June composer: Ludwig van Beethoven
“Moonlight Sonata” Sonata 14 in C Sharp Minor, 1801-02
Moonlight Sonata is one of Beethoven’s most well-known piano pieces. It’s sombre, slow and achingly mournful. At least that’s what I thought, and then I listened to the whole thing, not just the first movement. Slung along behind the funereal first movement are two a further two somewhat surprising carriages on this sonata train. (Of course there are, it’s a sonata).
Watch Wilhelm Kempff play the first movement
Instead of the traditional sonata form of movements going fast – slow – fast, Moonlight Sonata instead begins with a slow movement and builds up from there to an astonishing finale. The second movement contrasts nicely with the first (and with the third), with a light, dancing feeling, but before you get too comfortable it ends, and the third movement takes off into an aggressive, loud and sensually busy ending.
It is like the train I mentioned earlier. It’s like taking a slow train through the low pastures and meadows, where everything is green and lush and the colours on the trees are turning an autumnal reds and yellows, spinning, and spinning slowly, mourning the passing of summer. Then the train begins to climb and the landscape becomes a jaunty little trip through the foothills, with views over the pastures. The heart lifts from sorrow to a welcome in the oncoming season.
But then you suddenly realise you’re not on a train at all but a rollercoaster. It twists. It turns. It climbs sharply upwards. And outside is beautiful too, all snowcapped mountains and a storm, the winter storm approaching, but its going so fast now its unnerving and you can’t take it all in. It finishes abruptly with a double loop the loop and a final terrifying flourish.
Watch Beethoven-officiando Daniel Barenboim play the whole piece
Moonlight Sonata was named apparently not by Beethoven but by a poet called Ludwig Rellstab, who compared it the first movement to that of moonlight shining upon Lake Lucerne. It was written just as Beethoven began to lose his hearing. A traumatic event which clearly changed not only his life but his approach to music. When he couldn’t find a cure, he went on to withdraw from society for a time, to grieve, understandably.
Before his withdrawal he wrote Moonlight Sonata, a piece that many people claim he didn’t even like very much. Interesting though, that this ability of Beethoven’s to write publicly appealing pieces like this first movement allowed him to make a living from the beginning of his career from playing and composing – something which not many artists can claim in any era, including todays. But the entirety of moonlight sonata shows us something else too, something of a nonconforming man, of grief, euphoria, aggression, anger and beauty – all together in the one piece. Which is I suspect what we had in, a fiery, brilliant, eccentric Beethoven too.
*images in order of appearance courtesy of CC by public domain, Russavia, Stevage, and Markus Bernet