What is a piano sonata?

A piano sonata is a musical composition for solo piano that typically consists of multiple movements, or sections. The piano sonata is a key genre in classical music, and many of the most famous composers in the Western tradition, including Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and Prokofiev, wrote numerous sonatas for the piano.

A typical piano sonata consists of three or four movements, each with its own distinct tempo, mood, and character. The first movement is usually in sonata-allegro form, a structure that consists of three main sections: exposition, development, and recapitulation. The second movement is often slower and more lyrical, while the third movement is typically faster and more energetic. If the sonata has a fourth movement, it is often a lively and playful finale.

Piano sonatas can vary in length and complexity, from short and simple pieces to large and technically demanding works. They are often written to showcase the technical and expressive capabilities of the piano, and many pianists consider them to be among the most challenging and rewarding pieces in the piano repertoire.

The sonata-allegro principle

The sonata-allegro principle, also known as sonata form, is a musical structure that was widely used in the composition of instrumental music in the classical era (roughly 1750-1820). It is most commonly associated with the first movement of a sonata, symphony, or concerto, but it can also be found in other musical forms such as overtures and chamber music.

The sonata-allegro form consists of three main sections: exposition, development, and recapitulation. The exposition introduces the main thematic material of the piece, typically through two contrasting themes, or subjects, presented in different keys. The first theme is often in the home key, while the second theme is in a contrasting key. The exposition typically ends with a closing section that leads into the development.

The development section takes the material introduced in the exposition and develops it through various techniques such as fragmentation, modulation, and sequence. This section often includes a sense of drama and tension as the composer explores new and unexpected musical territories.

The recapitulation brings back the material from the exposition but with some modifications. The first theme is usually restated in the home key, followed by the second theme, which is now also restated in the home key instead of the contrasting key used in the exposition. The recapitulation typically ends with a coda that provides a sense of closure and resolution.

The sonata-allegro form was an important development in the history of Western classical music, as it allowed composers to create longer, more complex works that were unified by a single musical idea. It also allowed for a sense of drama and narrative in instrumental music, as the composer could create tension and resolution through the manipulation of musical themes and motifs.

The beginnings of the piano sonata

The first piano sonatas were written in the early 18th century, during the Baroque era. However, these early works were not specifically written for the piano, as the instrument as we know it today had not yet been invented. Instead, these sonatas were written for keyboard instruments such as the harpsichord, clavichord, and organ.

One of the earliest composers to write sonatas for keyboard was Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757), an Italian composer who spent most of his career in the service of the royal court in Portugal and Spain. Scarlatti wrote over 500 sonatas for the harpsichord, which are notable for their virtuosic technical demands and their use of Spanish and Portuguese folk music.

Other notable composers of keyboard sonatas from the Baroque era include Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), whose six keyboard partitas and the “Goldberg Variations” are masterpieces of the genre, and Georg Friedrich Händel (1685-1759), who wrote numerous keyboard suites and sonatas.

It was not until the classical era in the late 18th century, with the invention and development of the piano, that the piano sonata became a major genre in its own right. Composers such as Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven wrote numerous sonatas for piano, which are considered some of the greatest works in the piano repertoire.