Overview of the sonatas

Click here for part two

I realized that it would benefit everyone if there was a sort of general overview of the evolution of Beethoven’s style in general and of the sonatas in particular, so here is my take on this. Some things are facts, others are opinions.


Overview of the sonatas: about form

There is a page on Sonata form, but form is so much more than a schedule with different parts. If we try to put ourselves from the angle of the composer before he writes a piece instead of just looking at the construction of the piece after it’s written, I think we will get a better feeling of what form actually means.

There is sometimes a misperception that creating something new (in terms of form) equals that it’s good. If so, composing a great piece would not be a hard thing to achieve. In composing, the what you do must always be followed by an equally high standard of how you do it. And even then, it’s perfectly possible that a what and how, intelligently made, will end in an uninteresting, uninspired result.


So, how do you think a composer’s mind works when writing music? Of course, every composer works differently. But still, I can think of many things that would probably apply to most composers.

– Do composers think in terms of pictures, feelings and stories when composing a piece?

A little bit perhaps, but for the most part: no. Recently, I watched a video where a friend and composer Tobias Broström was discussing his trumpet concerto with the soloist (Håkan Hardenberger) and the conductor. The conductor was very excited about a certain part and had some pictural thoughts about it. He told them, and then asked the composer “is that what it is?”. Tobias hesitated and then he said, “I don’t know”. Exactly. A composer does not, in general, want (or need to) put the music in a certain corner emotionally. They leave that for us, the listeners.

If I use a little corny metaphor: let’s say that you are in the back seat of a car. From your seat, you see landscapes of different kinds passing, all beautiful in their own way. Well, let’s say that the composer puts out the landscapes for you to pass, and how you react to it, that they leave to you. What they are obsessed with is that the trees are shaped the way they want, that things won’t stick out in an ugly way etc. That the landscape have, yes, the form, that allows you to perceive it in a way that will touch your spirit in one way or another.

That sounds pretty obvious, but in music, we tend to treat form like it’s a matter of schemes: ABA, First theme, second theme etc. That’s all good to know to be able to communicate the geography (zing!) of the piece, but it does not really have anything to do with the creative forces of a composition


So, how do composers work then?

Again, of course everyone works in different ways. But I think that certain things apply to most composers. Now, we might think that a creative person who is creating something, is building on something like “I do this, then this, then this etc.”, having wonderful ideas that are brought out one by one. It’s probably very different from that. I would describe it more as a creative process which has a workflow that is highly related to the form of the piece, and it is something of a game of ping-pong:

An Idea which could be a motive, or a melody, or a way to orchestrate or a million other things – creates almost always a subsequent problem, or let’s call it a “situation” to be solved. To solve that situation, you need a new idea, and when you got the idea how to solve the problem, that often creates a new situation, which requires a new idea.

Did you ever try to arrange furniture in a room? Then you know what I am talking about. Once you move something to a better place, a new problem seems to arise. Sometimes, you might have to take out the most beautiful piece of furniture in the whole room and put it in another room, because it just won’t fit. That’s what composers do all the time. They might have a wonderful, separate idea…that just won’t fit the “room”. And they have to leave it out. Now, we are getting very close to what “form” in music is about.


Let me finish this part with one example of how you have a “problem”, which is solved, and that creates a new situation etc.

We will see in the next part, when we look at the sonatas, how much Beethoven studied Mozart’s music in his concept of form. Here is one example, involving two fantastic piano concertos, one of each composer.

The character, and philosophy if you like, of a solo concerto (where there is a soloist playing one part with the orchestra playing as an entity behind him/her), is the principle of a single person against a “mass” of people, individuality against the collective.

So, let’s start with a comparison, which will make it somewhat easier to follow this for everyone, and that is to compare it with how to construct a movie.

Now, it’s safe to say that in a concerto the soloist has, in one way or another, a rather “heroic” stature. He/she is all by himself carrying an often difficult, virtuosic part. The soloist gets separate applause when the piece is over.

We could compare the soloist in a concerto to the hero part in a movie. The hero is singled out in a similar way.


OK, so…the soloist enters the stage (seperately), makes himself ready to play, and…well, the orchestra plays for a quite long time. This means, the waiting for the soloists first entry is a quite big psychological ingredient in a concerto. There is tension in the air because we are anticipating great things from the “hero”.

And the comparison in a movie is then, of course, the anticipation for the hero to arrive. This is very important in how to construct a movie (if the movie is hero-based, like a James Bond movie for example), because the first time you see the hero will be one of the most important ones.


The problem that arises in the form of the concerto, is how to make the part when the orchestra plays before the soloist’s entrance attractive enough by itself, not just a waiting game for the soloist to break in. You could say the same thing about a movie, the waiting-game could easily become a distraction to making something meaningful out of the beginning of the movie.

In Beethoven’s 5th piano concerto, the Emperor, the soloist’s part has a heroic character but, in part at least, is also part of the masses. The first orchestral part is gradiose and symphonic, and can NOT be seen as something that “prepares” for a soloist to enter.

So, here we have a problem, or situation. If Beethoven writes this long orchestra section before the soloist’s entrance, two things will happen that will make the piece weaker: 1) after such a long and important orchestra introduction, the soloist’s entrance will not feel very “special” at all, and 2) since the audience is waiting for the soloist it will take away the focus, and therefore the impact, of the orchestral “introduction” (which is mush more than an introduction in this concerto).


This is a typical problem of form that a composer will struggle with in a piece. So, how does Beethoven solve this problem? As so often, the simplest solutions are the best. What he does, is that he lets the soloist enter right away, after the orchestra plays a simple chord. It is powerful, virtuosic, and creates all the effect needed to affirm the pianist as heroic. But after it’s played, the audience can fully focus on the long, important orchestra part, which now can NOT be called a simple introduction, since the soloist already introduced himself.

So, here it is, from Helsinki with love, with a heroic entrance and all:

Beethoven was a genius, coming up with that idea, right? Well, he was a genius, but he sure didn’t come up with the idea. He studied, as said before, Mozart’s music intensely and there is no better study. In a piano concerto in the same key, with much the same character in the first movement, Mozart is the one that comes up with this solution. This is the beginning of his amazing Jeunehomme concerto, written more than 30 years earlier:


Back to the movies: you know when a movie STARTS with an action-filled sequence with the hero (many James Bond movies do this)? Same trick. They make the audience get their “hero-entrance” kick right away, so that when the real story starts, the beginning without the hero feels more important.


But, does this solution create a new problem? Yes, it does. Because, after the long orchestral part, how do you now introduce the soloist? He is still the soloist, but his entry this time should not be announced in big letters. And after a long orchestral part, that is not so simple to do. Mozart, he knows how. He lets the pianist re-enter in the middle of a phrase of the orchestra, with a drill. I admit here (I am playing in the example) that the pianist should enter much more smoothly, not with an accent on the first note of drill as I do. But hey, I didn’t know as much about form then as I do now…


And here we have Beethoven’s solution to that problem. In the beginning I mentioned the importance on how you do things as a composer. I think this is one of the most skillfully constructed of all soloist entrances existing. It grows out of nothing, and into the music. And, to honor Mozart, he includes the same drill as you just heard in the Mozart concerto:


This was the first part of the “overview”, and it was meant to lay some ground to understand what “form” actually means in music. Or rather, WHY there is such thing as a form, and why it is so important to the music’s final result. I think we are ready now to start looking at the sonatas!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s