This week, we quizzed on a true classic of the classical genre: the sonata. Browse nine sonatas from our show below.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) Piano Sonata No. 17 in d, Op. 31, No. 2 'Tempest' Beethoven frequently paid musical homage to William Shakespeare, like in his overture to Coriolanus, and a planned (but ultimately abandoned) opera on Macbeth. For a stormy guy like Beethoven, in what was certainly the stormiest period in his life, it’s no surprise that he was also fan of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Beethoven’s opus 31 sonatas were composed around the time the composer was coming to grips with his deafness. According to one story, when asked by Anton Schindler about the “meaning” of this sonata (perhaps a composer’s least favorite question), Beethoven curtly and simply told his friend to go read The Tempest! While we should probably take this anecdote with a grain of salt, it’s not hard to believe that this sonata could be a passionate, romanticized reaction to Shakespeare’s stormy play.
César Franck (1822-1890) Violin Sonata in A One of the best known violin sonatas, César Franck’s Sonata in A Major came rather late in the composer’s life, when he was 63 years old. He wrote it as a wedding present for the famed violinist Eugene Ysaye. It’s Franck’s only violin sonata. Evidently, nearly 30 years earlier he promised to compose a violin sonata for Cosima Von Bülow (the daughter of Franz Liszt, ex-wife of Richard Wagner, and current wife of conductor Hans Von Bülow), although he reneged on that promise. It’s become a popular sonata and has been frequently performed by nearly all the great 20th-century violinists. This is curious because Franck was not a violinist by trade. Instead, César Franck was one of the most gifted organists in all of Europe. As a result, this sonata may be more difficult for the accompanist than the soloist, requiring large hands and excellent technique to properly execute the virtuosic keyboard part.
Muzio Clementi (1752-1832) Sonata in A major Op. 50 No. 1: Allegro maestoso The Classical Era is considered the golden age of the sonata, especially in regards to solo keyboard music. Concurrent with a general focus on defining musical forms, composers and writers tried to pinpoint what defined the sonata as it emerged from the Baroque as one of the most prominent instrumental genres. It was agreed that at its most basic, the sonata was a composition for one or two instruments and consisted of three to four musically contrasting movements. The first movement is usually in sonata form, which is itself a separate distinction, the second movement is slow and lyrical, and the finale is often a brisk and lively rondo. Sonata form was the most significant musical form to develop in the 18th century. It divides the first movement of a sonata into three sections, the exposition, development, and recapitulation, and serves as a roadmap for how abstract musical ideas are organized,and also how the tonal center of a composition shifts from one key to another. Sonata form was not restricted to solo sonatas, but came to be used in symphonies and chamber music as well.
Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713) Sonata da camera a tre in e, Op. 2, No. 4 Known as a talented violinist, Arcangelo Corelli was the first composer to derive his fame exclusively from instrumental composition. Throughout his output of six collections of instrumental music, Corelli stuck to mostly three genres: solo sonatas, trio sonatas and concerti. Despite its name, Corelli’s trio sonatas were sometimes written for four players. Typically, Corelli’s instrumentation called for either two violins and 2 continuo instruments such as a violone and harpsichord, or two violins and one continuo instrument (hence the “trio”). Corelli's first sonata from his opus 4 collection bears the phrase “da camera” indicating that it is a chamber sonata. In contrast to the sonata da chiesa, or church sonata, which contained a fugal style and movements divided according to tempo, the sonata da camera was essentially a dance suite. Corelli became known for mixing elements of both types of sonatas, regardless of the classification he gave to them. Eventually, the distinction between church and chamber was dropped altogether.
William Walton (1902-1983) Sonata for String Orchestra Known for his larger scale works such as his Crown Imperial and Viola Concerto, Walton’s first chamber piece was a string quartet which he wrote in 1947. Almost 20 years later in the 1970s, fellow Englishman Sir Neville Marriner asked Walton if he would prepare a piece for The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, and suggested that his string quartet might be well-suited if re-worked for string orchestra. His intuition was spot-on, Walton ended up changing very little in converting his string quartet to the Sonata for Strings, only the 3rd movement lento required any major revision, and in 1972, Marriner took the piece on tour with the Academy.
Ethel Smyth (1858-1944) Sonata for Cello and Piano in A Minor, Op. 5: I. Allegro moderato Although a Londoner by birth, Ethel Smyth was sent to Leipzig for her musical education, and hob-nobbed with the likes of Brahms, Grieg, and Clara Schumann. She aspired to compose opera, and indeed her vocal compositions were very highly regarded, especially when she herself performed them. She also composed a significant body of instrumental chamber music which includes several sonatas for different instruments with piano. When Smyth returned to England in the 1890’s, she became an outspoken advocate for women’s liberation and was a prominent member of the Woman’s Social and Political Union. During that time she participated in demonstrations, sit-ins and composed several works on the subject of women’s rights. Despite her political views and activities, Smyth remained a highly regarded composer and was the only professional female composer of her generation to achieve such high public recognition.
Jirí Antonín Benda (1722-1795) Keyboard Sonata No. 8 in G Major: I. Allegro moderato Jiri Antonin Benda had been a court violinist for Frederick the Great for eight years when he obtained a position as Kapellmeister in the duchy of Saxe-Gotha. At that point he had already written many sonatas and symphonies, however it was the music he composed for light theatrical entertainment that earned him a reputation, specifically his singspiels and melodramas. Both genres combine music with spoken word; in melodrama, music is used to frame and punctuate spoken word in order to heighten its drama, very similar in character to the operatic recitative. Benda famously defended the use of spoken word with musical drama, stating “‘I cannot abandon the verity of the phrase—music loses thereby when one sacrifices all to it’. Surprisingly, even Benda’s instrumental music follows this assertion. His keyboard sonatas are full of recitative-like phrases which seem to imitate a spoken line.
Joaquin Turina (1882-1949) Sonata, Op. 61 I. Lento Sevillian composer and pianist Joaquin Turina set himself apart from other composers by not focusing on writing zarzuelas, the light musical dramas that most spanish composers at the time could make their living by writing, He instead wrote in more conventional European classical forms like quartets and sonatas. Of the well-known early 20th century composers from Spain, he is the only one to ever write a symphony. Yet regardless of the form he still imbued his compositions with the characteristics of Andalusian music. His guitar sonata from 1935 contains all the characteristics of a Classical sonata, but fuses them with tones and coloring related to flamenco music and cante jondo.
Jeff Berry (b. 1938) Teenage Sonata Sam Cooke’s little-known tune “Teenage Sonata” from 1960 plays fast and loose with the definition of a “sonata.” In the song, he talks about “singing his teenage sonata of love,” but as we all know now from listening to Ether Game for the last hour, a sonata is primarily an instrumental genre, not a vocal genre. Read a book, Sam Cooke! I suppose most of the blame falls onto the songwriter Jeff Barry. Barry was no slouch. He worked primarily with his wife Ellie Greenwich, and together (and sometimes with the help of Phil Spector) Barry and Greenwich wrote some of the biggest hits of the 1960s. This includes “Da Doo Ron Ron,” “Then He Kissed Me,” “Be My Baby,” “Chapel Of Love,” “Leader Of The Pack,” and “River Deep — Mountain High.”