The name 'sonata' comes from the Latin word sonare, meaning 'to sound'. It can refer to either the four-movement works often seen from the Baroque1 time period to the present, or to the first movement of these musical compositions, which are commonly in sonata form. Two distinct versions of the sonata can be seen: the Baroque Sonata, prevalent from 1660 to 1760, and the Classical sonata, from 1760 to the present.
The Baroque Sonata
The first type of sonata was the Baroque sonata, which was seen in the time period of the great Baroque composers Johann Sebastian Bach, Antonio Vivaldi, and George Frideric Handel2. The Baroque Sonata itself was also divided into two different types. The sonata da chiesa (church sonata) and the sonata da camera (chamber sonata). The church sonata had four movements3: a slow movement followed by a fast movement, back to a slow, and then a fast concluding movement. The chamber sonata had mostly dancelike movements that were similar to the suite4.
The Classical Sonata
The classical sonata came about roughly during the period between 1750 - 1830. It was introduced by the great composers Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Joseph Haydn during the early part of the classical period and was improved upon by the works of Ludwig van Beethoven. The sonata of the classical period was divided into four movements. The first movement was usually called the allegro, and was in sonata form5 and was played quickly and aggressively with the notes generally staccato6 and accented. The second movement of the classical sonata is oftentimes called the adagio. This movement is played more slowly than the first and is played lyrically, not aggressively and staccato like the first, thus providing the contrast that was so important during the classical era. The third movement was called the minuet7, and this movement was in a triple meter, as a waltz is. The fourth movement was oftentimes called the allegro as well, and like the first movement was fast and aggressive and also in sonata form. This had the effect of providing a dramatic and energetic conclusion.
Two Examples of the Baroque Sonata
Two good examples of the sonata de chiesa are Corelli's Opuses 1 and 3. Two good examples of the sonata de camara are also by Corelli, but the Opuses 2 and 4.
A Great Example of the Classical Sonata
One of the best works that easily defines the classical sonata is Beethoven's 3rd symphony, Eroica. This symphony clearly defines the four movements of the sonata and demonstrates the dramatic contrast involved during the classical period. Beethoven originally intended to dedicate this symphony to Napoleon Bonaparte, but changed his mind when Napoleon took over France as Emperor.