Listening to Beethoven #169 – Piano Sonata no.14 in C sharp minor Op.27/2 ‘Sonata Quasi una fantasia’ (‘Moonlight’)

Seascape by Moonlight) by Caspar David Friedrich (c1835)

Piano Sonata no.14 in C sharp minor Op.27/2 ‘Quasi una fantasia’ (‘Moonlight’) for piano (1801, Beethoven aged 30)

1. Adagio sostenuto
2. Allegretto
3. Presto agitato

Dedication Countess Giulietta Guicciardi
Duration 16′

Listen

written by Ben Hogwood

Background and Critical Reception

And so we reach one of the most famous pieces in classical music. The second of Beethoven’s Op.27 sonatas, the Moonlight is the second piece to be published with the qualifying title of Sonata quasi una fantasia, reminding us of Beethoven’s intention to move away from the conventional sonata form.

He did not provide the Moonlight nickname, which was suggested by poet and critic Ludwig Rellstab. For him the first movement represented ‘a boat, visiting, by moonlight, the primitive landscapes of Lake Lucerne’. The dedication, to Countess Giulietta Guicciardi, has prompted much speculation – but although Beethoven was in love with her at the time, the dedication, as Angela Hewitt writes, was ‘an afterthought when another piece he had dedicated to her had to be given to somebody else’.

Critics and musicologists note the power of Beethoven’s writing, from the restraint of the first movement to the turbulent storm of the finale. In between these two lies a balletic central movement set in the major key, described by Liszt as ‘a flower between two abysses’. When it comes to the famous opening movement, Hewitt writes about the importance of refreshing the sustain pedal with each bass note on a modern piano, to avoid clouding the harmonies. On an older instrument this would not be necessary, but ‘the most important thing’, she says, ‘is to capture a magical mood’. But then, ‘all hell breaks loose in the final Presto agitato’.

It was not long before Beethoven was tiring of the airtime his most famous piece was getting. ‘People are always talking about the C sharp minor Sonata’, he said. ‘Really, I have written better things!’

Thoughts

What is there left to say about the Moonlight sonata that hasn’t been said already? It is surely one of the most written-about pieces in musical history, and certainly one of the most famous piano pieces there is – made all the more accessible because the relative beginner can play its most famous theme.

Yet the Moonlight sonata is a vital cog in the 32-strong output of Beethoven’s published piano sonatas. It is another step away from the classical tradition towards a free and much more emotive approach, and it could even be said to contain the first notes of the so-called ‘Romantic’ period in classical music.

It is Beethoven’s first published piece in C sharp minor, a key Mozart did not use for a single published work, and Haydn very little. That is perhaps part of why the music sounds so striking from the start, when the bare arpeggios set the nocturnal scene. No matter how slowly this passage is played it is laden with feeling, and the enchanted atmosphere only deepens as the music progresses.

The second movement is a beautiful contrast, a poised and relatively carefree dance with an attractive lilt. It is the light to the first movement’s shade and points towards something more positive…until we arrive at the gates of the last movement. What an incredible passage of music this is, especially in concert, where you get to witness the pianists’ arms whirring up and down the keyboard as the whirlwind arpeggios take effect. With the suddenly loud interjections from the first movement it must have had an alarming impact on its first audience, by far the most dramatic sonata they had seen. The enchantment of the first movement had been swapped for something altogether more terrifying.

How remarkable that Beethoven could write such music as part of a piano sonata, scaling emotions and technical feats that were out of bounds. Yet it all works within those confines, with music of great tension and drama that is somehow wrapped up in 15 minutes. The composer has scaled new heights.

Recordings used and Spotify links

Emil Gilels (Deutsche Grammophon)
Alfred Brendel (Philips)
András Schiff (ECM)
Angela Hewitt (Hyperion)
Paul Badura-Skoda (Arcana)
Stephen Kovacevich (EMI)
Igor Levit (Sony Classical)
Claudio Arrau (Philips)
Rudolf Serkin (Sony)

Paul Badura-Skoda is very subdued in the first movement but gets the level of sustain just right, helped by his 1790 Viennese instrument. The second movement is a bit laboured, but the third tears along. Sir András Schiff, playing a dfgd, is a full 100 seconds quicker than Emil Gilels in the first movement, a little rushed for some tastes – while Gilels creates an atmosphere where the listener hangs on every note.

Angela Hewitt finds a really nice turn of phrase in the second movement, with a balletic poise, while interpretations of the third movement range from a race to the finish to a stark evocation of terror. Both Hewitt and Schiff are terrific with the dynamic contrasts.

You can hear clips of Hewitt’s recording at the Hyperion website

You can chart the Arcana Beethoven playlist as it grows, with one recommended version of each piece we listen to. Catch up here!

Also written in 1801 Field Piano Sonata in C minor Op.1/3

Next up Piano Sonata no.15 in D major Op.28 ‘Pastoral’

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