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This book is divided into four chapters – Definitions and characteristics of the sonata; The ‘form’ of sonatas; Social and cultural context; and The scoring of sonatas.

In the first chapter the author sorts out canzona, sinfonia, toccata, fantasia and other terms. As he writes, ‘There were always plenty of instrumental pieces which were not sonatas’. There is an excellent two-page chart clarifying all the above terms.

The second chapter is by far the longest. Here, in the first of numerous sub-sections, the author begins with history of the sonata in the 17th century – primarily a history of the sonata in Italy. More beneficial charts and tables are included, as well as some of the dozens of music examples which enhance the book as whole. Differences between sonata da camera and sonata da chiesa (not always very significant) are outlined. By about page 50 the author is discussing what came to be known as sonata form. On page 61 he reminds us of the surprising fact that ‘the terminology for the individual components of sonata form did not become established before the early twentieth century’.

This chapter also includes 26 pages on Beethoven, seven on Schubert (not forgetting the sonata-like Wanderer Fantasy and F minor Fantasy for four hands), before moving on to Schumann, Chopin, Liszt, etc. Discussion of the 20th century accommodates Skriabin, Prokofiev, Medtner, Debussy, Ives, Cage, Boulez, Ustvolskaya, etc, and even Busoni’s sonatinas.

The third and fourth chapters deal with such questions as the occasions and locations for which sonatas have been written, the confusion surrounding the term ‘trio sonata’, and the relationship between such typical duo partners as violin and piano.

In this outstanding book Schmidt-Beste covers every conceivable aspect of sonata history, so it seems churlish to mention errors, but two (both ‘double errors’) did jump out. The Moonlight sonata is not Opus 22 No 1, but Opus 27 No 2; and Rossini’s sonatas are for strings, not ‘orchestra’, and do not include violas (page 209).

PHILIP BORG-WHEELER Read the full review on Agora Classica


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