Piano Sonata in c-sharp minor, Op. 27 No. 2 “Moonlight Sonata”
Dedicated to Countess Julie Guicciardi
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
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.
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:
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.
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”.
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.
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:
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.
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…