The sonata in the Classical period

In the Classical period (roughly 1750-1810) 'sonata' came to mean a work in several movements. It was usually three, with the first movement in a special sonata form. Sonatas were a popular and important form, and many were composed for amateur performers to play at home.

Spring sonata, movement 1

During the Classical period the harpsichord had been largely replaced by the piano. Many piano sonatas were written and many composers wrote sonatas for a solo instrument and piano. Violin, cello and flute sonatas were all popular.

Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven all wrote piano sonatas, violin sonatas and cello sonatas.

Classical sonata

The standard Classical form is:

  • 1st movement - Allegro (fast) in sonata form
  • 2nd movement - Slow
  • 3rd movement - Minuet and Trio or Scherzo - A minuet and trio is a dance movement with three beats in a bar
  • 4th movement - Allegro

First movement - sonata form

The first movement of sonata form has three main sections: exposition, development and recapitulation.

Most of the musical ideas come from two main themes known as the first and second subject.

In the exposition the material is 'exposed' which means that it is presented for the first time.

There are two main melodies known as the first and second subject:

  1. the first subject is in the tonic key
  2. the second subject is in a different key, usually the dominant or the relative minor, and has a different character
  3. the two subjects are connected by a transition or bridge passage
  4. a codetta comes at the end of the exposition and finishes this section off
  5. in the development section the material from the exposition is transformed
  6. the music goes through several modulations (key changes)
  7. in the recapitulation the material from the exposition is recapped so it is repeated in a slightly different and shorter form
  8. the first and second subjects are now both heard in the tonic key
  9. a coda comes at the end of the recap and finishes the whole piece off