Analysis of Mozart’s Sonata in C Major

By Preston Ware Orem

This analysis is from the esthetic standpoint rather than the purely structural, the interpretative, rather than the mechanical.

Without going into the historical or evolutionary aspect of the subject, it may be well to state in the beginning the difference between the terms Sonata and Sonata-form, since this seems not to be generally understood by music students.

A Sonata is a compositions consisting of a number of movements, the principal movement being in the Sonata-form, and all the movements being in related keys. Exclusive of the movement in Sonata –form, the remaining movements may be in various forms. Usually the first movement is in the Sonata-form, the second or slow movement is in the Lyric form; the third movement, if there be one, is a Minuet or Scherzo; and the last movement is a Rondo.

A Sonata-form, briefly speaking, is a single movement elaborately developed from two short and contrasting themes. The movement under discussion in this article is a well-constructed Sonata-form, admirably suited to our present purposes and furnishing material for the study of the esthetic principles of Unity, Variety, and Proportion.

To begin with, we have a movement in 4/4/ time, key of C major. The First, or Principle, Theme comprises the first four measures. It is constructed from two motives of two measures each, almost identical in rhythm, but contrasting in the melodic motion of the intervals:


We find Unity in rhythm, Variety in melody, and Proportion in the number of measures used.

Before discussing the manner in which this theme is accompanied, and the idiomatic Passage Work used throughout the piece, it may be well to state that the instruments for which composers of the time of Haydn and Mozart wrote were far inferior to our modern pianofortes in sonority, beauty of tone, and sustaining power; hence in the analysis and interpretation of this and similar works these differences must be continually held in mind.

Reassembling the dispersion of the accompaniment gives, together with the notes of the theme, a very simple four-part harmony:


The Tonic, Dominant, and Subdominant chords only are made use of. The form of dispersion here used for the accompaniment is known as the “Alberti bass.” It is met with in the works of all classical composers, and is still in use to a limited extent. It was doubtless devised to make up in part for the lack of tone-sustaining power in the older instruments, by causing all the members of the chord to be heard in close proximity. Unity is gained by adhering to the same method of figuration throughout. The only excuse for the use of the “Alberti” bass in this day is its simplicity and ease of execution.

The Principle Theme of four measures is followed by a passage eight measures in length, known variously as a Bridge, Transition, or Connecting-Group. The chief function of a Bridge is to form a connecting modulation between two themes. The older composers believed in administering their thematic materials in homeopathic doses; that is to say, the themes are always surrounded with “passage,” or “bridge,” work and other filling-out devices, the idea evidently being that the various appearances and reappearances of the themes should prove all the more striking by reason of contrast with these surroundings, and their general effect greatly enhanced thereby.

Nowadays it is possible that we have run to the other extreme and that the undiluted wealth of thematic material furnished in our shorter and more condensed forms may often prove too strong for our music digestion.

The harmonic structure of the Bridge is very simple, modulating to the key of the Dominant (G major):


The sequence of scale passages in the right hand is merely an ornamentation of the harmonic structure, musical embroidery, as it were, and should be so interpreted, the individual sixteenths not being viewed as melody notes:


We have now arrived at the Second Theme, which consists of a single motive, played twice over:


This theme displays more motion, in contrast to the principal theme, but the harmonic structure is even more simple, the “Albert” bass being discarded:


The sustained D (Dominant of G) will be noted; also the effect of the passing note, B, in the third measure of the example.

The Second Theme is followed by a harmonic sequence of four measures leading to the Climax, which takes place at the end of the following four measures. Here is the harmonic scheme of the sequence:


This is very effectively and brilliantly dispersed in alternation between the hands. The next two measures consist of a dispersion of the first inversion of the Supertonic chord leading to the climax, a Perfect Cadence in G major. The long trill over the Dominant in this cadence is another instance of a device frequently employed by classic composers to make up for the lack of tone-sustaining power of the instrument; all such trills may be understood as sustained tones.

The two measures preceding the double bar form a Coda. This closes the first portion of the Sonata-form; it is generally known as the Exposition.

After the double bar begins the Development, or Working-out section. This portion is usually made up of fragments of the material previously set forth in the Exposition. In this case the Development begins with the motive of the Coda, altered to the parallel minor;


After a two-measure sequence of scale passages, evidently suggested by the first Bridge, the Coda motive reappears in D minor. An additional six-measure sequence of scales (more filling out or padding) leads to a cadence in F major, closing the Development and introducing a Return of the first theme. This Development is so simple in this case as to suggest the Sonatina rather than the Sonata.

The return of the First Theme in any other key than the Tonic is rather exceptional, but is justified by the additional contrast gained from a change in Tonality. The return of the First Theme is followed by a repetition of four measures of the first Bridge; in the next four measures this bridge work is inverted, the scale passages being transferred to the left hand. The Bridge is then completed as before by a Modulation to G major. This is followed by a return of the Second Theme, this time in C major, the Tonic.

The Sequence, Climax, Cadence, and Coda following the second in the Exposition all reappear transferred to the Tonic, and complete the Sonata-form. Simple as it is, there is abundant material in this movement for long and profitable study.