Piano Sonata (Barber)

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The Piano Sonata in E-flat minor, Op. 26 was written by Samuel Barber in 1949 for the twenty-fifth anniversary of the League of Composers. First performed by Vladimir Horowitz, the sonata has remained a popular concert staple ever since.[1]


In 1950, the League of Composers, a society aimed at promoting new American works, met for the twenty-fifth anniversary of its inception. Samuel Barber set to work writing a piano sonata for the occasion, and requested Vladimir Horowitz to perform it. His demands were met, and the work was received with overwhelming critical acclaim.[1]


The sonata is in four movements, and usually takes twenty minutes to perform:[2]

  1. Allegro energico
  2. Allegro vivace e leggero
  3. Adagio mesto
  4. Fuga: Allegro con spirito

Though extremely difficult to execute, the sonata is much more than a virtuosic showpiece. Barber integrated many 20th century musical ideas into the sonata, including extended chromaticism and tone rows.[1]

The first movement begins with a raucous theme, presented in both clefs. Barber's unique use of tone row patterns is immediately prevalent, and it is through these patterns that the contrapuntal and thematic material is developed. The movement ends like it begins, rather abruptly.

The second movement serves somewhat as a scherzo and is far more tonally centered than the first. The opening motif is repeated throughout the entire movement in a variety of patterns and keys, often shifting semi-tonally. Almost as effortlessly as it starts, the second movement drifts off into the third with a high arpeggio.

Like the first movement, the thematic material in the third is presented through tone rows and chromatic figures. The third movement builds up tension through its use of highly dissonant chord progressions, and is much darker than the second.

The final movement is an intense fugue, utilizing a jarring, simplistic theme throughout. Though technically a four-voice fugue, certain passages introduce as many as six voices. The fugue is very difficult to perform, and ends bombastically.

Notable recordings[edit]

See also[edit]