Piano Sonata No. 3 (Chávez)

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A black and white portrait of a middle aged man wearing a dark suit, glasses and looking down.
Carlos Chávez in 1937

Piano Sonata No. 3 is a solo piano work written in 1928 by the Mexican composer Carlos Chávez.


Chávez composed his Third Piano Sonata in New York during January and February 1928, and dedicated the score to Aaron Copland (García-Morillo 1960, 64). The composer himself gave the first performance at the Edyth Totten Theatre in New York on 22 April 1928, on the first of the Copland-Sessions Concerts (Downes 1928; Oja 1979, 227). Although he had composed two piano sonatas previously, the score was first published simply as "Sonata for Piano" in the January 1933 issue (vol. 6, no. 2) of Henry Cowell's New Music Quarterly (Oja 2000, 278).


The sonata is in four movements:

  1. Moderato quarter note = 88
  2. Un poco mosso quarter note = 138
  3. Lentamente quarter note = 72
  4. Claro y conciso quarter note = 126

Angular melodies, a percussive approach to the instrument, employment of stark and concise one- or two-measure units, abrupt changes of register, rhythmic irregularity, and a harmonic profile that blends frequent vertical seconds, sevenths, and ninths with sudden, stark octaves are the leading features of the sonata. Chávez deliberately avoids overtly expressive elements, but uses a fundamentally diatonic polyphony which does not prevent him from achieving the harshest sonorities (García-Morillo 1960, 64; Oja 2000, 275–76). The sonata adheres to a neoclassical aesthetic, linked to notions of simplicity, balance, and purity, though not resembling very closely the European (Stravinskian) model of neoclassicism (Oja 2000, 279).

The short first movement serves as a kind of slow introduction in two main sections, which may be viewed either as a simple double exposition (García-Morillo 1960, 64), or as an adaptation of binary form, with a short transitional passage inserted between the two parts in b. 33–39 (Nordyke 1982, 41; Vilar-Payá 2015, 120). There is no conventional thematic development. Instead, Chávez builds the movement from discrete rhythmically based patterns: the first is two bars long, the second is three bars with a corresponding expansion of the pitch range, and the third increases further to four measures and adds a rocking figure in the left hand. Transformation and repetition of these patterns cumulate into a tight construction of cellular units (Oja 2000, 276). At the same time, a four-note pitch cell (F/G, C, F), introduced in the right hand, is repeated numerous times, mostly untransposed (except by octaves) and always in the same rhythm (Vilar-Payá 2015, 120).

The second movement functions as the allegro proper, with a double exposition. It is characterised by a free contrapuntal texture, almost always in two voices, and a fluctuating polyrhythm, with superposed groups of two, three, and four diversely varied figures. The meter is constantly in flux, and tonality is not clearly defined, producing a modal quality (García Morillo 1960, 64).

The third movement is a slow and enigmatic fugue in four voices (Nordyke 1982, 52, 66). The writing reflects the composer's preference at this point in time for pure, absolute music, free of any suggestions of philosophical, literary, or plastic imperatives (García Morillo 1960, 64).

The fourth movement, in rapid tempo and at first in a steady triple rhythm, combines the functions of finale and scherzo. In its intricate, jazz-like syncopated rhythms and abundance of large melodic leaps it is close in character to two piano pieces Chávez wrote in the same year: Blues and Fox. With hard contours and acerbic tone, it features the extreme ranges of the instrument. Like the first movement, it is built in superimposed patterns of short, incisive motives. After the opening section, the meter constantly changes, as in the second movement, and features unusual time signatures such as 1
, 2 12
, 3 12
, and 4 12
(García Morillo 1960, 65; Chávez 1972, 16–20). Formally, the movement falls into four roughly equal sections and resembles a variation form (Nordyke 1982, 57–58).


  • Chávez, Carlos. 1972. Tercera Sonata. Colección Arión, no. 119. México, D.F.: Ediciones Mexicanas de Música.
  • Citkowitz, Israel. 1933. "Winter Music, New York, 1933". Modern Music 14, no. 2 (March–April): 155–57.
  • Downes, Olin. 1928. "Music: Presenting American Composers". New York Times (23 April): 20.
  • García Morillo, Roberto. 1960. Carlos Chávez, vida y obra. México: Fondo de Cultura Económica. ISBN 968-16-0222-6.
  • Nordyke, Diane. 1982. "The Piano Works of Carlos Chávez". PhD diss. Lubbock: Texas Tech University.
  • Oja, Carol J. 1979. "The Copland-Sessions Concerts and Their Reception in the Contemporary Press". The Musical Quarterly 65, no. 2 (April): 212–29.
  • Oja, Carol J. 2000. Making Music Modern: New York in the 1920s. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-516257-8 .
  • Rosenfeld, Paul. 1932. "American Composers VIII: Carlos Chavez". Modern Music 9, no. 4 (May–June): 153–59.
  • Vilar-Payá, Luisa. 2015. "Chávez and the Autonomy of the Musical Work: The Piano Music". In Carlos Chávez and His World, edited by Leonora Saavedra, 112–33. Princeton: Princeton University Press. ISBN 978-0-691-16948-4.
  • Weinstock, Herbert. 1936. "Carlos Chávez". The Musical Quarterly 22, no. 4 (October): 435–45.