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Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Brass Tacks: The Symphony and Sonata Form

“Faerie’s Aire and Death Waltz"
(from ‘A Tribute to Zdenko G. Fibich’) by John Stump.
© the composer.
Sonata Allegro and other mysteries.
by Paul J. Pelkonen

The other night, a friend said to me: "I love your writing but a lot of what you write about goes whoosh right over my head. So I thought I'd address that with some articles talking about basic musical structure and compositional techniques. Maybe they'll make the reviews make more sense and the whole site be more entertaining. Hope you like it.

Working as a music writer one spends a lot of time grappling with words like Adagio, Allegro and Scherzo. These terms are usually used as the abstract titles of movements of large-scale pieces of classical music, usually symphonies or concertos.

With that in mind, here's a short fast guide to the shape of a symphony, and some of the tempos and modifiers that you encounter in the course of listening to a piece. (These forms can also apply to works like three-movement sonatas and concertos, but we'll get to that later.

I'm going to use the Mozart Symphony No. 40 in G Minor as an example, because it follows form fairly closely and just about everybody knows it.

Mozart: Symphony No. 40 in g minor.
The Chamber Orchestra of Europe cond. Nikolaus Harnoncourt.

First movement: Molto Allegro
That means "Very Quick." Most symphonies start with a first movement written in what's called "sonata form," the musical equivalent of the poetic sonnet. This is the basic form used by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and their successors. 

Here are the components:

  • opening subject: establishes the main theme and the key of the symphony. This is further divided into "introduction" and "exposition."
  • second subject: a contrasting musical idea, often in a slower tempo and in a relevant key (usually a fifth above the first musical idea)
  • developmentthe subjects are put through the musical wringer by the composer.
  • recapitulation: The first musical idea comes back, sometimes combined with the second.
  • codathe "tail" on the opening movement, a last idea that wraps everything up for the listener.

Second Movement: Andante ("Slowly") (Starts at 8:30 on the video)
Having established for the listener that he can write a fast movement, the composer usually follows with a contrasting slower movement as a vehicle for lyric expresssion.

It should be noted that some composers reverse the order or even move the slow movement third. Slow movements are usually marked Andante or Adagio. This movement can also be used as a slow march, like the Marcia funebre in Beethoven's Eroica symphony.

Third Movement: Menuetto e Trio. (Starts at 22:32)
The symphony has its roots in the dance-suites composed for 18th century court entertainments. The oldest survivor from these is the dance movement, marked "minuet" or scherzo. (A scherzo (the word means "joke") is a vigorous, more rumbustuous dance, often violent in its force.)
Dance movements are in A-B-A form, with the central, contrasting section called a trio. This stems from the composer Jean-Baptiste Lully's practice of writing contrasting melodic sections in his dance movemets for two oboes and a bassoon. The name stuck, even though most "trios" are written for a full orchestra to play.

Fourth movement: Finale: Allegro assai. (Starts at 27:30)
No matter what it is marked, the classical symphonic finale usually takes the form of a fast Rondo. This is a simple round, a "refrain" structure where a theme is stated, repeated and for good measure, repeated again. A short coda usually wraps everything up.

Some composers like to work in themes from earlier in the symphony. Others choose this movement as the place for a "theme and variations" structure, something that is found in Beethoven's Third, Sixth and Ninth symphonies.

And there you have it.
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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.