Personifying Sonata Form

May 13, 2011

Music majors are usually good at understanding musical form, but sometimes folks who are not musicians who want to learn more about music have a hard time wrapping their heads around the concept. They kind of understand verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus in terms of “in this part they sing this and in that part they sing that” but visualizing musical architecture doesn’t always stick.

In my theory class where I have a wide range of students from whizzes to amateurs, I tried a different tack yesterday. In “Sonata Form,” one of classical music’s most venerable musical forms, the opening movements of sonatas and symphonies are usually in three parts: in the first part, the exposition, the composer presents the main themes of the movement, usually two, and sometimes three. The themes contrast from one another, and one of the most important contrast in terms of form, is that the second theme is in a different key than the first–usually in the dominant (V) in major, and in the relative major (III) in a minor piece. In the second part of the movement, the development, the themes and motives presented in the exposition, are played with, “developed,” and justaposed. In the final section, the recapitulation, the opening themes return, but this time the second theme is in the home key (I) instead.

It occurred to me that words like recapitulation, development, exposition, and chordal descriptions (I, IV, V, vi…) often needlessly stress our my earnest amateurs. So I made up a story to analogize the process, and it went something like this:

The story begins, sometimes with an introduction where the music might place us in a locale or even a specific time period. We meet John or Joan. The music describes the way John/Joan is, his/her character, his/her metabolism, and his/her emotional tenor. Ideally, the theme will be sticky, memorable. After the introduction of John/Joan, we have a transition to a second person, Serge/Sara. This theme is often strongly contrasting to the first. Serge/Sara is from Russia whereas John/Joan are from Iowa. They are very different people.

The middle part or the development sections can be thought of as a compression of their dating period where all kinds of things happen. They date, they make love, they fight, they travel, they go to church, they get drunk or high, they dream and most importantly, they have meaningful conversations.

In the final section, they get married. The themes come back in the same key: John/Joan and Serge/Sara exchange rings and share the same last name.

I discouraged lumping contrasting themes into masculine and feminine although accept the notion that sometimes this dichotomy can be a good description for some sonatas. Just don’t forget that masculine can be a bull dyke and feminine can be a gay man with effeminate qualities. But in the long run, notes are NOT people: but in our minds notes can help us imagine all kinds of things.

Composers often invent quite elaborate programmes for their compositions, half expecting the audience to believe that the programmatic element is essential to appreciating the music. I have a composer friend who told me that one of his compositions was about wild sex, but never told anyone, simply calling it Piano Sonata Nr.6. Might we have liked the piece more had he made that confession?

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