Theme and Variations

Sonata Forms

by Charles Rosen
Norton, 344 pp., $14.95

What Charles Rosen does to the concept of sonata form in this book is not so much deconstruction—though there is some of that, as we shall see—but rather reconstruction. The old textbook definition of sonata form has been hammered away at on many occasions; Rosen himself did a pretty thorough job of pulverization in The Classical Style of 1971. Now he builds a whole new book out of the dust. It is a paradoxical and brilliant performance.

Inasmuch as the first and often other movements of nearly every sonata, trio, quartet, quintet, and symphony by Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven are “in sonata form,” the meaning, status, and implications of the term are obviously important to anyone interested in this music. Important in different ways, however, to listeners and critics today and to the music theorists of the early nineteenth century. The eighteenth century knew neither the term nor the definition, and Rosen traces with exemplary clarity the reasons why sonata form, when it finally got defined, got defined so poorly. The nineteenth century needed a prescriptive, didactic formula that would enable composers to emulate the classics—in particular, to emulate Beethoven. And since composers of the time cared above all about melodies, themes, and motives, the basic conflict that generates sonata form was interpreted as a conflict of themes. A pre-sonata piece by Bach—a fugue, typically—has but one theme; a sonata piece by Beethoven has two, sharply contrasted. People liked to speak of the “first theme” as masculine, the “second subject” as feminine. The fact that these adjectives were attributed (fraudulently, as has recently been shown) to Beethoven himself reflects clearly enough the classicizing, authoritarian impetus behind the original formulation of sonata form.

Any modern impetus must be historical or critical. We no longer need a pattern such as sonata form for composing in the high style; we need simply an aid to understanding Haydn and Mozart (and Beethoven). Nineteenth-century theory was never intended to provide this and so was soon found wanting, and was hammered at; later critics typically began to look below the surface level, the level inhabited by themes. In his famous “Sonata Forms” article in the eleventh edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, Donald Francis Tovey dealt brusquely with the thematic question by printing the first half of the Gigue from Bach’s C-major Cello Suite, which contains at least four distinct themes, next to the first-movement exposition of Haydn’s Quartet in D minor, op. 42, which contains only one. (Compare Rosen’s use of Bach’s B-flat Partita and Haydn’s Trauersymphonie.) Sonata style does indeed depend on conflict and the resolution of conflict, said Tovey, but it is not conflict of themes but a deeper-level conflict of tonality. What is fundamental is the process of modulation—Haydn’s change from the key of D minor to F major, and especially the “dramatic” way in which he makes this change perceptible.

In short, revisionists early in this century substituted keys for themes as the basic structural determinant of sonata form. This, by…

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