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WS Newman discusses defining sonata form (1983)

April 18, 2008

This following is a summary of ideas from WS Newman’s The Sonata in The Classic Era.

My comments and additions are in square brackets. I have omitted some of Newman’s footnotes.

In the Introduction to The Sonata in The Classic Era Newman discusses the historical problems and in Part I, from which this extract is taken, he deals with the nature of the Classic Sonata.

As suggested earlier, the approach developed here is based on a consideration of essential style traits as generative elements, or even as form determinants, the aim being a view of the Classic sonata that is both dynamic and flexible. In particular, a distinction is made between two mutually opposed styles of progression, leading, typically, to two mutually opposed structural results. In its purest state, “motivic play” – that is, the continual passing about of a distinctive but fragmentary “clause” – tends to generate a monothematic (or monomotivic), cursive form. Its most characteristic traits are its polyphonic texture, fast harmonic rhythm, proselike meter, and constant tonal flux…….By diametric contrast and in its purest form, “phrase grouping” – that is, the apposition, opposition, or other juxtaposition of relatively complete “sentences” – tends to generate a polythematic, hierarchic design of sections within sections. Its most characteristic traits are its homophonic texture, slow harmonic rhythm, verse like meter, and broad tonal plateaus. An ideal example might be the “Alla Turca” finale from Mozart’s Sonata in A, K.V. 300.

Our “ideal” examples suggest a generalization, and rightly so, to the effect that in the Baroque sonata at its peak the most characteristic styles and forms are those growing out of motivic play, whereas in the Classic sonata at its peak they are those growing out of phrase grouping. Certainly this is a safer generalisation than one that distinguishes merely between Baroque polyphony and Classic homophony (quite apart from the important resurgence of polyphony in the finest Classic sonatas). But it is a generalisation still fraught with perils. Mainly, we must bear in mind that the ideal examples are rare extremes and that most of the sonata movements we shall encounter lie somewhere along the transitional path between them.

(Newman, pp.113-114)

Newman argues that there are three main concepts of form:

1. That of the particular generative process inherent in a set of ideas.

2. That of the particular structural result growing out of a particular generative process.

3. That of the standardised design most applicable to a particular structural result.

In order to illustrate this idea Newman takes as an example the first movement of Beethoven’s Sonata in E Flat, Op. 31 No 3, and argues that:

1. A particular sort of irregular phrase grouping seems to inhere in the particular character of the opening idea.

2. A particular overall structure seems to grow out of that sort of phrase grouping.

3. The standardised design most applicable as a generalisation of that result is “sonata form”.

Newman adds-

The third concept has prevailed in much nineteenth- and twentieth analysis, partly because ready-made classifications, however inadequate and inaccurate, are far quicker and easier to make than all the particularizing required to show in what ways a certain process or structural result is, in fact, particular.

(Newman, p.114)

Newman then outlines two reasons why the approach to form as a scheme of standardised designs cannot be adequate for a survey of the Classic sonata.

1. The number of designs that are fundamentally different is very small.

2. The attempt to classify musical works largely in terms of standardised designs attaches too much significance to the fact itself of the design.

Newman prefers to think of the design concept as the least significant of his three concepts of form.

There is only one real danger that accompanies the fuller consideration of form as a generative process and as the structural result of that process. It is the usual danger of carrying any approach too far. Thus, one must not start to make organic inevitabilities out of aesthetic tendencies, as though he were observing the growth of a particular seed into a particular plant…There need not be anything inevitable about the fact that certain ideas lend themselves best to certain processes, or that these in turn tend to generate certain structures.

(Newman, p.115)

Newman’s discussion of the general problems of form in relation to the Classic sonata is prompted by the importance that has been attached to what he describes as “the nineteenth-century concept of “sonata form””. He quotes the following example written in 1878 by Ernst Pauer.

First part. Chief or principal subject, transition to a second subject. Final group. Repeat. Tonic. Modulation into the dominant or a relative major key; or rarely, if the chief subject is in a minor key, to the minor key of the fifth above.

Middle part. Thematic working out or development of both the subjects of the first part; called also the Free Fantasia, because unrestricted as to form. Free modulations return to the tonic.

Repetition. Chief subject. Transition to second subject. Final group. Recollection. Finale. Reign of the tonic.

Newman’s footnote: The book was first published in London in 1878; the description appears in the text and in a chart on p.117. Cf. the slightly fuller chart in Hadow/SONATA 91.

(Newman, p.116)

[ Pauer’s plan can also be expressed like this:

Exposition. First subject (tonic), transition, second subject (dominant in the major mode, relative major or dominant minor in the minor mode), coda (the same key as the second subject). The exposition is repeated.

Development. Based on the first and second subjects from the Exposition. Modulating widely, but returning to the tonic key.

Recapitulation. First subject (tonic). Transition to second subject (tonic). Coda (tonic).]

Newman recognises that writers on musical form have pointed out that “sonata form” has many variants, but also emphasises that nearly all have identified three important features of the form:

1. the second or contrasting theme

2. the development section

3. the return of the main theme in the tonic key

To which Newman adds

[These three features] prove to be the very features of “sonata form” that remain its most flexible, fluid, and unpredictable aspects well into the late-Classic Era. Before that time the number of scattered examples that happens to satisfy the textbook concept in all its main features is not few. But its percentage is never sufficient to suggest that it marks a prime goal of either pre- or high-Classic trends.

……even the late-eighteenth-century writers who troubled to write about structure were concerned much less about design itself than about such means of design as tonal organization and phrase syntax. It is in just those respects that attempts to find early precedents for “sonata form” seem meaningless.

(Newman, p.117)

Newman illustrates this point by comparing three sonata first movements:

1. Freidemann Bach’s Sonata in E flat, F. 5

2. CPE Bach’s Sonata in g, W.65/17

3. JC Bach’s Sonata in B Flat, Op. 17/6

And notes that while the style and feel of these sonatas moves closer to that of the high-Classic sonata, the designs at the same time become less like the “sonata form” standardised design. Also, the first movements of Beethoven’s Sonatas in A and E, Opp. 101 and 109, are, from the point of view of “sonata form” regressive when compared to the earlier sonatas Op. 2/1-3. Newman is therefore critical of what he describes as the “evolutionary” approach to sonata history, which is

……too often characterized by a high degree of selectivity, in order to provide a chronological path to the preconceived concept, yet by an overly wide range of music, even extending to vocal music on occasion, from which the selections are made…There is a tendency to establish an evolutionary chain of form types, as in the idea that the suite was the direct ancestor of the sonata, although these types generally developed concurrently, not successively. Within the form types further chains are made to lead from simple binary to complex ternary designs. This last succession is often illustrated by a series of diagrams in which the ideas and sections are lettered…..Thus, using a and b for the main ideas, 1 and 2 for the main keys, and c3 for development in other keys, Hadow traces the following evolution:


Newman’s footnote: Oxford History V, 191,193,195.

In such approaches, the sonata cycle as a whole, which at best gets much less attention than “sonata form” in the first quick movement, is usually introduced at random …. But attempts are made, too, to find an evolutionary trend in the number of movements. These attempts meet with more varied and less successful results than the approaches to “sonata form” because even with selective methods a writer is hard pressed to bring order out of this frequently haphazard phenomenon.

Related to the “evolution” of “sonata form” are the numerous attempts to derive this design from the da capo aria or other aria forms. [Manfred] Bukofzer has drawn parallels between the various “stages” of design in the Classic aria and sonata, illustrating each with detailed diagrams. But he is careful to disclaim any more vital relationship or any derivation of the sonata from the aria. Although there can be little question about interchanges of style between the aria, with, say, its melodic lyricism or buffa piquancy, and the sonata, with its technical virtuosity, there is not much likelihood of a cause-and-effect relation between the over-all design of the aria and that of “sonata form”, if only, again, because they developed concurrently , not successively.

(Newman, pp.118-119)


Newman, William S, The Sonata in the Classic Era, Third Edition, W W Norton & Company Inc., New York & London, 1983, ISBN 0-393-95286

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