Criticism and sonata form
In the late 18th century as the form began to emerge, the emphasis was on a regular layout of works for performers and listeners. Since most works received, at most, one rehearsal, and seldom more than a few performances, this accessibility of layout was considered important. Emphasis was on effects within the course of a strongly framed work.
A curious aspect of sonata form during the Classical era was that the leading contributors to its development, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven all seemed to have had very little to say about it. One might imagine, for instance, that during all of his various experiments and innovations with sonata form, Beethoven might have remarked to a colleague at least once about what he was doing, but if so it was never recorded.
It was only well after the form had been firmly established by the Classical composers that it became a central topic of musical criticism. Sonata form was originally described by an Italian theorist as "a two part form" where each part was repeated. By the early 19th century, Carl Czerny, a student of Beethoven's, described it in terms of themes, which is how it is generally still described today. The description now most commonly applied to sonata form today was outlined by Antonin Reicha in 1826, and codified by Adolf Bernhard Marx in 1845 and by Czerny in 1848. Each of them elaborated rules for composing, and intended the outline to be as much prescriptive as descriptive.
In the 19th century the sonata form assumed a place next to the fugue as a cardinal musical structure, and works were laid out in increasingly complex ways to utilize the sectional nature of the sonata form. In this period ETA Hoffman and Robert Schumann proselytized for the use of the sonata form as the poetic means of expressing pure music, unallied with words or other arts.
The late 19th century was the pinnacle of the idea of the sonata form as the means of containing the huge number of influences in music. Hanslick argued that formal comprehensibility rested on the use of the sonata form. He criticized what he regarded as radical innovations by Richard Wagner and by needless extension. The critical dialog between explosive trends in Wagner and Liszt, and implosive trends in Brahms, reached outward into politics, art and science for metaphors. There was a great deal of internal tension, even among composers, between the formal rules and the desire for expression. Tchaikovsky berated himself for not being able to produce highly structured symphonies.
The early 20th century saw an attack on the extended sonata form, and a search by many composers for more organic and more compressed sonata forms. Critics such as Olin Downes proclaimed the idea that the sonata form's vigor was an analogy for social and artistic vigor, and a defense against empty works. At the same time, adherence to established structures took on a different meaning in Soviet Russia, where composers who failed to compose along established lines were accused of "formalism", as opposed to the established sonata forms which were called "natural" and "realistic". At various times even prominent composers such as Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev were denounced for their music.
In his influential books The Classical Style and Sonata Forms, Charles Rosen has attempted to understand why the particular arrangements of keys and themes used in classical sonata form have held such importance for classical composers and their listeners. Rosen conceives the classical era's sonata form movement as a kind of dramatic journey through the system of musical keys. Modulations that move upward in the circle of fifths (in the direction of the sharp keys) increase musical tension, and modulations that move downward reduce it. Sonata form first increases tension through the move to the dominant (the crucial musical event of the exposition), then increases tension further in the development through the exploration of remote keys. The recapitulation resolves all this tension by returning everything to the tonic. He also argues that, over time, this idea would become the basis for all musical movements, regardless of their formal plan.
The use of the circle of fifths makes sense of a number of observations about the deployment of keys in the classical sonata form:
- Use of keys other than the dominant for the second subject group generally go still higher than the dominant in the circle of fifths; see sonata form for details.
- Occasionally, the reappearance of the opening material at the beginning of the recapitulation is in the subdominant key (a famous example is Mozart's Piano Sonata K. 545), which serves the same resolving function as the tonic.
- Secondary developments often also reach the subdominant key, with equivalent resolving function.
The later 20th century saw the rise of postmodern and literary criticism, critical theory, narratology, feminism and other identity politics, and film theory, all which was applied to sonata forms. One particularly controversial work is 1991's Feminine Endings, by Susan McClary. Her book describes how sonata form may be interpreted as sexist or misogynistic and imperialistic, and that, "tonality itself - with its process of instilling expectations and subsequently withholding promised fulfillment until climax - is the principal musical means during the period from 1600 to 1900 for arousing and channeling desire." She analyzes the sonata procedure for its constructions of gender and sexual identity. The primary, once "masculine", key (or first subject group) represents the, always in narrative, male, self, while the secondary, "feminine" key (or second subject group) represents the Other: female, foreigner, difference, a terrority to be explored and conquered, assimilated into the self and stated in the tonic home key. This reading is based in the work of Lacan and Derrida.
- William E. Caplin, Classical Form: A Theory of Formal Functions for the Instrumental Music of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), ISBN 0-19-514399-X
- James Hepokoski and Warren Darcy, Elements of Sonata Theory: Norms, Types, and Deformations in the Late-Eighteenth-Century Sonata (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), ISBN 0-19-514640-9
- Susan McClary, Feminine Endings, University of Minnesota Press (reissued 2002), ISBN 0-8166-4189-7.
- Charles Rosen, The Classical Style: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven (2nd ed. 1997; New York: Norton), ISBN 0-393-31712-9
- Charles Rosen, Sonata Forms (1982; revised ed. 1998, New York: Norton), ISBN 0-393-30219-9.