I am now studying new approaches to harmony in the Romantic and Impressionistic eras, but I haven't seen anything about formal functions.

It seems like even if they were still using Sonata form (which based on my basic study of Debussy, doesn't seem the case at least by the early 20th century), the definition of a sonata would have to be fundamentally changed to fit the sort of harmonic innovations that were happening.

What are some approaches to analyzing particularly form of the late Romantic/Impressionistic eras? (I don't know if I'm allowed to say this, but recommendations for relevant resources would be appreciated as well as answers).

1 Answer 1


Actually, the standard forms from the Classical tradition are still largely in play in the mid-nineteenth and into the twentieth century.

Seth Monahan recently published a very well-received book, Mahler's Symphonic Sonatas, that shows how Mahler used the tradition of sonata form in order to create narratives within his works. Sure, these sonata structures are different than you'd find in Haydn or Mozart, including regarding the harmonic innovations that you referenced; but the sonata process is still evident.

We see composers like Richard Strauss writing tone poems in rondo form, and all kinds of composers were writing character pieces in the traditional ternary form.

Keep in mind that some forms only appear in certain places; sonata forms aren't going to occur everywhere, but typically just in their traditional spots of first (and sometimes final) movements of larger works. You'll find sonata forms in instrumental sonatas from Fauré, Berg, Saint-Saëns, Debussy, Schoenberg, Franck, Respighi, Ravel, etc.

Along with Monahan's book, I strongly recommend finding a copy of Richard Strauss: New Perspectives on the Composer and His Work; James Hepokoski's "Strauss's Don Juan Revisited" is required reading for anyone interested in form in this repertoire!

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    Since you bring up Hepokiski, I would also recommend his little book entirely about Sibelius’ 5th symphony. A phenomenal example of the way that traditional forms were being shifted and abstracted by late 19th, early 20th century composers. Commented Apr 28, 2018 at 11:02
  • @PatMuchmore Great point; it's an overlooked book, only because his other work is so seminal.
    – Richard
    Commented Apr 28, 2018 at 13:26
  • Really opened my ears to the revolutionary side of Sibelius. I’d always liked his work, but thought of it as more retrograde than I do now. Commented Apr 28, 2018 at 15:24

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