Music – The New Style In Instrumental Music – Sonata And Symphony

BEFORE entering the next period let us rapidly survey progress to the present point. The diagram opposite will help us to recapitulate.

The Diagram Considered

I. Note the long, slow development of the unaccompanied, contrapuntal choral style.

II. Observe one cause of this slow evolution—the lack of recognized and flexible Notation. Obviously, so long as composers had to teach their music by ear, and to hand .it down by tradition, accuracy was impossible, and a high degree of elaboration of detail extremely unlikely to come about. Moreover, skill in weaving parts was unlikely to be developed until the composer could note down exactly what he wished to be sung, and could see his composition grow before his eyes.

III. Then, when notation was developed into something very like the present complex (imperfect yet fairly definite) system, music still circulated with some difficulty, because in manuscript. Thus, composers had not the full opportunity of learning from one another, of profiting from their predecessors’ and contemporaries’ faults and happy inventions.

IV. The development of instruments was going on all the time, but Vocal Music had’ a great start over Keyboard or String or Wind Music since the instrument of Vocal Music had been invented and perfected so long ago as 4004 B.C. according to Archbishop Ussher’s chronology, and a very great deal earlier, according to the evolutionists. Naturally, then, when Instrumental Music did rise into artistic importance it is found to have been modelled a great deal on choral music, and it has never entirely discarded its model to this day.

V. Note the greatly increased speed of progress in the development of Instrumental Music at the period when (a) the early Keyboard Instruments had been brought to a state of perfection, (b) Choral models of high value were now available.

VI. Remember that the date 1600 marks a turning-point. As you observe, the old Contrapuntal Style did not at once die. Rather the new Harmonic Style grew up inside it and then developed into a full Harmonic-Contrapuntal Style.

VII. Remark that when one style comes to its point of perfection, another always grows up inside it. So, a style that was to culminate in Bach grew up inside the style which had culminated in Palestrina. Similarly we shall now find that a style which is to culminate in Beethoven is to grow up inside the style which had culminated in Bach. And, necessarily, the new style has always crude, narrow beginnings, that to some contemporary observers may appear to offer a very unfavourable contrast with the splendour of the existing style then at its apogee. There are two mistakes made by two different classes of people at such a period—In considering the new productions (a) the ‘ Liberals’ over-exalt relative value, and (b) the `Conservatives’ over-exalt absolute value. If these people were really intellectually balanced in respect of the musical movements of to-day, they would form a Coalition that would agree to support the older works for their absolute value and the newer ones for their relative value, and disputes would cease.

Why the New Developments were Instrumental

By the year 1950 Choral Music had passed its grand climacteric. Youth and middle age had brought it great triumphs ; henceforth it was to have a quieter existence. We cannot say that an art was exhausted that was yet to produce Beethoven’s great Mass in D, the choral passages of Wagner, Elgar’s Gerontius, and Hoist’s Hymn of Fesus.l But its period of independent exploration was ended and hence-forth the striking developments in music are instrumental in character.

Instruments and Voices Compared

There is an obvious reason for this. The point of perfection is at once starting-point and winning-post. The human voice was waiting from the beginning, and composers only needed to learn how to write for it passages such as it could effectively sing and audiences could enjoy. Meantime instruments had an unlimited course of improvement lying before them.

Another point—Instruments are more reliable. interpreters than voices. Pay the piano shop about two guineas a year and your piano will play in perfect tune, If you are a composer writing a Piano Sonata you do not suddenly stop and say, ` Now can I rely on the player to carry out these difficult modulations without flattening ? No, on reflection, I can’t, therefore I must simplify the passage, or in a percentage of its performances it will lead to the ruin of the effect of the whole composition.’

And a still further point—there is only one kind of human voice (in its four pitches, with their slightly varying timbres), but there are innumerable kinds of instruments, with an enormous range of timbres, and the possibilities of combination of their timbres are unlimited. Moreover, instruments have a wider range of pitch than voices (i. e. from the lowest note of the double-bass to the highest of the piccolo). Here are the two ranges compared.

Then many instruments can perform rapid passages that would be quite beyond voices (see some of the Virginals music quoted in chapter iv, for instance).

And so we could go on. There are plenty of reasons why (a) Choral style should make an earlier start, and why (b) Instrumental style should have a longer run of development.

Of course, the manner of writing for voices is still changing and, for all we know, may go on changing. But it can never, in the nature of things, change as much as Instrumental Style ; and moreover, whereas Instrumental Style was at the outset founded on the accepted Choral Style of the period, modifications that occur in the Choral Style of to-day are a good deal suggested by the changes that have previously occurred in Instrumental Style.

At any rate, whether or not you agree with all I have just written, it must be admitted that the middle of the eighteenth century saw the perfection of the second, and perhaps last, great stage in Choral Style, and merely the beginning of the second stage in Instrumental Style. And this second stage in Instrumental Style is a stage of independence, of shaking off more than ever had been dared before of the clinging relics of the choral models.

The Influence of Social Demands

The period is that of the Sonata and Symphony (a Symphony = a Sonata for Orchestra), the greatest attempt as yet made to provide instruments with large-scale pieces, entirely adapted to their resources.

To some extent (more, perhaps, than can be explained here) the Sonata and Symphony grew up in response to a demand arising out of social conditions connected with music. In the early eighteenth century Central Europe was full of petty kingdoms, princedoms, prince-bishoprics, and electorates. And nearly every king, prince, prince-bishop, and elector kept, as a part of his royal state, a Royal Chapel Choir, a Royal Orchestra, and a Royal Opera Company.

Eighteenth-Century Composers as Royal Servants

The Central European composers of that period were. nearly all attached to courts as members of the staff maintained to minister to the luxury and display of the rulers. Bach at one time held such a position, Handel in early life held one, Haydn held one, so did Mozart. Beethoven’s grandfather and father were musicians in a royal ` Kapelle’ (= a body of musicians associated under such auspices as those above mentioned). Beethoven, except in boyhood, was not ; he marks the beginning of the break-up of the system, for though such combinations continued to exist (Mendelssohn and Brahms both held positions which were the more modern equivalent of that of a ‘ Kapellmeister’) music from Beethoven’s time onwards became more and more democratized, so that to-day music is composed for public concert audiences and not for private and princely court parties.

What kind of Music was wanted ?

Naturally there was a great demand for music of a fairly graceful, not too heavy kind, with pith and point, enough `science’ to please cultured people, and Melody, Rhythm and (if Orchestral) effective Orchestration. So came into existence-

(a) The Harpsichord Sonata,

(b) The Duet Sonata for Harpsichord and Violin, and similar combinations,

(c) The String Quartet and Trio,

(d) The Orchestral Symphony,

(e) The Concerto, for solo instrument and orchestra. The form of all these things was much the same. It grew out of what had been going on before, but took on a more definite shape of its own, and, above all, a definite style.

Earlier Sonatas

The word ‘ Sonata’ (literally, a Sounding Piece as distinct from a Singing Piece = `Cantata’) was already in use. Purcell had written a ` Sonata’ for Violin and Harpsichord, and Sonatas for Two Violins, ‘Cello and Harpsichord. Corelli and other Italians had written Chamber Sonatas (Sonate da Camera) and Church Sonatas (Sonate da Chiesa), both of them but modifications of the Suite, the Church Sonatas being (naturally) modified in the direction of a somewhat greater seriousness, and the Chamber Sonatas much less modified, if modified at all. There, then, is the Dance-Suite influence persisting, though of course in the Church Sonatas it was somewhat disguised.

The Influence of the Overture

Another influence was that of the Opera or Oratorio Overture. It had become the fashion to write such an Overture in several movements, contrasted in speed and character and hence approximating to a Suite. Take down from your shelf Handel’s Messiah or Fudas Maccabaeus and play the overture, and you will get a pretty good idea of how such pieces were written in those days. These two Overtures have buts a couple of movements apiece, and neither movement very ` dancy’ ; but Fephtha, you will find, has three, and one of them a Minuet.

C. P. E. Bach

One of Bach’s sons, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, was the pioneer in this Sonata-Symphony style. On his works were founded those of Haydn, on Haydn’s were founded those of Mozart ; Mozart’s, in their turn, influenced Haydn again, and on Haydn’s and Mozart’s were founded Beethoven’s. On Beethoven’s were founded those of Brahms and Elgar, and eventually (though with increasing deviations in smaller matters of form) those of Scriabin and even those of the young men of today.

Peasant Ancestry

In form the latest Symphony to be composed up to the moment this page is written, the Colour Symphony of Bliss, is very little different in essentials from a Beethoven Symphony. People may at a first or second hearing call such a piece as this, or as Scriabin’s Prometheus, over-sophisticated, and so it may be (who can yet decide ?). But it can be traced back by any reader who has grasped the preceding chapters, stage by stage, to the village green, whence it has reached us by something like the following stages

1. Folk Dances.

2. Court Dances.

3. Suites (from the Elizabethans to old Bach).

4. Opera Overtures, Sonatas and Symphonies (from young Bach to the present-day writers).

Everything in the way of formal arrangement that you find in the most modern of Symphonies or Sonatas can be seen in embryo in the Folk dance, and everything that you see in the Folk dance can be seen in a higher development in the modern Symphony and Sonata.

The Principles of Instrumental Form

What are the principles of Form in any composition, little or big ?

(a) You must have Variety.

(b) You must have Repetition (= Unity).

In a Sonata or Symphony movement of Haydn or Mozart you find both Variety and Repetition exemplified in two matters

(a) KEY (the movement begins and ends in the same key, but in between wanders into other keys).

(b) MATERIAL (the movement, roughly speaking, opens and closes with the same material, but in between gives us something different).

The New Plan of Construction

Out of the Simple Binary Form explained on p. 83 grew something more elaborate, and capable of sustaining interest through a longer piece of work. Here is the scheme


II. A passage (often called a’ BRIDGE PASSAGE’) leading to some related key, in which key appeared


IV. Some little closing passage, or CODETTA, to round off this section.

(As this portion of the piece introduced the chief Tunes, it was often repeated in order that they might be thoroughly grasped.)

B. A DEVELOPMENT, i.e. a shorter or longer passage in which portions or the whole of one or both of the Subjects already given out were `developed’, the music meanwhile passing through various keys, and often in tonality getting quite far afield.

(Thus there is here introduced into the piece the element of Variety in both (a) treatment of Tunes, (b) Keys.)

C. I. A repetition of the FIRST SUBJECT.

II. The `BRIDGE’, but altered so as not this time to lead to a different key.

II. The SECOND SUBJECT, but this time (as we are nearing the end of the movement) in the ` home-key’, like the First Subject.

IV. Another closing passage (or CODA) probably more extended and final than the first one.

Names for this Form

A little comparison with pages 8o to 86 will show how all this has developed out of Simple Binary Form. From this origin it is called `Compound Binary Form ‘, yet in effect it is surely a Ternary Form. After all, the ear and not history ought to decide musical terminology, and to the ear the feature of this form is its division into three clear parts.

Another name for the form is ` First Movement Form’, because the first movement of a Sonata or Symphony or String Quartet is so often in this form. For a similar reason (but not so reasonably) it is often called `Sonata Form’, because it generally (not always) appears in at least one movement of a Sonata.

How ` Simple Binary’ became ` Compound Binary’

If this developed out of the Simple Binary Form used by Bach and others for so many of the movements of their Suites, &c., how did it do so ?

Well, the general key system is much the same. The first section, for instance, begins in the main key and ends in a related key. But in the Compound Binary Form this first section has definitely organized itself into two ‘ Subjects’ in the two keys, with a connecting passage and a closing passage.

Then in Simple Binary Form the place where any extensive modulation was likely to occur was just after the half-way-home of the double bar that closed the first section. In Compound Binary Form this has grown into a definite section of ‘Development’ or `Free Fantasia’, or, as it has been called, a `Modulatory Section’.

Then in Simple Binary Form the movement, of course, ended in the first and main key of the piece, often with some repetition of the chief material. In the Compound Binary Form this is organized with a more or less exact repetition of the whole of the first section, with a change of key for the Second Subject, in order that the movement shall end in the key in which it began.

What is the advantage of the New Form ?

Why is the Compound Binary Form a better form than the Simple Binary Form for a long movement? Because it is much more definitely organized in all points, and, more-over, gives far more opportunity for variety and for striking contrast. Now that the composer has two distinct subjects he naturally gives them different characters. Look at any Sonata-form movements and see how frequently one of the subjects might be described as masculine and the other as feminine.

Variety of Mood now Possible

Note, too, how much more variety of mood could be expressed in this new Compound Binary Form, as compared with the old `Simple Binary’. The older form, roughly speaking, ran right through with only one break. It had only one piece of main subject – matter, and if, occasionally, it reached the verge of a division of this into two, the parts into which the subject-matter fell were little contrasted. The whole principle of the thing was homogeneity. The main variety introduced was that of Key, and in so far as the material was varied, this came about rather as variety of treatment of the details than as variety of actual ‘ Subject’.

But the more elaborate Binary Form, as it grew out of the earlier Binary, quickly changed character. Sometimes in the hands of Bach’s son and even in those of Haydn, you could hardly put your finger on a definite tune to be called by the name `Second Subject ‘. But this phase did not last long, and we soon find the Second Subject quite clearly defined and even, on occasion, find it splitting up into several well defined tunes, as also the First Subject does occasionally.

The Beginnings of Modernity

A change of Form had brought with it a change of spirit, or a change of spirit has brought with it a change of Form (have it as you will), and the result (just characterized as ` restlessness’) is a much greater feeling of modernity. Bach represents the days when a man usually stuck at the same job, in the same place, all his life. Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven pre-figure our own later period when a man is usually born in a different place from his father, spends his working life a year or two in one place and a year or two in another, and goes for abundant holiday journeys, now to Blackpool, now to Biarritz, to Florence, to the Fjords, to Montreux and Madrid.

Note that with all this comes a simplification—of Harmony and Counterpoint. In Bach we saw cleverly and effectively moving parts laid out on a basis of a few main chords to each phrase but producing by their movements other, subsidiary, and, as we may call them, by-product chords. In Haydn and Mozart and even Beethoven we see far less of this. The pendulum has again swung over to the Harmonic side, and what Counterpoint we see is evolved out of the succession of chords the composer felt was needed in that particular place. Moreover, the harmonies are now (in Haydn and Mozart especially) clarified and simplified, and follow one another a good deal according to a definitely established and elaborate convention, and yet, though a convention, one that we feel to have a logical basis in the natural relationship of diatonic chords.

In a similar way Orchestration was systematized and clarified. But that calls for another chapter.