Thursday, 21 February 2013

Hubert Parry writing about ‘Sonatina’

Charles Hubert Hastings Parry wrote a considerable number of entries (123 of them) for  the Dictionary of Music & Musicians (A.D. 1450-1889), edited by Sir George Grove and published in its entirety in 1890. For anyone who has struggled through their piano ‘grades’ the ‘sonatina’ will be a familiar form. One thinks of those by Clementi, Kuhlau and Diabelli. However, there have been later examples including works by John Ireland and Maurice Ravel. Neither of these to pieces are easy or suitable for the beginner. Interestingly, George Grove felt that Parry’s contributions to the Dictionary were ‘inclined to be wordy and diffuse’. Certainly a comparison with the current entry for ‘Sonatina’ reveals that Parry’s essay is some 692 words long whereas the current unsigned article is a mere 232 words.  Parry’s text requires no commentary. However, Parry was wrong in suggesting that the form, apart from teaching, was an anachronism, as the two 20th century masterpieces mentioned above would suggest.

SONATINA. This is a work in the same form and of the same general character as a sonata, but shorter, simpler, and slenderer. The average form of the sonata appears to be the most successful yet discovered for pure instrumental works of large scope. It is admirably adapted for the expression and development of broad and noble ideas; and the distribution of the various movements, and the clearness with which the main sections and divisions of each movement are marked out, give it a dignity and solidity which seem most appropriate in such circumstances. But the very clearness of the outlines and the strength of contrast between one division and another, make the form less fit for works of smaller scope. As long as such a work is laid out on a scale sufficiently large to admit variety of treatment and freedom of movement within the limits of these divisions, there is fair chance of the work having musical value proportionate to the composer's capacity; but if the limits are so narrow as to admit little more than mere statement of the usual form, and no more than the conventional order of modulations, the possibilities of musical sense and sentiment are reduced to a minimum, and a want of positive musical interest commonly results.

Consequently sonatinas form one of the least satisfactory groups of musical products. The composers who have produced the greatest impression with short and concise movements in modern times have uniformly avoided them, and adopted something of a more free and lyrical cast, in which there is a more appropriate kind of unity, and more of freedom and individuality in the general outlines. It might be quite possible to group these small pieces so as to present a very strong analogy to the sonata on a small scale; but it has not been attempted, owing possibly to a feeling that certain limitations of style and character are generally accepted in the musical world as appropriate for works of the sonata class, and that it would be superfluous to violate them.

The sonatina form has, however, proved peculiarly convenient for the making of pieces intended to be used in teaching. The familiar outlines and the systematic distribution of the principal harmonies afford the most favourable opportunities for simple but useful finger passages, for which the great masters have supplied plentiful formulas; and they furnish at the same time excellent means of giving the student a dignified and conscientious style, and a clear insight into the art of phrasing and into the simpler rules of classical form. These works may not have any strong interest of a direct kind for the musical world, but they have considerable value in so far as they fulfil the purposes they are meant to serve. The most famous and most classical examples of this kind are Clementi's Sonatinas, of opp. 36, 37, and 38. And much of the same character are several by F. Kuhlau, which are excellently constructed and pure in style. Of modern works of a similar kind there are examples by L. Koehler. Those by Carl Reinecke and Hermann Goetz are equally adapted for teaching purposes, and have also in general not a little agreeable musical sentiment, and really attractive qualities. Some of Beethoven's works which are not definitely described as such are sufficiently concise and slight to be called sonatinas: as for instance those in G and G minor, op. 49, which were first announced for publication as 'Sonates faciles’ in 1805. That in G major, op. 79, was published as a 'Sonatine' in 1810, though it is rather larger in most respects than the other little examples. 

Prior to Beethoven the average scale of sonatas was so small that it seems difficult to see how a diminutive could be contrived; and indeed the grand examples which made the degrees of comparison specially conspicuous were not yet in existence. A modern work on such a scale, and made in the conventional manner, would probably be considered as a Sonatina, and apart from teaching purposes it would also be likely to be an anachronism. C.H.H.P.

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