Sunday, April 17, 2016

Project 366 - Bare Bones

To mark the fifth anniversary of ITYWLTMT, we are undertaking a long-term project that will introduce - and re-introduce - musical selections in the context of a larger thematic arc I am calling "A Journey of Musical Discovery". Read more here.


The next few installments of the Project explore aspects of what we have coined “Intimate Music”, that is music performed by one or a few (typically, less than five, but sometimes more) musicians. This post considers “naked” music, music in its simplest form, performed by a single musician, alone with the music.

What is a Sonata?

Before we get to the music, let’s take a few paragraphs to talk about a term that comes up very often in Classical Music. If you were to break music down to its “bare bones”, you would find that there are really two types of music – music either has singing or it doesn’t.

Etymology tells us that the word “sonata” comes from the Latin and Italian sonare, "to sound". In music, the term literally means a piece played as opposed to a piece sung (which is a cantata, from the Latin and Italian cantare, "to sing").

So, in the most general of terms, any piece of instrumental music is a sonata. Of course, composers choose to give them special or unique names – preludes, etudes, dances of all sorts, and sometimes pretty evocative names like arabesques,  gymnopedies or caprices.

However, like many “technical terms”, the term sonata has evolved, and has become “overloaded”, that is to say it has many meanings.

One of the important contributions made during the Classical period is the introduction of a more regimented approach to compositions, and the development of the sonata with a distinct formula is one of those things. I should say, though sonatas were composed in the Baroque period (Domenico Scarlatti and Johann Sebastian Bach wrote several), these sonatas didn’t necessarily adhere to the “classical” sonata formula of a large set piece made up of three (or four) movements of alternating character: Fast – Slow – Fast, or Fast – Slow - Fast – Faster…

A great example of a sonata that follows that formula is one of the 18 composed for solo keyboard by Mozart. This is how his Turkish Rondo sonata (No.11 in A Major, K. 331) is laid out: Again, let’s take this opportunity to put some meat on the bare bones of the terminology…

Each movement is assigned a tempo indication, providing the performer with a basic indication of how the section is played. In the case of the first movement, the tempo indication is Andante grazioso which loosely translates to mean "at walking pace, graceful". The movement consists of a theme with six variations.

A theme is the most basic element of any piece of music – it is a complete musical idea, the musical equivalent of a sentence in literature. Sentences can be simple (“I like chocolate”) or complex (“That from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion.”) containing internal structure, clauses, etc. Same goes with musical themes – they can be really simple, or more elaborate.

The theme in this first movement is developed – wait for it – in sonata form. Here’s that word again, and again it has a special meaning. In the simplest of terms, sonata form implicates three distinct parts: “exposition”, “development” and “recapitulation”, sometimes denoted as “A-B-A” or “three-part” form, like the nursery rhyme Twinkle Twinkle Little Star:

Twinkle, twinkle, little star, How we wonder what you are. [Exposition]
Up above the world so high, Like a diamond in the sky. [Development]
Twinkle, twinkle, little star, How we wonder what you are. [Recapitulation]

Now this is a very basic explanation, and there are a number of wrinkles and emphasizing concepts that can be applied here, such as the use of changing tonal keys, or the introduction of additional themes or successive developments. Sonata form can be, for example, “A-B-C-A”, or “A-B-A-C-A”. The possibilities are endless!

So Mozart, in this very simple sonata, kicks off a “theme and variations” movement with a three-part theme in sonata form, followed by six variations (do-overs of the musical idea with twists) that are also in three-part form. That’s pretty rich!

The second movement, Menuetto is a minuet with a middle trio. It is customary for sonatas to provide a second movement that is different in character from the first, and one of the popular devices that composers have used in sonatas is a “dance movement”. The minuet is a 17th century courtly dance step that is slender, small (in French “menu”). Composers in the late Baroque and early Classical period would add a middle section to the minuet that was played by a trio of instruments (say, two oboes and a bassoon), with a slightly contrasting tempo to the minuet itself. Though this sonata is meant for a solo keyboard, it remains customary to call this middle section that intrudes into the minuet a trio.

Finally, the third movement, Allegretto, is a Rondo played Alla Turca that is to say “played in the Turkish style”. The final movement of a sonata is usually a “fast movement”, and a Rondo is a “Round”, a piece whose theme (refrain) is repeated many times over, interspersed by episodes we in French call “couplets”. The musical idea of the refrain, one of Mozart’s most famous, is meant to be played with exotic flavour.

Big Bones and Small Bones

Enough with music theory, and let’s consider a trend – some instruments have more of the lion’s share of solo repertoire than others. Why is that?


The answer is, well, basic Physics. Not all instruments are created equal – some have big bones, some have small bones, and they provide a broader range of textures than others. Here’s a simple graphic to help illustrate:


The human ear responds to sounds between – roughly – 20 and 20,000 hertz (a hertz is a unit of frequency). The higher the frequency, the higher the “pitch” of the sound. The graphic lays out a sampling of instruments and illustrates that the guitar and piano are two instruments that cover a broad range of frequencies (pitches), and therefore gives more colours for the composer to play with than, say, the flute.

Bowed instruments, like the violin, don’t offer as broad a frequency range, but do provide a range of playing techniques (how hard, how intricate, whether you use a bow at all) that provide colours that are equally interesting to explore. Nicolo Paganini, the 19th Century showman and master of the guitar and violin, showcases the incredible range of expression a violin can convey in his set of 21 caprices for solo violin, an amazing blend of tonal colours and of “virtuoso” colours. 

So, to summarize, solo instruments may at first glance offer a very limited palette of colours, but the addition of virtuosity and dynamics (that is, tempo and other nuances of play) provide interesting elements a composer - especially one who happens to be a great performer himself - can exploit.

Exploring the solo repertoire - Some Listener Guides

Listener Guide #3 - "Sonatas for Solo Instrument": Let’s begin with sonatas for solo instruments other than the piano – the guitar, violin and organ. (ITYWLTMT Podcast #201 - 5 June 2015)



Listener Guide #4 - "Four Mozart Piano Sonatas": Four sonatas for solo piano by Mozart, including the "Turkish Rondo" sonata. (Once Upon the Internet #22, Jan 21, 2014)



Listener Guide #5 - "The Fleet Fingers of Ruggerio Ricci": The 1950 MONO recording of Paganini's Caprices for Solo Violin by Ruggerio Ricci (Once Upon the Internet #23, Feb 11, 2014)


Listener Guide #6 - "Waltzes for Piano":  A collection of waltzes for solo piano. Works by Chopin and many others.  (ITYWLTMT Podcast #219 - 15 Apr, 2016 )