Work: Moonlight Sonata
About This Work
Beethoven billed each of the two works published under Op. 27 as a "sonata quasi una fantasia," presumably a hint that he was trying to meld the formal conventions of the eighteenth century sonata with a newer, freer, more Romantic style.
Many musicians consider the first of this pair, the Piano Sonata No. 13 in E flat major (1800-1801), to be the superior work, but the Piano Sonata No. 14 in C sharp minor (1801) is by far more popular; in fact, it is one of Beethoven's most beloved works, and its first movement takes a place among the most widely and instantly recognizable music the composer ever penned. The familiar appellation "Moonlight" is not the composer's own, but the invention of German music critic Ludwig Rellstab, who compared the first movement's rippling texture to the moonlight shimmering on Lake Lucerne.
The first movement is marked Adagio sostenuto, a virtual invitation to draw out the music to such an extent that the slight, probing melody becomes difficult to follow, leaving listeners to be hypnotized by the undulating arpeggios that serve as an introduction and then (theoretically) recede into accompaniment. The right tempo is key to the effectiveness of this movement. Played too fast, the music sounds mechanical; perhaps more frequently, though, it is played with with funereal slowness. A tempo between these extremes brings out the music's yearning character, particularly in the portion in which slow sighs rise and fall in the treble, with a weary echo in the bass.
The first movement is not really in sonata form; it essentially lays out thematic material -- a brooding opening, the "sighing" passage, and a regretful little hymn -- with some poignant modulations along the way, then repeats everything. The second movement, Allegretto, is a short, delicate interlude with a syncopated tune in the treble that is interrupted by slightly darker ruminations in the bass during the central section. The Presto transforms the first movement's contemplative arpeggios into a frantic, obsessive figure whose upward ripple that even infects the melody, investing the finale with a character that looks forward to the "Waldstein" Sonata. This movement, rather than the first, is the one that assumes a sonata allegro form, though Beethoven breaks with tradition by making all the thematic units equally agitated. If the Adagio was a reflection of private, inner thought, the Presto is high public drama, an unexpected and effective contrast to the sonata's intimate beginning.
-- James Reel, All Music Guide
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