manuscript of Bach's Fugue in B major
20-09-2021

Musical forms: how music is made

How music is made

Every piece of music, whether classical or popular, is composed according to a starting structure that we call "musical form".
In addition to the forms discussed below, there is the simple form called Lied, that is that of a song, in fact takes this name from the German language and is structured in two or three parts: A, A-A', AB or ABA where B does not have a development and is therefore a new section.

The fugue

The fugue is the contrapuntal form par excellence, which had its heyday during the Baroque period: from the second half of the 17th century to the first half of the 18th century. In its structure we will find the subject (or two if it is a double fugue) that continues with its answer and a counter-subject that always approaches the subject. When all the voices (of which the number is immediately announced by the composer e.g. "4-voice fugue") have performed the subject, then the exposition ends. Then the development of the fugue begins, in which we can find the subject in another tonality, the appearance of the head of the subject, the divertimento or episode, which have the role of transition, and the stretto when the voices enter one after the other without waiting for the first to have finished presenting the subject.

For this form, it is important to remember J.S. Bach's masterpiece "Die Kunst der Fuge" or The Art of Fugue: a collection of nineteen fugues in D minor.

The Art of Fugue by Johann Sebastian Bach

Minuet and Scherzo

The minuet and scherzo are two musical forms known as ternary in that they can be divided into three main sections: section A (which is sometimes also in 3 parts), B (which is a trio) and A.
The scherzo clearly differs from the minuet in its more playful character and usually fast tempo (Allegro, Vivace, Presto, etc.).

Theme and variations

The term "theme and variations" refers to the type of composition consisting of an easily recognisable theme and its variations. The variations, which are different from each other, can concern many aspects, such as: melody to which some notes can be added or subtracted, change of rhythm for example from binary to ternary, the tonality from major to minor, the accompaniment, the dynamics, the instrumentation in the case, for example, of a sonata for violin and piano in which the theme is originally for the violin and the variation for the piano, and many other aspects that a good analysis can offer us.

The Rondo

The rondo form (ABACADA) basically consists of the alternation of the rondo theme (called A) and a contrasting episode. In fact, throughout the piece, the rondo theme (A) is repeated, probably varied (e.g. shorter or longer) but in its original tonality, while the episode (B, C, D, etc.) can also be in another tonality.

The sonata form

The sonata form is a bitematic and tripartite form, which means that it has two themes and three major sections: exposition, development and re-exposition with the possible addition of an introduction at the beginning and a coda at the end. The exposition, often identifiable thanks to the ritornello, presents us with two thematic groups (or simply the first theme and the second theme) divided by the so-called modulating bridge (or transition) whose task is to modulate in the tonality of the second theme. In fact, if the first theme is in a major tonality (usually on the tonic) then the second theme will be on the dominant, but if the first theme is in a minor tonality it will be followed by the second theme in the relative major tonality (major tonality= tonic -> dominant; minor tonality= tonic -> relative major).

The development is the densest part of a piece in sonata form and has two main functions: to develop or develop the thematic material already presented and, after crossing different tonalities, to return to the original tonality in order to lead to the reprise.

In the re-exposition (reprise or recapitulation) the two thematic groups are taken up again, but this time it may be different because the second theme should now be in the same tonality as the first.
This is followed by a more or less short coda.

Sonata-rondo or rondo-sonata

When a composition has characteristics of more than one form, it is a mixed form: the rondo-sonata, also called sonata-rondo, is an example. The rondo-sonata is structured in ABACAVA in which the C part can be a development and the AB structure can behave as two thematic groups of a sonata exposition.

This form was used by Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Brahms and very much by Beethoven both in the last movement of some piano sonatas (op. 13, op. 21 n.1, op. 90) and in three symphonies: in the second movement of the Fourth symphony and in the last movement of symphonies number Six and Eight.

By Roberta Gennuso
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