Moonlight Sonata

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so·​na·​ta sə-ˈnä-tə 


an instrumental musical composition typically of three or four movements in contrasting forms and keys


Italian, from sonare to sound, from Latin

First Known Use

1786, in the meaning defined above


Thanks for that, Marriam-Webster online.

Regarding the musical piece itself, from Wiki:

The Piano Sonata No. 14 in C-sharp minor, marked Quasi una fantasiaOp. 27, No. 2, is a piano sonata by Ludwig van Beethoven. It was completed in 1801 and dedicated in 1802 to his pupil Countess Julie “Giulietta” Guicciardi. The popular name Moonlight Sonata goes back to a critic’s remark after Beethoven’s death.

The piece is one of Beethoven’s most popular compositions for the piano, and it was a popular favourite even in his own day. Beethoven wrote the Moonlight Sonata in his early thirties, after he had finished with some commissioned work; there is no evidence that he was commissioned to write this sonata.

This is one of my favorite pieces of classical music. The first movement is haunting and melancholy and has been popular for that reason since its debut. The name “Moonlight Sonata” did not come from Beethoven himself, though you do instinctively conjure images of nighttime, or ghosts, while listening. The actual origin of the common name for this piece is almost as interesting as the piece itself. From wiki:

The first edition of the score is headed Sonata quasi una fantasia (“sonata almost a fantasy”), the same title as that of its companion piece, Op. 27, No. 1Grove Music Online translates the Italian title as “sonata in the manner of a fantasy“. “The subtitle reminds listeners that the piece, although technically a sonata, is suggestive of a free-flowing, improvised fantasia.”

Many sources say that the nickname Moonlight Sonata arose after the German music critic and poet Ludwig Rellstab likened the effect of the first movement to that of moonlight shining upon Lake Lucerne. This comes from the musicologist Wilhelm Lenz, who wrote in 1852: “Rellstab compares this work to a boat, visiting, by moonlight, the remote parts of Lake Lucerne in Switzerland. The soubriquet Mondscheinsonate, which twenty years ago made connoisseurs cry out in Germany, has no other origin.” Taken literally, “twenty years” would mean the nickname had to have started after Beethoven’s death. In fact Rellstab made his comment about the sonata’s first movement in a story called Theodor that he published in 1824: “The lake reposes in twilit moon-shimmer [Mondenschimmer], muffled waves strike the dark shore; gloomy wooded mountains rise and close off the holy place from the world; ghostly swans glide with whispering rustles on the tide, and an Aeolian harp sends down mysterious tones of lovelorn yearning from the ruins.” Rellstab made no mention of Lake Lucerne, which seems to have been Lenz’s own addition. Rellstab met Beethoven in 1825, making it theoretically possible for Beethoven to have known of the moonlight comparison, though the nickname may not have arisen until later.

By the late 1830s, the name “Mondscheinsonate” was being used in German publications and “Moonlight Sonata” in English publications. Later in the nineteenth century, the sonata was universally known by that name.

Many critics have objected to the subjective, romantic nature of the title “Moonlight”, which has at times been called “a misleading approach to a movement with almost the character of a funeral march” and “absurd”. Other critics have approved of the sobriquet, finding it evocative or in line with their own interpretation of the work. Gramophone founder Compton Mackenzie found the title “harmless”, remarking that “it is silly for austere critics to work themselves up into a state of almost hysterical rage with poor Rellstab”, and adding, “what these austere critics fail to grasp is that unless the general public had responded to the suggestion of moonlight in this music Rellstab’s remark would long ago have been forgotten.” Donald Francis Tovey thought the title of Moonlight was appropriate for the first movement but not for the other two.

Carl Czerny, Beethoven’s pupil, described the first movement as “a ghost scene, where out of the far distance a plaintive ghostly voice sounds”.

Liszt described the second movement as “a flower between two abysses”.

Is there a higher compliment that can be paid to an artist than to have austere critics working themselves up into a state of almost hysterical rage over its interpretation?

For those who care about the music part of this piece:

The sonata consists of three movements:

  1. Adagio sostenuto
  2. Allegretto
  3. Presto agitato

The first movement is the most famous, but the three belong together and create an enjoyable completed story when one listens to them together. The first movement is somber, sad, or ghostly. The second, as Liszt describes it, is “a flower.” The third movement is a storm.