The sonata has roots back to the 18th century, originating in the baroque suite, which consisted of a series of dance movements. The word sonata comes from the Italian word sonare (to sound, play). This originally indicated that it was an instrumental piece, as opposed to the cantata, derived from cantare (to sing).
The first insrumental sonatas with several movements came from composers in Vienna. Until then dramatic music had been the domain of vocal music with words. The three or four movement instrumental sonata was an attempt to create a work with drama in the music without the necessity of a text. The sonata developed substantially in the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as we may follow in this evening’s programme.
Joseph Haydn is often referred to as the father of the Classical sonata, not least because he taught and inspired Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. Haydn was not a piano virtuoso like Mozart or Beethoven, so his sonatas we well received by the amateur pianists of the day and were frequently played at soirées in bourgeois homes. Sonata no. 60 in C major, Hob XVI:50 is the last of the composer’s 62 sonatas for piano, and is a brilliant exuberant work. The poetic second movement contrasts well with the fast outer movements, which are full of musical humour. Listen carefully – Haydn plays with musical questions and surprising answers!
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart taught both piano playing and composition. His Sonata in C major Kv 545, also known as Sonata facile, was possibly used for teaching. In his letters Mozart wrote in detail of the Duke of Guînes’s daughter, whom he found a incomparable flautist and magnificent harpist but whose talents at composing impressed him substantially less. In this sonata he demonstrates skill as an inventive educator. For instance, he refrains from dynamic markings, possibly to afford his pupils the option of choosing their own expression. From a pianistic point of view the sonata provides many didactic elements: scales in both hands, triads, thirds and Alberti bass. And of course for the beginner, C major is an undemanding key.
Ludvig van Beethoven: Sonata no. 30 in E major, opus 109
Sir András Schiff has performed over fifteen concert cycles of Beethoven’s sonatas. He compares this with climbing the Himalayas: some mountains demand pure physical endurance while other demand more of emotional, intellectual and spiritual strength. On conquering them, viewing the horizon and the greater lines of music, one is filled with gratitude and personal gratification. The sonata Schiff has chosen for this evening’s programme is the last but one of Beethoven’s 32 sonatas. It is less expansive and more intimate than the preceding sonata, but has a free and original approach, not least thanks to the final movement, which consists of variations on a beautiful lyrical theme.
Franz Schubert: Sonata in C minor, D958
This is one of Schubert’s last great compositions for the piano, written in the last months of his life between spring and autumn 1828. It was however not published until ten years after his death. As was the case with his other piano sonatas, it was largely neglected in the nineteenth century, but they are today considered to be amongst his greatest mature masterpieces. Similarities with Beethoven’s 32 Variations for Piano in C minor are also striking. As Beethoven had died only one year previously, it may be conjectured that Schubert took the liberty of challenging Beethoven on his own ground. This sonata may be regarded as a musical testament, in which the turbulent musical expression is highly personal and autobiographical.
Text: Annabel Guaita
English version: Roger Martin