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What is a sonata? Literally translated, a ‘sonata’ is simply a ‘sounding piece’, or, more specifically, a piece written purely for instruments. On the face of it, little else seems to link an ensemble sonata by Giovanni Gabrieli and a piano sonata by Beethoven, or a Corelli trio sonata and John Cage's Sonatas and Interludes. This study sets out to define characteristics of compositions which were called ‘sonata’ that set them apart from other types of instrumental music and allow us to outline the development or history of a musical genre – a history marked by diversity more than uniformity, by change more than continuity.
The focus of the second chapter – the central part of the book – is on the ‘form’ of sonatas, their musical structures and textures. These include not only the familiar ‘sonata form’, although that will receive its due share of attention, but also those ‘forms’ chronologically preceding it – such as the canzona movement, the dance, the fugue, the figured bass texture in general – and those following it (serial, postmodern, historicist structures). The third chapter considers the sonata as a social and aesthetic phenomenon, considering the purpose of sonatas and who composed, played, bought and listened to them. Finally, the fourth chapter examines the scoring of sonatas, addressing such questions as: what, exactly, is a ‘trio sonata’ and how many musicians are required to play one? Why are there no keyboard sonatas before the eighteenth century?