There are some pieces of music which are so popular that we can all too easily forget the reasons for their popularity, or the reasons they hold a special place in music history. In this post I want to look at one of the best-loved of all piano works: Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. I thought that it might be good for me to talk about this work, so that we can better understand what a truly unique piece of music it is.
To start with, listen to the beginning of this. [listen]
This music, of course, isn’t the Moonlight Sonata. In order to understand the Moonlight’s significance I want to go back a little. The Moonlight is the third in a series of three piano sonatas Beethoven wrote in 1800 and 1801 which showed the composer experimenting with formal structures in a way which was quite unprecedented. By the end of the eighteenth century, a sonata had come to a rather settled structure - an instrumental work in four movements. These four movements followed a pretty settled order: the first was a formal sonata form movement, usually fast and sometimes with a slow introduction, the second was a slow movement, the third was a minuet or a brisk scherzo and the fourth a fast finale. This was the same order of movements used by most composers in chamber music and symphonies as well.
In these three sonatas written at the start of the new century, however, Beethoven tried to change things - a lot. He wrote these works using a completely different structure of movements, and this in turn gave him the courage to really break out of the classical mould in his music generally, not just in the sonatas. This is the period in which he was composing the second symphony, so it’s right before his ground-breaking third symphony, the Eroica. This is generally regarded as the opening shot of his dynamic “middle” period, in which Beethoven trod new paths and established for himself his reputation as one of music’s true innovators.
The first of these three piano sonatas was the sonata in A flat, opus 26 (linked above). Instead of opening the with a large-scale, formal sonata form movement, Beethoven chose to start the piece with a theme and variations movement. In the classical tradition, sonatas sometimes contained theme and variations movements as their slow movements, or more rarely as their finales, but almost never as their opening movements. Beethoven had never started a piano sonata (and there were a dozen or so before this) so calmly or congenially, yet in terms of its structure, this music is incredibly radical.
After the end of this first movement we would - formally - expect a slow movement, but clearly Beethoven felt that the variations needed more contrast; to follow them with a slow movement would have been overdoing the slowness, so the scherzo comes next. The term scherzo literally means “joke” in Italian, and the speeding up of the courtly minuet into this fast and sometimes breathless form was Beethoven’s own invention. This scherzo movement starts at 9’20. [listen]
Beethoven then puts the slow movement third, and what a slow movement it is. It’s a clear precursor to the heroic funeral march he would soon compose in the third symphony, and Beethoven in fact title’s the sonata’s third movement as Funeral march on the death of a hero. This sort of programmatic writing was almost unheard of in the absolute musical world of the sonata. This starts at 12’06. [listen]
The fourth and final movement of the A flat sonata is a rondo, and rondo form was one of the traditional structures used for sonata finales. (Rondo form is a structure in which an initial theme returns a number of times in between contrasting episodes.) The recurring theme in this movement, though, is nebulous and flighty, hard to grasp, and lacking in classical four-squareness which would normally characterise such themes. The movement also ends with the petering out to a single, hushed bass note, not with the traditional hammering of the tonic chord. It starts at 18’54. [listen]
Beethoven’s next published work was his opus 27, a pair of piano sonatas which comprise the second and third of this trilogy of piano sonatas I referred to earlier. They show Beethoven going even further in his experimentation with the sonata structure. This is made clear by the fact that both of them are given a rather peculiar name by the composer: Sonata quasi una fantasia. In Italian quasi can mean “almost”, “nearly”, or “as if”. What Beethoven is meaning here is that the sonata structure is being stretched - almost “de-formalised” - into something freer, something less like a formal sonata and more like a fantasia.
Keyboard works called fantasia weren’t new. Mozart wrote such works, and before him so did CPE Bach. Composers in the Baroque and even the Renaissance wrote works in this style, which gave both composer and performer a large degree of freedom from formal structures. What Beethoven is doing, though, is incorporating the concept of a fantasia into the more rigid structure of the sonata, and the two opus 27 sonatas are utterly unique in their results.
The first of these is the E flat Sonata op 27 no 1. The first thing you notice when you look at the score of this remarkable work is that it seems to resemble a suite more than a sonata. There are seven or eight subsections which are squeezed into a four-movement structure, but none of these movements resembles the usual movements in a sonata. The structure is very free, almost whimsical, yet - and this is the real sign of Beethoven’s genius - when you listen to the sonata complete, it sounds unified and satisfying, not a hotch-potch of ideas and tunes.
If anything, the E flat sonata starts even more calmly and simply than its predecessor, and eventually it’s clear that the first section of this sonata is in ternary form: opening melody, different melody, return to the opening melody. But just as we’re lulled into feeling relaxed with all this, Beethoven throws us into a different tempo, a different volume level and a different key. Then we go back to the music of the beginning as if nothing happened! Only now do we realise that this whole section - which comprises the equivalent of a first movement - is in ternary form: slow section, fast section, slow section. This first movement takes about the first five and a half minutes of this performance. [listen]
Such writing was utterly ground-breaking for its time. The structure of the music is so relaxed, so free, so individual, and we’ve only just started!
The second movement is the scherzo, dark, sinister at first, with Beethoven writing music that sounds almost improvised (as many fantasias originally were). This movement begins at 5’50. [listen]
After the flightiness of this scherzo comes a slow movement of breath-taking beauty and calm which again sounds improvised, as if Beethoven is alone at the piano, improvising for his own pleasure in the privacy of his own world. It begins at 8’00. [listen]
I can’t emphasise enough how incredibly radical such writing was in a sonata in 1801. Freedom and individuality on this scale was unprecedented. After a cadenza (a cadenza? in a sonata?), the slow movement goes without a break into the final movement which comprises three subsections. The main fast section is busy and full of unusual accents. This goes on as if it will be a conventional sonata finale, but Beethoven has more in store to shock us. After about four minutes, he reintroduces the music of the slow movement - just ten bars of it, ending with more fantasia-like music - before concluding with a very fast passage to bring this most unusual sonata to a close. The last movement begins at 11’13. [listen]
The second sonata of the two published as opus 27 - and the third in this unusual set of three - is the famous Moonlight sonata. I’ve spent some time on the two sonatas which precede it because the Moonlight, beautiful and arresting though it is, is even more amazing when considered as the third and final sonata in this series in which Beethoven stretches the sonata concept to then-unheard of limits. The A flat sonata (op 26) started with variations, put the scherzo second, followed this with a funeral march. The E flat sonata (op 27 no 1), a “quasi fantasia”, is like a series of small improvisations, whimsical yet completely satisfying.
Now comes the C sharp minor sonata, op 27 no 2. The nickname Moonlight wasn’t given to it by Beethoven; it seems to have been added to the work later in the nineteenth century. It’s therefore possibly helpful to try to divorce from your mind any nocturnal associations when listening to this music, attractive though such associations are. From a purely musical point of view what is astounding about this piece is the way it carries on Beethoven’s desire to reassess the sonata structure from the previous two sonatas.
For a start the work is in three movements, not four. The first movement is the most famous, and it’s possible that many who love this music don’t know the other two movements at all. But what is it about the first movement that captures us? That’s a bit like asking how do you hold a moonbeam in your hand, but here are my thoughts on the aspects of the Moonlight’s first movement which seem to make it magical.
For a start, Beethoven breaks the most fundamental rule of a sonata’s opening movement. In a regular sonata form movement there is contrast - principally contrast between the two melodies known as the first and second subject. In this movement there is almost no contrast at all. Beethoven set himself the daunting task of writing a satisfying opening movement to a sonata while avoiding the very nature of a sonata form movement. The entire movement - which is very slow and calmer again than the opening movements of the previous two sonatas - is permeated with a triplet figure which can be heard on every beat of every bar until the final three chords. Almost every time we hear this figure it outlines the notes of a chord, and it’s these chords which give us the harmony of the music. Interestingly this is reminiscent of the scherzo of the previous sonata, the E flat op 27 no 1. There, in a much faster tempo, the music also outlined broken chords.
The triplet figure in the Moonlight sonata is its unifying feature - it makes us feel aurally “safe” - and its constancy creates an almost mesmerising quality which is intoxicating to the listener. Yet its function in providing the harmony can’t be underestimated, especially when looked at in combination with the bass line. The relation of the bass notes to the triplet figure is another feature of this music which has made it so special to two centuries of music lovers. The movement away from and back to the home key of C sharp minor is satisfying and intriguing at the same time; satisfying because we end up where we started, and intriguing because the route it takes is very unusual. It’s set up by the first change in the bass note, which falls while the chord above it remains unchanged. This is known as a dominant seventh in third inversion, and it’s used by composers to create a very powerful feeling of harmonic direction. The harmony must go somewhere after the bass note moves down, and the ear is immediately engaged in listening to what will happen.
After all this it comes as a shock to realise that (a) we’ve only come to the start of the fifth bar, and (b) this is all accompaniment - we haven’t had the tune yet! The tune, when it does come, is simplicity itself - probably another reason this movement is so loved.
As in the earlier sonata quasi una fantasia, Beethoven manages to capture in the Moonlight sonata the feeling of improvisation, of freedom, almost of whimsy. Again, I can imagine him sitting at the piano, playing whatever comes into his head, such is the freedom of this music. (Beethoven was a famed improviser; he could take the slightest material and create a stunning musical edifice out of it on the spot.) Yet at the same time this music anything but disorganised. The harmony, in my opinion, gives this music its shape, and this is best appreciated by focusing not on the melody, but on the bass line. The bass line drives the harmony, which in turn drives the music. Most amazing of all is the passage of 12 bars in the middle of the of the movement with the same bass note - G sharp - providing the most enormous sense of inevitability for the restatement of the main melody. As in all the greatest music, it’s deceptively simple, with the whole being so much greater than the sum of its parts.
Here's the link to the performance. The first movement takes the first seven minutes. [listen]
No-one, but no-one, had written a sonata first movement like that. Beethoven was proving that far from being a straight jacket, the sonata structure could be the framework for the most individual expression. His career as a composer was in fact marked by him showing exactly the same thing in the areas of the symphony, the string quartet and the Mass.
This famous movement, though, is only the first of three in this sonata. By this point Beethoven had completely dispensed with any notion of the fast-slow-scherzo-fast movement pattern which was traditional in the sonata. Here the movements get faster. From the pensive mood of the first movement we come to the second. In the major key, this Allegretto is in fact a gentle scherzo, although Beethoven doesn’t actually give it that title. What’s also interesting in both this and the previous sonata is the fact that Beethoven specifically states that the movements should follow on without a break. He uses the word attacca after every movement in both the op 27 sonatas, which means “go on without a break”. Therefore this affable second movement should, in performance, appear to grow out of the famous first movement, making the “fantasia” element even more apparent.
This movement is a little more traditional in that it follows the ternary structure of the scherzo. The middle section is marked by music which accents off beats, something which is made all the more clear when the more conventionally-accented A section returns. This movement starts at 7’03. [listen]
Returning to the minor key of the first movement, the third and final movement of the Moonlight sonata is faster again, marked Presto agitato - very fast and agitated. It has a fascinating thing in common with the first movement, namely that large tracts of it (such as the opening) are based on broken chords. In fact, the first three notes of the right hand are the same notes as the first three triplet notes of the first movement, played an octave lower.
The finale to the Moonlight sonata is perhaps the perfect synthesis of sonata and fantasia, and a fitting conclusion to these three remarkable experimental works. The movement is in fact in very clear cut sonata form - the only movement in these three sonatas which is clearly in sonata form - and yet the whole mood - with stark contrasts in volume, articulation and pitch - sounds free and improvisatory. It starts at 9’20. [listen]
The synthesis between formal structure and fantasia in that movement is quite miraculous, something which Beethoven didn’t seek to continue in the piano sonatas which immediately followed. In fact, the Moonlight sonata might be said to mark the cut off between the first and second of Beethoven’s main periods as a composer. In the early period his most innovative statements seem to happen in his piano sonatas. From here on - in his so-called middle period - his focus shifted to the symphony, where his most radical developments seem to happen. In his final period the innovative focus shifted to the string quartet. But that’s another story...
This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in March, 2005.