Beethoven Piano Sonata Op 27 No.2 ‘Moonlight’

Op 27 No.2 ‘Moonlight’
Adagio sostenuto
Allegretto
Presto

Like the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, the first movement of the Moonlight sonata has become a victim of its own popularity. The piece has been transcribed for all manner of instruments and there is hardly an amateur pianist who has not given it a try at least once. It was wildly popular in Beethoven’s day as well, to the point of exasperating the composer enough to write, “Surely I’ve written better things.”

Beethoven’s assertion did not stop other composers from heaping on the superlatives. Berlioz once wrote that the first movement “is one of those poems that human language does not know how to qualify.” It is heard so often that it has become almost cliché and it is difficult to listen to it with fresh ears. But as with all things cliché, the piece became that way for a reason. If it is possible to force all the advertising images and twee elevator music incarnations out of one’s head and begin fresh, it would be difficult not to be mesmerised by the beauty and power of this sonata.

There some rather ironic elements to this piece and the first is the opening movement. It is championed as the paragon of romanticism and beauty and yet it does not contain a single theme that can be sung in the shower. There is also virtually no dynamic change. Any melody is an incidental byproduct of the harmonic progression because it is the changing harmony in the left-hand triplets that creates and releases tension. JS Bach’s C major Prelude from the Well Tempered Clavier Book I is constructed in the same way.

The short second movement is essentially a connector between the opening adagio and the dramatic presto finale. American pianist and author Charles Rosen describes the last movement as “most unbridled in its representation of emotion” and goes to say that, “even two hundred years later, its ferocity is astonishing.”

The Presto represents another one of the great ironies of ‘Moonlight’ in that it is quite difficult to play. The opening movement is relatively easy for an amateur pianist of Grade 4 or 5 standard while the last movement is technically very demanding and is a challenge even for professional players. A flurry of dominant seventh arpeggios and solid, fortissimo cadential resolutions bring the piece to a close in a characteristically Beethovenian way and leave the listener about as far away from the opening adagio as possible.

3 comments

  1. Miss Mussel
    Author

    Hello Stephen. Thanks for your kind words. I didn’t have a score available when I was writing up these notes, so I had to guess on the hands. Now that the IMSLP is up and running again, I’ll pop over and have a look.

    No book plans are in the works, as I am certain there are other people who have devoted a lifetime to studying these works that have a lot more interesting things to say on the matter.

    Like this guy, for instance

    • Tom

      In what way is op. 27 no. 1 overshadowed by no. 2 aside from popularity? To me it is one of the greatest pieces in the entire piano repertoire.

      • Miss Mussel
        Author

        Apologies for waiting so long to reply to your comment. I was meaning only in popularity — there is no denying that. Whether the popularity discrepancy is justified or not is an entirely different kettle of fish and something music lovers of all stripes love to debate when it comes to their favourites. In this instance I have no opinion either way but when it comes to Biber’s Mystery Sonatas I’m as an enthusiastic an evangelist as anyone.

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