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What Is a Violin Sonata?

By Peter Hann
Updated May 23, 2024
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A violin sonata is a musical work for violin that is normally accompanied by a piano or similar keyboard instrument. A sonata is typically written in three or four movements. A violin sonata normally begins with an allegro movement followed by a slower movement. The final movement generally is another faster movement in the form of a rondo, or a theme with variations. In the case of a four-movement sonata, there would be a third movement in the form of a minuet or scherzo.

The term "sonata" was originally used to distinguish instrumental pieces from music written for singers, which were referred to as cantatas. Over time, it became associated with a particular form of music normally written for a solo instrument, such as a violin or cello, with an accompaniment. The sonata developed over time, reaching its familiar three- or four-movement structure in the Classical Period of Western music in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The first movement of a sonata is often written in what is known as sonata form. This consists of an exposition, development transition and recapitulation. The sonata form's use, however, is not limited to the musical works known as sonatas. It also is the basis for the first movement of symphonies and other works.

Composers such as Antonio Vivaldi wrote violin sonatas in which the accompaniment would be the figured bass common in the Baroque period. A high point in the development of the baroque violin sonata came with the sonatas published by Arcangelo Corelli in 1700. These violin sonatas were written in the style of both the chamber sonata, which included movements in dance form such as the Sarabanda and Giga, and the church sonata, which excluded dance movements.

Ludwig van Beethoven and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart used the violin sonata on numerous occasions, though composers including Johannes Brahms and Robert Schumann also gave some attention to violin sonatas. Among the best known violin sonatas of the 19th century are Beethoven’s Spring and Kreutzer sonatas. In the 20th century, composers such as Sergei Prokofiev and Bela Bartok wrote music in this form.

Sonatas also have been written for solo violin without accompaniment. The sonatas and partitas for solo violin by Johann Sebastian Bach are an important early example of violin sonatas in this form, and these contributed to the establishment of the violin as a solo instrument. An example from the 20th century is the sonata for unaccompanied violin by Bartok, which is clearly intended as homage to Bach.

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