Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata

Piano Sonata no. 14, c sharp minor - Op. 27 no 2

Ludwig van Beethoven during his piano performance - 1896
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Ludwig van Beethoven composed the famous Moonlight Sonata in 1801, after agreeing to instruct Countess Giulietta Guicciardi, the cousin of his two students Therese and Josephine Brunsvik whom he had been teaching piano since 1799. Guiccaiardi was known for her beauty, and when she and her family moved to Vienna from Poland in 1800, she was quickly noticed by upper society. Shortly after their first few lessons, the two fell in love. When Beethoven finished his new Sonata, he dedicated it to Guicciardi, and it is believed he proposed to her quickly thereafter. Although she was willing to accept Beethoven’s proposal, one of her parents forbid her to ever marry him (likely due to their differing social statuses), and sadly, they never did. Guicciardi later became engaged to Count von Gallenberg and married him in on November 14, 1803.

Typically, composers would write music after receiving a commission to do so (they had bills to pay, after all). However, based on the evidence (or lack thereof) Beethoven wrote Moonlight Sonata without receiving a commission. The original title of the sonata is “Quasi una fantasia” (Italian. Almost a fantasy). The popular moniker Moonlight Sonata actually didn’t come about until roughly five years after Beethoven’s death in 1827. In 1832, German music critic Ludwig Rellstab wrote that the sonata reminded him of the reflected moonlight off Lake Lucerne, and since then, Moonlight Sonata has remained the official unofficial title of the sonata.

Moonlight Sonata Structure and Notes

The Moonlight Sonata is divided into three separate movements.

  • Movement 1, Adagio sostenuto
    The first movement of the Moonlight Sonata is easily the most well known. The famous mysterious, almost haunting melody is dark and whisper-like. The form of the first movement is a sort of “condensed” sonata. In other words, it plays the main melody, develops it, and then plays it again very similar to how it was originally played.
  • Movement 2, Allegretto
    The second movement of the Moonlight Sonata is in the form of a scherzo (a comic composition, usually fast-moving and used in the place of a minute and trio during Beethoven’s time). The key of the second movement is D flat major, which is unrelated to the overall key of a c# minor.
  • Movement 3, Presto agitato
    The third movement is completely different from the previous two movements. Its rapid progressions from note to note are invigorating and powerful. The third movement of the Moonlight Sonata is actually marked piano (meaning to play quietly/softly), but Beethoven’s use of sforzandos and fortissimos make the piece actually sound as if the overall dynamic was fortissimo.

Moonlight Sonata Recommended Recordings

As expected for one of the world's most famous and instantly recognizable pieces of music, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of recordings available. Though it would be impossible for me to listen to every single one, the following selections are ones I have come across in my life that are definitely worth looking into and even adding to your own classical music collection:

  • Beethoven: Sonatas
  • Beethoven: The Complete Piano Sonatas
  • Horowitz Vol VI - Beethoven: Piano Sonatas 14, 21 & 23
  • More Moonlight Sonata Recordings

Moonlight Sonata Trivia

  • In the sonata's most beloved movement, the first, Beethoven wrote within the score that the performer is to play the piece "utmost delicacy and without dampers". Dampers on a piano are what stops the string from vibrating once it has been struck by the hammer. Playing without dampers allows the string to reverberate continuously until it loses energy and diminishes on its own. Because of new technology and superior building techniques, modern pianos reverberate much longer than the pianos of Beethoven's time, so performing the piece as Beethoven intended can be a difficult challenge to many pianists.
  • According to Encyclopædia Britannica, Beethoven performed the world premiere of his Moonlight Sonata. By that time, Beethoven's loss of hearing was well into its advanced stages, so he was known to play louder than one typically would. It was said that during the sonata's third movement, Beethoven was performing with so much intensity, several of the piano's strings snapped.
    Moonlight Sonata. (2016). In Encyclopædia Britannica.
  • Beethoven liked to push boundaries within his music. Traditionally, sonatas were composed of three movements with the first movement marked at a fast speed, the second movement at a slow speed, and the final movement at a fast speed. Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata, however, was composed slow-fast-fast.