“Moonlight Sonata”

“Moonlight Sonata” 1st mvmt.   L. Beethoven (1770-1826)

The “Moonlight Sonata” has become standard fare for beginning piano students (including yours truly) so we’ve all heard it played — um — less than skillfully. I thought you might enjoy hearing it played well. In this piece it never ceases to amaze me how Ludwig uses such simple musical materials to weave so enchanting a spell.

Beethoven wrote the piece when he was 31. He didn’t call it ‘Moonlight’ — his title was “Quasi una fantasia” (“something like a fantasy”). Big surprise, in this sonata he flouts the rules: normally a sonata is supposed to have a fast, then a slow, then a faster movement — here he has slow, then fast, then a rip-snorting bat-out-of-Hades movement.

And just the famous first movement all by itself flouts yet more rules: normally the first movement of a sonata is like a story in three parts: the first part introduces all the ‘musical characters’ (different themes for “Colonel Mustard”, “Professor Plum” and “Miss Peacock”), in the middle part these musical characters ‘get into trouble’, and in the third all is resolved into a satisfactory conclusion. Not so this sonata movement — it is definitely a dreamy fantasy with no cast of contrasting characters like a proper sonata first movement is supposed to have. Meanwhile, the stormy third movement is in proper ‘first sonata movement’ form. (Say what?)

The Composers Commission cited Ludwig for too many violations of the Composing Code (just kidding about that!) but too late: the piece was a hit right out of the gate. In fact, its popularity grew to the point of exasperating the composer himself, who remarked to his student Czerny, “Surely I’ve written better things.”

In 1830, three years after Ludwig’s death, the German Romantic poet Ludwig Rellstab published a review in which he likened the first movement to floating in the moonlight on Switzerland’s Lake Lucerne. The nickname stuck.