seen a few sonatinas (“little sonatas” usually written for students) that follow the form in textbook-like fashion, but in real sonatas (or should I say pieces that use sonata form), every composer takes a great deal of poetic license.

The poetic license is so loose that some “sonatas” from the 20th Century are simply multi-movement pieces for solo instruments, with or without piano accompaniment, that do not reference sonata form at all. Why even bother using the term in the title? Is a symphony that doesn’t follow the form of a sonata still a symphony?

It’d be easier if the terms were simplified. For example: A sonata is a multi-movement piece for a solo instrument or a solo instrument with piano accompaniment which may or may not use sonata form but is not a suite. A symphony is a multi-movement piece for orchestra that may or may not use sonata form but is not a suite. But now we have to define suite. Are you confused yet?

That’s not how it’s taught. We’re taught that sonatas use sonata form, and sonata form is neatly defined. In my opinion, that cramps creativity.

I don’t know how others feel, but when I think of “sonata”, I am filled with panic. Panic about learning, practicing and eventually performing an enormous solo piano piece. Panic about trying to explain a sonata. Panic about the ghosts of all the great piano composers from the past looking over my shoulder while I compose a sonata. Panic about whether or not my piece is actually a “sonata.” Panic does not help creative juices flow!

So I will never write a “sonata.” If I write a multi-movement piece for a solo instrument, it will not contain “sonata” in the name, regardless of whether or not I use some, none, or all of the elements of sonata form. If I write a multi-movement piece for orchestra, I will not call it a symphony. I will give it whatever title I feel like.

While I’m at it, I think I might make another sign to go with the first: “Fugettabout Fugues”.

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