The word ‘Sonatina’ is used to describe a variety of pieces for the piano. Some of these pieces, such as the first movements of Muzio Clementi’s Sonatinas Op 36 numbers 1 and 2, the first movement of Haydn’s Sonatina in G Hoboken XVI: 8, and the first movement of Beethoven’s Sonatina in F, are microcosms of sonata form. (Click on any of the four links in the last sentence to hear the pieces mentioned.) They contain the contrasting first and second themes introduced in the opening exposition section, as well as the development and recapitulation sections that can also be found in longer sonata-form pieces like Mozart’s Sonata in C K 545. These short sonata-form pieces can be compared to traditions in other art forms that depend on contrast between two characters with sharply articulated differences. The scores I would recommend most highly for the Haydn and Clementi sonatinas mentioned above can be found at sheetmusicplus.com – here are links to Haydn and Clementi collections available there. Various other scores can also be found at imslp.com.
The two-person comedy team is a long tradition in North American popular culture in which two performers play off the contrast between their voices, body types, and/or personalities. Laurel and Hardy played the same pair of characters – the thin, quieter man and the large, louder man – in their many films. As radio comedians Bob and Ray, Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding used the contrast between Elliott’s smooth interviewer voice and Goulding’s more garrulous, animated voice to create scenes like The History of the United States. For me, duos like these model the kind of sharp contrast that makes for good storytelling both in a comedy routine and a piano piece. (These two examples also point up the historic lack of gender balance in the comedy world, which is beginning to be challenged by female comedy teams such as the star-studded one in the latest Ghostbusters film.)
While the contrast between the first and second themes in a sonata-form piece can be compared to the contrast between the members of a comedy duo, a parallel to the way a sonata-form piece evolves can be found in the tradition of the short story and its antecedent, the fable. Aesop’s fable The Hare and The Tortoise begins with short statements from both the antagonistic Hare and the serenely confident Tortoise, and continues through the ‘rising action’ of the story where they race each other. The hare gets ahead in the race and becomes so confident of victory that he decides to take a nap, while the tortoise persists at his slower pace, eventually passes up the sleeping hare, and wins the race. When the two meet up again at the end of the race, the roles of the two characters are reversed: the taunter and the target of his sarcasm become the vanquished and the victor. A somewhat longer story involving two characters can be found in O. Henry’s short story ‘The Gift of the Magi’. In this story, a fretting wife and a busy husband attempt to surprise each other with Christmas gifts, but the result of each one’s efforts ends up foiling the other’s plans. The structures of both of these stories contain parallels to the development and recapitulation sections of a sonata-form piece.
In the Clementi Sonatina Op. 36 number 1, the overall descending, intervallic motion of the first theme is contrasted by the ascending, scalar motion of the second theme. The first movement of Clementi’s Sonatina Op. 36 no. 2, as well as the first movement of Haydn’s Sonatina in G display these same types of contrast between their first and second themes. In the Beethoven Sonatina in F Major, a descending scalar first theme is contrasted by a second theme based on a intervallic pattern of descending thirds connected by ascending scale motion. If you are learning one of these pieces, I would suggest both consulting a high-quality recording of the piece, such as the recording of the Beethoven Sonatina by the mid-twentieth century British pianist Solomon, or any of the videos to which I linked in the first paragraph, to study the way these performers create musical contrast between the two themes of the piece. It might also be helpful to study the comedy sketches and short stories mentioned above for ideas about character contrast in other art forms. For those who have an interest in other kinds of storytelling, it could be helpful to come up with a story of your own to parallel the musical story in the piece, such as Anthony Burgess did with the Mozart G minor symphony in his book On Mozart: A Paean to Wolfgang. One of my students who was studying the Clementi sonatina op. 36 no. 1 and also had an interest in theater named the two themes in the piece ‘Jumpy’ and ‘Runner’, as though they were characters in a play. Learning and performing a sonata-form piece, even a shorter one such as those cited here, is an opportunity to find the story within the music and bring it to life in your own way.