Approaches to Sonata Form in Mid-Twentieth-Century American Piano Sonatas

Date of Completion

January 2011






In discussions of mid-twentieth century works for solo piano, there is a common misconception that the sonata as a classical formal structure had become obsolete. There do exist, however, some American piano sonatas of the early- and mid-twentieth century that retain certain tonal and formal characteristics of classical sonata form. Such works seem to have resulted in part from the influence of the neoclassical movement in early twentieth-century Europe, as well as from a desire on the part of composers to develop a more distinctly American nationalistic style. ^ This study discusses ways in which first movements of sonatas for solo piano composed in the United States in the mid-twentieth century combine aspects of traditional sonata form with neo-tonal and post-tonal techniques. It focuses on sonatas composed in the decade following World War II (approximately 1945-1955) and examines several movements in depth, in order to elucidate and categorize their connection to classical models. ^ Pieces composed during this time period that do employ aspects of sonata-form can be categorized in one sense by harmonic language. The majority of these works can be considered neo-tonal, in that different tonal centers are established in different sections. A first category of tonally centric movements features works in which the traditional tonic-dominant relationships between sections are maintained. In a second category of tonally centric works, these traditional tonal relationships are absent. Atonal sonatas comprise a final category of works. In these movements, free transposition of the secondary theme in the recapitulation creates the expected difference in pitch level. ^