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Is Sonata Form binary or ternary?

March 12, 2008

The following extract is from Chapter II (The Concept of “Sonata” in Classic Writings) of William S Newman’s The Sonata in the Classic Era, 1983.

Additions to quoted passages by Newman are in square brackets. My comments are in brackets {like this}. I have omitted most of Newman’s footnotes.

Tacit recognition of a binary concept is found in the remarks by two composers about observing the repeats. Emanuel Bach {CPE Bach} called these last “mandatory” when he wrote out the “varied repetitions” in his sonatas of 1760 (W. 50/1-6). Since the allegro movements in these sonatas usually have a clear recapitulation, the design that actually results most of the time is A-A’-B-A-B’-A’. On the other hand, Grétry argued in 1797 against the sense of repeating “each half”…In 1808 Choron still seemed to be thinking in terms of the binary design described by Scheibe {Johann Adolph Scheibe (1708-76)}. And, of course, there have been many writers ever since who have preferred to interpret “sonata form” in a binary sense.

Ternary design was recognised, too, as it had been far back in the Baroque Era. The Austrian theorist Joseph Riepel printed the upper line of a symphony allegro “by a [German or Italian] master” in which the “beginning of the second part” and the recapitulation are clearly indicated and the latter is duly noted by the pupil. Volger showed only a slight recognition of an independent “development section” in 1778. But as early as 1770 Reichardht and Schulz seemed to have been thoroughly conscious of the recapitulation as being “comme il faut” in sonata movements of the Berlin School…Furthermore, a ternary interpretation of the tonal scheme is usually evident in late-eighteenth-century writings even when the author still speaks of two sections. Thus, starting with a sentence that shows how important the tonal concept was to the Classic theorist, the German pedagogue J.G. Portmann wrote in 1789:

The plan or outline of a musical piece is [found in] the skillful arrangement of the main and subordinate keys, the order of these, what comes first, and [what] ought to follow next, thirdly, [and] fourthly. For example, i shall make the outline for the allegro of a keyboard sonata in D. Thus, I establish the main key of D, in which I begin and [from which I] modulate. After this I veer towards the dominant…and cadence therein. This [much] constitutes the outline of the first section of the allegro. In the other section I begin with more remote modulations….these then take me back to D, in which [key] I repeat the [main] theme and my melodic materials and passages….already heard in the subordinate key. I remain and conclude there [in the home key].

{Newman’s footnote:} Trans. from the excerpt quoted in Ratner/HARMONIC 161 from Portmann’s Leichtes Lehruch der Harmonie, p.50.

Much the same was written still more explicitly by Koch in 1787 and 1793, and, in a more involved way, by Kollmann in 1799.

The Sonata in the Classic Era, Newman, William S, W.W. Norton & Company, New York & London, 1983 (third edition),
ISBN 0 393 95286, pp.30-31.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 22, 2009 8:47 pm

    thank u 4 this useful info
    i have been wanting 2 know 4 ages

  2. Charly permalink
    February 5, 2009 4:15 am

    It’s interesting to find out that Portmann didn’t really consider the idea of “main” and “secondary” themes, rather just one theme, other melodic materials and a cadence.

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