The main instrumental forms of music that developed during the Classical Era are the Sonata, Symphony and Concerto.
Each form features a specific instrumentation. The form of the movements and structure of the Classical Sonata, Symphony and Concerto are very similar, as seen on the summary of characteristics below:
First we will study three forms that are used for movements within these multi-movement works – Sonata-Allegro Form, Song Form and Trio, and Rondo Form.
Sonata-Allegro Form solidified during the Classical Era and is used for various movements of the Classical Sonata, Symphony and Concerto. This form has three parts where the last one mirrors the first – this is identified as ABA form.
Sonata-Allegro Form uses the following names to describe each section:
- Exposition – This is the first A section where the themes for the movement are introduced.
- Development – This is the B section where the themes presented in the Exposition are developed in various ways, including change of key, rhythmic augmentation or diminution, change of octave, different harmonies, and change of key.
- Recapitulation – This is the last A section where the original theme returns in the original key.
Song Form and Trio
The Song Form and Trio is a variation of the three-part dance form that was common in the Baroque Era.
Like Baroque Dance Form, the Song Form and Trio is overall ABA form. The difference is that Song Form and Trio has a mini-ABA form in each section of the overall form. In other words, the A section is ABA form, the B section is ABA form and the last A section is ABA form.
In Rondo Form a main melody alternates with multiple different melodies. The form is ABACADA… and can continue with as many contrasting sections as the composer wishes.
The contrasting sections use different styles, keys, textures, register, dynamics, or any combination to create contrast with the main recurring theme.
The sonata da chiesa from the Baroque Era developed into the Classical Era’s four movement Sonata. Let’s look at the characteristics of each movement of the Classical Sonata.
- First Movement – Sonata-Allegro Form: The first movement of a Classical Sonata is written in Sonata-Allegro Form. It has a quick tempo and is in the tonic key of the piece.
- Second Movement – Lyrical and Slow: The second movement of a Classical Sonata has a lyrical quality and is generally a slow tempo. It is usually in a contrasting key from the first movement, often the subdominant (based on the 4th degree of the scale) or dominant (based on the 5th degree of the scale). The form of the second movement may be Sonata-Allegro form, sonatine (Sonata-Allegro without the development), ABA, or AABA.
- Third Movement – Dance or Scherzo: The third movement of a Classical Sonata has a lighter character and faster tempo. It returns to the original key and can either be a dance or a scherzo. The third movement uses Song Form and Trio whether it is a dance or a scherzo. When dance form is used, it is often a minuet. This dance is in 3 and a moderate tempo. In a Scherzo, the character is more playful and whimsical than the Minuet.
- Fourth Movement – Sonata-Allegro or Rondo: The last movement of a Classical Sonata is called the Finale and is either Sonata-Allegro form or a Rondo.
The Symphony is a major new form that originated in the Classical Era. The predecessor to the Classical Symphony was the Sinfonia, which was a three part form (fast – slow – fast) used as an opera overture (music played before the opera drama begins).
The Sinfonia, or opera overture, grew to be so popular that it was performed outside of the opera in a purely musical setting. Eventually this expanded into a multi-movement work, and a minuet/scherzo movement was added as a third movement (like the Classical Sonata) to make the Classical Symphony a 4 movement work.
The Classical Concerto has three movements, with fast – slow – fast tempos. The three movements have similar traits to three of the four Sonata movements (omitting the Menuet/Scherzo).
- First Movement – Sonata-Allegro Form, modified
- Second Movement – Slow tempo, contrasting key
- Third Movement – Finale, often in rondo form, light character
First Movement – Sonata-Allegro Form, Modified
The first movement of a concerto uses Sonata-Allegro Form with some modifications:
- The Exposition section is played twice
- First time – Full orchestra (tutti), straight themes are presented
- Second time – Soloist performs the themes, which may be highly embellished and virtuosic
- A cadenza is added to the Recapitulation section
- Soloist performs virtuosity material derived from the movement themes without the orchestra
- Cadenza is near the end of the Recapitulation
Second Movement – Slow Tempo
The second movement of a Classical Concerto has a slow tempo and lyrical quality. It is not as technical as the other movements and is designed to display beauty of sound instead. This movement is usually in a contrasting key.
Third Movement – Rondo
The third movement of a Classical Concerto is generally in Rondo Form. This movement has a lighter character and is in the original key. Sometimes this movement includes a cadenza.