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(from It. suonare: ‘to sound’).

A term used to denote a piece of music usually but not necessarily consisting of
several movements, almost invariably instrumental and designed to be
performed by a soloist or a small ensemble. The solo and duet sonatas of the
Classical and Romantic periods with which it is now most frequently associated
generally incorporate a movement or movements in what has misleadingly come
to be called Sonata form (or ‘first-movement form’), but in its actual usage over
more than five centuries the title ‘sonata’ has been applied with much broader
formal and stylistic connotations than that.
From the 13th century onwards the word ‘sonnade’ was used in literary sources
simply to denote an instrumental piece, as for example in the Provençal 13th-
century Vida da Santa Douce: ‘Mens que sonavan la rediera sonada de
matinas’. In a mystery play of 1486 the phrase ‘Orpheus fera ses sonnades’
occurs as a stage direction. Cognate usages appear to be the ‘sennets’ called
for in Elizabethan plays and the term ‘sonada’ found in German manuscripts of
the same period for trumpet calls and fanfares, a later manifestation of which
were the more extended Turmsonaten (‘tower sonatas’) of the 17th and 18th
centuries. In El maestro (1536) Luys Milán referred to ‘villancicos y sonadas’,
including among the latter pavans and fantasias. Gorzanis gave ‘sonata’ as the
actual title for passamezzos and paduanas in the first book of his Intabolatura di
liuto (1561), and it is similarly employed in later collections of lute music. The
rapid development of instrumental music towards the close of the 16th century
was accompanied by a plethora of terms which were employed in a confused
and often imprecise manner. ‘Sonata’ was one of them, although it was nearly
always applied to something played as opposed to something sung (‘cantata’).
1. Baroque.
2. Classical.
3. 19th century after Beethoven.
4. 20th century.
1. Baroque.
(i) Introduction.
(ii) Origins and early development.
(iii) Development 1650–1750.
(iv) Socio-cultural context.
(v) Performing practice and dissemination.
Sonata, §1: Baroque
(i) Introduction.
In the 17th century title-pages often used the term ‘sonata’ generically to cover
all the instrumental pieces in a volume, which might well contain no single work
actually called ‘sonata’; there are no sonatas, for example, in Buonamente’s Il
quinto libro de varie sonate, sinfonie, gagliarde, corrente, e ariette (Venice,
1629). As a genre label, the term competed with others (especially canzone and
sinfonia, but also capriccio, concerto, fantasia, ricercar, toccata) that were
applied to individual pieces difficult to distinguish from sonatas, even in the
works of an individual composer within a single printed volume. Only after mid-
century did ‘sonata’ finally displace its competitors as the most appropriate term
for such instrumental works.
For Brossard (Dictionaire, 1703) the sonata was ‘to all sorts of instruments what
the cantata is to the voice’, and was designed ‘according to the composer’s
fancy’, free of the constraints imposed by dance, text or the rules of
counterpoint. Brossard categorized sonatas as da camera or da chiesa, a
division that has informed much later commentary; however, the former term,
while it appeared on title-pages more frequently than the latter, was rarely
applied to specific sets of dance movements before Corelli’s op.2 of 1685. The
mature Baroque sonata did acquire a set of more or less consistent attributes,
even if copyists still wavered between ‘concerto’ and ‘sonata’ for a work
borrowing something from each genre. By 1750 sonatas were independent
pieces, usually in three or four separate movements, which could be heard not
only in church and chamber, but in concert or as interval music at the theatre,
where they might be played orchestrally rather than by the chamber ensembles
for which they had originally been written. J.G. Walther’s concise definition
(Musicalisches Lexicon, 1732) is accurate for his time, and indeed for much of
the Baroque period: ‘the sonata is a piece for instruments, especially the violin,
of a serious and artful nature, in which adagios and allegros alternate’. Here the
use of the term and the development of the genre from Gabrieli’s Sacrae
symphoniae (1597) to the galant sonatas of Scarlatti and Telemann will be
traced. But discussion cannot be limited strictly to sonatas so called, since often
enough what are (and were) recognizably sonatas appeared under labels
referring to another genre (capriccio), or to the number of parts (solo, quadro), or
even to proper names (Cazzati’s La Galeazza, 1648). The main concerns in
what follows will be the origins and stylistic development, sociocultural functions,
performing practices, dissemination and reception of the sonata and its near
relatives. (For more comprehensive lists of composers, arranged by chronology
and geography, see NewmanSBE, 4th edn.)
Sonata, §1: Baroque
(ii) Origins and early development.
The instrumental canzona, which had grown in Italy from instrumental
arrangements of imported chansons, has usually been regarded as the most
significant precursor of the Baroque sonata. The similarities between many early
sonatas and contemporary canzonas are undeniable: sectional structure defined
by contrasts in metre and tempo, reliance on imitative contrapuntal texture, and
immediate repetition or final recapitulation of the opening section. For Michael
Praetorius sonatas and canzonas were so intimately related that he cited the
‘canzonas and sinfonie of Giovanni Gabrieli’ in his description of the sonata, and
noted that ‘sonatas are composed in a stately and magnificent manner like
motets, but the canzonas have many black notes and move along crisply, gaily
and fast’ (Syntagma musicum, iii, 1618, 2/1619). Although there have been
many attempts to distinguish between the two genres, composers and
publishers seem to have used the terms interchangeably. Both the generic
meaning of ‘sonata’ (e.g. Tarquinio Merula’s Canzoni overo sonate concertate
per chiesa e camera, 1637), and the close relation between the two genres (e.g.
in Cazzati’s first two volumes of instrumental works, Canzoni, 1642, and Il
secondo libro delle sonate, 1648) help to explain this interchangeability.
Moreover, local usage may have varied: Montalbano, born in Bologna but
working in Palermo, published a set of sinfonias in 1629 that might well have
been termed ‘sonate concertate’ had they and he been in Venice with Castello.
Even a composer’s occupation and training are relevant, since organists tended
to write canzonas, while virtuoso cornett players and violinists more often
produced sonatas. After 1620, however, the term canzone was used less and
less, although its stylistic influence remained evident in the sonata’s fast
imitative movements (actually labelled ‘canzona’ by Purcell).
The close relation between the canzonas and sonatas of the early Baroque is
clearly reflected in Gabrieli’s two publications (1597, 1615) and in those of
Gussago, Corradini and Riccio. Some early sonatas (Gussago, 1608), are
indistinguishable from the most conservative of four- or eight-voice canzonas;
others combine old and new features. Gabrieli left sonatas or canzonas for as
few as three and as many as 22 parts, often grouped in two or more choirs.
Their association with sacred vocal music (in Sacrae symphoniae), publication in
Venice (which remained central to the dissemination of Italian instrumental
music until Bolognese firms began to offer real competition in the 1660s),
virtuoso upper parts and precisely specified instrumentation are all typical of the
earliest sonatas. The Venetian polychoral style was influential even on works for
small ensembles: in one of Nicolò Corradini’s sonatas (1624), pairs of
unspecified treble and bass instruments engage in dialogue and join together at
cadences just as they would in a double-choir canzona. Several canzonas for
one to four instruments and basso continuo and a single ‘Sonata a 4’ from
Riccio’s 1620 collection descend from the same tradition, although Riccio
incorporated more modern elements (tremolo, virtuoso flourishes, precise
instrumentation) than did Corradini. Buonamente (Sonate et canzoni … libro
sesto, 1636) and Frescobaldi (Il primo libro delle canzoni, 1628) wrote similar
pieces for one to six instruments. The modern scoring in few parts (for one to
three instruments) often invoked the label ‘sonata’ in these pre-1650 prints; thus,
Marini’s Sonate, symphonie, canzoni op.8 (1629) reserves ‘canzone’ for larger
ensembles, but most composers made no such terminological distinctions. One
might compare the instrumental works in few parts to Viadana’s Concerti
ecclesiastici (1602), composed in response to the practice of performing four-
voice motets as solos or duos with basso continuo. While evidence that
canzonas a 4 were performed with such reduced forces is lacking (although
many do survive as both organ and ensemble pieces), continuo players
apparently provided the imitative entries ‘missing’ in the few-voiced pieces,
whose model was still the multi-voice canzona (the entries are actually supplied
by Montalbano in the continuo part to his solo sinfonias).
The ‘stil moderno’ sonatas of Dario Castello (1621, 1629), while still indebted to
the ensemble canzona, are even more closely allied to vocal monody.
Constructed of sharply contrasting sections, they often begin with an imitative
‘canzona’, and continue with an instrumental dialogue reminiscent of the
polychoral idiom, but these sonatas also incorporate virtuoso solos or duets,
candenzas, and ‘unmistakable manifestations of Monteverdi’s affections,
especially the stile concitato’ (Selfridge-Field, 1975). Riemann was not alone in
seeing incipient four-movement designs in Castello’s multi-sectional sonatas, but
other scholars have rejected such analyses, arguing that predictability itself is
‘wholly incompatible with the essential spirit of the stil moderno sonata, which
sought to overwhelm the listener in a wealth of conflicting emotions’ (Allsop,
1992). Castello’s inclusion of at least one solo as well as an earlier contrapuntal
section is predictable enough, but the four-movement sonata favoured by later
composers such as Vivaldi or Albinoni is rather far removed. Farina and Marini
wrote sonatas comparable to those of Castello.
The late 16th-century diminution practices described by Bassano, among others,
provided another important source of early sonata style, as in the variations
constructed around a repeated melody or bass line by Salamone Rossi,
Buonamente and, later, Uccellini. Such pieces were called sonatas (Rossi’s
Sonata sopra l’aria di Ruggiero, Il terzo libro de varie sonate, 1613) or arias
(Uccellini, 1642 and 1645), or simply carried the name of the borrowed tune
(Buonamente’s Le tanto tempo ormai, 1626). A close relation, and one of the
few sonatas involving voices, is the ‘Sonata sopra Sancta Maria’ from
Monteverdi’s Vespers (1610), in which pairs of violins and cornetts weave a
lively commentary around the sopranos’ repeated phrase ‘Sancta Maria, ora pro
nobis’, supported by a quartet of bass and tenor instruments. Corelli’s ‘Ciacona’
(op.2, 1685) and ‘Follia’ (op.5, 1700), as well the virtuoso variations of
Schmelzer, Biber and J.J. Walther, ultimately derive from the same source.
Rossi also used ‘sonata’ for several short binary pieces, which may have served
as introductions to larger compositions; among his contemporaries ‘sinfonia’ was
the more usual name for such works. Their trio scoring arose naturally enough
from an identical disposition of voices and instruments in sacred and secular
concerted music (e.g. Monteverdi’s Chioma d'oro for two sopranos, two violins
and continuo). Often the two ‘solo’ instruments move in parallel 3rds, supported
by a simpler bass; in some works such trios are juxtaposed with a larger force,
as in Bernardi’s ‘Sonata in sinfonia à 4’ (1613). Sonatas ‘a due’ (for two solo
instruments and basso continuo) and ‘a tre’ (for three soloists and basso
continuo) make up most of the sonata literature for a century after 1620,
although the earlier variety among solo instruments (ss, sb, bb, ssb, sss) was
reduced after 1660 to a focus on the type for two trebles and continuo, and
strings increasingly displaced other instruments (cornett, bassoon, trombone)
found in the earliest sonatas. Compare Brossard’s recognition of the variety of
sonata scorings in 1703 (‘We have Sonatas from one to seven or eight parts; but
usually they are performed by a single Violin, or with two Violins and a thorough
Bass for the Harpsichord, and frequently a more figured Bass for the Bass
Violin’) with Rousseau’s focus on the soloist (Dictionnaire, 1768: ‘The Sonata is
ordinarily made for a single instrument which recites, accompanied by a
thorough bass’). Solos, more demanding than most duos and trios, were
included in several early published volumes (by Castello, Farina, Biagio Marini
and Montalbano), but by 1652 only Bertoli, Uccellini and G.A. Leoni had devoted
entire collections to solo sonatas.
The foregoing discussion has concentrated on developments in Italy for good
reason: while sonatas were composed before 1650 north of the Alps, it was
Italian immigrants who were in the main responsible. Buonamente worked in
Vienna for a time, as did Valentini and Bertali for much of their careers; Bernardi
went to Salzburg; Marini left Venice for Parma and Neuburg, returning only late
in his career; and Farina carried the Italian sonata and a virtuoso approach to
violin playing to Dresden. These Italian immigrants far outnumbered the few
native composers of sonatas (Kindermann, Johann Staden, Vierdanck); only
after 1650 did many non-Italian composers begin to interest themselves in the
genre, but those who did made technical demands equal to or greater than
those in the Italian repertory.
Sonata, §1: Baroque
(iii) Development 1650–1750.
Riemann argued that what he somewhat pejoratively called the ‘patchwork’
canzona (Flickwerk) of the early 17th century evolved into the sonata as the
individual sections grew in length and were reduced in number, until by Corelli’s
time they had achieved the status of separate movements. That much repeated
view ignores the persistence of multi-sectional alongside multi-movement
designs (e.g. in the sonatas of Uccellini, G.B. Vitali, Biber, J.J. Walther,
Buxtehude), yet the observation is not unrelated to the mid-century repertory in
which many sonatas do consist primarily of tonally closed, if brief, movements.
Merula (who called his serious pieces ‘canzone’ as late as 1651, reserving
‘sonata’ for a few lighter works), Cazzati and Legrenzi favoured such three- or
four-movement structures, although they shared no single pattern, and individual
‘movements’ are not always tonally closed. Legrenzi left three books devoted
entirely to sonatas, and another that included sonatas and dances, published
between 1655 and 1673. (A further collection, op.18, published c1695, is lost.) A
clear division into separate movements (often including one in slow triple time), a
focus on duos and trios, and precise specification of instrumentation are all
evident in these collections. In some of the sonatas, the opening material returns
at the end, as in the canzona; others differ from the ‘Corellian’ model only in their
lack of an opening slow movement. In contrast to these ‘church’ sonatas,
Legrenzi’s six chamber sonatas (op.4, 1656) are single movements in simple
binary form; G.M. Bononcini used sonata da camera similarly, for an abstract
single-movement work rather than a dance suite (op.3, 1669). Maurizio Cazzati,
controversial maestro di cappella in Bologna (1657–71), published eight
collections that include sonatas for duos, trios and larger ensembles; three from
op.35 include trumpet, a hint of the later association between S Petronio and
that instrument. The sonatas in his widely disseminated op.18 (1656) usually
consist of four movements: duple-metre imitative, grave, fast triple metre and
quick imitative finale. Tarquinio Merula favoured a similar plan: fugal opening,
fast triple-time movement, slow movement and vigorous finale. Uccellini also
moved away from the simple canzona model towards longer and more virtuoso
sonatas, usually divided into three or four sections by changes of metre and
Cazzati’s pupil G.B. Vitali, and Vitali’s Modenese contemporaries Colombi and
Bononcini, continued to focus on duos and trios in some ten volumes of sonatas
published between 1666 and 1689. Already steeped in those traditions, Corelli
had arrived by 1675 in Rome, where Colista, Stradella and Lonati composed
sonata-like sinfonias, usually for two violins, lute and continuo. Since the Roman
material circulated in manuscript, it has been somewhat underemphasized in
most histories of instrumental music, but Corelli surely adopted the slow
introductions (rare before the 1680s), strict fugal movements and triple-metre
finales from his Roman colleagues. Despite the many references to Corelli’s
sonatas (published 1681–1700) as normative, the four-movement model usually
attributed to him (slow–fast–slow–fast) is present in only half of his published
North of the Alps, Bertali’s ensemble sonatas, followed by the solo and
ensemble sonatas of Schmelzer, Biber, J.J. Walther and Buxtehude, recall the
drama and virtuosity of the Venetian stile moderno at a time when sonata
composition in Italy had become more standardized. Their virtuoso solos
incorporated multiple stops and athletic string crossings; moreover, they
continuted to depend on sectional rather than multi-movement designs in which
successive events are on the whole less predictable than they are in Corelli’s
sonatas. They differ from the Italian models in other ways as well: virtuoso
writing for the bass viol (Johannes Schenck, Buxtehude), greater interest in
scordatura tunings (Schmelzer, Biber), and a continuing devotion to ensemble
sonatas a 5 or more, reminiscent of Venetian polychoral style, but with even
more demanding treble parts for cornett, violin or trumpet. The legacy of the
ensemble sonata (and perhaps the continued cultivation of the viol) may help to
explain the more demanding bass parts: when Corelli and his north Italian
contemporaries were writing duos or trios in which the violone or cello was at
best an optional inclusion, Buxtehude composed sonatas for violin and bass viol
in which the instruments have equally virtuoso roles. (But it should be
remembered that the solo cello sonata did emerge in Bologna at about the same
time, in works of Domenico Gabrielli and others.) In addition, the Austrian and
German composers devoted more energy than did the Italians to the sonata-
suite, in which an abstract introductory movement is followed by a fairly standard
set of dances; more than 20 such collections appeared between 1658 and 1698.
Rosenmüller’s Venetian publication of such chamber sonatas (1667) had found
no Italian imitators, despite a growing tendency to group dances by key rather
than type. In the northern prints ‘sonata’ or ‘sonatina’ was the term most
frequently attached to the non-dance preludial movement (Rosenmüller used
‘sinfonia’); especially well represented are Biber, Dietrich Becker, J.J. Walther
and Schenck. A few native English composers wrote sonatas at mid-century,
influenced by the national devotion to the viol and by their acquaintance with
Italian and German sonatas. The latter they knew both at home (Jenkins was
associated with the family of Francis North, who owned copies of works by
Schmelzer, Colista, Cazzati, Stradella and Pietro Degli Antoni), and by virtue of
their foreign employment (William Young in Austria, and Henry Butler in Spain).
Henry Purcell’s two published sets of sonatas (1683, 1697), after ‘the most fam’d
Italian Masters’, shared the growing English market with sonatas by Italian and
German immigrants (e.g. Matteis, Finger, Pepusch).
After 1700, Italians continued to produce sonatas for both domestic and
international markets; Vivaldi, Albinoni and the Marcellos in Venice, F.M.
Veracini in Florence, Somis in Turin and Tartini in Padua were some of the main
contributors. Moreover, such Italian émigrés as Locatelli in Amsterdam and
Geminiani in London brought the latest sonata fashions to northern Europe. That
most were violinists is telling, although the oboe, flute, cello and other
instruments are also strongly represented in their collective output. In these
volumes the four-movement plan finally dominates (although the third movement
may not be tonally closed); the emphasis begins to turn towards the solo sonata
(nearly three-quarters of Vivaldi’s sonatas, and all of Veracini’s are for one
instrument and continuo); and the church-chamber distinction disappears. In
Corelli’s ‘church’ sonatas, the final two movements are often dances
(sarabanda, giga), but in many of Vivaldi’s sonatas the first two movements also
employ binary forms. The keyboard, relatively neglected by earlier sonata
composers, begins to receive some attention, especially from Domenico
Scarlatti, who focussed on one-movement binary forms, some of which are
paired in the sources. Other composers of keyboard sonatas (most in two or
three movements) include Benedetto Marcello, Giustini, Durante and Platti.
According to Brossard, France was overrun with Italian sonatas early in the 18th
century, and French composers soon began to contribute. Most notably these
include Leclair l’aîné, preceded by Dornel and Blavet, and even Couperin, who
wrote at least three sonatas in the 1690s (published much later as preludes to
Les nations). Elisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre left a dozen sonatas for one or two
violins and bass; six were published in 1707, but Brossard apparently copied two
about 1695, making them among the earliest composed in France. Of special
note in France is the ‘accompanied sonata’ (Mondonville, Rameau) in which the
violin or flute accompanies the keyboard. The sonata for unaccompanied solo
instrument is associated particularly with Austrian and German composers
(Biber, Bach, Telemann), although Tartini may have intended some of his
sonatas, published with a bass part, for violin alone (Brainard), and the Swedish
composer Roman left about 20 multi-movement works of that type, most called
assaggi. Some programmatic or narrative sonatas are also associated with
composers in Austria or Germany (e.g. Biber’s Mystery Sonatas and Kuhnau’s
Biblical Sonatas), but Couperin’s ‘grande sonade en trio’ Le Parnasse, ou
L’apothéose de Corelli might also be mentioned.
18th-century Austro-German composers moved more and more towards the
multi-movement design already standard in Italy, and played a central role in the
mixing and merging of national styles that characterize the high Baroque sonata.
Sonatas by Vivaldi, Fasch, Zelenka, Quantz and Telemann placed galant idioms
(the ‘natural’ and immediately appealing melody of the Adagio) side by side with
more traditional sonata styles (the fugues, whose value for Scheibe in the late
1730s lay chiefly in their contrast with the more expressive movements featuring
accompanied melodies). Especially interesting are the new trios and quartets in
which the basso continuo participates as a ‘real’ part. Some, composed ‘auf
Concertenart’, borrow aspects of a typically Vivaldian concerto style; others
borrow from the operatic aria or recitative, French dance and overture. If J.S.
Bach’s sonatas (unaccompanied solos, and several works for one or two
instruments with obbligato harpsichord or basso continuo) are better known
today than are Telemann’s over 200 ensemble sonatas and solos, the situation
was reversed in the mid-18th century. Quantity aside, there are parallels
between the two composers: both juxtaposed and integrated national styles, and
experimented with formal design and scoring; neither abandoned the traditional
four movements for the newer three-movement fashion (as did Graun, Fasch,
Tartini and Somis). Telemann is often dismissed as over-prolific, but his greater
success in the 18th century may be attributable not only to his skill at marketing
(he personally printed much of his instrumental music in didactic or encyclopedic
collections), but to his serious exploration of the new trio and quartet in the
‘mixed’ style (combining various national styles) for which contemporaries
praised him, and to his avoidance of the most old-fashioned elements of sonata
Elsewhere in Europe, sonatas circulated widely in manuscript, as well as in
prints both imported and domestic; and musicians left home in search of a better
living, taking their music along. Handel was only one of the many foreign
musicians whose careers blossomed in London, where imitations of Corelli and
the traditional trio sonata long remained fashionable. Handel’s contribution to the
sonata, like that of Bach, represents but a small portion of his total output;
however, it does include more keyboard sonatas (Bach preferred the keyboard
suite), as well as traditional solos and trios aimed equally at the large amateur
market and concert stage. A focus on Handel’s sonatas may have inhibited
modern exploration of the many English sonata composers of the time (Babell,
Boyce, Arne).
Over the 150 years of sonata composition before 1750, several trends are
evident: the emphasis on counterpoint lessened; the texture became
increasingly treble-dominated; multi-voice and polychoral sonatas gave way to
duos and trios, which in turn yielded ground to solos and quartets; the early
multi-sectional design grew to four or more separate movements, and then fell
back to three or fewer; what distinction existed between church and chamber
sonatas evaporated; instruments were more and more precisely specified and
their parts became increasingly idiomatic; a focus on the violin grew stronger,
and then was tempered by an interest in sonatas for a variety of other
instruments; keyboard sonatas finally began to take their place in the repertory.
As the sonata gained popularity outside Italy, its Italian and Austro-German
elements were further enriched by a variety of national approaches to
instrumental music, from the English division (Henry Butler) to the French
emphasis on ornamental detail (Leclair). None of these changes occurred
overnight, but they are evident enough when one compares sonatas from 1630
or 1700 with those from 1750. Moreover, by mid-century the function and
aesthetic stature of the sonata had changed significantly.
Sonata, §1: Baroque
(iv) Socio-cultural context.
Brossard (1703) noted that, while there are many kinds of sonatas, ‘the Italians
reduce them to two types. The first is the sonata da Chiesa, that is one proper
for the Church, … The second type is the Sonata which they call da Camera, fit
for the Chamber. These are actually suites of several small pieces suitable for
dancing, and all in the same scale or key’. The liturgical use of Baroque sonatas
has been well documented (see Bonta, 1969): 17th-century ensemble canzonas
and sonatas replaced the organ solos formerly heard at Mass, and solo violin
sonatas were customary at the Elevation; from about 1690, concertos or
orchestral performance of trio sonatas might be heard instead. Moreover, 17th-
century church musicians may have adapted longer sonatas by performing
isolated sections, a practice likely to have encouraged composers to construct
independent movements.
Early collections mixing vocal and instrumental music had no need of the chiesa
and camera labels; in sacred collections, sonatas and canzonas are usually
found (Riccio), in the secular ones, dances and variation sonatas (Marini, 1620;
Turini, 1621). Even purely instrumental collections were so clearly orientated
that their uses would have been obvious to the purchaser: in Buonamente’s fifth
and sixth books (1629 and 1636, cited above) both content and scoring suggest
strongly that the former is a secular, the latter a sacred collection (Mangsen,
1990). Merula’s ‘per chiesa e camera’ (1637) was thus unusual both in its label
and in mixing serious and lighter instrumental music in one volume. Such mixed
volumes, as well as those dedicated to church or chamber, appeared throughout
the century, usually without labels indicating function. The editions of Corelli’s
‘church’ sonatas (opp.1 and 3) are entitled merely Sonate a tre, whereas most
editions of the chamber sonatas are actually labelled da camera. This in itself
suggests what can be documented by other means, that serious instrumental
music, even if conceived primarily for a liturgical context, was regularly heard
elsewhere, possibly somewhat transformed: at meetings of the various
academies, as domestic chamber music, in concert, and even in the theatre (as
overture or interval music). The occasions for which such music was best suited
(and where to store the parts) would have been obvious to the musician of the
Until 1700, at least in Italy, a sonata was assumed to be serious, and therefore
suitable for church; da camera marked the special case. Brossard implied as
much when, after describing the sonata da chiesa, he noted that ‘these are what
they [the Italians] properly call Sonatas’. Chamber sonatas usually ‘begin with a
prelude or little Sonata, serving as an introduction to all the rest’. The long
tradition of such sonata-suites in Germany, as well as the growing use of binary
movements in place of the more serious fugues (generally associated with
sacred music), may explain why Walther (1732) included a separate entry for the
church sonata (which merely gives the German equivalent), but not for the
chamber variety; chiesa was for him the special case, camera the norm. Beyond
title-pages and dictionaries, the dedicatees and collectors of printed volumes
sometimes yield information about the music’s use: Telemann dedicated some
of his printed volumes individually or collectively to amateurs, but professional
musicians are also heavily represented on his subscription lists. Corelli’s church
sonatas were dedicated to secular patrons, his chamber collections to clerics,
perhaps contrary to expectations. But those expectations are probably too
narrow, since some of the most significant collectors of sonatas for the chamber
were members of the clergy (Franz Rost, Edward Finch).
Sonata, §1: Baroque
(v) Performing practice and dissemination.
Although some Baroque sonatas may boast a continuous performing tradition,
nearly every aspect of their performance has changed since 1750, and even
migration across borders within the Baroque era was often attended by marked
differences in performance due to local practices. Thus performing practice of
Baroque sonatas is intimately connected to matters of dissemination. 20th-
century instruments and playing techniques, as well as ideas about pitch, tempo,
ornamentation, continuo realization, dynamics and articulation all differ
significantly from their Baroque antecendents; even reading from the composer’s
autograph is no guarantee of a ‘correct’ performance, since the interpretation of
‘standard’ notational signs will also have changed. Only a few of these matters
can be taken up here.
Many modern editors of Baroque sonatas suggest substituting one instrument
for another, a practice with some historical foundation, but not sufficient to
condone a completely ad libitum approach. While instruments were specified
more and more exactly between 1600 and 1750, many sources, some tied
directly to the composer, did give the performer a good deal of leeway. Leclair,
for instance, indicated that some of his violin sonatas could be played on (and
may even have been conceived for) the transverse flute, and he even provided
alternate versions of some individual movements. Telemann offered several
options for some of his ensemble sonatas, as in the viol and cello parts for the
Paris Quartets. Some of J.G. Graun’s trio sonatas exist also as works for
obbligato harpsichord and one treble soloist; and solo violin sonatas in score
were no doubt played as keyboard solos. Italian prints from Rossi and Castello
to Vivaldi frequently mention alternative instruments (violin or cornett, theorbo or
violone) more or less equally suited to play a part. Even if no instruments were
specified, however, it is unlikely that composers were indifferent to questions of
instrumentation, or that no conventions operated among those who played such
Ornamentation was a concern even in the 18th century: an important selling-
point for Roger’s edition of Corelli’s solo sonatas (1710) seems to have been the
inclusion of the ornaments ‘as he played them’. Baroque soloists ornamented
sonatas according to their ability and to such criteria as genre, national style,
context and tempo. Some composers (Handel, Babell, Telemann) supplied
ornamented versions of simpler lines, using smaller note heads, or additional
staves, probably intended and still helpful as models. Some used particular
phrases (affetti, ad libitum) or signs to encourage departures from the notated
pitches. Ornamentation extended to improvisation in sections of sonatas by
Colista, Guerrieri and others, who provided only the bass part over which a
soloist was to invent a melodic line. Quantz, who included an ornamented
Adagio in his flute tutor (1752), warned readers that both tempo and
ornamentation should be adapted to suit the context. Mattheson cautioned
against performing (and ornamenting) French pieces in the Italian style and vice
versa; and Burney noted that (in his day) Corelli’s sonatas were ornamented
more lavishly on secular occasions, and given a more restrained performance in
church (General History, ii). The increasing density of the ornamentation
supplied for Corelli’s solo sonatas in printed and manuscript sources offers one
demonstration of the ways in which successive generations of performers
embellished the same piece, perhaps slowing the tempo in the process.
When a sonata moves across significant boundaries of time and place, more
extensive transformation may be expected. Thus, some English sources of
Italian sonatas not only misattribute individual works, but alter the musical
content, creating chamber sonatas from dances grouped loosely by key, or
merging continuo and melodic bass parts. Spanish guitar transcriptions of
Corelli’s sonatas simply delete sections whose realization on the guitar was
impractical; sonatas in the Rost manuscript (F-Pn Rés.Vm 653; see Rost,
Franz) omit inner parts to produce trios from quintets. Availability of printed and
manuscript copies of sonatas was ensured as agents in northern Europe
imported Italian prints, visitors to the Continent returned to England with much
sought-after volumes, and sonata prints from northern presses began to
outnumber those from Italy. Sonatas remained throughout the period more likely
to achieve publication than operas or other large-scale music (among important
publication centres were Paris, London, Hamburg and Amsterdam), but
manuscript dissemination was significant as well, especially outside Italy.
Manuscript copies, to the degree that they were aimed at a smaller circle of
players, yield information about local preferences in repertory and performing
practice, in contrast to the homogenizing influence exerted by publication.
Rousseau’s quotation of Fontenelle’s remark ‘Sonate, que me veux tu?’
(Dictionnaire, 1768) suggests that, at the end of the Baroque era, sonatas were
still less highly regarded than was texted music, at least in France. But by 1739
the ties of abstract instrumental music to narrowly defined social function had
already weakened sufficiently for Mattheson to offer a new view of the sonata
whose aim is principally towards complaisance or kindness,
since a certain Complaisance must predominate in sonatas,
which is accommodating to everyone, and which serves each
listener. A melancholy person will find something pitiful and
compassionate, a senuous person something pretty, an angry
person something violent, and so on, in different varieties of
sonatas. (Der vollkommene Capellmeister, trans. Harriss, 466)
This picture of the sonata as personal and domestic, intended more for the
individual player and a few listeners than for public ceremony or concert stage,
is one associated more with the Classical period than with the Baroque. In fact
Mattheson’s response to the modern sonatas of the 1730s, combined with the
long shadow cast by Corelli, suggest a good deal of continuity in the 18th-
century approach to the genre.