Piano Sonata No. 14 in C-sharp Minor, nicknamed as “Moonlight Sonata”, is a solo piano piece in sonata form, composed by Ludwig van Beethoven. The reason it was nicknamed as the ‘Moonlight Sonata’ is due to its traces to the 1830s when the German Romantic poet Ludwig Rellstab had published a review. It was stated that the first movement of the piece illustrated a boat floating about in the moonlight on Switzerland’s Lake Lucerne. It is said to be one of his greatest piece of art composed and is admired particularly for its mysterious and gently arpeggiated tone and what is seemingly deducted as an improvised first movement. The piece was first completed in 1801 and was consecutively published year after. It was premiered by Beethoven himself, whose hearing was still adequate enough to not be noticed, but already deteriorating at the time. Beethoven had originally dedicated this piece of work to Countess Giulietta Guicciardi, a 16-year-old aristocrat who was his student briefly.
The Moonlight Sonata was structurally and stylistically extraordinary in its day. Most sonatas composed in the late seventeenth to eighteenth centuries consisted of a rationally lively, thematically distinct first movement, a more-passive second movement, and finally a vivacious final movement.
The Moonlight, by contrast, offered a wistful first movement, a rather more energetic second movement, and a final movement that was outright tempestuous. The furor of the Moonlight’s finale was so severely emotional that several of the piano strings snapped and became entangled in the hammers during the work’s premiere. In actuality, during the declining years of his hearing, Beethoven was known to play with a heavy hand, likely so that he could better hear the music.
Ludwig van Beethoven was born on December 16, 1770, and died on March 26, 1827. He was a German composer/pianist, who is widely known as one of the greatest musicians in all of musical history. His compositions have been able to combine vocals along with instruments in a variety of different manners, giving a new look to the sonata, concerto, quartet, and symphony. He is considered to be the decisive transitional character that linked the Classical period to the Romantic periods in Western music.
His personal life was tainted with his constant battle against his growing deafness and his sister in law court struggles, leaving him often in despair, as stated in Heiligenstadt testament, “O you men who think or say that I am malevolent, stubborn or misanthropic, how greatly do you wrong me. You do not know the secret cause which makes me seem that way to you and I would have ended my life — it was only my art that held me back. Ah, it seemed impossible to leave the world until I had brought forth all that I felt was within me”.
As if blessed by God, he miraculously continued to compose, and at a furious pace to that, despite the growing deafness that was quite noticeable. From the years 1803 to 1812, what is often known as ‘heroic’ period, he composed:
The piece duration varies from fifteen to twenty minutes, depending upon the tempo at which the piece is being played, though the tempo for the piece is supposed to be at sixty bpm (beats per minute). The structure of the piece is in sonata form and is typical to the classical era genre since sonatas were usually three/ four movements long.
However, the uniqueness of this piece compared to any other is the tempo. Typically, the sonatas ran from fast-paced, to slow/ brisk, and back to fast pace. The Moonlight Sonata on the other hand transitions from slow, to brisk/ medium tempo, and finally fast-paced; this aligned to Beethoven’s testament of rule-breaking in the world of music. He seemed to enjoy leaving the significant movement for last, and he did so in other sonatas (opus 27 no. 1, and opus 101).
The texture of the piece starts off thin and delicate, providing the dreamy feel, progressing to moderately size thickness traditional to the classic minuet and trio, and finally ending with a thick texture of chords in the background and specifically focused on notes to provide impact on the tempestuous tone and tempo of the last movement.
The 1st Movement is the most popular of all the movements present in the composition, and is the one that people are most familiar with. In total, the tone is quiet and somber, kept in piano to pianissimo, with a few exceptions as crescendos. It never cultivates beyond that, which is quite reserved really for the passionate Beethoven. A quote by Hector Berlioz, who illustrated the impact of the first movement in one line; “It is one of those poems that human language does not know how to qualify”.
Beethoven’s piano student, Carl Czerny, was also in favor of it, as well as many listeners in the era of Beethoven. However, it frustrated Beethoven who quoted to Czerny, “Surely I’ve written better things”.
Throughout the movement, we have a relentless rhythmic ostinato with Beethoven’s triplet pattern that loiters without fail in the entire movement. This gives off a “rolling” effect; it is visualized as composing a thought over and over. The triplet patterns within the first movement are arpeggios repeated in a loop.
The melody in this movement is relatively transitory, and so displays an atmosphere of ‘little slivers of light rays shining through the pitch-black clouds of the lower notes’. It could be said that the melody virtually glistens.
The first movement is in a bizarre variety of the traditional sonata form; it has the first subject, bar one to five, and a second subject, bar fifteen to twenty-three, within the exposition and the development section was abruptly short, bar twenty-three to forty-two, which is another reason why it breaks away from the traditional sonatas. Previously, the development section takes the themes created by the exposition and occupies the interval by twisting them around, but not Beethoven. In comparison, this part is ‘almost like a short bridge’.
We have the recapitulation, in where the first theme (bar forty-two to forty-six) and second theme (bar fifty-one to sixty) are bought back, with the second theme’s tonality played in a different key. Finally, we have the coda (ending) from bar sixty to sixty-five, bringing the movement to a close.
“Almost like a fantasy” was the feel Beethoven managed to pull off, and so gave it the feeling that it was all improvisational. This meant he concluded to avoid a lot of the ordinary harmonic progressions common in the “rules” of the traditional sonata form, providing liberty to the movement.
Within the development section, a segment exists where the melody drops and the notes run up and down the keyboard. In my opinion, this to me has a really distinct improvisational feel to it, almost like a little cadenza.
Of the three movements, this is the one that people are commonly the least familiar with. It’s basically your average Minuetto and trio, and pretty ordinary in a sense, though deliberately. The first movement had a really strong flavor, and so you needed to keep it plain to reset for the equally strong flavor of the final movement.
So I don’t think it’s ordinary because Beethoven was unable to; it’s unremarkable very deliberately. Anything supplementary would have been too overwhelming and ruin the music with too much intensity. Franz Liszt termed the second movement as, “a flower between two chasms”.
On the technical side of things, this minuetto and trio are a tad unusual as well since both the Minuetto part as well as the trio part is played in the same key. Usually, composers will upgrade the keys, but Beethoven attempted to keep things really simple.
It’s interesting, too, that this Minuetto and trio are both in the key of Db major. The first and third movements are in C# minor, which, if you picture a keyboard, is actually the exact same note as Db. These keys are “enharmonic”, meaning they’re different names for the exact same note on the piano.
It is quite a jovial movement with the mood of the piece being dark and heavy, similar to the first movement, except played forte and allegro. It’s best described to be ferocious, powerful, and passionate, and a movement that requires the most skill. The first movements are pretty doable for a late intermediate student, but this last movement is quite advanced.
Interestingly, you’d think this would be a movement littered with fortissimos, blasting out through the whole piece. But the powerful sound of this movement isn’t achieved by blasting out a stream of loud notes – rather, it’s a few well-chosen accents in a sea of quiet playing (with the odd, short fortissimo section) that makes it have an impact.
Let’s jump to the technical side of this movement. Like the first movement, it’s written in sonata form. You’ve got the exposition (bar one to sixty-five), development (bar sixty-six to one hundred and two), recapitulation (bar one hundred and three to one hundred and fifty-eight), and coda (bar one hundred and fifty-eight to end).
After the development, the recapitulation occurs, which is basically identical to the exposition, with a few minor changes.
The moonlight sonata was dedicated to his student, but also had ulterior motives behind the death of commander by Don Juan, and so, in turn, giving it more of a funeral feel rather than a romantic feel. Personally, when I listen to this, I don’t hear a story of lost love – I hear a story of death and turmoil.
Also, Frederic Chopin was said to have been inspired to write his Fantaisie-Impromptu because of this piece, as a tribute to Beethoven. I love this quote by Enst Oster, who writes, “… With the aid of the Fantaisie-Impromptu, we can at least recognize what particular features of the C♯ minor Sonata struck fire in Chopin. We can actually regard Chopin as our teacher as he points to the coda and says, ‘Look here, this is great. Take heed of this example!’ … The Fantaisie-Impromptu is perhaps the only instance where one genius discloses to us — if only by means of a composition of his own — what he actually hears in the work of another genius”.
So Beethoven was heavily influenced by Mozart’s death scene in Don Giovanni, and Chopin was later inspired by Moonlight Sonata for his Fantaisie-Impromptu. The cycle of (music) life!
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