Classical definitions article - image of piano with sheet music and recorder

Classical definitions – know what you’re talking about!

After my first couple of Fiori concerts it was obvious that there was a gap in my classical and baroque knowledge. I can easily enjoy the music without knowing the technical bits but I rock the geek chic (or I’m just a geek) so I like to know the whys and wherefores.

What are sonatas and movements?

A movement – is section of a piece of music. Some pieces are just one movement – a dance for instance is just one movement. But some pieces are made up of several movements. You might for instance get a piece (usually called a suite!) made up of 4 or 5 different dance movements. Each separate dance is a movement and will likely be at a different pace. I understand it as being like an album, made up of individual songs.

A sonata is a piece (usually with several different sections or movements) which is written usually for a single instrument, or maybe two single instruments. A piano sonata – for instance – only needs 1 player (a pianist maybe!!) and it will probably have 3 or 4 movements (some slow, and some fast).  In fact we talk about a sonata’s ‘slow movement’ and that usually means a gentle (yes slow!) movement in the middle of the piece – in between the fireworks of the outer (fast!) movements.

You can also have two or three people playing a sonata.  If it’s a violin sonata then there’ll obviously be a violinist, but it’s likely that there will also be someone at the piano playing an equally difficult part (as an accompaniment – well partner really! ) to the violinist.

A concerto is a bit different.  In it’s form it’s like a sonata (so several movements, usually a fast one, a slow one and then another fast one to finish).  But the difference is that there are far more people involved.  For starters you need an orchestra – anything from 10 to 100 players (they are really the very important accompaniment but not the main act!) and then you need a soloist.  So now our violinist takes centre stage as the soloist playing lots of virtuosic music, which basically just means that it’s dazzlingly difficult! You probably need a conductor too to keep the orchestra on track with so much going on!

Note: you applaud at the end of a sonata or concerto, not after each movement! I nearly made a fool of myself!

Translating a programme

When you go to a Fiori concert, you’ll see words like Allegro…..Andante….. Presto throughout the programme.  These are Italian terms.  For some (historic) reason, musicians normally use Italian words to describe how music should be played! Beethoven tried using German words and some English composers try English, but Italian generally wins. These words, (Allegro…) tell you whether the music will be fast or slow, and how many movements you’ll hear. If you see Allegro…..Andante….. Presto this is code for “you’ve got 3 movements to come – a fast one (Allegro – because allegro in Italian means fast), a slow one (because Andante means ‘walking speed’ and we don’t hurry slow movements) and a very fast one (because Presto is Italian for very fast).

You sometimes see funny abbreviations like RV103, or K563.  These are just catalogue numbers and tell the experts exactly which piece of music is being played (after all there can be a lot of sonatas or concertos in the same key and it’s nice for people to know exactly which one is being performed!). So RV103 tells you it’s number 103 in the Vivaldi catalogue, and K563 means its number 563 in the catalogue of Mozart’s works.

You may also see op.1 no.9.  The ‘op’ is short for opus (a Latin word meaning work). We use opus to describe a published work.  So when Corelli published his first volume of sonatas, it was his opus 1. And because he included 12 sonatas in the publication, we can tell everyone exactly which sonata we are playing, by writing opus 1 number 9 or in the usual lingo op.1 no.9.

Hopefully that’s helped make things clearer! I know it has for me.

Fiori Fan