Op 27 No.2 ‘Moonlight’
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.