What is a piano sonata?
After you have gone through this list, it will be clear to you that a piano sonata can be a lot of different things - for instance a short, four-minute, one movement piece; or a five movement work of epic proportions. Perhaps the safest way to answer the question is to say that a piano sonata is any piece for piano that the composer has chosen to call a sonata.
However, at least during the Classical era (the golden age of the piano sonata), sonatas had certain easily identifiable traits. In Haydn's, Mozart's, Beethoven's or Schubert's time, a sonata mostly had three or four movements: a quick one to start with, a slow second movement, perhaps a scherzo or minuet as third movement, and then another fast movement as a finale.
The first movement, and perhaps one or two of the other ones, were composed using the so called sonata form. Other common sonata movements could be a Rondo (often used as a last movement) or a set of variations.
Scarlatti: Sonata in E major, L 23
Our first example was taken from an earlier era, when this form hadn't yet crystallized. The piano sheet music of Scarlatti's over five hundred sonatas is an amazing treasure-trove of short, charming pieces. Italian baroque music, often with an unmistakably Spanish flavor (Scarlatti wrote many of these works while living in Madrid).
Haydn Sonata in C, Hob. XVI:50
Without Joseph Haydn, the history of the piano sonata would have looked a lot different. In his around sixty sonatas, the piano sonata evolved into the well-balanced, three or four movement form that Mozart and Beethoven would continue to develop. Haydn's humorous, playful and dramatic sonatas aren't played as often as those of his younger colleagues, but certainly deserve to be heard more often.
Mitsuko Uchida plays Mozart
Mozart "Alla Turca" K 331
Mozart wrote 18 piano sonatas, of which this is the most well known. The last movement especially belongs to the most recognizable pieces in the whole piano literature. Its meandering sixteenth-notes and drum rolls, meant to imitate the Turkish janissary bands, is very entertaining. The clip here gives you the first movement, however - a very beautiful set of variations on a theme.
Beethoven's piano sonatas are certainly the most important collection of sonatas ever written, and to be honest, probably several of the 32 should make their way into the top 10 of all time. But I want to give you as much variety as possible, and so I have chosen only one. The Appassionata sonata is one of the great monuments of western music. Also Beethoven himself thought it one of his greatest works. The brooding unisons and sudden chord explosions of the first movement retains their power after two hundred years.
Appassionata played by Daniel Barenboim
Brendel plays the 2nd movement of Schubert's great A major sonata
Schubert: Sonata in A major, D 959
Schubert's piano sonatas have never received even a fraction of the attention that the ones by Beethoven have been assured of ever since they were composed. For a long time the sonatas by Schubert were considered less valuable than his shorter works, like the impromptus and songs. During the course of the 20th century, people have gradually recognized their greatness. Especially the three last sonatas, written only months before the composer's death, are now programmed relatively often, even if their gigantic dimensions make them a challenge for pianists.
Chopin: Sonata in B flat minor
Chopin wrote three sonatas, which perhaps haven't exactly suffered from the kind of neglect that Schubert's sonatas were victim to, but nevertheless they aren't heard that often. This is of course due to the number of immensely popular shorter works that flowed from the pen of Chopin, and perhaps also to that slight suspicion that Romantic composers couldn't write proper sonatas. It would be impossible to leave them out of such a list as this, though, especially since the movement I have picked is actually one of Chopin's most famous pieces quite in its own right. It has been used either in its pure form or in an orchestral arrangement at all sorts of momentous and sad occasions: The Chopin Funeral March from the B-flat minor sonata.
Funeral March from Chopin's sonata in b flat major
Excerpt from Liszt's Sonata (Martha Argerich)
The Liszt sonata
Liszt left only one contribution to the piano sonata genre, but one that is guaranteed a place in every list of this kind. Even most of the people who find Liszt a bit shallow and bombastic sometimes have to admit that this work is a true masterpiece. Its half hour long only movement is Liszt very personal adaptation of the sonata form. It is both a single movement written in a kind of gigantic sonata form and a fast-slow-fast structure, reminding of the classical three-movement convention. The interpretations of the inner meaning of this intensely dramatic piece have been many and varied. A common theory is that the sonata was inspired the Faust legend; another idea that has been put forward is that it's an illustration of the Christian myth, from God's creation of the world to the victory of Christ over the Devil. I think one may safely say that whatever dramatic story of angels and demons you can come up with, it will have to be pretty thrilling to match this music.
Claudio Arrau plays Brahms Sonata op. 5
Brahms: Sonata in f minor
Brahms is another one of those Romantic composers that isn't exactly famous for writing piano sonatas, but still have one or two masterpieces of that kind hiding somewhere in their production. In Brahms' case, it was in his youthful years that he wrote his three great sonatas, of which the third is an undisputed masterpiece, and one of the really great sonatas of the Romantic era. It is in five movements, of epic proportions, and seems at least partly to tell a story of love: on the first page of the second movement, Brahms cites a love poem by Sternau. Here is the powerful, majestic first movement.
Scriabin's "Black Mass" (Yevgeny Sudbin)
Scriabin: Sonata No 9 "Black Mass"
Let's move on to the 20th century, and to a somewhat odd bird in the piano literature. The Russian Alexander Scriabin started out as a Chopin-loving, romantic composer, but ended up as a very forward-looking, almost atonal composer with a strange, mystical world-view that influenced his work and filled his music with a very peculiar atmosphere. This particular, very thrilling Scriabin sonata has become a something of a favorite with pianists because if played well, it can really spell-bind an audience.
Prokofiev 7th Sonata
Another Russian will be honoured with the 10th spot on our list. Prokofiev had Classicist tendencies, and so it is quite natural that he should be one of the great sonata composers of the 20th century. As in the rest of his work, the piano sonatas by Prokofiev are filled with humor, sarcasm, heavenly lyricism, downright brutality and a lot of pianistic brilliance. The last movement of the 7th Sonata, with its notorious, machine-like crescendo will be a fitting conclusion to this little list of mine.
Prokofiev 7th sonata, last movement (Sokolov)
Of course, I am very well aware that it's somewhat ludicrous to draw a line at ten like this. But what I wanted to do was to give you an overview of some of the most important sonata composers. I have stopped at ten sonatas, but that is no reason for you to do the same. Please help me to complete this list with your own recommendations, and nominate the sonatas that you think should rank among the ten, twenty or hundred best of all time!
Which are your favorite piano sonatas?
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Matthew on April 20, 2018:
Great list! I would add Hindemith's 3rd Sonata with that amazing final movement Fugue, and definitely Prokofiev's 8th Sonata which is transcendent and awe-inspiring.
chris on February 06, 2018:
It would be better if the list included Beethoven's op 101, 106, 109, 110, and 111 because they are probably the best sonatas ever written. Even if you do not like them or are not strong enough to be able to listen to them, it is impossible to match the perfection of the works.
john kelly on October 02, 2016:
i love beethovens tempest 3rd movement and mozart rondo alla turca
detu on April 28, 2016:
Well, I understand that you decided to choose only one piano sonata of each composer, but for me Beethoven's Hammerklavier would be more representative and without that sonata the list of the greates ones seems incomplete in the way it shouldn't have been.
Laudemhir Jan from Davao City, Philippines on September 01, 2014:
I've listen to all the sonatas above! What a wonderful way to start my day! I particularly love Mozart's and Beethoven's pieces! :)
Michele Rampa from Boston, MA on June 09, 2014:
I love the interpretation of Brendel...where is Lugansky?
Katy Mandel on June 03, 2014:
Mozart's Sonata 15 K545. Magic, unbelievable, miraculous. Simply a work of art. When I play it, I escape into the world of this sonata.
Jingbo on June 01, 2014:
No Beethoven's, say, Moonlight Sonata??
Michele Rampa from Boston, MA on January 19, 2014:
A selection of great Pianists. I am a fan of Brendel (I heard quite everything of this pianist!). A relatively recent discovery for me is Lugansky...
Piano Street (author) from Stockholm, Sweden on February 13, 2013:
Microcosmonaut, thanks for pointing that out, and sorry everyone about the mistake! The bit of misleading information has now been taken away.
soura chatterjee, we agree completely that Debussy is one of the greatest piano composers, but as far as we know, he didn't compose any sonatas for solo piano.
soura chatterjee on February 06, 2013:
you missed debussy
Laura Schneider from Minnesota, USA on November 25, 2012:
Wow, cool fact! A tiny glimpse into the mind of Scriabin... "Afraid of the dark powers"... I wonder what specifically was going on in his mind as he composed this piece? What was his motive? Frame of reference? Intention?
On the other hand, perhaps this information was a media (or composer) fact "leaked" to the press/world to increase interest in the piece...
[goes off to listen to it again, to try to hear "dark powers" strong enough to prevent a composer from performing his own work.]
Microcosmonaut on November 24, 2012:
"Scriabin himself never played this sonata because of he was afraid of the dark powers that its sounds invoke..."
This is actually about his 6th sonata, not his 9th.
Laura Schneider from Minnesota, USA on October 13, 2012:
TRM, I understand what you're saying, and while there might be some truth to that, it's each individual's personal taste that really determines their favorites. And, if not, then by what yardstick do we measure them? Number of notes in the song? Average playing length, number of key changes, difficulty to play accurately (ah-hem, Rachmaninoff with your huge hands)... Number of standing ovations received, number of audience members, and number of heads of state who had ever throughout history sat through a live performance of the music? Number of sales of the recordings of the songs produced? "Absolute joke", of course.
This is art. REAL art, most frequently made by geniuses and appreciated by many and coveted by few. Art is indefinable after a certain point. Just as one person's favorite color is red and another's is green, neither person can possibly be incorrect since these are the personal opinions of their owners. A painting I love might be a painting most people hate, or vice versa.
For an initial list of 10 piano sonatas, I think this is outstandingly unbiased and broad and yet still "accurate". Thank you again, Piano Street, for compiling this mass-appeal list of 10 sonatas. :-)
Sophie Montagu on October 13, 2012:
I would vote for Waldstein :)
TRM on September 20, 2012:
Absolute joke, the top 10 best classical piano sonatas would all be by Beethoven. You're trying to diversify by composer, thus the title should not be "10 best piano sonatas" but "10 best composers of piano sonatas and their greatest work".
Laura Schneider from Minnesota, USA on August 14, 2012:
I can't wait to hear your "next top ten sonatas" (please put the Moonlight or Pathetique in there??) and your "Top 10 Concertos" (not forgetting Prokofiev, of course and Grieg's Concerto). Maybe Brahms, the under-appreciated of the "3 Bs", belongs in this category too. I'm just thrilled that you're exposing us all to things everyone should be exposed to. It's "brain food" and "soul candy" all in one.
Absolutely loved this hub and I'm off to play the "Appassionata" now. Voted up, Awesome, etc. Can't wait to see what you write next. Cheers!
Music-and-Art-45 from USA, Illinois on August 06, 2012:
This is a nice list, I don't know if I could choose one Beethoven Piano sonata they are all so good.
mozberg on July 18, 2012:
i think the best sonatas are beethoveen & haydn!no doubt!!
melody on June 23, 2012:
Geoffrey on May 28, 2012:
I've actually played most of these sonatas :) and I have to agree, they are great! (with the exception of Brahms, which induces anyone under 65 to sleep)
Brian on May 16, 2012:
Bartok also wrote a very impressive sonata.
But listing sonatas is perhaps always going to skew our view a bit, because it skips Bach, who wrote some of the greatest keyboard music ever, just nothing he called a sonata. :-)
Dan on April 24, 2012:
Barber's Sonata for Piano, Op. 26 is mind-bending, definitely my favorite.
suzana on February 27, 2012:
Muito boas, maravilhosa seleção!Parabéns!
nicholas stanfield on January 06, 2012:
People do not give enough credit to haydn as they should. If you truly master his music you can play for ever. Every emotion or story that could possible be told can be found in his works.
Ricky on January 02, 2012:
I think the list is not complete without Rachmaninov sonantes,specially his second sonate in the original versión. I love recording by Zoltan Koksis.
Piano Street (author) from Stockholm, Sweden on November 02, 2011:
Stan, that's absolutely correct!
Thanks for dropping by!
Stan Bartnikowski from Carrollton, Texas on October 09, 2011:
I really enjoy these excerpts. The pianist for the Chopin Funeral March is not identified, but it looks like Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli. Is this correct?
nightflight9 from Scandinavia on July 05, 2011:
NICE. I really fancy the y.t.players in the site, not having to suffle between youtube and hub is cash!
John Sarkis from Winter Haven, FL on May 01, 2011:
Liszt wrote two piano sonatas: the B Minor and the Dante Sonata.
Piano Street (author) from Stockholm, Sweden on December 03, 2010:
Thanks for visiting and thanks for your encouraging comments! We will continually try to improve our piano playing hubs, adding links, amazon modules and other useful content. As you so rightly point out, the Beethoven Sonatas alone provide material for a host of great Hubs, and we will certainly try to create some of these in the near future!
Ari Lamstein on December 02, 2010:
I absolutely love Beethoven's Piano Sonatas, and I was happy to see the Appassionata included here. However, I wish that you included more Beethoven Sonatas (for example: the Moonlight, Pathetique, Les Adieux, Tempest, #32, etc.) But perhaps those Sonatas warrant their own Hubs!
Also, I have written several hubs on musical pieces myself. I have found that many of the people who are searching for pieces of classical music are also looking for sheet music for those pieces. Perhaps you should consider including links to sheet music for these pieces.
Also, I recommend including some Amazon hubs so that readers can purchase recordings of these pieces!