Beethoven – ‘Moonlight’ Sonata


Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827)
Piano Sonata No. 14 in C-sharp minor, Op. 27, No. 2

Beethoven’s “Moonlight sonata”, a name coined by German music critic Ludwig Rellstab after Beethoven’s death, is one of the most widely known classical music pieces, and has been since it was composed some 200 years ago.

But let us examine it more closely and look at the facts surrounding the piece, find past and future musical connections and, of course, compare and choose the best recordings of the sonata.

It is said that Beethoven was inspired to write the sonata while visiting Lake Balaton, located in Hungary.

The sonata, which is in three movements, as most sonatas of the classical period, is best known for the first movement, Adagio sostenuto (there are about 10 times as many recordings of it than there are of the whole piece).

The descending bass-line, characterising the introduction, sometimes called the Phrygian progression, (which it, strictly speaking, isn’t in this case, because it detours to subdominant f-sharp before reaching the target dominant g-sharp), had been used long before Beethoven:

Adagio from a Sonata by Albinoni, written 100 years earlier

And thus, borrowing the idea of this baroque rhetoric figure, Beethoven starts his Sonata.

But what really captured the public’s heart was the ever-imploring polyrhythmic motif making up the main theme:

Both the perpetual triplets and the polyrhythm were copied out of Mozart’s score – from the Commendatore’s death scene in ‘Don Giovanni’.

The unusual tonal progressions are what led Beethoven to title the sonata “Quasi una Fantasia”. Fantasia usually describes a free-form classical music piece.

The tonic major-to-minor progression, which initiates the modulation to the second subject, had frequently been used earlier by Mozart, and Beethoven just can’t resist:

Thematic comparison

Beethoven – ‘Moonlight’ Sonata

25 years earlier: Mozart – Sonata No. 4 in E-flat major (1775)

100 years later: Rachmaninoff – Piano Concerto No. 2 (1900)

There’s always been a discrepancy over the twelfth bar on whether to play the note c or b in the second triplet group:

But, in fact, there shouldn’t be a discrepancy, because, as per the counterpoint rules of the classical period, two separate voices mustn’t move in parallel octaves or fifths, unless one is doubling the other. Clearly, the middle triplet note is not doubling the (already-doubled) bass-line. And hence – c, and not b, should be played.

The first movement mostly adheres to the sonata form, but not without surprises. In the exposition, the second subject is not in the dominant key, as it usually is in classical sonata form, but instead sounds in B minor, which is not even a parallel key!

Towards the end of the first movement, the main motif is foretelling darker times ahead, moving into the left hand territory:

Moving forward, the second movement turns out to be a light-hearted exercise in classical harmony. Unfortunately, the main motif is hardly a melody, and, what’s more, it is repeated 20 times in the course of (fortunately, only) two minutes. Here are four of these (repetitions) from the opening:

The Trio is on par with the Allegretto. Two repeats of two eight-bar sequences. At least it’s contrasting. The Allegretto, as expected, is repeated da capo after the Trio.

(Excellent playing there by Daniel Barenboim in above examples.)

The third movement, a fierce fiery Presto in sonata form, starts with the same notes as the first movement, namely: c-sharp, g-sharp, c-sharp and e. Also, Beethoven adds an agitato instruction to the score. He then goes on to transform the original three-note motif into two lightning bolts, modifying the rhythmic pattern, with the second note on the weak beat, keeping the initial underlying harmonic structure the same.

Thematic comparison

1st movement

3rd movement

Again, Beethoven eyes a motif by Mozart for the first part of the second subject, and...repeats it six times until it gets him somewhere. Mind you, he even grabs the ornaments along.

Thematic comparison

Mozart – Sonata No. 1 in C major (1775)

Beethoven – Sonata, 3rd movement

The theme continues its run until it bumps into a Neapolitan flattened supertonic (which comes from the third bar of the first movement), runs around a bit, bumps into it again an octave lower, runs around a bit, and finds its way into another theme, which, at last, leads to the controversial closing subject.

The exposition is repeated, traditionally. The development and recapitulation aren’t, and we will see why in a minute.

The development section starts off with the first subject arpeggios in tonic major, but quickly gives way to the cantabile theme from the second subject, which nicely relocates into the left hand, and off it goes, jumping down and down, until it arrives at the long dominant pedal point, predicting the reprise, just as it did in the first movement, albeit without the diminished seventh chords (Beethoven saves these for later).

We then get a reprise, which essentially duplicates the whole exposition section, except for the standard change of keys and a few minor alterations. And only afterwards comes the final ascent, one of the more effective ones from Beethoven – with two climax points, practically one after another.

At first there is an illusion that we are entering another development section. But here it becomes clear why only the exposition got a repeat: the whole second part – encompassing the development section, the full reprise and the elaborate ending – is twice as long as the exposition. But another important reason is that the climaxes would not have been successful the second time round.

Logically, the first climax is based on the first subject, while the more elaborate and emotional second climax develops on the second subject motif before rolling into triplet arpeggios – “down and up” several times – in Salieri’s style – up through a chromatic scale – trill! – descending again in a kind of improvisational figuration – and grinding to a halt: Adagio. Then... Tempo I più tranquillo, piano. The not-so-controversial-anymore pedal point returns for six bars, pianissimo. Then – Presto, forte – a final arpeggio ascent – sforzando – descent – and two blasts – fortissimo, senza Pedale.

Was it this that the first movement’s final bars prophesised?

(The unsurpassed Jenö Jandó in above examples.)

Recordings review

Playing this sonata may seem like an easy task for a professional pianist. But it isn’t. Firstly, there are literally hundreds of small directions in the score, some more controversial than others. Secondly, every pianist gives a personal rendition of each of the movements, almost always breaking at least some of the rules set by the composer.

So, what are we looking for in a recording? How do we choose the best ones?

Obviously, the technical aspects of the playing should be nothing less than perfect. But, first of all, we are looking for an interpretation, which is musical, in the full sense of the word. It must flow. It must sing. The three movements should be played in one breath.

Secondly, we expect well-chosen tempi, clear articulation that adheres to the score, proper use of the pedal, in line with the style of the late classical period.

Let’s begin with the first movement. The indicated tempo, Adagio, is one of the slowest existing tempo indications. Obviously, it should be slower than Andante.

In most recordings we hear a fairly moderate tempo.

Evgeny Kissin

What is played by Pletnev, Arrau, Lupu, Rubinstein, Serkin is really moving into the Lento territory –

Rudolf Serkin

– while Jandó, Horowitz, Kempff, Schnabel play a bit faster than usual.

Jenö Jandó

But, strictly speaking, the term Adagio refers to the tempo of the 1/4 notes (crotchets), and in that sense most pianist are within the relative limits. Perhaps only Schnabel’s is really too fast.

Technically, it turns out, most performers do not play the main motif correctly. They just don’t properly combine the triplets with the dotted quaver.

Only Barenboim, Kissin, Pletnev, Ashkenazy, Lupu and Rubinstein can be said to have a true polyrhythm.

Daniel Barenboim

Brendel, Kempff and Schnabel have really got it wrong.

Wilhelm Kempff

Barenboim’s first movement is exemplary, being objective and at the same time very personal. Pletnev, Jandó, Ashkenazy, Arrau, Lupu and Gieseking have also put a lot of thought into their interpretations, with all having a good singing tone, emotions, dynamics and flow.

Radu Lupu

The middle section, with ascending and descending diminished seventh chords, should continue to be played in triplets. They needn’t be accented, but if there is a hint of it after all, it must not under any circumstances be in duplets! Unfortunately, we do hear that in recordings by Gilels, Brendel, Pollini, Serkin and Kempff.

In the second movement, all of Barenboim, Jandó, Kissin, Pletnev, Tomšič, Serkin, Lupu, Gieseking, Schnabel and Horowitz maintain a good balance between the dance-like mood, the singing upper melody and the playful staccato chords.

The Trio, which starts with three sforzandi and continues – after the repeat – in pianissimo, should be contrasting, not complementing the Allegretto, which starts and ends in piano. Well done Kissin, Jandó, Pletnev, Rubinstein and Horowitz.

Jenö Jandó

There is only one perfect recording of the third movement, and it is by Jenö Jandó. The musicality as a whole, the interpretation, the technical aspects, the balance, the fine details – his playing has it all. You can practically hear Beethoven himself at the piano.

But while everyone is free to judge Jandó’s musicianship on their own, let us examine the technical side.

Beethoven knew exactly what he wanted, when he marked specifically the first note and the last three in each bar staccato, starting from the fifth bar of the second subject:

Jenö Jandó

Why then are these markings ignored by all of Kissin, Gilels, Rubinstein, Pollini, Serkin, Horowitz, Kempff, Schnabel? How can you just play it all on pedal?

Vladimir Horowitz

And this gets extreme when we talk about the final culmination point:

Jenö Jandó

Evgeny Kissin


But Kissin’s playing is unique in its own way. His playing of this movement is one of the fastest available, and, while in other recordings the speed degrades the quality of the pianist’s playing and hence the overall delivery, the fact that Kissin has such fine control of his technique, combined with his remarkable musical insight, the result is an amazing performance, perfect in its own way, and astoundingly different from Jandó’s.

At one point he is full of fire, a moment later – he is in a different, distant a world. Listen to his absolutely unique interpretation of the development section:

Evgeny Kissin

Both Daniel Barenboim and Mikhail Pletnev offer their personal renditions of the movement, interesting in their own ways.

There are many wrong notes in other recordings, and they are the result of ‘missing’ the right ones, but it is difficult to explain why Barenboim plays a d-natural instead of e towards the end of the third bar in the A major connecting theme:

Daniel Barenboim

in slow motion

Strange also that he doesn’t repeat this the second time round.

But what is completely and totally unacceptable is forgetting that Beethoven compressed the same connecting theme in the recap. And Barenboim does just that – forgets:

Jenö Jandó

Daniel Barenboim

And the deeper we dig into the recordings, the farther we find ourselves from the ideal and flawless performance.

Let’s listen to it again...

Jenö Jandó

And so, here are the top 10 recordings of Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight’ Sonata:

1. Jenö Jandó

Bonus: equally outstanding renditions of No. 8 ‘Pathetique’ and No. 23 ‘Appassionata’ sonatas
2. Evgeny Kissin

Bonus: unparalleled performance of Franck’s “Prelude, Choral & Fugue”, Variations on a Theme of Paganini by Brahms

3. Daniel Barenboim

Bonus: Sonatas No. 21 ‘Waldstein’ and No. 23 ‘Appassionata’

4. Mikhail Pletnev

Bonus: Sonatas No. 21 ‘Waldstein’ and No. 23 ‘Appassionata’

5. Emil Gilels

Bonus: Sonatas No. 8 ‘Pathetique’ and No. 12

6. Vladimir Ashkenazy

Bonus: Sonatas No. 8 ‘Pathetique’ and No. 23 ‘Appassionata’

7. Radu Lupu

Bonus: 5 Piano Concerti, Sonatas No. 8, No. 21, Variations in C minor, Piano Quintet, 2 Rondi

8. Claudio Arrau

Bonus: Sonatas No. 8 ‘Pathetique’ and No. 23 ‘Appassionata’

9. Dubravka Tomšič

Bonus: Symphony No. 7, Overture to “Fidelio”

10. Alfred Brendel

Bonus: Sonatas No. 8 ‘Pathetique’ and No. 23 ‘Appassionata’

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