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Sonata Form and Symphonic Form

Question: Some time ago, I read your interesting article about ‘Sonata Form’ simplified.

What’s the relationship between sonata and symphony, both regarding form and other aspects?

– Achilles (Malta)

Albert’s reply: This is a great question, and one that confuses many music students and music lovers. The word “sonata” derives from the Italian suonare, meaning “to sound” or in this case “to play” – as opposed to a “cantata,” which derives from cantare, meaning “to sing.” A sonata is thus a work for instruments other than the voice. In particular, a sonata is for one or two instruments, whereas a symphony is for full orchestra.

While explaining sonata form in detail throughout music history can fill several volumes (such as Charles Rosen’s classic book Sonata Forms), most often the term refers to instrumental sonatas in the Classical period (roughly 1760 to 1820, give or take a decade). To readers unfamiliar with Classical sonata form, I suggest reading my article Sonata Form Simplified first.

It’s easy to understand why so many musical terms are confusing. “Symphony” can refer to an orchestra (the Pittsburgh Symphony) or to a work written for orchestra (Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony). The strange thing is that Classical-period symphonies aren’t written in symphonic form… they’re written in sonata form!

That said, usually only the first movement of a sonata or symphony is actually in sonata form, with its primary sections: exposition, development, recapitulation and coda. This movement is usually fast. Classical sonatas and symphonies have this in common.

That leads me to yet another confusing musical term: “classical” (lowercase) refers to the genre, classical music, whereas “Classical” (uppercase) refers to the period or era mentioned above. While periodization in art is a modern invention (Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven surely didn’t consider themselves “Classical” composers) and can lead to false assumptions (“Classical” composers should be played one way, “Romantic” composers another), it’s still helpful for learning music history.

A major difference between Classical-period sonatas and symphonies is that sonatas are usually in three movements, whereas symphonies are in four. The second movement is a slow movement and the last movement is once again a fast movement.

For four-movement works, the third movement is some type of dance, usually a minuet with central trio, or a scherzo. Classical-era sonatas may also have four movements. For instance, Beethoven’s first published piano sonatas, Op. 2 (from 1795) are in four movements… whereas his last piano sonata, Op. 111 (written in 1821–22) only has two, ending with a long slow movement in variation form. (Thomas Mann even wrote a whole chapter in his novel Doktor Faustus on why Beethoven didn’t write a third movement for Op. 111!)

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