The End of Exceptionalism

ClassicalForm.jpgIn my pedantically wonkish way, I’m excited to be teaching my sonata-form classes with William E. Caplin’s book Classical Form (Oxford, 1998), as I have been for several years now. For those who don’t know it, Caplin went through the complete sonata-form works of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, and catalogued everything that happens in all of them – what theme the development starts with, what relative keys get referred to in the codas, and like that. I don’t use the book as a textbook: even though Caplin’s writing style is admirably clear, it’s too dense and dependent on hundreds of examples, and to tell the truth, I’ve never yet gotten through the whole thing myself. Read four paragraphs and your eyes glaze over from the amount of detailed information you’re trying to take in. (I once talked to someone at Oxford about how useful an undergrad-friendly version of the book would be, and she told me one was being contemplated.) But I’ve outlined chapters for my students as a kind of flowchart for what’s possible in sonata form, and it’s made it feasible to teach the subject honestly. I think when I was in school I was given some kind of “typical” sonata form chart (if indeed we ever paid any attention to any music before Webern, which I don’t specifically recall doing), from which, of course, every sonata we ever looked at – deviated. But Caplin offers a descriptive plan rather than a prescriptive one. So yesterday in class we went through the outline, and then through movement 1 of Beethoven’s Op. 2 No. 3 – and every move Beethoven made was one of the possibilities in the Caplin-based flow chart. One student, who had apparently gotten a whiff of the old prescriptive-style training, asked, “Can we look at a typical sonata first, one that follows all the rules?” And I said, “There’s no such thing as a typical sonata. Might as well ask me to go out on the street and bring in a typical person.” Instead of having to explain why every piece we listen to is an exception to most of the rules, I can teach the whole conception of sonata form as a range of possibilities and, better yet, meanings, some of which get chosen for identifiable logical or expressive reasons. It’s nice to have one theoretical subject I can teach without making excuses for the lameness of the pedagogy. (Sometimes we look at Clementi, Dussek, and Hummel, too, and find some possibilities outside Caplin’s range.)

I’ve told the wonderful story before about my late friend Jonathan Kramer who said to a class, “You’ve all probably been taught the fiction that there are three kinds of minor scale.” Student: “If that’s the fiction, what’s the reality?” Jonathan: “There is no reality.” But in sonata class, there’s now a reality.


  1. says

    This sounds great; thanks for the pointer.
    It sounds a bit similar in some ways to Schoenberg’s Fundamentals of Musical Composition (which appears to be out of print, sadly), which is a wonderful catalog/cookbook for classical composition, always the book I pull out for inspiration if I’m having trouble with form.

  2. Patrick says

    “Caplin specializes primarily in the theory of musical form. His extensive investigations into formal procedures of late-eighteenth-century music culminated in the 1998 book Classical Form: A Theory of Formal Functions for the Instrumental Music of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven (Oxford University Press), which won the 1999 Wallace Berry Book Award from the Society for Music Theory. A textbook version of this work, Analyzing Classical Form, is in preparation and is due to be published early in 2012.”
    Would that be the book being contemplated? It was used in a class I took in my undergrad as well. I think it is the closest any of my textbooks has ever come to being Canadian.
    KG replies: Must be it. You know more than I.

  3. Eric Grunin says

    Sounds like my kind of book–insisting on looking at the complete corpus, not just the “interesting” cases (which are by definition atypical). Going to order this right now!

  4. Daniel Villegas says

    Could you post the flowchart for us students around the world? A descriptive plan is definitely the best approach to learning sonata form, and well, flowcharts are cool.
    By the way, I love the book on 4’33, thank you so much.
    KG replies: Thanks for the latter. I’d feel uncomfortable putting up my outline; Mr. Caplin might think I had misrepresented something, and in class I can explain each point, refer to the book, and quote it if necessary. I’m not a scholar on sonata form, and shouldn’t be consulted as one.

  5. mclaren says

    This is why biology offers a better model for music than physics or mathematics. Every species exhibits a wide range of variations, and there is no such thing as a “typical” type of insect or a “typical” fish. Some fish crawl up on land and breathe air for short periods of time (lungfish), while some types of insects exist in two distinct forms, one of which can’t eat and the other of which can’t reproduce (caterpillars and butterflies).
    In physics, every electron is exactly the same and there is such a thing as an ideal gas. But there’s no such thing as an “ideal sonata” in music. The faster we can purge music of physics envy, the better.