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Study case on the structure of a sonata using Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata

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Beethoven, “Moonlight” Sonata in C#m, Movement No. 1

I chose to analyze the first movement of Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata in C#m. Like earlier classical pieces, the “Moonlight” Sonata is structured simply, following clean chord progressions. Works by early classical composers usually contained a clear melody, played over accompanying subordinate chords. In Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata, he uses the notes that make up each chord to construct the melody, while the left hand plays the octaves of one note (typically the root) of the chord.

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Similar to Mozart’s Piano Concerto in C, K. 467, the melody consists of arpeggios. The piano part in Mozart’s Piano Concerto in C also plays a lot of rising and falling scales, which isn’t present in Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata, however the movement of the melody in Beethoven’s piece rises and falls as the arpeggios played in the melody follow the chord progression of the piece. Beethoven’s piece is also much darker in sound. This would make sense since Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata is in a minor key and Mozart’s Piano Concerto is in a major key. However, all of Beethoven’s work proved to be revolutionary. His pieces yielded sounds new and strange to the classical and romantic music world.

Some might say Beethoven’s work was revolutionary. The composer used techniques used prior by classical composers such as Haydn and Mozart. Despite using similar practices, Beethoven changed the game, bridging the classic and romantic styles with innovative mind, using modulation in his pieces more frequently than other composers. Beethoven develops his themes and motifs through the use of modulation in the home key. Extending the development of the melody through different keys in a way that connected contrasting keys in a more vibrant and rapid fashion. In comparison, some of Haydn’s later works connected distinct keys more fluidly, modulating over time, making Beethoven’s fierce approach to modulation stand out in his works.

In a lot of Beethoven’s early work, “the distinctively innovative and characteristic features of his music were usually first apparent in the piano works,” (Plantinga, p. 26). Beethoven was enchanted by the majesty of the keyboard and wrote most of his early work for the instrument. In these pieces, his creative and unique style started to gain a lot of attention. It comes as no surprise that Beethoven has yielded extraordinary work more than once, not just in his “Moonlight” Sonata, but “in other ways, too, in which the earlier piano sonatas deftly alter the familiar devices of eighteenth-century musical style,” (Plantinga, p. 28). Similarly in his “Pathétique” Sonata, the left-hand accompaniment makes use of octaves in the bass, just as you see in the “Moonlight” Sonata. However, one uses the broken-octave and the other uses an open octave (both octaves played together, not broken apart).

Typically, the movements in a piano sonata were different tempos. A standard piano sonata would be fast – slow – fast, respectively in terms of its movements. Beethoven for the most part followed this manner, composing his movements in the expected way. However, Beethoven became restless with the mainstream way of ordering his pieces. In many of his sonatas pas Op. 26, he does not follow the typical temp layout for his movements. In fact, in his “Moonlight” Sonata, the first movement is played adagio sonstenuto, a full 55 beats per minute. Immediately, listeners and observers are surprised by the abnormal tempo choice to start the piece. Although, it works for this piece. The slow tempo in the first movement engulfs audiences into its dream-like sound, entrancing them as they listen.

In Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata, the melody picks up right away in the first measure and becomes apparent that the theme is comprised of ostinatos. The ostinato consists of the notes in each chord, modulating as it goes. One might assume the name “Moonlight” resembles the dark lullaby-like sound of the sonata. On top of ostinato played in the right hand, the melody comes in at the end of measure 5 starting on the fifth scale degree. In measure 6, the Dominant 7 chord is played with the 7th in the bass. We are then brought back to tonic in mm. 7. As the melody is introduced it brings to life the underlying triplets, which were only played without a melody in the beginning. This lullaby-like sonata starts to turn dreamlike. Welcoming the sleepy state in a dark twisted sequence that’s almost entrancing. Measures 7-9 offer a glimmer of hope as the melody enters over the static of the ostinato.

The descending base line is one characteristic of pieces done in the past. Beethoven did not invent that. In fact, Beethoven borrowed this concept from baroque style; similar techniques can be seen in sonatas written by Tomaso Albinoni, which date as far back as 100 years prior to Beethoven. Also seemingly borrowed is the polyrythmic triplets that make up the main theme of Beethoven’s famous sonata. The use of triplets as seen in his “Moonlight” Sonata can also be found in the death scene of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Techniques and patterns derived from earlier work, there is still no denying that Beethoven’s sound is unremarkably unlike any one else. Although some similarities can be found between his work and earlier composers, Beethoven adds originality to old forms.

Beethoven proceeded to shift styles and invent new techniques throughout his whole career and well into the last years of his life, even after he became deaf. Beethoven was admired for his undeniable talent and innovative creativity. Although his work resembled largely the styles of classical and romantic composers before his time, there is no doubt his skill challenged many composers after him to continue developing new styles and trying new techniques.

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