Saturday, February 11, 2012

Masterpieces of Music: Origins of the Keyboard Sonata

For a very long time, a thousand years or so, most music was vocal music. All music that was written down was vocal music. We know that instruments were used because we can see them in paintings and carvings, but the only music written down was for the voice. This started to change in the later Middle Ages and Renaissance when we start to see music intended for a mixture of voices and instruments. Then we see instruments such as the lute taking over and playing all the parts. Here is an example:

I have put this piece up before in a different performance, but it is such a good example, that I want to use it again. This is "Mille Regretz" by Josquin that the Spanish vihuelista Luys Narvaez has taken and made into a piece for his instrument. All three voices are there and he has added some ornaments to extend long notes that would have died away. It is just a small step from transcribing music in several voices to composing original music for the lute or vihuela in several voices. Here is an example of a fantasia by Francesco da Milano from the same time:

Of course, as soon as the instrumental fantasia, based on vocal style, was born, it took on a life of its own and soon acquired features characteristic of instruments but very unlikely for voices. See how virtuosic the fantasia has become just a few decades later in the music of John Dowland:

The same evolution was going on in the keyboard as well with vocal type polyphony for the organ:

And for the harpsichord:

But performers and composers soon discovered that the keyboard could do things that no voice was capable of and developed special forms such as the toccata and partita:

Towards the end of the Baroque the idea of a keyboard sonata came into being. This was a piece, composed originally for the keyboard, with no reference to vocal style except for the idea of independent
parts, corresponding to the individual singers. The idea was to give free rein to all that fingers on a keyboard could accomplish. The composer who really devoted himself to this was Domenico Scarlatti, composer of over five hundred sonatas for solo harpsichord. Here are a couple of them:

That's a long way from vocal music! As the Classical period began, the idea of a solo keyboard sonata was transformed because their basic concept of instrumental form was the multi-movement work. This played out in the string quartet and the symphony, both usually in four movements: a quick opening movement in what became known as "sonata" form or "sonata-allegro" form, a slow movement, often in variation form, a minuet or scherzo dance movement, and a finale that was often in rondo form. Both Haydn and Mozart wrote piano sonatas of this kind. Here is one by Haydn:

This sonata, No 32 in B minor, dating from around 1775, is in three movements. The first is in two repeated halves in which the first half presents a simple theme, based on the notes of the tonic triad, and since this in a minor key, moves to the nearest related key: the relative major, D major. After the repeat, the second half takes the same theme (there could be more themes, of course) and, after destabilizing our sense of key, moves to E minor, then F# minor before returning to B minor for the end. Very simple, but effective. The second movement is a minuet in B major and trio in B minor. The last movement, a presto, is in much the same form as the first. The first half gives us a simple theme and modulates to D major. The second half takes that theme through a wider range of keys before returning to the tonic. Mozart takes a somewhat different approach:

In the first movement (from the Sonata in A minor, K. 310 written in 1778), also in minor, he gives us not one, but two contrasting themes. The first is a bit dramatic, descending in dotted notes, in A minor. At the end of this section, he modulates to the relative major (as did Haydn), in this case C major. But then, we have a new, contrasting theme in C major with a lyrical quality. The second half begins with the first theme, but now in C major and continues with some exotic harmonies (there is a nice Neapolitan sixth) and a lot of passage work using the dotted rhythm from the first theme. Then we return to A minor and the first theme as it was in the beginning. The second theme also appears, but in A minor, and more passage work (by that I mean typical keyboard arpeggios and scales) leads us to the ending in A minor.

All this makes a nice introduction to the piano sonatas of Beethoven, which I have already put up several posts on back in October. Here they are:

In terms of range and depth of musical expression, these sonatas of Beethoven are almost as far away from the much simpler sonatas of Haydn and Mozart as those, in turn, are from the lute fantasias of the 16th century!

Next time I will take up Beethoven and what makes him so important...

1 comment:

Nathan Shirley said...

Very nice post here, I was glad to see you didn't forget Scarlatti after all! Both fine examples of his music here. Have you heard Argerich perform the first of these two on piano? So fast it almost sounds like a harpsichord (And she's gone faster than this- ).

But what about Handel? It's said Beethoven considered him the greatest composer, and of the late Baroque composers he certainly had some of the strongest influence on on the course of western music. Personally he's a bit hit and miss for me, but when he hits? Fantastic stuff!