(Or how I think about it) part 1: An introduction to Sonata Form and its place in the Symphony
This is all highly opinionated, and probably highly unprofessional, but it’s the way I try to get someone who’s never cared for or had the patience for classical music to think of classical music. I try to liken a symphony to a movie.
Watch the other post under ‘resources’ first before reading this one. It and the video accompanying it are shorter and probably simpler. Once you’ve been there, come back to this. And buckle up.
With the wrong approach or uninformed expectations, nothing would be enjoyable.
There is a story to be told in classical music, and it’s done in many different ways, depending on the form. For the purposes of this discussion, let’s talk about a symphony.
I am just now realizing this is a huge topic. People spend entire semesters discussing the idea of sonata form, and it is a concept that has lasted for centuries, with composers still producing new ideas based around this structure in either symphonies, or obviously its namesake the sonata.
First, watch this (unfortunately rather poor-quality recording of a) great talk by Giancarlo Guerrero (seventh music director of the Nashville Symphony at the beginning of its 2009-2010 season and principal guest conductor of The Cleveland Orchestra Miami Residency) explaining some of the background of the symphony as a musical structure, and the idea of sonata form. He uses likely the most famous and recognize able symphony ever as an example, the first movement of Beethoven’s fifth, to show what this structure is like, and how, with just a teeny bit of musical knowledge, it can provide exciting insight into a piece of music that
everyone has heard many times over and make the experience that much more enjoyable. Go. Watch that first. Then come back and we’ll talk.
Okay, great. Actually I forgot how long that video is/was, but I hope you got through the first half or so.
So the symphony originated as a series of pieces for a party held by a famous rich person, usually a king. We may never again see the likes of the wild revelries that were had to the tunes of seventeenth and eighteenth century musical superstars, but they were made up of different dances, and came to follow a certain order, with an overture or attention-getting introduction at the beginning, as stated in the video.
This idea hung on into the Classical period and evolved into the basic idea of the symphony. In most general terms, a symphony is often laid out something like this:
1. The first movement is an important one. It makes the first impression and sets the tone of the whole piece. It generally begins with an introduction as stated in the talk, then the first theme in the exposition as the beginning of sonata form. This part of the movement often lays out for the listener what is going to “happen” in this movement, if not for the whole symphony. The exposition is often stated twice, (that is, played through, then played again note-for-note) to establish clearly the themes and the key(s) that the piece will be working with. Think of this as the beginning of character development of a movie. Movies in the past fifty years have told their stories in many different ways aside from directly chronological order, and symphonies don’t always play by these exact rules either; it’s just a general idea. Generally speaking (aside from a thrilling in medias res beginning), the opening of a movie (or book or any story) establishes the characters, the setting(s), the protagonist(s), antagonist(s), and the conflict. We actually get much of this from the exposition as well. With the repeated exposition and its introduction of both themes in their respective keys, we can then get to the ‘plot’ as it were, the part of the story where things can begin to happen.
This section is where composers can get inventive, creative, even tricky, and show off their skills. How will these two themes in two (or more!) different keys finally resolve? How will the story end? Often, in typical stories, the good guy wins in the end, but not without a few plot twists or surprises. That’s what happens in this section. The piece may go through a number of different keys, introduce different material in different ways, rehash it, reinvent it, even play with ideas (like Beethoven’s famous triplet motif) instead of an actual theme as you may think of a phrase or melody, so sometimes the unifying factors or relationships can be hard to notice, especially in more modern symphonies, but eventually (usually) we end up back where we started, in either the opening key, in the opening theme, or both. Sometimes it’s the same theme in a different key that doesn’t resolve the way it ‘classically’ ‘should’. And that’s the first movement, which is often quite an important one because it sets the tone for the whole symphony and makes an important impression.
2 and 3. In the typical four-movement structure, one of the two middle movements is a slow movement, a lyrical, pretty one, and the other is often a ‘dance’ movement. These two aren’t as rigidly defined, and styles and opinions have differed throughout the centuries on how these are handled. In centuries past, the second movement was the slow movement, and the third was the dance movement, but Beethoven again gives us an example in some of his symphonies where he flips these two around, making the the second movement the slow one. These two generally also don’t have such complicated structures as the first movement in sonata form. Two common forms that come to mind for these are “theme and variations” and “ternary form”.
In a theme and variation, as the name suggests, the movement begins with a theme, and after stating it, changes it slightly and plays it again, them changes some more, and on and on until the original theme returns and the movement ends. The variations can be changes in rhythm, pitch, orchestration or almost any other thing that alters it from its original form while keeping some identifiable quality.
Ternary form is exactly what it might sound like to you: a movement with three main parts, played in an A-B-A fashion. A common example of this in the Classical era was the minuet and trio. A minuet is/was a French dance typically in 3/4 time, and it was orchestrated with a contrasting middle section for three instruments, the trio, which is still called that even if it’s not scored that way anymore. The trio is often not in 3/4. After the trio is over, the minuet comes back to close the movement. The minuet can be replaced by a waltz, or in more modern symphonies, like those from the Romantic era, the scherzo (Italian for ‘joke’), both also in some kind of triple meter, and often still contains a contrasting middle section. For two examples of scherzos (the Italian plural would be scherzi) that come to mind that I like, check out the third movements of Bruckner’s first symphony and his third symphony. (Mahler even replaces the minuet with a Ländler, the Austrian precursor to the waltz, in his first symphony, but that’s not important.) This ABA structure can get more complicated with something like an ABACABA structure, or even more dazzlingly, as Wikipedia states:
“In a complex ternary form each section is itself in ternary form in the scheme of (A–B–A–C–D–C–A–B–A). An example are the Impromptus (Op. 7) by Jan Voříšek.”
The fourth movement is typically the other big meaty movement of the symphony. It may be in some kind of sonata form, if not as structurally complete as the first movement, may still contain something resembling that structure, but it is often an allegro, a rondo or something else big and exciting. Fourth movements are often intense and powerful. It is the final act, as it were, and must bring everything together. As a result of this, you may often hear sections or themes from the first movement or other movements referred to or fully quoted in the final movement. The symphony is nearing its end, and whatever last feelings or thoughts the composer has, he must wrap up and get to here, as well as try to finish the ‘plot’ of the piece so it is a cohesive whole with a memorable finish.
Let’s sum it up again with a statement from Wikipedia. I shamelessly copy and paste:
“The normal four-movement form became (Jackson 1999, 26; Stein 1979, 106):
1. an opening sonata or allegro
2. a slow movement, such as adagio
3. a minuet or scherzo with trio
4. an allegro, rondo, or sonata
Variations on this layout, like changing the order of the middle movements or adding a slow introduction to the first movement, were common. Haydn, Mozart and their contemporaries restricted their use of the four-movement form to orchestral or multi-instrument chamber music such as quartets, though since Beethoven solo sonatas are as often written in four as in three movements (Prout 1895, 249).”
Again, this is just a rough outline of how some of the most traditional symphonies are organized. There are myriad variations and changes on this typical format. Beethoven changed the order of some of the movements, and in his fifth symphony, ended the symphony in C major instead of C minor, the key it opened in. While these seem like small changes, they were unheard of at the time. To continue to use Beethoven as an example, his sixth symphony was one of the first, I believe, if not the first, to have five movements instead of three or four, and his ninth was the first to incorporate a chorus.
That’s basically the idea behind most symphonies. I left a lot out, and what it did include I didn’t address very thoroughly. Again, I’d rather interest a potential reader (listener…) at the risk of sounding a bit incomplete than bore them to tears with terms and details they don’t understand or care about.
Knowing what you should look for (or listen for) in a symphony is like knowing how to watch a movie. It sounds ridiculously silly to discuss how to watch a movie, but it’s because we are generally familiar with the idea of a movie since it imitates life. We know how stories work. A symphony, though, isn’t quite as familiar to many of us. We generally know roughly how long a movie is, who the lead actors are, the rough outline of the story, the style of the director, and the genre (and possibly even the basic structure of the genre, as in “chick flick: girl dating guy, girl loses guy, girl meets new guy, blah blah.” Some of these genres have very common, or even predictable, patterns). All of this helps you to some degree or other to pay attention to and understand the film.
So…. Here’s my thing. Listening to the little bits of a symphony that you find exciting (just the first movement [or maybe just the first half of the first movement] of Beethoven’s fifth, or the final movement of Haydn’s 94th) is like watching only the fight (or chase, if you prefer) scene from a spy thriller. It may be exciting and cool and fun to watch, but if you don’t know who the characters are or have any context or background, then the scene alone is meaningless. Only when viewed in the context of the whole story does it carry real weight and drive the plot forward. And obviously no movie can be 100% fight scenes. Those that are tend to have very poor excuses for plots and are very disappointing to anyone actually wanting to watch an engaging film. It’s all hype and gimmicks. If someone wants to see just gimmicks, then don’t watch a movie, just watch boxing or a car race. If you think the scenes with dialogue or anything non-chase is boring, then it’s either a bad movie or it’s a problem with your expectations. You’re looking at it wrong. Of course there are really bad spy movies, but if everyone else loves it and you hate it, then they’re at least seeing something you aren’t.
So that’s my point. Try to understand it from a different standpoint and see what it all means as one cohesive whole from the beginning of the first movement to the very last note of the last movement. Not 100% of a symphony can be loud and big and fast and exciting and climax. It’s too much. But, in theory, the whole thing has meaning. It’s all part of the plot, and if you can understand the journey, then it takes on a whole new meaning, and can even be life-changing. You just have to know how to listen.
I feel like that was a pretty good closing statement, but I’m going to continue. Or just summarize. When you listen to music with your ears, you may enjoy it. When you listen with your head, you understand it, when you listen with your heart (as cheesy as that sounds), you appreciate it. Many people have come to listen only with their ears, as modern music has accustomed society to doing with three-and-four-minute top selling songs. That music may still move people, and you could say they’re listening with their hearts (or at least being moved), but this becomes harder when there are no lyrics to tell you what or how to feel. Listening in all of these ways, not only to how the music makes you feel or how it moves you, but how it fits in or what it is trying to say within the scheme of the whole piece, and appreciating it artistically (or even scientifically) with even rudimentary knowledge of music. When you hear from these three different vantage points at once, the music almost literally begins to have dimension and depth, since you are no longer looking at it from one angle (“this music is fast/pretty/angry”) or analytically (this is a Viennese waltz/funeral march/sonata”) but in all three. Then you are no longer listening, you are experiencing.