sonata (sənäˈtə) [key], in music, type of instrumental composition that arose in Italy in the 17th cent.
At first the term merely distinguished an instrumental piece from a piece with voice, which was called a cantata. Thus many early concertos, suites, and sets of variations were called sonatas. As the various instrumental forms acquired differentiated characteristics during the baroque period, the term began to identify two specific types: the sonata de chiesa, or church sonata, and the sonata da camera, or chamber sonata. Both were written most commonly for two melody instruments, usually violins or flutes, with a bass instrument and a keyboard instrument, both of which played the thorough bass (see figured bass). The sonata da chiesa was in four movements—slow, fast, slow, fast—and its contrapuntal style was largely derived from the canzone. The sonata da camera was basically a suite of dances, although nondance movements were added later.
In the late 17th cent. these two types merged into the outstanding baroque chamber music form, the trio sonata. This form was brought to perfection in the works of Arcangelo Corelli and François Couperin and adopted in the sonatas of J. S. Bach and Handel. In the later 18th cent. sonatas for groups of instruments began to be designated string quartet and symphony, and the term sonata was limited to pieces for one keyboard instrument or for one solo instrument (e.g., violin) with keyboard accompaniment. The keyboard sonata was developed in the works of rococo Italian composers such as Galuppi, G. B. Sammartini (1701–75), and P. D. Paradies (1707–91). This rococo sonata was more homophonic than the trio sonata, having one outstanding melodic line with accompanying harmonic background, such as the Alberti bass. In sonatas of this type, particularly those of C. P. E. Bach, an expressive quality and pianistic style were developed that influenced the classical sonata, perfected by Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven.
The classical sonata's movements are usually fast-slow-fast, and a minuet or scherzo is often inserted before the last movement. The first movement—and possibly one or more of the others—was in what is called sonata form. This is essentially a binary form, the first part being an exposition of two (or sometimes three) contrasted themes. The second part consists of a development of these themes and a recapitulation of the beginning exposition. Sonata form is employed in the string quartet, in the symphony, and to some extent in the concerto, as well as in the solo sonata. After the classical era the most significant development was the use of one thematic idea in all movements, in each of which the basic idea is transformed in mood and character. This type of sonata was fully realized in the Sonata in B Minor of Franz Liszt.
See critical studies of the composers mentioned; W. S. Newman, The Sonata in the Baroque Era (3d ed. 1972), The Sonata in the Classic Era (2d ed. 1972), and The Sonata Since Beethoven (2d ed. 1972).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
See more Encyclopedia articles on: Music: Theory, Forms, and Instruments