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Piano Sonata No.14 in C Sharp Minor Op.27 No.2,’Moonlight’

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Piano Sonata No.14 in C Sharp Minor Op.27 No.2,'Moonlight'

The dedication of the second sonata (in C sharp minor), composed in 1801, to Countess Giulietta Guicciardi has set many speculative pens in action. Was it to Giulietta (for a time one of his pupils) that Beethoven addressed his famous letter 'To the Immortal Beloved', and if so was the sonata intended as a companion-piece to the letter? The subject has filled pages – although Beethoven himself did not have such a very high opinion of the sonata – but it is scarcely more important than the tenacious nickname that has resolutely held its ground ever since the critic Ludwig Rellstab said that the first movement reminded him of the Lake of Lucerne by moonlight.

Notwithstanding the larger scale of the finale, it is this introductory slow movement that makes the greatest impression; indeed, it is probably the most famous single movement in the whole of Beethoven. With its constant background of arpeggiated triplets, against which its long-breathed melodic line is heard, it looks straight forward, as Eric Blom observed, to the shorted pieces of Schubert and Mendelssohn. Beethoven directed that the dampers should be raised throughout the movement – a device that contributes to its haunting, nocturne-like character.

The next movement is in effect a scherzo and trio, although both parts are in the same key (C sharp major, written for convenience in D flat). The scherzo is built entirely on two-bar phrases, the trio is full of syncopations. The sonata-form finale has a tremendous sense of vigour and impetus. Its main theme is based on galloping arpeggios punctuated at intervals by two sforzato chords, and leads directly into the second subject, a four-bar theme of great eloquence, that is sued with remarkable effect in the extreme bass of the piano during the development section. The movement ends with a highly dramatic coda.

Robin Golding


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