December 2009

Piano Sonata No. 14 in C# Minor "Moonlight"

First Movement - Adagio sostenuto

by Ludwig van Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven (pronounced LOOD-vig van BAY-toh-ven) was born in Bonn, Germany in 1770. Beethoven has written many, many pieces of music. He is most well-known for his symphonies and piano works. His career as a composer was particularly remarkable, as he continued to compose and conduct music after he had gone completely deaf. He is considered by many to be one of the greatest composers of all time.

He wrote a collection of 32 piano sonatas. Piano Sonata No. 14 is one of the most well known. It was written in 1801. It was rumored to be written as a dedication to a pupil of his, Countess Giulietta Guicciardi. In the original title, Beethoven included the phrase Quasi una fantasia, which is Italian for "almost a fantasy".

This piece is most well-known as "The Moonlight Sonata". This was not a name given by Beethoven. It was actually derived from a music critic's review in 1832. The critic was named Ludwig Rellstab, and he stated that the first movement was like moonlight shining on Lake Lucerne.

A sonata usually has three or four parts to them, called movements. In a three-movement sonata, you usually have a fast first movement, a slow second movement, and a fast third movement. Beethoven deliberately defied this structure. In the "Moonlight", the first movement is very slow, the second movement is a little livelier, and the last movement is very fast.

The first movement is marked Adagio sostenuto. "Adagio" (pronounced ah-DAJ-ee-oh) is Italian for "at ease". It means that the music should be played slowly. The word "sostenuto" is Italian for "sustained". It means that the piece should be played with the notes connecting to one another, sustained throughout.

This is a particularly tricky piece to play. If you listen carefully, there are actually three voices. There's a bass, played by the left hand. There's a harp-like triplet pattern played by most of the fingers of the right hand. And finally, there's the main melody, mostly played by the pinky of the right hand. This is a challenge because the thumb, first finger, and middle finger typically provide the most power. The pinky is the weakest. So when you play this, you have to deliberately subdue your first three fingers, and try to over-emphasize the pinky.

Jon's Introduction to This Piece:

I don't know when I first heard this piece, but I do remember falling in love with it when I was about 8 years old. We had a record of the "Moonlight", "Pathetique", and "Appassionata" Sonatas. I'm not certain who the performer was. I've always assumed it was Vladimir Horowitz, a popular concert pianist.

Although I could barely play the piano, I had begged my mother to teach me how to play the first movement to the "Moonlight" Sonata. When I was 10, my mother taught me the first four measures. I can remember driving my brothers and sisters nuts, because the fourth measure is a bad place to stop. It leads right into the fifth measure, but I hadn't learned that part yet.

I couldn't really read piano music very well, so my mother would teach me, and I would memorize what I had learned. She worked with me for about a year, and we got about half-way through the movement. Life got busy, and my training fell by the wayside for a while. When I was 12, I decided that I could read music well enough on my own that I could teach myself the rest, and I did. I can still play the entire movement from memory today.

As I mentioned, I think the recording I heard of this piece was played by Vladimir Horowitz. Before I left on my mission, I purchased my own recording of this piece performed by Rudolf Serkin. Today, I have a recording of Horowitz and a recording of Serkin, and, for the most part, I like the Serkin recording better. That's the one you'll be hearing.


And here it is. The first movement is six and a half minutes long, and it's very quiet (so turn up your speakers). This may be a difficult one for small children to sit through (or it might just put them to sleep).

Piano Sonata No. 14 in C# minor, First Movement - Adagio sostenuto by Ludwig van Beethoven (6:30)

For those interested, this recording features Rudolf Serkin at the piano. It was taken from a recording he did of three Beethoven sonatas: "Moonlight", "Pathetique", and "Appasionata".

Jon's Interpretation:

For me, there is really nothing more peaceful and beautiful than the Moonlight Sonata. I can vividly remember turning on our record of this and lying down on the floor next to the stereo with my eyes closed, listening.

The first movement is certainly peaceful, but it also sounds a little sad. This is what you would expect to hear in a piece with a minor key. But it's not a deep sadness. It's more of a quiet loneliness, and it's more like you're meditating about a sad memory, in a peaceful way.

Some don't find it quite as engaging. The great comic pianist Victor Borge would do a routine where he would start playing the first movement of the Moonlight Sonata, and then fall asleep at the piano only a few measures into it.

For me, though, this piece will always have a special place in my heart. There are a lot of nice memories attached to it as well. When I was about 14, I can remember playing the piano one night. My brother Jay was practicing some sketches with a pen and drawing pad. He asked me to play something, and he would sketch to my playing. I played the Moonlight Sonata. He sketched a scene of two swans on a lake with the moon overhead reflecting on the water. In fact, as a special treat, I've tracked down that very sketch. And Jay, thank you very much for scanning this for me.

Extra Credit:

For those interested, I actually found a copy of a first edition sheet music of this piece (all three movements). I was fascinated by it, and thought you might be, too. Feel free to follow along while listening.

First Edition Sheet Music to the "Moonlight" Sonata by Ludwig van Beethoven

Now, we only listened to the first movement. For your extra credit enjoyment, here are the second and third movements. The third movement is particularly energetic, complex, and almost angry-sounding. Enjoy!

Piano Sonata No. 14 in C# minor, Second Movement - Allegretto by Ludwig van Beethoven (2:18)

Piano Sonata No. 14 in C# minor, Third Movement - Presto agitato by Ludwig van Beethoven (7:01)