Beethoven Piano Sonatas – Road Map


Before I get down to analyzing all the Beethoven sonatas I wish to explain the many forms Beethoven and other composers used when writing music. I drew a guide to the four most common forms used at the time, which is the headline picture of this blog post.

I would like to emphasize a disclaimer beforehand. Sonata forms and other musical forms were not set in stone. They were not a rulebook but trends composers tended to follow when writing music, and it was not uncommon for composers such as Beethoven to toy around with the forms’ conventions and people’s expectations. You will hear plenty of examples from Beethoven in almost all of his sonatas, even in his early “Kurfursten” sonatas he wrote when he was only twelve.

SONATA FORM is the most complex form out there with only fugues being harder to write. Most professors say sonata form is in “ternary form” or is made of three parts but this is not true. Sonata form is really in “binary form” or made of two main parts. Professors mislabel the development section as a third part of the sonata but it really isn’t, just a space to improvise, as I will show below.

Sonata form’s two parts are the exposition (an “A part”) and recapitulation (B part). Both are basically the same, divided into two smaller parts where you start with a subject (or a distinct musical idea) and follow up on it with more ideas. The exposition has a first half (or “a part”) where you begin the piece with a main subject that will be the main idea of the entire movement in the home key. The example home keys I use here will be C major and c minor (I or i key).

After stating your main subject you enter into a transition; you develop your idea while moving (or modulating) to a new key. If your home key is C major you usually modulate to G major (V key) or if your home key is c minor you usually modulate to Eb major (III key). Often a composer will do a few V-I cadences in the new key at the end of the transition to let the listener settle into a new key. If you started the piece in C major you will now be playing D major – G major cadences or if you started the piece in c minor you will now be playing Bb major – Eb major cadences.

Now you are in the second half (or b part) of the exposition; you play a second subject, sometimes more, usually to contrast with your main subject. These new subjects are sometimes called subordinate subjects. Then you follow up with some closing statements where you cement the piece in your new key. In our example it’s G major or Eb major.

Now you enter into a development section where you take the different subjects you played before and explore them in many different keys, usually far away from your home key. Often the development is divided into three smaller parts. First is a “pre-development” part where you start this new phase of the music. Then you play one or more “cores” where you play a musical idea in many different keys. Then you play a re-transition where you go back to the home key. This begins the recapitulation.

The recapitulation (or B part) is very similar to the exposition. You play your main subject, (a’ part) which is in C major or c minor in our example, and enter a transition, except here you don’t go to a new key but stay in your old key. You even do a few V-I cadences in your old key to let the listener know you’re staying there. So in your subordinate subjects (b’ part) if you started the piece in C major you make a G major – C major cadence. If you started the piece in c minor you make a G major – c minor cadence or a G major – C major cadence. Then you conclude the piece with some closing statements in that same key.

Rarely is the recapitulation exactly like the exposition, especially when a skilled composer is writing this music. You will play the main subject a little differently; maybe even develop it even further. While in the transition you may linger in the IV key. You may even play the subordinate subjects a little differently and you may expand on the closing statements to give the piece a strong ending.

It is not uncommon to think sonata form (and other forms) as a debate or thesis since even composers of the day saw this kind of music as very intellectual. The various subjects are like the main points you make in an argument and the various transitions and closing statements are like the train of thought of logical statements and examples you bring up to support your ideas in greater detail.

You can think of sonata form as a story or character arc just as easily. Your character starts out in the main subject and dramatically changes during transitions. Subordinate subjects are like resting places for your character between adventures or a place to reflect how your character has changed. The development is like the lowest point in a character’s life or the area of greatest struggle while the closing statements at the end of the piece is like the climax of the story.

I now argue why sonata form is a binary form of two parts and not a ternary form of three parts. This is because the development section isn’t really a part in its own right, more like a free space to explore your musical ideas however you wish. It even grew over time. In Scarlatti’s and Mozart’s earlier sonatas, and even the younger Beethoven’s sonatas, the development is small to the point where the entire second half of the sonata (development and recapitulation) is repeated. But when you get to Mozart’s later works and most of Beethoven’s works throughout his career, the development section gets so big it’s almost as big as the recapitulation at times, and the second half of the sonata is no longer repeated. But even at this point the development is not a formal third part of the sonata, which is still, in essence, a creature of two halves. Some sonatas even lack a development section.

I must also point out how earlier sonatas, like Scarlatti’s and the teenage Beethoven’s, don’t have definite subjects like later sonatas do. What you get instead is a stream of different musical phrases, like sentences or stanzas, that travels to different keys.  You can still hear definite A parts and B parts but not so much definite subjects.

MINUET FORM is far simpler than sonata form but still has a structure to it. Unlike sonata form, minuet form is an actual ternary form since it has three parts with similar structure. You have the minuet (A part), a trio (B part), and return to the minuet (A’ part). Scherzos are quicker and livelier than minuets but are no different in basic structure.

The minuet is divided into two halves. The first half (a part) is where you state the main ideas of your minuet in the home key, and is often brief. Our example will again be C major or c minor. Then you enter a so-called development (or b part) where you explore the music in different keys for a while, then your return to your home key. Sometimes the minuet ends like it began but a little differently (with a’ part) while at other times the end is completely new (a c part).

The trio is also divided into two halves but is at a different key. If you began the minuet in C major you will often begin the trio in G major (V key) or F major (IV key). Sometimes you may even begin the trio in c minor (i key). If you began the minuet in c minor you will often begin the trio in C major (I key). Other than difference in key the trio contrasts the minuet, but otherwise has the same structure as the minuet.

Then you return to the minuet (A’ part), which may be slightly different than it was before and may even have a coda at the end. Keep in mind that Beethoven sometimes plays the scherzo and then the trio more than once like in his Symphony No. 7 but this is rare.

RONDO FORM is another simpler form of music, and is easiest to compare with a poem or song that frequently refrains to its main idea. You often get different lines, often repeated, in different keys. For instance you get the main line of the rondo (a part) in the home key, then a different line in a different key (b part) and a different line in yet another key (c part). All these different lines, like stanzas in a poem, can be put into a group (or A part). Then the next group of lines (or B part) begins. You play a variant of the old lines (like a b’ part or c’ part) or play new ideas (d part or e part), but you will always refrain to your first line (a part). You proceed in this pattern until you play the first line one final time, then play a small coda to end the piece.

VARIATION FORM is the simplest form but can also be the most profound music as it allows the composer to explore an idea as deeply as he wants. Beethoven himself used variations to great affect, especially later in his career, and would often play variations of ideas in other forms.

Variations tend to stay in one key throughout, with the theme divided into two halves that repeat. The first half is the main subject of the variation in the home key (a part). The second half has a small so-called development that explores the subject a bit (b key) and then returns to the subject (a’ part), which may be slightly different this time. Each variation that follows has the same basic structure; often it even has the exact same harmonies as the theme.

But even variations can change. Sometimes a composer will play a variation in the minor version of the home key (like c minor to contrast C major). Many variations in the 18th and 19th centuries tend to have a similar structure. The first few variations embellish the theme with more and more notes. After a certain point you play one or more simpler slower variations in a contrasting key. Then you play the last variations in the home key again.


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