A Contribution to the Theory of Tonal Alterations in Sonata Recapitulations

Jonathan Guez, The College of Wooster

Despite differences in critical alignment, studies of sonata-like structures tend to share one feature in common: they devote the least amount of time to recapitulations. Two theoretical presuppositions may explain this neglect: (1) that the thematic layout of the recapitulation mirrors that of the exposition, and (2) that one obligatory tonal alteration is all that is needed to make a tonic-recapitulating sonata conclude in the key in which it began. The present paper uses examples from Schubert's piano music to complexify the second of these in hopes of painting a more complete, and analytically adequate, picture of the ways tonal alterations are made in practice. My goal is to reveal the wide range of strategies that was available to composers for enacting a sonata's obligatory tonal adjustment.

The central analytical section of the paper identifies six strategies for performing tonal alterations, each of which is suggestive of different narrative or dramatic situations. Moving from less to more "involved," the strategies are:

Tonal alterations may be obligatory in sonatas with on-tonic recapitulations, but they are not for that reason deployed by composers pro forma. Indeed, Schubert (and others) composed tonal alterations in a range of sophisticated and dramatically appropriate ways. A detailed look at this understudied aspect of sonata composition enhances our music-analytic categories, sharpens our interpretive acumen, and invites us to hear recapitulations as sites of robust tonal dramas.