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Beethoven's Moonlight: The Sonata that Ushered in a New Era

Beethoven sitting in the moonlight
Beethoven sitting in the moonlight

Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, or to give it its epic official title, Piano Sonata No. 14 in C-sharp minor 'Quasi una fantasia,' Op. 27, No. 2, is one of the composer's best loved piano works and one of the top ten pieces here on 8notes. Known especially for its sublime opening movement, the work also marks the transition to a whole new era of music making.

Anguished origins

Beethoven finished this sonata in 1801. Its haunting slow opening movement and its stormy last movement may suggest something of Beethoven’s two-fold mental anguish at the time; on the one hand the composer was beginning to struggle with increasing deafness and, on the other, he had fallen in love with one of his piano students, 16 year old Countess Giulietta Guicciardi, a relationship that was forbidden by the young lady’s father. Smitten, Beethoven, dedicated to work to the unattainable girl.

An unintended title

The title ‘Moonlight’ was not coined by Beethoven but by a the German poet Ludwig Rellstab in the 1830s. He likened the first movement to a boat floating in the moonlight on Lake Lucerne in Switzerland. The title has stuck ever since, something that may be regretted, since the sonata is much more than its opening movement.

The radical structure of the sonata

Most piano sonatas and, indeed, most pieces of instrumental music at the time followed a similar ‘fast-slow-fast’ plan. The sonata is remarkable for breaking this by opening with a slow movement . And this slow movement itself has several notable features. It consists of an instant triplet rhythm over which Beethoven constructs a long breathed melody that is romantic rather than classical in scope. Also unusually, he instructs the pianist to use the sustain pedal throughout, seemingly making the whole movement shimmer. Though not explicitly pictorial, the music feels as if it is giving voice to some kind of dark inner narrative, one that nevertheless manages to find moments of exquisite serenity.

The second movement is a more conventional but nevertheless delightful scherzo that seems to look back to the classical era. It serves to clear the mood and prepare the ground for the ferocious 'Presto agitato.' Here is as if the contained emotions of the first movement are given their full rage-filled head. So violent is it that, during the premiere Beethoven broke several piano strings, which then became entangled in the hammers of the instrument. More recently, pianist and writer Charles Rosen has said that ‘it is the most unbridled in its representation of emotion. Even today, two hundred years later, its ferocity is astonishing.’

Ushering in a new era

The work’s unconventional approach to form, its novel use of new instrumental techniques and, above all, its explicit realisation of inner emotion are all very much characteristics of Romantic music, making this a key work in the transition to that new style. The sonata was also apparently not commissioned—no-one had requested the work be written— Beethoven composing it for himself. This again was a characteristic of post-classical music, where the self-expression of the artist was of central importance, not the occasion or person for which it had been commissioned.

Lasting impact

The work has inspired a number of other composers most explicitly Chopin, who used key elements from it, including key relationships, chord patterns and even some more direct quotes, in his Fantasie-Impromptu.

It has also been used in pop music, by George Shearing in his ‘Moonlight Becomes You’, Alcia Keys in ‘Remized and Unplugged’ and by the Beatles, who used a reversed version of the opening of the Moonlight sonata for their song ‘Because.’

It has also made its transition into popular culture more widely, most charmingly in the Peanuts cartoons, featuring young pianist Schroeder, whose renditions of both movements is interrupted by the unwanted attentions of Lucy:

First movement:

Last Movement:

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