By Molly Vela | The BL

The Moonlight Sonata is said to be the piece that marked a change in Beethoven’s composition style. It features an air of regret and loss, while simultaneously echoing the murmur of hushed prayers and the fierce sound of an approaching storm. It is a piece shrouded in romantic mythology but also the grand shifts in the life of the great composer himself.

The story behind that masterpiece

The sonata in C Minor for piano named ‘Quasi una fantasia’ is commonly known as ‘The Moonlight Sonata’ and was written by Ludwig van Beethoven in 1801. It quickly became his most popular piece of piano work and remains so even until this day. The rise of the piece’s prevalence contrarily made him frustrated. It is said that Beethoven once remarked to Austrian composer Carl Czerny, “They are always talking about the C# minor Sonata. Surely, I have written better things.” In doing so, he highlighted the extent of the works popularity and his disbelief in its warrant.

(Illustrative photo: Shutterstock)

There are a number of stories in circulation about what lies behind the creation of the Moonlight Sonata. One such story is the tale of the blind child pianist. In the mid 19th century, rumors began to spread about Beethoven’s encounter with a blind girl. Upon seeing the young blind girl playing a piece of his work from her piano side, the composer’s sympathy came forth. He sat down at the piano and simultaneously witnessed the moonlight shining through the window. That, many people said, was the inspiration that gave birth to the well-known ‘moonlight sonata’. However, according to another account, the composer watched as moonlight rained down on the blind girl as she played the piano for himself and her brother. Could this instead be the scene that served as inspiration for his ‘Quasi una fantasia’?

Title page of the first edition of the score, published on August 2 in 1802 in Vienna by Giovanni Cappi e Comp. (Wikipedia Commons)

However, it is thought that, initially, ‘Moonlight’ was not the name given to this composition by Beethoven himself. The name ‘Moonlight’ appeared several years after Beethoven passed away. In 1836, the German music critic, Ludwig Rellstab, spoke of this sonata evoking the image of moonlight reflecting upon the Lake Lucerne. From that time on, the name ‘Moonlight sonata’ has unofficially become the ‘official’ name of the work.

Ludwig van Beethoven in 1804–05 portrait by Joseph Willibrord Mähler. (Public Domain)

An unusual composition

Beethoven did not compose the Moonlight sonata in the traditional way of fast-slow-fast that he predominantly used. It starts with the slow Adagio, is then followed by the slow Allegretto and is finished with the strong Presto Agitato. The first part is gentle, inclusive and sad. The French composer Berlioz praised this section of the piece, stating that it was like “a kind of poem that was not likely to be described by words”. Meanwhile, a previous student of Beethoven’s, Carl Czerny supposed that it depicted “a night with gloomy sounds coming from a far place”. There were also other people who felt, whilst listening to the piece, that they were walking in the dark under a moonlit sky.

The second part, Allegretto, gave listeners a sense of serenity because of the freshness of the notes, described as being pure and hopeful. It is a short movement that becomes the bridge between the first and the third. The composer Franz Liszt considered this part as “a flower between two abysses”. It keeps blooming and returning and then blooming again, a recurring circulation on the musical background.

The third part is the storm of the Moonlight Sonata. The fast and powerful notes reveal intense emotions.

A dark change in the Composer himself

Alongside the romantic legends of the birth of the Moonlight Sonata, it would be remiss to neglect that in the period after 1801, when the sonata was created, Beethoven started experiencing despair in his soul due to the loss of his ability to hear. Many people supposed at the time that Beethoven had an ideal life since he was a professional pianist and a leading composer in Vienna. Nevertheless, Beethoven avoided his friends and others as he was afraid that people would discover his increasing deafness. As a consequence, many felt that he seemed unapproachable and reclusive.

Beethoven lived for years in solitude and loneliness until he was completely deaf. This tragic situation profoundly affected his spirit and creativity. The period of 1800 – 1802 marked a turning point in Beethoven’s life and was also the beginning of his next writing phase. When his ears no longer worked, Beethoven turned to a technique of listening with his soul.

Beethoven had been undergoing treatment in a village called Heilgenstadt from the Spring of 1802 until October of the same year. However, after being disappointed that he was unsuccessful in finding a cure, he fell into a suicidal depression.

There was one thing in his life though that prevented him from taking action. In a letter, he stated that “Due to musical notes I did not choose to finish my life by suicide”.

Beethoven in 1815 portrait by Joseph Willibrord Mähler. (Public Domain)

Recurring in the music of Beethoven is the spirit of overcoming adversity, the inner conflicts he experienced can clearly be found in his music. Beethoven also learned through the teachings of these dark thoughts about how to live with his hearing loss and he went on to become the musical genius we all recognize, renowned for his great masterpieces.

After the period of his attempted ‘curing’, Beethoven appeared dissatisfied with what he was producing, and according to Czerny, “He determined to go on a new path”. This change is shown through the strength of his later sonatas, dramas, and asymmetry.

The Moonlight Sonata could be considered the first creation of Beethoven’s after entering the beginning stages of his gradual hearing loss. The regret and loss in the piece, the prayers, and the final raging storm create perhaps his greatest work, a testament to the wonders of Beethoven.

(The cover photo: Shutterstock/Photo Illustrations by The BL).