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Piano Sonata No. 14 in C-sharp Minor – Moonlight Sonata

Thanks to the first of its three movements, Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata became an instant hit in Vienna’s drawing rooms. But, its runaway success actually irritated him. He said to one of his pupils, Carl Czerny, “Everybody is always talking about the C-sharp minor sonata. Surely I’ve written better things. Why does everybody play it?”

Beethoven did not bestow the sobriquet Moonlight on this piece. That misleading nickname was attached to it five years after Beethoven’s death by Ludwig Rellstab, a German music critic. Rellstab said that the opening movement reminded him of “Moonlight shining on Lake Lucerne,” one of the loveliest mountain lakes in Switzerland. Never has a title been more misleading. Beethoven called his work a Sonata in The Nature of a Fantasy. The work has nothing to do with romantic notions of moonlight illuminating an intimate rendezvous in a picturesque setting. The first movement has painful funereal qualities marked by despair. He wrote it in 1801 during the time when he was confronting the dreadful consequences of the disintegration of his hearing. We know from a letter he wrote in 1802, the Heiligenstedt Testament, that he was contemplating suicide at the time. Moreover, he had proposed marriage to his 16-year-old pupil Countess Giulietta Guicciardi, to whom he dedicated this composition, but her parents nixed his plans. It was a dark time for the Titan, and it shows in his music. Franz Liszt described the second movement as “a flower between two chasms.” Notice the clever syncopated rhythms he uses when repeating his main theme. Nobody does delicious syncopations like Ludwig.

The finale is anger pure and simple. The stormy ferocity of this music is breathtaking. One powerful crescendo from soft to over-the-top loud follows another, like waves crashing against a cliff. To play this daunting piece leaves the pianist exhausted, both physically and emotionally. During its premiere, Beethoven pounded on the keyboard with such intensity that several of the strings snapped.

One gets the sense that there is a loose personal narrative behind this extraordinary sonata. He wrote it for himself, not on commission for someone else. It begins with pain and concludes with Beethoven venting his frustration and rage over his situation. If there were any doubt of his use of the piano as an outlet for his emotions, this piece ends the debate.

Written by the Honorable Stephe S. Trott