The Piano Sonata No. 14 in C# Minor is one of Ludwig van Beethoven’s most famous compositions, and arguably his single most well-known work for piano (Fur Elise notwithstanding). Indeed, it is probably one of the most famous solo piano pieces ever composed – if not the most famous.
In 1832, five years after Beethoven’s death, a German music critic named Ludwig Rellstab published the sentiment that the sonata’s first movement reminded him of the reflection of moonlight in Lake Lucerne. Since then, it has been commonly known as the “Moonlight Sonata.”
Beethoven published the Moonlight Sonata in 1802, a year that fell nearly on the cusp of the Romantic period. At the time, Beethoven was thirty-two years old and already suffering from hearing loss. But at this stage in his life, his growing deafness did not hinder his daily functioning and was not yet known or noticeable to the public.
In many ways, the Moonlight Sonata both adheres to the expectations of the Classical era and also features many less-conventional expressions that eventually characterized the Romantic era. The first (slow) movement, which inspired Rellstab’s epithet “Moonlight”, is a perennially popular yet surprisingly challenging piece for skilled pianists.
The Moonlight is one of the few of Beethoven’s works that he wrote as an established composer that had not been commissioned by someone else. A couple of years before he started working on the piece, he began teaching two sisters, Therese and Josephine Brunsvik. He had been teaching the girls for about a year when their cousin, Giulietta Guicciardi, moved to Vienna with her family and sought Beethoven out as a piano instructor. Beethoven became infatuated with Guicciardi, and after he composed the Moonlight, dedicated it to her. Beethoven eventually proposed marriage, but Guicciardi’s parents would not allow the two to marry because of Beethoven’s low-class social status, inconsistent employment and temperamental nature. He published the sonata in 1802 after the relationship ended, and Guicciardi married the composer Wenzel Robert Gallenburg, who was deemed more successful and stable by her parents, in 1803.
Beethoven published his sonata under the Italian name “Sonata quasi una Fantasia,” which translates to “sonata in the manner of a fantasy.” Beethoven did not publicly perform his now-famous sonata during his lifetime, playing it only in private settings for select groups of people. This was not uncommon at the time. In fact, Beethoven played only one of his sonatas at a large public concert during his life because sonatas were considered to be intimate works that were inappropriate for large-scale performances. Nevertheless, Beethoven’s unconventional piece (as explained below) was very positively received; so much so that he once reportedly remarked to composer Carl Czerny that “they are always talking about the C-sharp minor sonata. Surely I have written better things.”
Most people are familiar with the first movement of the sonata. However, it is the form of the overall, three-movement sonata that contributed to the work’s reputation as a unique and rule-breaking composition. Most classical sonatas followed a pattern of a fast first movement, second slow movement, and fast third movement. However, the first movement of the Moonlight is the slow one, the second movement somewhat faster, and the final movement furiously quick. (Had Beethoven not already established a respectable reputation for himself, his sonata may not have not been as well-received.)
Despite the differences in tempo, the first movement at least roughly adheres to sonata form, a staple of the classical style. Sonata form involves several distinct musical sections termed exposition, development, and recapitulation (and, occasionally, a coda).
In the first movement’s exposition we are immediately introduced to the iconic triplets (or three-note sets) that set the mood by establishing a recurring, brooding aesthetic. The initial theme (melody) is quite limited in range and interest, bringing more attention to the harmony. The development takes the music into fresh harmonic and profoundly emotional territory. The recapitulation returns to the content of the exposition, with slight differences meant to prepare the listener for the end. The first movement includes a coda that recalls ideas from the previous sections to establish closure.
Although the first movement of the Moonlight is by no means considered one of Beethoven’s most technically difficult, it is nonetheless challenging because of the emotionally demanding nature of the music. In order to communicate the hauntingly beautiful mood for which the sonata is justly famous, an adequate performance must establish a balance between animated dynamic and subtle rhythmic expression.
Listening to several acclaimed recordings of the Moonlight Sonata is an effective way to collect ideas and inspiration for how you, as a creative pianist, might approach your own unique interpretation of Beethoven’s masterpiece.