The History of Moonlight Sonata

Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata

Western Classical music era, which was between 1730 and 1820, was characterized by a distinctive music style, with a touch of romance and an aesthetic attitude, despite the politics in that era. The most common form of music was the Sonata. Its structural pattern formed a basis for most classical instrumental music.

Ludwig Van Beethoven, a renowned German music composer, and pianist participated mainly in the widening of the Sonata, and he remains the most admired music genius of classical music. He composed many songs in different music categories in his musical pursuit – Symphony, Concerto, Sonata, quartet – with some, like the 'Moonlight' sonata, becoming very popular. So, what's the history of the famous 'Moonlight' sonata, and why was it so popular?

Beethoven statue

A Brief History of the ‘Moonlight’ Sonata

The ‘Sonata quasi una fantasia,’ now commonly known as the 'Moonlight Sonata', was Ludwig Van Beethoven's 14th piano sonata, Opus 27, Number 2. He wrote and published it in 1801-1802 during the Classical music era.

Beethoven wrote this masterpiece at a difficult time when his hearing had begun to deteriorate seriously. There were many speculations on the cause of his deafness, but many people thought that it could have been a consequence of his habitual plunging his head into cold water to remain awake. Beethoven had mastered almost every keynote despite his deafening ears and could make out most of what the music would sound like.

Beethoven dedicated the 'Moonlight' sonata to his 16-year old lover and student, Giulietta Guicciardi, whom he had fallen in love with at around that time. He proposed marriage to her, but her father forbade her from marrying him as he was without rank. Even though their love didn’t prosper, Giulietta admits that the Sonata always reminded her of Beethoven.

Beethoven composed the 'Moonlight' sonata like he would write other songs and gave it a pedestrian title that would describe a fantasy style. He didn't think that the piece would become as popular as it did. In this unpleasant surprise, he wrote to his friend expressing his disappointment. Part of the letter read, "Everybody is talking about the C-sharp Minor Sonata! Surely, I have written better things.”

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At this time, the music piece had not yet been nicknamed as the 'Moonlight' sonata, which came later after Beethoven's death, when the German music critic, Ludwig Rellstab, described its opening movements as similar to the moonlight’s flickering on the surface of Lake Lucerne. He is also reported to have described it as “a boat visiting, by moonlight, the primitive landscapes of Vierwaldstattersee in Switzerland.” Beethoven died in 1827, and 5 years later, in 1832, the nickname 'Moonlight' was adopted for his sonata.

For many other critics, the opening movement was not as Rellstab described it. It carried a sad atmosphere with a heartbroken mood and no romance in it. However, despite their contrary opinions, Rellstab’s description stood out and lived on to date. The fact that Beethoven dedicated the Moonlight sonata to his lover, proves the romantic nature of the song.

Beethoven's Sonata was different from other Sonata created in this era. Sonatas were lively. The first, second, and third movements followed a pattern where the first movement carried the theme and appeared to be the most lively; it toned down in the second movement and then finished off vivaciously in the third movement. The Ludwig Van Beethoven 'Moonlight' sonata has followed a different pattern but still remains a sonata.

Let’s look at the analysis of the movements of the Moonlight Sonata.

Moonlight Sonata Analysis

Beethoven’s Moonlight sonata had a contrast pattern from the known pattern for the sonata music form. The traditional layout for a sonata movement followed a fast-slow-fast-fast arrangement, such that the first movement would be fast, the second movement would be slow, and a little faster in the third movement.

This was not the case for the Moonlight Sonata. Its' first movement was slow, dreamy, and hypnotic, followed by a lively second movement and a fiery third movement.

First Movement – Adagio Sostenuto

Beethoven created the first movement in C-sharp minor, with a triplet figuration opening the right and an octave opening the left. The triplet pattern was unique to Beethoven, and he maintained it throughout the first movement, giving it a rolling back and forth feeling.

The melody adopted a slow tempo which exhibits brilliant harmonies that span from note to note, chord to chord. Many of Beethoven’s critics, like Hector Berlioz, said that this first movement sounded more like lamentation and not a romantic composition. His long-term student and friend, Carl Czerny, described it as “a nocturnal scene, in which a mournful ghostly voice sounds from the distance.”

This first movement impressed his audience and became overly popular; the popularity of the movement exasperated even Beethoven. He wasn’t too happy with that as he thought some of his earlier compositions were much better than this one.

In its technical composition, the exposition carries the first subject (mm. 1-5) and the second subject (mm. 15-23), which are relatively short compared to the structure of a regular sonata. The development section, which is expected to carry the theme in a sonata, remains really short (mm. 23-42), almost like a bridge.

Instead, he brings out the theme again in the recapitulation section, with the first theme (mm. 42-46) and the second theme (mm. 51-60) having different keys. He then ends the movement with the coda (mm. 60-65).

piano keys

Second Movement – Allegreto

He wrote this movement in the calm D-flat major key with a handful of forte-pianos and sforzandos to give the movement a lively feel. A German organist, Franz Liszt, perfectly described this movement as “a flower between two chasms.” His words describe the cheerful nature of this second movement, which contrasts with the slow first movement.

The technical creation of the Allegretto is a little unusual as Beethoven chooses to write both the minuetto and the trio part in the same key (D-flat major). In other regular sonatas, composers often switch keys for the minuetto and the trio parts to light it up, but Beethoven chose to keep it simple.

It's interesting how he chooses to write the second movement in D-flat major while he wrote the first and third movements in C-sharp minor. It feels like he’s taking a rest in preparation for a bang in the third movement.

Third Movement – Presto Agitato

This third movement carries the greater weight of all three movements. Beethoven wrote it in C-sharp minor, with many fast broken chords and accented notes and the fast Alberti bass sequences that are heard all over the song, from right to left. One would need to be skillful, lively, and with incredible stamina to meet the movement's technical demand to perform this movement.

If you analyze its technical composition, you'll realize that it has the exposition, development, recapitulation, and coda sections, just like the first movement. The exposition (mm. 1-65) is mainly quiet with instances of loud accents. The development (mm. 66-102) and the recapitulation (mm. 103-158) carry the well-chosen heavy accents and then end with the coda from mm. 158. 

Why Was The Moonlight Sonata So Popular?

The first movement of the Moonlight sonata was more popular than the other two movements. Probably because of the style of creation and the atmosphere it brought. While this could be true, it's difficult to tell whether the listeners were triggered by the music itself or how Beethoven distorted the whole sonata pattern and created a unique piece.

Beethoven had designed this composition to be like a fantasy, just like he described it in the title. That's why he used contrasting textures that listeners would easily pick up on. The theme-filled first movement allowed the audience to grasp the theme of the Sonata and could easily flow with it.

The popularity of the Moonlight sonata peaked after the nickname ‘Moonlight’ was invented. The handle easily creates imagery in people's thoughts and associates the song with the beautiful moonlight shining over the vast waters, which is a great starting point for a song.

It's also possible to associate the song's popularity with Beethoven's deafness, as people wondered how he could create such a masterpiece without proper hearing. Even though the deafness was at its early stages, the progression was pretty fast as he's reported to break several pianos trying to make out the sound of the keys.

The Moonlight sonata is popular to date, having been played in several non-classical pieces over time. Some of the popular appearances are:

Take Away

The Moonlight Sonata continues to experience changes and modifications to fit into the modern contemporary forms of creating music. So far, guitar arrangements seem to be successful, thanks to the guitar’s ability for easy arpeggiation and melody accompaniments. Others like the Marimba and Carillon are doing pretty well in creating the moonlight sonata atmosphere. A new trend that also appears to be successful is the Classical Mash-ups as they tend to build a bridge between the pop world and the classical era.

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