Op. 27 No. 2 “Moonlight Sonata”

Piano Sonata in c-sharp minor, Op. 27 No. 2 “Moonlight Sonata”

Dedicated to Countess Julie Guicciardi

Composed: 1800-1801

Movement 1: Adagio Sostenuto

Form: Quasi Sonata form, but without the internal tension or contrasts between sections: it is more of an improvisation style with the harmonic scheme for Sonata form

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The Moonlight Sonata is perhaps the most famous classical piece ever composed, and deservedly so. The first movement has an immense emotional power, lyrical subtlety and a dreamy, yet tragic atmosphere.

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It is amazing how this movement can feels so universal and personal at the same time. There is a hypnotic feeling which certainly is there. But there are moments when that gives away to more declamatory parts, as if someone is telling the world about his pain:

[audio
https://beethovensonatas.files.wordpress.com/2011/11/bloggmoonlight1a.mp3|righticon=0xff0000%5D

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Some pianists don’t like the name of this sonata. According to them, the name “Moonlight” is too “romantic” and does not imply that it is tragic. Firstly, I cannot understand why the name is so important. Secondly, to focus only on the funeral march rhythm is way too one-dimensional. One should bring the two dimensions of tragedy and dreaminess ( watch video above) at the same time into this piece, in my opinion.

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On Playing the Moonlight Sonata

This movement bring some controversy in terms of execution. Something that is much discussed is the pedalling, since Beethoven wrote down the following instructions for the pianist:
“Si deve suonare tutto questo pezzo delicatissimamente e senza sordino”.
In English that would be “One must play this whole piece very delicately and without dampers.”. “Without dampers” means with the right pedal, the one that releases the dampers from the strings so that the tone continues to sound even if we lift up the keys.

The most common view is that Beethoven meant the whole first movement to be played through without a single pedal change. Now, that would sound pretty messy on a modern piano, but the argument goes that the instruments in the days of Beethoven did not have the same sustained, long tone ringing and therefore it was possible to play the whole piece “without dampers”.

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I wonder how many people making that argument has actually played a functioning piano of high quality from that era? I played on a wonderful fortepiano made by Richard Hester, who is a maker of historical pianos. He uses the old pianofortes as sources to design the pianos: therefore, they have the same qualities but without the negative effects of 200 years of age.

I was quite surprised as I discovered that those pianos sound much more than I expected. Also, the dampers works really well. All in all, the difference is not as huge as one might believe. And think about it: only 30 years after this sonata was written, Chopin wrote down extremely exact pedal markings, bar by bar, for his Piano Concertos.

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So, what could Beethoven have meant when he wrote that the whole piece should be played without dampers? Well, I think it means that the dampers should be used all throughout the piece but not without changing pedal, or “cleaning” the sound. In my opinion, Beethoven wanted the harmonies to goo smoothly into each other, creating a feeling of “space” in sound. I think that “sound-space” (think of a tunnel, where it is hard to define exactly where any sound is coming from, but it feels like it is present everywhere) was something Beethoven was very much into, as opposed to the dry, exact sound coming out of harpsichords. And that effect is exactly what you create playing with pedal. It should ever present, and one should not be afraid of harmonies melting into each other a bit, and some harmonies should resonate with long pedals as in this part, for example:

[audio
https://beethovensonatas.files.wordpress.com/2011/11/bloggmoonlight1b.mp3|righticon=0xff0000%5D

But, to start from a dogmatic point of view that there should be one single pedal seem to me more about “being right” than to be about the music.

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Another difficulty when playing this movement is to find a tempo that works. Beethoven has marked Alla breve to keep it from being to slow, but on the other hand it is an Adagio sostenuto, NOT an Andante. In general, it is played too slowly, but I think I prefer that to it being played too fast. It is certainly very difficult to find a goodtempo, few pieces have such a delicate balance between too slow, too fast, and “just right”, meaning that you find a tempo that creates a feeling all you are doing with the music makes perfect sense.

The only advice here is the one I follow myself, and it may or may not work for you: play it in the tempo you feel really comfortable with. And then speed it up about 10%, so that you feel like you are just a tad faster than you would like to be. Again, that is a very personal way…

7 thoughts on “Op. 27 No. 2 “Moonlight Sonata”

  1. Per, I thought that people like you existed only in the movies, and I am not being sarcastic. In order to be able to communicate with you directly, I would have to open Facebook account, that is not going to happen, not in this lifetime. I hate anything associated with NWO, and I am not conspiracy theorist. They do exist!!! We can communicate this way. I don’t care if other people read this. I’ll give you a brief account on how I discover you. Today, I was talking to a friend, he is a pianist like you, about music, piano music in particular. I mentioned the movie “Man Who Wasn’t There”, by Coen brothers, piano audition scene. By the way, that movie is one of my favorites of all time. My friend was not aware of the movie, so I said, when I get home I’ll send you the link to that scene. After I googled necessary information about the movie, your page popped up. My first impression was, what a page, great quality, who did this. I even left the comment, which I don’t do easily. Amazing! By the way, I am an amateur musician, classical guitar. About, 6 month ago, I finished reading/memorizing 1st movement of the “Moonlight Sonata”, Adagio sostenuto, transcription for guitar by P. Isakov (I think russian). Not an easy piece. You have fantastic webpages, site. I don’t have much time to go through all of it, at the moment, too busy. I’ll do that asap, when I have more time.

    Sincerely, Respectfully,
    roccoprch1
    Professor, Philosopher, Artist, active Ron Paul supporter/volunteer

  2. Great blog, I found this so interesting, and I completely concur with you about the pedaling in this piece as well as the tempo. I never tire of hearing this piece and although I have only read through it, I am so moved whether playing it or listening. Many thanks for sharing ! I look forward to reading more !
    Jamila

  3. Interesting thing, this with speeding up about 10 % … I guess I play it far too slow, but I enjoy it like that. More painful, in the passionate sense, which I like. But I will try a faster tempo as well. One thing I like very much with the Moonlight sonata (1st movement, I cannot play the others …) is that it is a different feeling almost every time I play it. You never know what you gonna get this time, as Forrest Gump would have put it.

  4. I am curious as to your interpretation of the right-hand figure, the melody, that enters in mm. 5-6. It is obviously a dotted 8th, 16th note figure. I hear most people play this as if it’s part of the triplet (or sextuplet) that occurs in the inner voice, the initial and last attack of the sextuplet. However, if it were to be played as written, we would hear the 16th note strike much more immediately after the last note of the inner-voice triplet, for a dramatically different rhythm than most of us are used to.

    Ashkenazy sort of does this (here: http://youtu.be/YmVCcF42f-0) but he also hesitates before the downbeat, so it’s difficult to say exactly what poetic license he’s taking. I’ve heard the placement of this 16th note vary from performance to performance.

    Any thoughts?

    1. It’s an excellent question, and I have to admit that it’s one that I ask myself almost every time I play the piece, and I haven’t come up with an answer that I feel 100% comfortable with yet. On one hand, there are many notations like this in baroque music (in Bach there are quite a few examples where there are triplets in one hand and dotted rhythm in the other), where one assumes that they should “synchronized”. But on the other hand, there is a strong musical argument to not make the right hand rhythm have a clear binary, march-like character.

      I will actually adjust this blogpost and add some text about this, since it’s really important. I have some sound examples that could help too.

  5. Fascinating..thank you. One thing that I’ve always felt on this debate of continuous sustained pedal through out the piece – one must ask one’s self the question – “How does it sound?”. Those that insist on playing it this way would probably reply – “Terrible, but that’s the way Beethoven wanted it to be played, that is, without dampers”. Do we really think Beethoven, a man with the most amazing gift for music, just the 32 Piano Sonatas are an Odyssey of wonderful endless music and learning, would want us to play one of his most amazing pieces so that it would sound terrible to the ear? In my humble opinion – No.
    Quite obviously, something has changed along the way. Lost in translation through time perhaps?

  6. Sorry that this may be off topic, but I am wondering if you have any tips on playing the 3rd movement.
    I am listening to Kempff wondering if he is doing
    Tonal balancing. Also, any pointers regarding
    The relative volume of left hand tremolo seems to weave in and out. Thanks so much!
    Laurie

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