Sonatinas and other two-sided stories

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 – here are links to Haydn and Clementi collections available there.  Various other scores can also be found at

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.

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6 Responses to Sonatinas and other two-sided stories

  1. tgcleary says:

    Hi Jackson, Your mention of conversational echoes in Clementi op. 36 no. 1 is perceptive. While in a few places the left hand echoes something played earlier in the right hand with a similar phrase (as with the scales at m. 4 and 23, and the arpeggio at m. 15 which echoes the RH arpeggio at m. 12), there are also instances of the RH and LH passing eighth-note rhythm back and forth (without echoing a particular motive), as at m. 8-11.

  2. Jackson says:

    I am currently studying Clementi Sonatina Op. 36 number 1. I think your comparison to a comedy duo is pretty spot on. In this piece, it is as if the right and left hands take turns over the melody as if they are having a conversation. These sorts of interactions really help to establish a dynamic piece of music that is much more interesting to practice as well as just to listen to.

  3. Matthew Fisher says:

    My favorite piece from this is Haydn’s “Sonata in G Hoboken XVI:8;” the quick trills in higher octaves sound almost like birds chirping, and the movements are more interesting to me than Clementi’s “Sonatinas” or Beethoven’s Sonata in F. Though it would be challenging, I would really like to learn this Haydn piece.

    When I played piano as a kid, one of my favorite pieces was always Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” (Piano Sonata No. 14), which of course follows a similar structure to the pieces mentioned in this post because it is a sonata. It is in the key of C# minor, which gives it a dark feeling that I always liked.

    The comparison between sonatinas and comedy teams is definitely accurate. There are stark, noticeable differences between the ascending and descending sections of these pieces. However, I think the clearest comparison for me was the connection to “Gift of the Magi.” I read it several years ago and instantly recognized the connection between it and the structure of these sonatas. The fact that the couple foibles each other is reflected in the continuous back-and-forth between the aforementioned ascending and descending sections.

  4. ashe durban says:

    I am very interested in Clementi’s Sonatina Op. 36 1. I think the left and right hand play off of each other in very interesting ways, and the duality shown throughout sonatinas as a whole are in a way reflected in the juxtaposition of the movements of the left and right hands. Sounds fun to play.

  5. Jeremiah says:

    You mentioned a couple different examples of contrast in duos or stories and how that relates to Sonatinas. To me, it’s these types of examples and the way we humans live our lives that explain why we might be drawn to such contrasting themes as we might in Beethoven’s 5th (although not a sonatina, I’m not as familiar with these).
    Back to my point, my life seems as if it’s multiple contrasting things. Bogged down in work/vacation. Winter/Summer. Rain/Sunshine. It’s our want to have these contrasts, and so it makes sense to see those in our music.
    If I think about the music I most often surround myself by, it’s slow, somber verses and huge, ecstatic choruses. The music has a story similar to my life.
    I really enjoy Beethoven’s Sonatina in F and the movement it provides.

  6. Lucy Rock says:

    I am currently working on Clementi Sonatina Op. 36 number 2, and reading the analysis and parallels between the work of Haydn and Clementi regarding the contrast in themes was very interesting. I had previously noted that this piece is written to alternate piano and forte in order to emphasize the varying dynamic between the themes, although the variation of themes took a little longer for me to adjust to and follow fluidly. I enjoyed reading about the comparison of this type of music to comedic duos, although could not find a solid example of this application on my own. I was able to more accurately follow the tortoise and the hare comparison, and found that when listening to this piece played at performance pace, it reminded me of many Looney Toons chases that I used to watch. Many of these episodes were commonly accompanied by classical music – featuring pieces of Mozart, Bach, Tchaikovsky, and Grieg. One scene that reminded me of the recurring first theme of Clementi but then the varying speeds and softness at which it is played throughout the rest of the piece is a Sylvester the cat cartoon. I found that the way that the contrasting second theme of Clementi’s Sonatina is described in the blog – as an “intervallic motion of the first theme is contrasted by the ascending, scalar motion of the second theme” parallels the energy exhibited by the characters. In this episode, Sylvester is attempting to get inside of Tweety Bird’s house, but keeps getting caught between the house and a pack of dogs in the yard. There are softer but still upbeat moments in which Sylvester gets away and comes back with a new tactic, and louder contrasting moments when the dogs get after Sylvester and he attempts to get away.

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