The Baroque period saw a flowering of instrumental music. While the church continued to be an important patron of the arts, many Baroque composers found employment in the service of a nobleman or noblewoman who wished his or her court to be a center of culture and music. Such courtly settings demanded much more instrumental music for entertainment and concerts. These performances generally did not take place in enormous concert halls, but in more modest-sized rooms or chambers in the palace. Music for these smaller settings is accordingly called “chamber music.” The sonata is one of the primary genres of chamber music in the Baroque.

The name sonata comes from the Latin and Italian verb sonare, which can be literally translated as “to sound,” and refers to the fact that the music is sounded or played on instruments rather than sung by voices. The Latin and Italian word meaning “to sing” is cantare, which is where the name for one of the vocal genres you’ve already studied comes from, namely cantata.

Although the sonata is an important genre, it is important to note that this was a period of great innovation and experimentation in instrumental music. The term sonata is applied to a wide variety of instrumental combinations and forms. The majority of Baroque sonatas featured three or four instruments, but many sonatas were for a solo instrument, most often with continuo though sometimes without. The most popular type of sonata in the Baroque was the trio sonata, so called because it was written with three lines: two melodic instruments (usually two violins) and a continuo. As the continuo line was performed by two instruments (usually cello and harpsichord), a trio sonata was generally performed by four instruments, though it is important to remember that in the Baroque it was very common to substitute one instrument for another or even leave out an instrumental part if it wasn’t available. That flexibility in instrumentation is far less common in later historical periods.

As with the cantata, in the mid-Baroque there was a tendency to divide trio sonatas into two categories: sontata da camera and sonata da chiesa. Although those names indicate music for court vs. music for church, the reality is that both types were often used as concert pieces. We won’t concern ourselves with this distinction as it had largely disappeared by the late Baroque. However, it is important to note, as you’ll see those terms in the list of sample pieces presented below.

Trio sonata

The trio sonatas by Arcangelo Corelli (opus 1, 1681, opus 3, 1689) were of unparalleled influence during his lifetime and for a long time after, inspiring slavish imitation by composers whose numbers were legion (Talbot 2001).

The melody instruments used are often both violins. A well-known exception is the trio sonata in Johann Sebastian Bach’s The Musical Offering, which is for violin and flute.

Johann Sebastian Bach’s trio sonatas for organ (BWV 525–530) combine all three parts on one instrument. Typically the right hand, left hand and pedals will each take a different part thus creating the same texture as in a trio. A further innovation by Bach was the trio sonatas involving a concertante (obbligato) right-hand harpsichord part in addition to the bass line, plus one melodic instrument, thus for two players. Examples are the six sonatas for harpsichord and solo violin (BWV 1014–1019), three sonatas for harpsichord and viola da gamba (BWV 1027–1029), and three sonatas for harpsichord and flute (BWV 1030–1032).

Example Repertoire

  • Tomaso Albinoni, 12 sonatas da chiesa op. 1 and 12 sonatas da camera op. 8.
  • Arcangelo Corelli, 24 sonatas da chiesa opp.1 and 3, 24 sonatas da camera opp. 2 and 4.
  • Henry Purcell, Twelve sonatas of three parts, 1683, ten sonatas in four parts, 1697 (both sets for two violins and BC).
  • Johann Sebastian Bach, trio sonatas BWV 1036–1039. Some of these are of doubtful attribution, but all are typical of baroque chamber music. They are written for basso continuo and two violins, except 1039 which is written for two flutes and basso continuo (which concurs with BWV 1027).
  • Dieterich Buxtehude, op. 1, six trio sonatas, and op. 2, seven trio sonatas. Scored for violin, viola da gamba and basso continuo. These were the only works by Buxtehude that were published during his lifetime.
  • George Frideric Handel, trio sonatas opp. 2 and 5.
  • Georg Philipp Telemann, around 150 trio sonatas, most in the Corelli style.
  • Johann Pachelbel, Musikalische Ergötzung (“Musical Delight”), containing 6 trio sonatas for two violins and basso continuo. Original score in scordatura.
  • Antonio Vivaldi, 12 trio sonatas da camera op. 1, and two trio sonatas mixed with solo sonatas in op. 5, and about ten unpublished trios.
  • Jan Dismas Zelenka, Six trio (or quartet) sonatas, ZWV 181. Scored for two oboes, bassoon and basso continuo. These are technically difficult pieces, containing some extremely demanding bassoon and oboe parts. The fourth sonata from the set (G minor) can be heard at the Brightcecilia Classical Music Forums.