Ludwig van Beethoven

Moonlight Sonata

Explained using the 5-4-3-2-1 Method

Duration: About 15 Minutes
Genre: “Sonata quasi una Fantasia” (according to Beethoven’s own classification)
Time of Creation: Before 1801
World Premiere: Unknown

Table of Contents

Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata in 5 Sentences

The Moonlight Sonata is Ludwig van Beethoven’s 14th piano sonata. It was already one of his most popular works during Beethoven’s lifetime, especially because of the rousing third movement. The title “Moonlight Sonata”, however, does not come from Beethoven, but is said to go back to the Berlin music critic Ludwig Rellstab, who is said to have had corresponding associations when listening to the work – but this is not certain. During Beethoven’s lifetime, the sonata was rather known as the “Arbor Sonata” because Beethoven is said to have improvised the first movement in an arbor. Numerous ambiguities in the surviving autograph still lead to points of contention in the interpretation of the work.

Note: This work belongs to the Classical Music Top 100.

4 Highlights from Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata

Highlight 1: world famous beginning

Everyone probably knows this beginning: first just a pulsation, then a melody floating above it. The beginning of the Moonlight Sonata puzzles performers, because Beethoven’s autograph does not reveal exactly how it is to be played: In the first two measures, Beethoven prescribes a different articulation than in the rest.

Added to this puzzle is the question of what associations can be made with this beginning. Often, “darkness” and “despair” have been mentioned here, also because there is a very famous opera scene that is musically similar: the opening scene from Mozart’s Don Giovanni.

Highlight 2: Second movement – flowery and simple

The second movement is a brightening moment between the two somber movements. Franz Liszt is therefore said to have described the second movement as a “flower between two abysses” – an impressive image:

Highlight 3: Beginning of the third movement – overwhelming despair

After the “flower between two abysses”, Beethoven again takes up the gloomy mood from the first movement in the third movement. The virtuoso beginning is similarly familiar as the beginning of the sonata:

Highlight 4: Tear-off at the end

The third movement is about as long as the first and second movements combined, but the mood does not lighten until the end. It is as if Beethoven is tearing the music into an abyss at the end:

3 Questions and Answers about Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata

Question 1: Is the Moonlight Sonata difficult to play?

Yes. Certainly there are much more difficult pieces (Franz Liszt’s B minor Sonata, for example), but the Moonlight Sonata is demanding, especially the third movement.

Question 2: To whom did Beethoven dedicate the Moonlight Sonata?

Beethoven dedicated the Moonlight Sonata to his 20-year-old piano student, Countess Julie Guicciardi, with whom he was briefly in love.

Question 3: What did Beethoven call the Moonlight Sonata?

Beethoven himself did not call the work Moonlight Sonata, but “Sonata quasi una Fantasia” – that is, “A Sonata like a Fantasy.” This refers to the unusual sequence of movements: sonatas at that time usually had a fast first movement, but this is missing in Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. Instead, the work begins in a slow tempo. Then, in the second and third movements, the tempo increases. Beethoven thus dealt with the usual sonata scheme very freely – just like in a fantasy.

2 Recommended Recordings of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata

Recording 1: Valentina Lisitsa (video production)

In this recording, the Ukrainian pianist Valentina Lisitsa once again demonstrates her technical perfection:

Recording 2: Jürg Hanselmann (live, 2012)

This live recording is remarkable because Jürg Hanselmann takes an unusual amount of time in many places. He is patient. First, this is a virtue that has become rare, and second, it leads to a stronger effect of the Moonlight Sonata:

1 Quote about Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata

It is a brutal piece.

The pianist Igor Levit in conversation with BR-Klassik

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