Unidade 3


Along with giving us the sonata form, the 18th century composers left us with a large scale structure that became known as a "sonata cycle". The typical sonata cycle has three or four movements and is heavily based around the one-movement sonata form. As many as three out of the four movements were sometimes composed in sonata form.

The sonata cycle became popular in the early 1700s and remained very common through the late 1800s. Even today it still remains a useful and influential form, even though it has been transformed since its beginnings. It remains important because the ideas behind it make a lot of compositional, dramatic, and musical sense. As with the sonata form, the sonata cycle is usually a piece of absolute music.

As practiced by many musicians of the 18th and 19th centuries, below is a description of forms and tempos commonly used in a sonata cycle.

       FIRST MOVEMENT:(fast) 
         Sonata form 
       SECOND MOVEMENT:(slow) 
         Theme and Variations or
         Binary (AB) or
         Slow Sonata form 

         Minuet and Trio (medium fast) 

         Scherzo and Trio (fast) 

(both of these are usually in ABA form)
       FOURTH MOVEMENT:(fast) 
         Sonata form or 
         Rondo form or
         Sonata-rondo form  or
         Theme and variations 

Note the tempos of each movement--sonata cycles usually began and ended with fast movement tempos. That's a common and very workable approach to begin and end a composition with a bang.

Sometimes a sonata cycle would only have three movements. In this case, the third movement structure would usually be omitted, giving a fast-slow-fast pattern. Again, this simply follows good compositional structure beginning and ending on an emotional high point.

Now--here's where the form begins to become very important.

Let's say that I'm an 18th or 19th century composer. I've just written four movements using the above musical guidelines. The first movement is in sonata form, the second a theme and variations, the third a minuet and trio, the last a rondo.

If I write out this music in a form that a piano can play, I will call my masterpiece a sonata. If I decide to have another instrument with the piano, such as a violin, I will still call it a sonata--a violin sonata.

If I decide to have it performed by an orchestra (keeping the same melodies, the same harmonies, just arranging it slightly to exploit the tone colors of the ensemble), I will then call it a symphony.

If my boss decides that he wants it to be played by an orchestra with an important soloist, I will probably leave out the minuet and trio and call my opus a concerto. Same music in each case--just adapted to the performing ensemble.

If I decide to take my music and arrange it for a smaller more intimate group of two violins, a viola, and a cello, I will call my work a string quartet. (The name string quartet applies to both the music and the ensemble).

The same thing applies to other common ensembles such as a piano trio (consisting of a violin, cello, and piano, not three pianos), string quintets, piano quartets, and other types. Again, this is referring to the same music in each case.

When you see that a list of the output of many composers is top heavy with symphonies, concerti, string quartets, piano trios, and so forth, you get the idea that the sonata cycle was a very important form. Many of these sonata cycles, while retaining the same dramatic structure, show amazing amounts of variety from piece to piece. Again, a formula such as this would do nothing for the incompetent, but would greatly aid good musicians who had a need for lots of music quickly.


Of all the large scale forms spawned through the sonata cycle, the symphony is the most well known and the grandest. For the most part this is where the musicians of the 1700s and 1800s put their greatest and most profound musical thoughts. Especially to Romantic era composers (1825 to 1900), this was the musical equivalent of a great novel or a Shakespeare play.

The word 'symphony' originates from ancient Greek meaning together (sym) and sound (phon). The musical origins of the form are a little harder to trace than the name. Some of its contrasting characteristic movements can be traced to a short type of work called a "sinfonia", which was similar to what we would call an overture. It is probably also influenced by the contrasting dances found in the suite (one of its movements typically IS a dance).

The average symphony has four movements. Early ones tended to have two or three. Many twentieth century composers will have one movement symphonies while French composer Oliver Messian's Turangalila Symphony has ten movements.

Haydn composed over 100 symphonies in his lifetime and is credited with shaping it into the viable form it became. Acknowledged as the 'father of the symphony' his first symphonies were somewhat similar to orchestral suites and sinfonias of the time. When he passed the torch on to Beethoven, he left it a powerful vehicle that masters such as Brahms and Bruckner hesitated to tinker with over a century later.

In his extremely short lifespan, Mozart composed nearly 45 of symphonies, many of them still very popular.

In the 1800s the symphony took on a much weightier approach, thanks mostly to Beethoven, who sweated through only nine of them. One of Beethoven's innovations was to add singers to what had been a purely instrumental form. His fifth symphony was the first "cyclical" symphony, in that it used the same musical theme in all four movements. For the first time, instead of being composed of four unrelated pieces of music, the symphony grew to a powerful and dramatically unified form.

Other innovators in the 1800s included French composer Hector Berlioz, who in 1830 composed the bizarre and remarkable "Symphonie Fantastique". Like Beethoven's 5th symphony, it too was cyclical and very much a piece of program music. Part of the story told in the music involved a drug-induced hallucination (no, the above date of 1830 is not a misprint).

Other important symphonists of the 1800s included Schumann, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Bruckner, Mahler, Dvorak, and Brahms.

By the later part of the century, the form had grown even more imposing to composers. Brahms was too intimidated to compose his first symphony until his mid 40s, and then, managed to eke out only four of them. Gustav Mahler composed nine symphonies, but was able to compose little else during his life. As mentioned earlier, his eighth symphony, nicknamed "The Symphony of a Thousand" was gigantic in every dimension, lasting nearly 90 minutes. Mahler carried the traditional notion of the symphony as far as it would ever go.

As it was passed into the twentieth century, the symphony changed radically and lost much of its traditional forms and formats. What is often now called a symphony has little to do with the original formal structure Haydn would have known. Twentieth century symphonists who have contributed to the form include Russian composers Dmitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev, English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, and American gadfly Charles Ives.

Despite all of the changes it has undergone, for nearly two centuries it represented the peak of the musical literature of the era.


Another important incarnation of the sonata cycle was the concerto. The name concerto was derived from the word concertare, meaning "to compete". The concerto is performed by an orchestra with a solo instrument "competing" for the listener's attention. If the solo instrument is a piano, the piece is called a "piano concerto". If the solo instrument is a violin, it is called a "violin concerto". Some concerti will have more than one solo instrument. A concerto grosso is the name given to a concerto with a larger number of soloists, usually four or more.

Perhaps a little explanation of "to compete" would be good here. These days we generally think of competition as synonymous for "kill the opponent as brutally as possible", so that might be a little hard to understand. Playing in an orchestra has yet to become a contact sport.

To a modern listener, "to contrast" would probably be a better meaning. A concerto will contrast the style and sound of the soloist with the sound and colors of an orchestra doing the same thing.

A concerto is also a vehicle for an instrumentalist to display his musical abilities. A logical trend follows here--most composers feel the most confident with the most competent soloists, so the best instrumentalists in turn ask for more flashy music to allow them to show off their abilities. Solo parts in concerti are often fiendishly difficult, calling more attention to the soloist in the concert.

A concerto will usually have three movements, omitting the minuet/scherzo and trio movement. The typical fast-slow-fast structure was the most commonly used. The first movement used a structure similar to, but not quite a sonata form. Very often the third movement was a rondo.

The concerto is more or less a product of the Baroque era. As the concerto progressed through to the early Romantic era, it became an heroic showpiece reserved for only the best musicians who could tackle its difficulties.

While the idea of music with 'competing' forces goes way back to the Middle Ages and beyond, concerti became popular in the 1600s, mostly as a performing vehicle for the composer. Early concerti by Arcangelo Corelli represent the beginnings of the form. As much as anyone, the credit can be given to Baroque composer Antonio Vivaldi for taking Corelli's ideas and distilling the solo concerto into a three movement format that influenced musicians for centuries. J. S. Bach was another Baroque musician who impacted on the concerto. Bach was the first to compose concerti for the keyboard, which for Bach was the harpsichord. When the mechanism of the piano was perfected by Cristofori, piano concerti were written.

Another type of Baroque concerto, the concerto grosso was an important development. The concerto grosso differed from the standard concerto in that it had a large number of solo instruments, not just one or two. In some concerti grossi, the distinction between soloists and orchestra are often very blurred. Handel, Corelli, and Vivaldi are three whose concerti grossi stand out from the rest of the period. J. S. Bach composed six concerti grossi to audition for a job. The Margrave of Brandenburg didn't think too much of them and turned down Bach for the job. Modern musicians consider these "Brandenburg Concerti", as they have been nicknamed, the best concerti grossi ever written.

The concerto as a musical format was one of the popular staples of the Classical Era (1740 -- 1820). The new instrument of the era, the piano, quickly became exploited in the concerto format. In his nearly 30 piano concerti, Mozart carried the new form to a very viable musical structure. As typical for him, Beethoven's piano concerti took the form to more dramatic heights.

Few innovations to the concerto came about during the Classical Era although a very important one called the cadenza began to appear. The cadenza is a section in the concerto where the composer has the orchestra stop playing. The soloist is given a chance to improvise on themes of the movement and display his musical ability. Today musicians very cautiously play a pre-written cadenza, but in those days a musician was expected to really make things up on the spot. At the first performance of Beethoven's violin concerto, the violinist turned his violin upside-down to play the cadenza--which is perhaps one reason why Beethoven never composed a second one!

In the early Romantic era, a new trend began taking place--the concerto as a spectacular showpiece for virtuoso musicians. Niccolo Paganini was the first of these. Paganini was a very gifted violinist who decided to elevate himself beyond any musician that anyone had ever heard. Through a combination of awesome talent, a little trickery, and seven or eight hours of practice a day (he kept this a secret to not spoil his reputation), Paganini helped make the soloist a star in his own day. The combination of these elements also began convincing audiences that he had sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his musical ability, and he actually had to buy newspaper ads denying this fact so superstitious audiences wouldn't be afraid to attend his concerts.

Franz Liszt heard Paganini perform at a young age and decided to make himself the Paganini of the piano. His very imposing appearance, coupled with his reputation literally had audience members fainting in the aisles, countesses fighting each other to get a swatch of his clothing or any other souvenir they could lay their hands on. Liszt's promiscuity was legendary and the scandals that resulted did nothing but add to his reputation--and we think today's rock stars are the first to do things like this!

Ironically, most good modern musicians play much of the music of Liszt and Paganini as part of their repertoire. Part of this is due to advanced teaching techniques, but part of it is also due to the sheer innovation of these two composers. Each instinctively understood his instrument and what it could do, developing insights beyond their contemporaries. While performing ability and virtuosity are important, they must take a back seat to originality in the scope of things.

Other Romanticists who contributed to the concerto were Brahms, Tschaikovsky, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Grieg, and Saint-Saens, among others.

The twentieth century hasn't been as kind to the concerto as the earlier era, but fine examples have been composed by Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Stravinsky, Berg, Schoenberg, and Bartok among others. One of Ravel's piano concerti single-handedly showed new potential in the form.

In the literature there are concerti written for many instruments, including cello, flute, clarinet, trumpet, horn, oboe, guitar, harmonica, the saxophone, and almost any other traditional instrument you can imagine--even instruments such as the tuba and the contrabassoon.

As a closing to a discussion on compositional techniques and common forms, I would be doing a major disservice if I didn't add that while the above are some common approaches to the process, they are by no means the only way of putting music together.

As mentioned earlier, when words are involved in music, sometimes commonsense rules can be tossed out the window and a successful composition can be created. Many of Schubert's songs for voice and piano (usually called by their German name of 'lieder') have no real form that can be outlined or easily described. The music follows the text and serves to highlight and intertwine with the ideas expressed by the singer.

To single out a successful composer who has spurned convention, the music of Philip Glass has certainly gone against the grain. Some of his music involves short sections or phrases repeated a large number of times. Over that will often be another line that evolves slowly and changes at an almost glacial pace.

While this sounds very foreign to most of our ears, it is actually similar to musical techniques found in Eastern music (which Glass has studied). Terry Riley, another American has evolved similar techniques in his music. The result is very similar to the repetition of a mantra over and over while one's state of consciousness slowly evolves.

The reverse holds true with many experimental compositions that have little or no repetition. While there is little to latch onto, they often present shimmering, kaleidoscopic waves of color. If an audience tries to find a melody, an exposition, development, or recapitulation, or harmony, they will be disappointed. However, if a listener approaches them with an open mind and takes only what the music gives them, many will find that a lot of these experiments are very musically rich.

Lastly, in dealing with structure, there is again the aleatoric school--those who believe that random chance should play an important part in art--which of course, reflects the lives of those who create it and those who perceive it. Aleatoric compositions evolve, change, and grow from performance to performance, something that many non-Western cultures treasure highly.