Introduction - History of Sonata form (§ 1 - § 8)
In recent decades, the knowledge of early music and the study of ancient performance practice have reached levels of awareness unthinkable to the scholars who lived hundred years ago. The careful reading and reconsideration of the ancient treatises, also the historical rigor which characterizes many contemporary interpretations have led to the rediscovery and revaluation of a musical repertoire which is now appreciated in its own light, and not simply because it heralds further developments of which the modern culture represents the fulfillment. Many statements included in the original texts had to be fixed or deleted, but the general tone of the writing could not be completely revised. However, I must admit that, in spite of occasional faults, in the ancient scholars the desire to accompany the reader with a clear didactic remains irresistible.
I have chosen to focus mainly on the development of instrumental forms for the following reason. Vocal music is much less dependent on pure form than instrumental music, because the words supply the hearer with a means of understanding, and thus its form depends not so much on any general underlying principles as on the metric of the verses. So the History of Form is for the most part a history of instrumental music because, having no assistance from words, this must be arranged on some plan or design in order to be intelligible.
History of Sonata form
§ 1Up to the middle of the XVI century the musical art of modern Europe was virtually dominated by ecclesiastical influence. The great composers were mainly employed in the service of the Church, and even where they ventured into secular fields took with them the traditions of the cloister. Hence followed three results:
scientific music was almost exclusively vocal;
it was bound within the limits of the ecclesiastical modes;
its ideal was to reach the highest possible perfection of pure counterpoint.
Meantime there was growing up outside the Church a body of popular music, artless, immature, uneducated, but for this very reason destined to become a more living force than its dignified rival. It was too ignorant to know the conventional rules, but at any rate it was free of their restriction, it had not studied counterpoint, but at least it had a gift of melody; it wandered off the path with tentative and uncertain steps, but by so doing chanced upon discoveries which the narrow science of the Church composers had prevented them from recognizing.
The Church seems to have looked upon the movement with a tolerant indifference. In earlier days it occasionally borrowed a popular tune to serve as the cantus firmus for a Mass; but in course of time the practice became a scandal, and about the middle of the XVI century it was prohibited. At any rate, the ecclesiastical composers saw little reason to modify their own system, and if they borrowed it was to assimilate, not to compromise. Again, the Reformation, which materially aided the development of religious music in England and Germany, found itself forestalled in France, and, in Italy, only intensified the existing conservatism. And so the two lines gradually diverged: the ecclesiastical music maintaining the ancient régime, and intent on the perfection of a traditional method which it was almost impious to call in question; popular music advancing hazardously into the unknown and preparing the way for a revolution.
Two other influences bore their part in the course of events. In the first place, the difficulties of vocal counterpoint sometimes outmatched the skill of the singers, and hence it became customary to have the motets and madrigals accompanied either by viols or “cornetti”, which doubled the voice parts and so kept the chorus together. Benvenuto Cellini mentions in his Autobiography that he used to play in these accompaniments as a member of the Pope’s band. From this it was a natural step to have the accompaniments given separately as instrumental pieces; and thus the madrigals came to be written with a double purpose, to be sung or played as occasion served. We find examples marked “da cantare e suonare” as early as 1539, and it is probable that the practice dates from a still more remote period. Here then we have a noticeable stage in the history of instrumental music, its recognition as a separate form of art with a more distinctive function than that of supporting the voice or keeping time to the dancers’ feet.
In the second place, the instruments themselves began to improve in tone and compass, and so to claim a more individual share of public attention. By the year 1500 Giovanni Cellini was making organs and “gravicembali”, of which his son speaks in a tone of more than filial respect. Andrea Amati, born in 1520, had opened his workshop before the middle of the century. With this change came a natural advance and improvement in melody. The dance tunes grew richer and more artistic in character, until their composers, sure of an audience, took to stringing them together into Suites. So by the year 1600 the forces of progress were all converging on one point – the overthrow of the old vocal counterpoint, which had just reached its climax of perfection in the Flemish and Italian schools, and the establishment of a new régime in which instrumental music should take an important place.
In 1600 came the Florentine revolution, which not only gave us Opera, but also called modern key system into official recognition. Thenceforward composers had to apply their science to an entirely new set of problems – to the principles of modulation, to the development of melody, to harmonic design, as distinct from contrapuntal, to all the questions of key relationship which belong to the province of musical structure; and when to this is added the enormous advance in dramatic expression, directly fostered by the writers of Opera, it will be seen that the title of “Nuova Musica” is hardly an over-statement. In less than a generation the old counterpoint had become a dead language, and music had learned that its true function was to refine and educate the popular speech.
The revolution, though ostensibly dramatic in aim, had a most important bearing on the growth and progress of instrumental forms. Of these it found two ready to hand:
the instrumental Madrigals (also called Canzonas), originally used as accompaniment to the singer and subsequently detached;
the dance forms either taken singly or combined into rudimentary suites.
The latter it simply enriched and extended, finding new combinations and contrasts, ornamenting the tune with variations and the like; the former it was seriously modified by the gradual substitution of the scale for the mode, and by the consequent development of key structure. Beside this, the improvement in instruments brought with it an age of Virtuosi, and so called into existence Fantasias, Toccatas, and other “solo” pieces, which atoned for their looseness of construction by their brilliance of treatment.
It remains to be seen how these resources were administered by the successors of the revolution.
(a) The organ composers took the instrumental Canzona, developed it along the lines of the new counterpoint – that is, counterpoint founded on the scale instead of the mode, and so elaborated the Fugue, which reached its climax in the work of J. S. Bach.
(b) The opera composers affected the course of instrumental music in three ways:
by the enlargement of the orchestra;
by the use of dances and incidental music;
by the invention of the opening Symphony or Overture.
Of this there were two main types:
The Italian Symphony, ascribed to Alessandro Scarlatti, consisted of three movements: an Allegro in free imitation, an Adagio, generally an Aria for some solo instrument lightly accompanied, and a quick Finale, generally in some dance form.
The French Overture, employed by Lulli, consisted of a slow Introduction, usually ending on a half-close, a contrapuntal Allegro, and a Minuet or other dance form for Finale. The last movement was optional; sometimes inserted, as in Handel’s Overture to “Samson”, sometimes omitted, as in the Overture to “The Messiah”.
(c) The composers of chamber music followed the lead of the Overture, and began to produce continuous compositions in three or more movements, some of which were derived from the modified Canzona form, some from the different types of dance tunes. Naturally there were all sorts of cross lines on the way. Writers for violin, for harpsichord, for organ took hints, and borrowed from each other; but the upshot with which we are at present concerned is that by the end of the XVII century chamber music had been established as a separate and autonomous province of the art.
Thanks for reading Alessandro Cesaro's Newsletter! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
Cfr. Bertenshaw, Elements of Music (Longmans ed. 1896), Ch. LXXI
Cfr. Hadow, Sonata form (Novello ed. 1896), Ch. 2.
That is the Ochtoechos system, as the name implies, it is constituted by 8 different modes, each with its proper scale.
They are the early harpsichords.
There is a tradition, not very well authenticated, that the first Suite was published in Paris in 1550.
Handel wrote a Minuet for this Overture; “to be performed when the work is given as a Concert-piece.”