Violinist and Teacher in Tulsa, Oklahoma

The “Moonlight” Sonata


Wednesday, May 5th, 2010

I have been taking piano lessons from a teacher in Plano (from an eccentric old man who is an excellent teacher, named Leon) for a couple of years now. I initially wanted to be able to handle simple accompaniments for my violin students, but I quickly found that the real value of my piano lessons has been the increased empathy I have for what my own students have to go through. I have been through two recitals, one of which went quite well, and one of which I did quite poorly. The poor performance was primarily due to attempting a piece that was beyond my then-current technique, the “Moonlight” Sonata, by Beethoven.

I have since spent a lot more time working on this piece, and I will be performing it again in recital Tuesday evening, May 18th, 2010, in downtown Dallas. I expect that I will do substantially better this time. I will also be doing a more modern composition that is a bit simpler. While working on the “Moonlight”, I got interested in the “backstory”. I found one such tale in a blog post here.

The story in “Echoes of Childhood Stories” is nice, poignant, and romantic, but apocryphal. There are several such stories (including one I found in Wikipedia, but which has been recently edited out of that article) which vary substantially from the one documented by the composer (Beethoven was a fairly prolific letter-writer).

The one from Wikipedia went like this: “Allegedly, the piece came about when Beethoven heard music coming from a house, which he recognized as one of his compositions. When he entered the house, he found a blind girl playing the piano, although she wished someone would show her how to play the song correctly. He offered to play it for her, and when he finished, she realized who it was. He then improvised the sonata, inspired by the moonlight streaming in through the window, and, after offering to give the girl piano lessons, rushed home to write the music down while he still remembered it.”

Another story I heard (don’t have a source for it) was that Beethoven was caught lurking in the moonlight outside the house of a young woman with whom he was infatuated, and was brought into the house by a couple of male relatives of the young lady. The young lady was a pupil of Beethoven’s, and she told the two men who were planning to take Beethoven to the authorities for “peeping” that he was ok. They required him to “prove” that he was really the great pianist and composer, and sat him down at the piano, where he allegedly improvised the “Moonlight” sonata.

The real story, as found in Beethoven’s correspondence, is also romantic, but somewhat more mundane. The “Moonlight” sonata did not get its present name until after Beethoven’s death. It was originally composed in 1801 with the title “Quasi una fantasia” and dedicated to Countess Giulietta Guicciardi, one of Beethoven’s students. He proposed marriage to Giulietta, and she was willing, but her father nixed the idea, referring to Beethoven as a mediocre musician of low birth with no backing and no future.

“Quasi una fantasia” was immensely popular during the composer’s lifetime, somewhat to his irritation. He wrote in a letter to his contemporary in Austria, Carl Czerny, that “Surely I have written better music than that!”

In 1836, German music critic Ludwig Rellstab wrote that the sonata (at least the 1st movement, anyway) reminded him of the reflected moonlight off Lake Lucerne. “Moonlight Sonata” became the best-known title of the piece.

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