At first the term merely distinguished an instrumental piece from a piece with voice, which was called a cantata. Thus many early concertos, suites, and sets of variations were called sonatas. As the various instrumental forms acquired differentiated characteristics during the baroque period, the term began to identify two specific types: the sonata de chiesa, or church sonata, and the sonata da camera, or chamber sonata. Both were written most commonly for two melody instruments, usually violins or flutes, with a bass instrument and a keyboard instrument, both of which played the thorough bass (see figured bass). The sonata da chiesa was in four movements—slow, fast, slow, fast—and its contrapuntal style was largely derived from the canzone. The sonata da camera was basically a suite of dances, although nondance movements were added later.
In the late 17th cent. these two types merged into the outstanding baroque chamber music form, the trio sonata. This form was brought to perfection in the works of Arcangelo Corelli and François Couperin and adopted in the sonatas of J. S. Bach and Handel. In the later 18th cent. sonatas for groups of instruments began to be designated string quartet and symphony, and the term sonata was limited to pieces for one keyboard instrument or for one solo instrument (e.g., violin) with keyboard accompaniment. The keyboard sonata was developed in the works of rococo Italian composers such as Galuppi, G. B. Sammartini (1701–75), and P. D. Paradies (1707–91). This rococo sonata was more homophonic than the trio sonata, having one outstanding melodic line with accompanying harmonic background, such as the Alberti bass. In sonatas of this type, particularly those of C. P. E. Bach, an expressive quality and pianistic style were developed that influenced the classical sonata, perfected by Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven.
The classical sonata's movements are usually fast-slow-fast, and a minuet or scherzo is often inserted before the last movement. The first movement—and possibly one or more of the others—was in what is called
See critical studies of the composers mentioned; W. S. Newman, The Sonata in the Baroque Era (3d ed. 1972), The Sonata in the Classic Era (2d ed. 1972), and The Sonata since Beethoven (2d ed. 1972); C. Rosen, The Sonata Form (1980).
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