Demystifying the Moonlight

Beethoven’s 14th Piano Sonata from 1801 is easily one of the most famous pieces of music ever composed. It is instantly recognizable by name and intimately associated with Beethoven. For most people, it is exceeded only by his 5th and 9th Symphonies as signature works. Its sobriquet, “Moonlight,” was only acquired after Beethoven’s death and has worked a disservice in confounding the meaning of the music. This brief entry only starts to pull on the many strings that make this work one of the most interesting in history.

At 31, Beethoven was hardly a novice composer. But he was not yet that Beethoven–that archtype of a classical composer who laid bare the full depth of his emotions in his music, breaking classical forms and paving the way for the Romantic Period. This sonata, entitled Quasi una Fantasia, was merely a step, albeit an important one, in that remarkable transformation from piano prodigy and Mozartian classicist into that composer that uniquely exists out of time–revolutionary and eternal in equal measure.

Beethoven dedicated the sonata to his student and lover Guilietta Guicciardi, whose name appears on the published version.

Her father objected to the relationship and the two were parted. We will skip over the fact that she was only 16 at the time and assume, as historians have done, that her father’s objection to their relationship was due to class distinctions.

But the dedication, and once Ludwig Rellstab’s description of the opening movment as “a boat on the river in the moonlight” gave rise to its current name, the Moonlight Sonata has been acccepted as one of the most romantic works of music ever composed.

Well, I think it is quite something else altogether. And the clues are right there in the music. First, listen to the beginning of Emil Gilels’ classic version–the movement that inspired the misnomer “Moonlight”:

Ludwig van Beethoven, Piano Sonata No. 14 in C# Minor, Op. 27 “Quasi una Fantasia”, I. Adagio sostenuto:

I love this. Some of my earliest memories are hearing my father play this in our home. It is a soundscape that is as comforting as a fuzzy blanket on a cold winter’s day. But therein lies darkness too. In the 20th century, pianist Edwin Fischer discovered a score in the library of Vienna’s Musikverin that holds the key to the meaning of the movement and the entire sonata. This brief sketched score, in Beethoven’s hand, which transcribes the accompaniment to a scene in Mozart’s Don Giovanni and transposes it into the key of C# Minor, the same key as the sonata. Here is that very bit of Don Giovanni that Beethoven quotes–listen to the strings in the background:

W.A. Mozart, Don Giovanni, Scene I, “Ah Soccoroso!“:

That is unquestionably the source, and therein lies the meaning: This is the Commendatore’s death aria:

Ah, soccorso! son tradito!
L’assassino m’ha ferito,
E dal seno palpitante
Sento l’anima partir.

Help, assistance, all is ended!
Oh, to die alone unfriended,
Vile assassin, thou’st undone me,
Heav’n protect and guard my child!

Let’s set the stage: As the opera opens, Leporello is waiting outside of a home for his master, Don Giovanni (Don Juan). The randy Don rushes out of the house, pursued by Donna Anna and her father, the Commendatore. Don Giovanni duels with the Commendatore, mortally wounding him. The Commendatore dies right after singing the above aria.

Well, that’s an interesting bit of source material to inspire the opening of a sonata written for your lover, no? But perhaps Beethoven was saying somthing other than “I love you” under what Rellstab mistook as a romatic moonlit river cruise. Yes, Beethoven was in love, but his love had been denied by her father. Having had his way with her (as Don Giovanni likely had with Donna Anna), Beethoven indulges in a bit of dark fantasy here–recall the title Beethoven gives the work, “Quasi una Fantasia.” And that fantasy is to do exactly to Giulietta’s father what Don Giovanni did Donna Anna’s.

This is no love song. The 31-year old Beethoven is writing to his teenaged lover, stating in a coded message that he is fantasizing about killing her father. Now, listen to that first movement again. Beneath the melancholy of C# Minor lies a slowly boiling rage. That rage builds, painfully, before it literally explodes all over the keyboard in that remarkable final movement. I can hear it all, as if Beethoven speaking directly to me (better, in fact, since my German is pretty terrible)–Beethoven’s broken heart, his unrequited love, and his murderous rage against the man who has denied him that which he desires most. Just look at the tempo marking — presto agiato (fast, agitated). As one critic remarked, Beethoven’s “ferocity is astonishing.” Yeah, no kidding.

Ludwig van Beethoven, Piano Sonata No. 14 in C# Minor, Op. 27 “Quasi una Fantasia”, III. Presto agiato

Beethoven’s sonata also began to break the mold of the classical sonata form, which traditionally was fast-slow-fast (perhaps with a final even faster movement). Beethoven provides a slow build–slow-moderate-fast, which is in keeping with his message. And that, more than anything else, is why this work is so important. Here, Beethoven is starting to say that music is not driven by form, but rather by emotion. Beethoven is refining his art to communicate more effectively. And music history would never be the same afterwards.

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