On Ludwig van Beethoven’s „Moonlight Sonata“

Name a tune you want to listen to again and again, because it goes straight to the heart. Millions on the internet click “Moonlight Sonata” in response to this call. At the same time, both the title and the history of this work have long been subjects of debate. The fact is that Beethoven reversed the conventional sequence of the first and the second movement, thus breaking with the classical sonata form, which may explain this word choice of “fantasy” in the original title. Based on this idea, 69 artists from 26 countries got together at the occasion of Beethoven’s 250th birthday and – with boundless sensitivity – interpreted the “Moonlight Sonata” in visual terms. Was it not the image of a landscape, after all, that led to the work’s famous epithet?

Sonata in the Manner of a Fantasy

In spite of its overall musical perfection, it is usually the first movement of the world famous “Moonlight Sonata” that magically attracts people. Beethoven called his three-part work a “Sonata quasi una Fantasia”, and famously remarked about his Piano Sonata No. 14 in C-sharp minor, Op. 27, No. 2: “Surely, I’ve written better things.” Taking liberties on the classical sonata form, and displaying new emotional depths, the work is seen as a significant precursor of Romantic music. The dreamy Adagio in the first movement has been engraved in many people’s memory. The familiar sound of the tune is wont to suddenly appear from the depth of our mind, while we may be looking at the moon and, possibly inspired by Caspar David Friedrich’s paintings, lose ourselves in the magic of the scenery. When the poet Ludwig Rellstab listened to it, he felt reminded of a nocturnal boat trip, making him coin the name “Moonlight Sonata” in 1823. Franz Liszt likened its short second movement to “a flower between two abysses”. In the third movement, finally, the music storms towards a merciless, desperate finale.

Beethoven wrote the „Moonlight Sonata“ in 1801, probably in the gardener’s cottage at Unterkrupka Castle in what is now Slowakia. This is the reason the work originally became known as the “Summer House Sonata”. While staying at the cottage, the nature-loving composer’s heart may well have felt captivated by the aesthetic dimension of the nocturnal visual stimuli surrounding him. Like a landscape or a moonlight sketch, the tonal sensitivity of the “Moonlight Sonata” allows a mood of nature to speak for itself. Similarly, the truth of a painting lies not so much in the superficial depiction of a phenomenon, as in the abstracting force of its spiritual message. The surrealist painter Max Ernst, for example, a great admirer of Caspar David Friedrich, gifted a painting of the moon to his wife Dorothea Tanning for her birthday every year, as a declaration of his love for her.

The history of the Sonata resembles a jigsaw puzzle. On the one hand, it seems to convey the effective course of light in a dramatically beautiful cloudy sky, and a close observation of atmospheric components, on the other, it is remindful of a dark monochromaticity. At the same time, the vibrato of its energetic musical notation captures the ephemeral nature of a rapidly changing mood. Between 1800 and 1806, Beethoven did not only spend time in Unterkrupka, but also frequently stayed at the Brunsvik family’s Hungarian castle Martonvásár. Both castles are surrounded by spacious parks landscaped in the style of English gardens. Here, Beethoven was able to leave behind his busy life in Vienna, and relax. Presumably, this was the time he met the love of his life, but it was also the time he first realized that he was losing his hearing. In 1802, he wrote the famous „Heiligenstadt Testament“.

The gloomy aspect of the Sonata, however, tends to be perceived mostly by musical virtuosos, owed to their perceptive depth. Beethoven was interested in philosophy and literature, while struggling with politics. As he was beginning to feel the effects of his deafness, thoughts about death cannot be ruled out while he was composing the Sonata. Helplessly, he had to stand by and endure no longer being able to listen to his own music, or the sound of birdsong that he loved so much. Passionately, he went for walks and observed the scenery, while rejoicing in the voices of nature. His creativity was also reflected in his interest for exotic instruments. While composing the Sonata, he was especially interested in the aeolian harp. And indeed, the inner harmony of the adagio resembles the sound of a harp, the distant whisper of the wind, or a muted murmur, while the bright trilling outer voice sets the tempo. Beethoven indicated to play the tune with extreme tenderness. The particular appeal of the aeolian harp is that it can transform the sounds of nature into a kind of vocal canon, which may have inspired the melancholy part of the “Moonlight Sonata” and, together with its light piano chords, may embody the moon rising from the darkness.

It is hardly surprising that the „Moonlight Sonata“ was already popular during Beethoven‘s lifetime. The moon is as old as the earth, and female in many languages. It was not its physical existence, however, but the picturesque appeal of its appearance, and the eruptive power of the full moon that, in a sense, were reflected in Beethoven’s personality. In Shakespeare’s “Othello”, the moon kills and drives people mad. Yet lovers of all times have succumbed to its magic. In the year after it was written, Beethoven dedicated the Sonata to his then 20-year-old piano student, the Countess Julie Guicciardi. But had he really written it for her? There was also Josephine, another woman whom, due to the misguided social constraints of his time, Beethoven could not have. As a trusted sister and free-spirited educator, Therese later found the perfect words to describe their situation: “They were made for each other, and if both of them were still alive, they would surely get together.” In 1812, Beethoven wrote the famous letter to his “Immortal Beloved”. From 1804 to 1811 he had written love letters to Josephine and pledged to be forever faithful to her.

Beethoven’s life was marked by the drama of unattainable love. As a commoner permanently moving in aristocratic circles, none of the women he met were viable partners for him, although a loving woman would have been a blessing for the composer as his hearing progressively deteriorated. Even many culturally educated people cannot fathom how time consuming and strenuous it is to create spiritual and artistic work. Beethoven kept revising his compositions in an almost pedantic manner over and over again, turning them into masterpieces. Furthermore, all his life, he loved from the bottom of his heart: music, nature, humanist literature and poetry, his piano students and his nephew – with great dedication – as well as his brothers he had taken care of from an early age. Despite all the tragedy in his life, his tender and sincere love was clearly an expression of his caring and diligent nature, as well as the force he eulogized with the words: “Joy, beautiful spark of divinity.”

„Music is the mediator between the spiritual and the sensual life.”

Ludwig van Beethoven

In a way, listening to the sonata resembles looking at a landscape painting by Caspar David Friedrich or William Turner, and losing oneself in the rapt observation of the distant satellite. The editor of this art-inspired almanac has divided the artists’ visual ideas into different chapters, and accentuated them with selected haiku poetry, exquisite quotes, art-inspired slogans and illustrations. The result is a multifaceted homage from the imaginative perspective of artists that reminds us: The world of reality has its limits; the world of imagination is boundless.

Art Meditation

Imagine you are at an exhibition featuring the works in the book, mindfully observing them. Close your eyes and observe your breath, or listen to it, until you feel pleasantly calm. Pick a painting:

  • What is this artwork about? What is special about it?
  • Take your time and analyze the colors and shapes in this work. Feel their sound!
  • What spontaneous associations does this artwork trigger in you?
  • What would you say is “that certain something” about it – that mysterious aspect that is difficult put into words, and that has sprung directly from the artist’s soul?

Ludwig van Beethoven

The work of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) is an international cultural treasure. The occasion of the composer’s 250th birthday gave the idea to publish an homage in the form of a gift book. Beethoven’s birthplace is located on Bonngasse in Bonn (Germany), and the organ played by the child prodigy once stood inside the Castle Church opposite the loge built and reserved for the elector from whose liberal spirit Bonn benefitted greatly. Beethoven learned to play piano and organ at an early age. He became employee of the court chapel and was soon appointed as the court’s second organist. Beethoven’s mentor was Christian Gottlob Neefe from Leipzig who had been court organist in Bonn since 1782. Neefe was strongly influenced by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, which he passed on to Beethoven. The cultivated van Breuning family in Bonn also extended great support to the talented youth. In 1792, the composer accepted Joseph Haydn’s invitation to go to Vienna, where he also met Mozart. While his stay in Vienna had begun as an educational trip, due to political circumstances, he remained there for the rest of his life. Among the Viennese nobility, he was especially admired for his skill at free improvisation. Beethoven wrote his “Moonlight Sonata” during his early period, which was influenced strongly by Haydn. This was followed by the time in which he wrote his symphonies and his only opera “Fidelio”. His late works were written partly after he had become completely deaf.

Haiku Poetry

Silence beckons as,
Like an angel, the golden
Breath of night floats up.

The evening sun
Kisses the clouds. In silver-
Blue, the moon rises.

Pigeon vocalists
Singing at dawn, inspired
By the night’s specters.

A dream: The path
Veiled in fragrant white perfume.
Wild cherry blossom moon.

Lonely the yellow
Lily bursting into bloom
By the pond, moon-kissed.

Clear, blue winter’s day
The moon’s reflection looking
Up from the puddles.

In the gentle mist
Of the evening valley
The nightingale sings.

The text and the poems in this post are excerpts from the book “Moonlight Sonatas for Beethoven”.