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    Sonata Principle: Binary or Ternary?

    Prelude: I taught the paper of LMusTCL 2002 May yesternight. There is a question about the structure of a short keyboard (for harpsichord or clavichord) piece. In the first sense, it is constructed in a such way that looks like binary, containing two main sections. However, the main theme recurs frequently in both Section with a few motives extracted from it. No obvious contrasting materials are found in B section . The tonal center just modulates to dominant key. As such, my preminliary observation tells me that it is an nascant sonata form in binary construction. I told the students to answer compound binary with modificaiton. But I think a better term for it, perhaps may be……………not sure…… because I am not the marker.


    The work is structured in the nascant form of a monothematic sonata-allegro design in the small-scale instrumental works. True, the binary structure of this work shows some sonata principles which later was developed to the mature sonata form, which was widely used in the first movement in many classical sonata written by Haydn or Mozart. I think students answer as “mononthematic sonata-allegro structure (not form, but structure)” may score higher marks than that of the “compound binary”. But on the other hand, students may like to say that the work is structured in binary form containing the design of using sonata-principle.

    It is undeniable that the development of  the rounded binary form closely relates to the formation of the so-called classical sonata form used widely in many instrumental works later.  The continued expansion of formal components associated with rounded binary movements eventually produced a stylized procedure know as sonata-allegro form. While such forms are generally longer than rounded binary structures, tonal and structural elements of the binary principled are reflected consistently. Many works of  D. Scarlatti keyboard sonata written in Spainish court adopted such a structural design.

    The structure of the monothematic sonata-allegro music usaully exposites the main theme in which several motives can be separated out for further ‘developing’ in the tonic key. The same theme then recurs in the second section with dominant key with or without slight modification. The crucial feature which differs to that of the binary and the sonata-allegro principles is the oppositional confrontation.  Of course, form and design of a musical work is hardly said to be a rigid, unchangeable framework. During the process of development, the theme will undergo a series of modifications, albeit how slightly it is. The Binary form, however, in many of the Baroqe dance works, just shows that the contrasting B section (or episode) begins with dominant key of new materials and gradually returns to the tonic key. But  listeners usually cannot hear the returning of the main theme materials in the second section.  The key scheme of the normal dance form in Binary design is : I — V   —— V — I.

    Interestingly, the structural design of the short work that we discussed yesterday is far more complex and ambiguous, the change of keys in particular. As we have observed, the works starts from the tonic key , then modulates to the dominant key with some new motivic materials, and reaches a section cadence in dominant key. This sectional structure reflects a somewhat binary principle. However, the larger section B, in the first sense that we have concluded yesternight, which starts from the bar 67 onward, restates the main theme in A section in dominant key. Then the motives are displayed in various keys, like a classical sonata’s development section, going through a common modulatory scheme of cycle of fifth. The C major materials modulates to F major, then from D minor to G minor two times, and finally back to C major, though alternating between its parallel minor mode. Not until the final eight bars that the tonic key F major returns. Motives of the main theme is the first section are varied to more and less, by displaying in different key centers, tessituras, sometimes with embellisments to avoid monotunous. Since the recapitualtion of the first theme is absent in this work, to students, it may be one of the reasons why they choose to answer binary structure at preliminarly look. From this sense, the most problematic for us to classify this work into a clear catagory is the absence of the return of main thematic materials.

    To conclude, the development of the sonata-allegro principle intimately associates with that of the rounded  binary form. The key centers change is always the significance of this form. Viewing from the key scheme , sonata-allegro form comprises the principle of binary. When the work is structured with monotheme, the form will be easily misunderstood as binary, since the second theme of contrasting materials are absent. In the historical evolution of such the sonata allegro form, however, it is not surprise for us to find such monothematic design in many instrumental works. As such, when students need to support their finding of such a nascant sonata-allegro form, the Baroque keyboard sonata form in particular, it is unavoidably to states clearly the key scheme of the work, more than that of the linear thematic design.


    David Leung (theorydavid)

    2011-02-24 (published)

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