Theorizing Sonata Form in European Concert Music, 1815–1914

Analyzing a large and diverse corpus of 1300 sonata forms from different parts of Europe, this project seeks to come to a more nuanced understanding of nineteenth-century sonata form that is grounded directly in nineteenth-century compositional practice. Works analyzed come from three different genres that together represent both private and public music-making in the nineteenth century: the symphony, the piano trio, and the piano sonata. The sample includes music by more as well as less canonical composers (including “obscure” repertoire) and ranges from composers such as Beethoven and Schubert as well as Reicha and Kalliwoda early in the time period to Mahler and Sibelius alongside Medtner and Enescu near the period’s end. All movements are analyzed using a standardized analytical protocol (developed specifically for this project) and the analytical information is entered into a database.

Based on these data, the project will produce the following:

  1. a theory of sonata form in the nineteenth century. Reflecting the realities of the repertoire, this theory will not be unified and monolithic, but instead take the form of a network of chronologically, geographically, and generically more localized theories (“micro-theories”) of sonata form at different times and places and in different genres;
  2. a series of case studies and comparative analyses of specific pieces or groups of pieces that will test and demonstrate the theory;
  3. a study of sonata form in specific centres of musical activity (e.g., Paris, London, Leipzig, Vienna) that parses the database’s evidence with respect to its geographical distribution, in order to clarify the relationship between formal practices and their contexts of production and dissemination.

On the whole, the project will contribute to the development and consolidation of a modern methodological framework for the analysis of nineteenth-century music and enable music theorists and scholars of nineteenth-century music in general to navigate questions of musical form in this repertoire with greater confidence than before.

Theorizing Sonata Form in European Concert Music, 1815–1914 is funded by an Insight Grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) for the period 2019–24.