German Sonata Composers – To Haydn

Formation of Harmonic Design.—Side by side with the ultimate development of polyphonic music in its perfected instrumental form, the forms of the new harmonic style were being worked out, by long processes of development. Finally, just as the Fugue came to be adopted as the highest form of the old school, so the Sonata was chosen as the most dignified exponent of the new art. But, while the old school arrived at a high state of perfection at the hands of Handel and Bach, the necessity for inventing and experimenting with the possibilities of the new forms made the first attempts in this direction seem childish and crude beside Bach’s work ; so that it was several generations after him before the harmonic style was brought to the stage at which it could be made to express ideas of equal magnitude, and do it successfully.

Development of the Sonata.-The original plan associated with the Sonata was that of combining several movements in such a way as to appeal, in the completed product, to all kinds of emotion, intellectual, spiritual and physical. In the hands of its founders, the Italian violinists, the exposition of this thought had been mainly contrapuntal. We have seen how Domenico Scarlatti arrived at a style in which a single part, supported by an accompaniment, was applied to the clavier, in a manner which brought out its striking characteristics ; and we have now to trace the progress of this style in Germany, up to the point where the various contributions of different composers could be united into a systematic and fixed form, sufficient for the free expression of the highest musical inspiration, and adapted to all the varied demands of instrumental music.

Essential Elements of a. Sonata.—Certain points seem to have been generally agreed upon as necessary components of the Sonata. The first was its union of several movements, from two up to five, or occasionally even more. The second was that the first movement should display the most ingenuity and elaboration. This movement thus came to receive the most attention, and showed a process of evolution from the simple dance form consisting of a modulation from a principal key to a contrasting key and back again, to a highly organized and conventional art-form–a form, moreover, of such a capacity that it could be used as the mould for the principal movement of a wide range of compositions, from a short pianoforte sonata to a grand symphony.

Changes in the Old Dance Form.—In this evolution, the first half of the dance form was made to consist of a Subject, either thematic or melodic, clearly defining the key, and then a modulating passage, generally freer in its runs and arpeggios, leading up to the point of contrast; and the first section was then repeated. The greatest changes took place in the second half. At first, this consisted in the repeat of the Principal Theme in the contrasting key, and a return to the first key through modulations similar to those in the first section ; later, however, since this design gave little opportunity for a display of the composer’s originality, the enunciation of the Subject in the contrasting key was followed by a free passage, which gave ample scope to the composer’s fancy; after which the subject again appeared in the principal key, with a concluding passage in the same key.

Establishment of the Cyclic Form.—The form as a whole was now practically divided into three sections, and a better balance was given to this division by the omission of the second appearance of the Subject in the contrasting key, and the substitution of other material, either relevant or contrasting. The movement now assumed a cyclic form—a statement, leading to a point of contrast, a free fantasia, and finally the statement, leading to a close. This was practically the course of development of what has been named the Sonata Form, up to the time of Haydn. We are now prepared to consider the especial contributions of composers to this form.

First Printed Clavier Sonata.—The first printed clavier sonata seems to have been published by Johann Kuhnau (1660?-1722): This was in the key of B-flat, and was the last of several pieces in the same volume. In the preface, the author gives a semi-apology for its introduction, saying that he sees no reason why sonatas should not be writ-ten for the clavier as well as for any other instrument. This sonata begins with an Allegro, followed by a fugal movement; and in the following Adagio movement, the tendency to put the slow movement into a contrasting key is illustrated, as this is in D-flat major. After another Allegro, there is a Da Capo to the first part.

Other Sonatas by Kuhnau.—It was difficult for the early sonata writers to break away entirely from the old poly-phonic style ; and when a part appeared in the nature of a Free Fantasia, they generally had recourse to fugal work, having no precedent in harmonic music to fall back upon. Thus, in his seven sonatas published in 1696, entitled “Fresh Fruits for the Clavier,” which show more individuality in melodic invention, Kuhnau uses the fugal style whenever the harmonic forms fail him. These sonatas show a prevalence of ornaments, which, he says, are “sugar to sweeten the fruits.” A remarkable collection of clavier pieces are his six Bible sonatas, in which the form is entirely outside of the development traced above, since the various movements of each sonata simply follow the lines of a Bible story, like that of the “Combat between David and Goliath,” which they illustrate. As samples of program music, they proceed in the steps of Pachelbel, and others on record. Kuhnau studied law, and was from 1682 organist at St. Thomas’ Church, at Leipzig, where he preceded J. S. Bach.

Frederick the Great’s Influence.—A great impetus was given to German clavier music by the interest with which, like all other forms of instrumental music, it was viewed by Frederick the Great of Prussia (r. 1740-86). This war-like but thoroughly Teutonic monarch gathered at his court a brilliant coterie of instrumentalists, delighting to per-form with them on his favorite instrument, the flute. Although this musical inspiration was disturbed by the wars in which he engaged, and especially by the Seven Years’ War (1756-63), the growth of clavier music was nevertheless steady.

Musical Journals.—A number of musical journals which appeared from 176o on, contributed also to this enthusiasm, in giving clavier composers a medium for bringing their works before the public, and also in giving them the chance to profit by one another’s experiments. Many writers thus came to the fore, who aided materially in the elaboration of harmonic music material.

Other Early Composers.—Of these, Gottfried Heinrich Stoelzel (169o-1749), chapel-master at Saxe-Gotha, wrote an “enharmonic” clavier sonata in three parts, a Largo in C minor, in 4/4 time; a short fugue; and a 3/8 movement, in harmonic form, in which experiments in modulation were tried. His successor at Saxe-Gotha was Georg Benda (1721-95), who published a number of clavier pieces and sonatas, besides two concertos for clavier and string quartet, all of which show ‘a desire for genuine expression in the harmonic form. The first four-hand sonatas seem to have been published by Charles Heinrich Muller, of Halberstadt, in 1783, and another appeared in 1784, by Ernst Wilhelm Wolf (1735-92), court chapel-master in Saxe-Weimar, the writer of numerous other clavier sonatas and concertos showing great purity and originality of style. At the court of Frederick the Great, at Berlin, Christoph Nichelmann (1717-62), a pupil of Bach, and Carl Fasch (1736-1800) were successively second harpsichordists. Both wrote sonatas, those of the former in two movements, while those of the latter had generally three, of a brilliant and attractive style. Friedrich Wilhelm Marpurg (1718-95), the distinguished Berlin theoretician, was more successful in contrapuntal work than in his sonatas, written in freer style.

Georg Christoph Wagenseil (1715-77), pupil of J. J. Fux, court music teacher and celebrated clavier virtuoso, wrote sonatas for clavier and violin and a number for clavier alone.

Wilhelm Friedemann Bach.–Perhaps the most striking developments, however, were at the hands of the sons of J. S. Bach, who were all, having come under his direct instruction, of refined musical judgment, while some of them possessed marks of his genius. Of these, Wilhelm Friedemann Bach (1710-84), the eldest, called the Bach of Halle, from his long residence there, studied at the University of Leipzig, distinguishing himself in mathematics ; was organist at Dresden and Halle successively, and finally came to Frederick the Great’s court, at Berlin, through the influence of his brother Carl. Although he possessed great gifts as a player and composer, his dissipated habits brought him to disgrace, and he died in poverty. He wrote many clavier compositions, showing a bold use of harmonies, and including sonatas which have decidedly instrumental themes and development. A large number of his father’s manuscripts known to have been in his possession have been irretrievably lost.

Johann Christian Bach, the London Bach, youngest of J. S. Bach’s sons, was born at Leipzig in 1735, and died at London in 1782. He studied with his brother, Carl, after his father’s death, and, afterwards going to Italy, became organist at the Milan Cathedral. Gaining great favor in this capacity, he was appointed concert-director at London in 1759, and there he became a popular favorite, producing several operas and receiving the appointment of music master to the royal family. His Italian experiences influenced his sonata writing, as his subjects are in the style of the popular, though somewhat trivial Italian melody. Yet he introduced some striking improvements, notably that of employing a second contrasting subject, instead of a mere modulating or closing passage, at the end of the first and third sections of the sonata form. His graceful and melodious works were fashionable in London society.

C. P. E. Bach.—The third and greatest of Bach’s sons was Carl Philip Emanuel Each, the Berlin Bach. Inheriting his father’s love of genuine and forceful expression, he had no less lofty ideals of his art, though recognizing his inferiority in talent. Also, perceiving that the harmonic school was in the line of progression, he devoted himself to it, thus producing purely harmonic works, which were only limited by the lack of resources thus far discovered. He was born at Weimar, in 1714, and, though a student of law and philosophy at Leipzig, he finally decided to give rein to his natural bent toward the musical profession. Con-ducting and composing for a musical society at Frankfort, he was appointed first clavier player at the court of Frederick the Great, at Berlin, where he stayed from 1740 to 1767, in high favor on account of his sterling musicianship, and enjoying the society of many distinguished musicians of the day. In 1767, he became musical director of the principal church in Hamburg. where he remained till his death, in 1788. A vigorous worker throughout his life, he left a large number of compositions, including two hundred and ten clavier pieces and fifty-two concertos for clavier and orchestra, besides much chamber music, eighteen symphonies, oratorios and cantatas.

C. P. E. Bach’s Sonatas.—His most enduring and important work was in connection with the pianoforte sonata, since under his hands it began to assume definite shape. In the six sets of sonatas published, the number of movements is generally fixed at three, of which the third is frequently in the harmonic form of the Rondo, which consists in the recurrence of a principal theme, with modulatory episodes between its appearances. Hence the order of movements, which, in the earlier writers, took all sorts of forms from fugue to dance form, becomes Allegro, Adagio, Rondo. Bach’s themes are also made very characteristic, founded upon some easily-recognized instrumental figure. In the development portion of the sonata form he does not resort to the polyphonic style, but uses phrases or sections from the first part in new combinations and keys. Sometimes, also, the direction is given in the repeat of the first section, to introduce variations of the text at will.

His Theoretical Works.—Bach published at Berlin, in 1753, an essay on “The True Method of Playing the Clavier,” in which he gives a definite exposition of his father’s reforms in playing, treating the position of the hand, embellishments and artistic rendering, which he says should touch the hearts of the hearers. A second part, published in 1762, discusses the science of accompaniment and improvisation.

Adoption of the Piano.—The clavichord, notwithstanding its feeble tone, remained his favorite instrument on ac-count of its powers of expression, in which he delighted. His brother, Johann Christian, was one of the first definitely to adopt the new pianoforte. J. G. Müthel published in 1771 what were ‘probably the first compositions mentioning the pianoforte for their performance, a duet for two piano-fortes or harpsichords ; after the time of C. P. E. Bach, clavier compositions were written in general distinctively for the pianoforte and not for the clavier.


Weitzmann.—History of Pianoforte Playing.

Shedlock.—The Pianoforte Sonata.

Grove. — Dictionary of Music and Musicians, article “Sonata.”

Parry’s “Evolution of the Art of Music,” Chapter IX.

Henderson.—How Music Developed, Chapter X.