“More concentrated, more energetic, more warmly and tenderly emotional I’ve never seen an artist.” The great US pianist Alfred Brendel quoted Johann Wolfgang von Goethe when asked what is so unique about Ludwig van Beethoven’s music. He said this to the New York Times in 1994 while he was recording all of Beethoven’s piano sonatas. The “Moonlight Sonata”, that is Piano Sonata No. 14 in C sharp minor, Op. 27 No. 2, has all the attributes that Goethe and Brendel spoke about. It is dense and still emotional, stirring and still warm.
Beethoven by Brendel
Piano Sonata No. 14, played by Brendel, begins very slowly, you barely hear that piano at the beginning of the first movement, and incrementally it gets louder, like if you would hear the piece first from afar and then close in on the pianist. The melody is soft, friendly, full of compassion and tenderness – the beams of a benevolent moon bathing the earth while humans sleep their peaceful sleep? Beethoven never saw it that way. The German musicologist Walter Werbeck speaks of a musical monologue, breaking the formal conventions that governed piano sonatas until then.
The name goes back to the music critic Ludwig Rellstab, who was deeply impressed by that adagio – like millions of listeners. He coined the title in 1823: “The lake rests in dawning moonlight […] an Eolian harp mysteriously laments about a longing lonely love.” Musicologists today tend to associate the first movement rather with a lamentation. Beethoven apparently improvised it while sitting at deathbed of a friend. The additional name “quasi una fantasia” would confirm this idea.
Between two countesses
The second movement, the scherzo, starts equally calm as far as the general mood is concerned, but has more dynamic elements. It is pretty short and its expressiveness leads directly from the slow first movement to the agitated third and final movement. It has elements of a tragedy that is to be overcome, but what tragedy Beethoven may have thought of is unknown. Was it his impossible love for the “immortal beloved one”, that we have met in the post about Beethoven’s “Diabelli Variations”?
The mystery around the identity of the “immortal beloved one” has not been resolved. Once the sonata became known to the public, a rumour circulated that the 16-year-old Countess Giulietta Guicciardi, to whom the sonata was dedicated, was that mysterious person. However that rumour served a specific purpose: It was meant to distract public attention from Beethoven’s close relationship with Countess Josephine von Deym, his student, also rumoured to be the “immortal beloved”.
A hidden testament
The “Moonlight Sonata” is one of the most popular piano works written by Beethoven. To his pupil Carl Czerny, he later complained: “People always speak about the sonata in C sharp minor; as a matter of fact I have written much better [pieces]”. He composed it in 1801, a difficult time. By then, he must have realized that he was gradually becoming deaf.
After his death a document, written in October 1802 and called the “Heiligenstadt Testament”, was found in which he reflected his mood at the time. I shall quote here from Oxford Music Online: “Its contents mark it as representing a trough of despondency in his fluctuating moods. His hearing had shown no improvement […], and he recognized that his infirmity might be permanent; he defended himself against the charge of misanthropy, and taking leave of his brothers declared that though he had now rejected the notion of suicide, he was ready for death whenever it might come.”
If the “Moonlight Sonata” is a lamentation, then Beethoven perhaps thought about his own death – as a composer. Enjoy it – tonight.
© Charles Thibo