Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata?

images 3Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 14. Op. 27, No. 2. is almost certainly one of the most celebrated piano works of time. It is become widely known as and frequently referred to as the ‘Moonlight Sonata’. However, this is not a title attributed to it by Beethoven, and in fact he would never have heard this sonata referred to by this title in his lifetime since it was only given name ‘Moonlight Sonata’ some five years after his death by the German poet Ludwig Rellstab who poetically described the first movement as ‘like the moonlight reflecting on the water of Lake Lucerne. Such was Rellstab’s reputation and influence as a poet that the name ‘Moonlight Sonata’ began to become a common description of piece and within 10 years even printed versions of the score (both in German and English) were including the word ‘Moonlight’ in the title.

Ludwig van Beethoven: Around the time of the Moonlight Sonata

always a favourite

Many critics, commentators and pianists have found Rellstab’s (inadvertent) renaming of the sonata a negative and misleading and detrimental to the listener’s appreciation of Beethoven’s intention. However, others have said that it has helped the sonata gain the popularity that it holds to this day, although it should be noted that even during Beethoven’s life, without the soubriquet of ‘Moonlight’ it was one of his most popular pieces he even remarked to his pupil Carl Czerny “They are always talking about the C# minor sonata surely I’ve written better things.”.


I am quite convinced it is known the wrong way, I don’t know any other piece which that such a thick layer of false tradition on it – Andras Schiff, pianist.

‘almost a fantasy …’

To a certain extent, Rellstab’s remark holds a clue to one of the most controversial aspects of the opening movement to this sonata. Beethoven’s own sub-title to the sonata is: ‘Sonata quasi una fantasia’ (sonata, almost a fantasy) and has a very precise and detailed musical direction: ‘si deve suonare tutto questo pezzo delicatissamamente e senza sordini‘ literally ‘The whole piece should be played with the utmost delicacy and without dampers’ Without dampers’ meaning with pedal depressed throughout the piece as some pianist have suggested and indeed play. To a certain extent, with this ‘blurry’ texture created by keeping the pedal depressed, one can understand why Rellstab may have likened it to the water reflection of the moon on water. Like it or not, the name ‘Moonlight Sonata’ has stuck for all time.