Reflections on Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata"

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op. 27, 2 - Cappi, 879
Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Sonata quasi una fantasia,” more popularly known as the “Moonlight Sonata” (1802). (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

A wonderful box set of all 32 of Beethoven’s Complete Piano Sonatas, performed by the veteran Italian virtuoso, Maurizio Pollini, has been issued on Deutsche Grammophon/ Universal Classics. His version of the Piano Sonata No. 14 in C# minor, Op. 26, more commonly referred to as the “Moonlight Sonata,” is nothing short of spectacular.

Maurizio Pollini’s Beethoven: Complete Piano Sonatas(The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” has long been my favorite of all his piano sonatas. While in grad school, it so inspired me that I composed a poem about it that I taped to the water heater in my kitchen. Upon returning from a trip to Paris, I came home to find that my subletter had discarded my poem. I don’t recall exactly how it went, but it had something to do with how those three introductory notes and that minor third chord forever cast their spell on me.

And I’m clearly not the only one. Those very same notes have been reprised in countless works: The Beatles’ classic “Because”—when listened to backwards (see below)—bears a resemblance to the “Moonlight Sonata.” There’s also Alicia Keys’ “Piano and I”; the 1960s pop girl group, The Shangri-Las with their “Past, Present, and Future”; and umpteen other famous popular songs. I particularly love David Hazeltine’s clever jazz reimagining of the iconic work from his Impromptu album.
There’s also a lesser-known, but wonderful Brazilian version of The Beatles’ “Because,” which begins with a prelude of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” intro motif, by pianist André Mehmari and singer Ná Ozzetti.

“Yoko was playing the ‘Moonlight Sonata’ on the piano. She was classically trained. I said, ‘Can you play those chords backwards?’ and wrote ‘Because’ around them.”—John Lennon

What’s astounding is that the “Moonlight Sonata,” despite the popularity of its first movement, Adagio Sostenuto, was never performed in public concert while Beethoven was alive. In fact, only one of his 32 piano sonatas was ever performed publicly during the composer’s lifetime. Unfortunate but true. Sonatas were intended as works for private, more intimate settings like palaces or home concerts. It’s 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.”

Misnomer or not, I have no doubt that this piece will forever remain one of the great hallmarks of classical music. Years later, I still find myself just as spellbound by Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” as when I first discovered it so many years ago.

Maurizio Pollini’s sublime rendering of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 14 in C# minor, Op. 26, No. 2, better known as the “Moonlight Sonata.”

André Mehmari and singer Ná Ozzetti begin The Beatles’ “Because” with the first few bars of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata.”