What is a Sonata?

Thursday, 10 August 2017
what is a sonata

What is a sonata?

A sonata is a piece of music usually written for a solo instrument and piano. Most sonatas have three movements (fast-slow-fast). A movement is a self-contained piece of music within the sonata, a bit like chapters in a book. A few of Beethoven’s sonatas have four movements.

The word sonata is derived from an Italian word, sonare, that simply means ‘to sound’. The word was developed in Renaissance Italy to differentiate a piece played on an instrument from a piece that was sung by voice, which was called a cantata (meaning simply ‘to sing’).

Why are Beethoven’s sonatas for piano and violin special?

For composers in the eighteenth-century, there were lots of rules. And Beethoven loved to break them! He was influential and innovative and would stretch musical forms to break the mould.

When Beethoven was still a student, a sonata for piano and violin really meant a piece written for piano with a little bit of strings on the side. But when Beethoven started writing his sonatas, he turned this on its head and gave both instruments equal parts. The dynamics (how loud or quiet an instrument is) of a piano and a violin are vastly different, but Beethoven explored how to combine these sounds into a beautiful partnership. This was revolutionary in terms of style and had a major impact on the sonata ‘rules’ for future composers.

When were they written?

Beethoven wrote his first violin sonatas, a set of three (Opus 12) in 1797-98 and six more by early 1803. All but the tenth were written before the composer was 32 years of age. Written early in his career, these pieces give us an insight into Beethoven as a young man, full of confidence.

Over this short period, Beethoven lost 60% of his hearing and had a constant buzzing in his ears. Think about how that would affect the sort of melodies he was writing. He would be completely deaf by 1816.

A gap of ten years separated Beethoven’s tenth and final violin sonata from his ninth. As a more mature composer, the main difference in that the tenth is a gentler sound, with less drama!

Do I need to hear all 10 sonatas together?

No, you can pick and choose. You will probably like some more than others. Some are light and lyrical, others dramatic and full of power. Have a listen

Saying that, this is the first time in the history of Chamber Music New Zealand that we have ever presented the full cycle of 10 sonatas, so if you really want to throw yourself in, this is the time!

As the sonatas were written in a short period of Beethoven’s life, hearing them all together gives a lively journey through his early musical development.


If video is more your thing, watch Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos take you through each sonata in turn, describing what it’s like to play and the challenges the sonatas present to violinists: