Beethoven: Moonlight Sonata

June composer: Ludwig van Beethoven

painting of beethoven with music score

 “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.

steam train in countrysideIt 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.

RollercoasterBut 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.

Lake Lucerne at twilight

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

One thought on “Beethoven: Moonlight Sonata

  1. Lady Fancifull says:

    Another absolutely BRILLIANT post classicalsavantnovice! I like those explanations, the accompanying visuals, and, of course, of course the music. Oh the music! I had the Kempff version, long ago. Fascinating to hear how extremely different those two versions of the first movement are. The Barenboim is curious – taken so slowly the base line seems almost plodding and heavy, but it does allow the top to float rather beautifully. The Kempff seems more effortless, but you don’t quite get the sense of longing for the top to free itself and soar. Well, that’s my personal response, and, as I had the Kempff, that is the one which imprinted into me. This is one of those pieces – I thought, as there was just the first movement of the Kempff, I’d just listen to the first movement of the Barenboim, and then be on my way……..but, of course, that wasn’t possible. What a lump in the throat, ache in the heart, tear-flowing release of a piece this is, which kind of picks this listener up and shakes them into a new place

    Thank you! Your blog is rapidly becoming a food and drink for the day one, for me! I have been beautifully fed by this post!

    I look forward to the rest of Ludwig month, with bated ears!

    Liked by 1 person

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