or why I am studying “The Moonlight Sonata” at last
Many years ago, when I was the darling of my piano teacher and a senior in high school, she suggested to me that my next piece might be Beethoven's Pathetique Sonata. Around that same time, I received a flyer in the mail for a set of piano literature designed for students and published at a student-friendly price—or so the advertisement said. Not having the best head for finance, I purchased the set. I remember unpacking it on my mother's pedestal oak table. Out came two volumes of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, Mozart Sonatas, and Chopin preludes. The two volumes that caught my first attention, though, were those of the Beethoven piano sonatas. I went to the piano with them immediately.
Since then, whenever my mind and soul are frayed from too much sociability, work, or too many children's needs, my solace has been to spend an evening reading through Beethoven sonatas. I joked that I just wanted to read them the way one reads a novel—to see how it comes out. Since Beethoven's music is anything but predictable, this made some sense, but that's not really what drew me back to Beethoven again and again.
For years I attributed my fondness for the Beethoven sonatas to what I call “the church measures” in every one of them—those measures of inimitable harmonic perfection. As lovely as they were, though, I don't think that was why I kept returning to Beethoven. Sometimes I blamed the “inevitability” of each of Beethoven's runs. The notes in this descending figure or that ascending set of triplets are always exactly the right notes, though they don't follow predictable harmonic patterns.
Sometime after I started composing seriously, I came across an online course on composition that used the Beethoven Sonatas as examples. I would read a chapter of the course, look at the sonata score, and wind myself back to the piano to try out the truth of the author's rules of composition derived from Beethoven. I remember finding the course useful as I began the long process of gaining some small amount of control over the direction and form my compositions took.
Along the way, some of the slower bits crept their way into my repertoire. I could play the slow movement of the Pathetique, and of course, I learned the Adagio Sostenuto of Opus 27, number 2—the so-called “Moonlight” Sonata. My friend David Emerson, who was a welcoming voice on the other end of the phone and a willing collaborator when I first started making the way safe for music here in Conway, told me that he loved that piece. I don't know if I ever got to play it in his hearing, but I had the privilege of playing it at his funeral—and it will always afterward remind me of his bright soul.
So I supposed it was inevitable that I would finally decide to study all of “The Moonlight Sonata.” I dove in after my big summer projects were finished and found that I could at least play the notes at a slow pace. Now many months of study have gone by and I find that I can play the whole sonata, and communicate at least some of the interpretations I've gleaned from the dots and lines on the page.
When I got to the first A major piano section in the third movement I wondered what in the world Beethoven was doing throwing in that tinkly little theme. But as I studied the music of this movement from the tumultous opening to this cute figure I began to appreciate the power of such stark contrasts. These contrasts constitute what I think is important about the whole sonata. The dark night of first movement, with it's funeral march figure, gives way to the innocent optimism of the second movement, with its lightness and ease. That ease in turn reverts to more tumult made from rising arpeggios wringing with anticipation and seasoned with a pining melody.
Every note is in the right place, and is held the right amount of time. Each chord resolves in precisely the right way to the one that follows. I admire that thoroughgoing musical logic, the perfect harmony, and the poignant melody. The perfection of the whole does not explain the power of the music, however. That is the mystery of Beethoven's gifts to us.
For many years now, I've spent a large part of the time I have at the piano on composition. The allure of this activity is for me as mysterious as my affinity for Beethoven's music. Even though piano is my first and most beloved instrument, one of the paradoxes of my composing journey is that I've always been intimidated by writing solo piano music. I wrote a few pieces some years ago and think of them as student pieces, although one is more complicated than that, actually. I put piano parts in much of my chamber music. But the complexity engendered by 10 fingers times 88 notes, played in so many articulations and combinations, put me off the idea of writing piano music for a long time, not to mention the difficulty of writing all that on only two staves. Somehow, though, while I was engaged in the study of Beethoven's most famous sonata, I found myself composing piano music.
With trepidation, I began to structure the music I was improvising into my Sonata in the Old Style. While I was never consciously quoting Beethoven's music, my sonata looks backward to the music I've been swimming through for years. I spent several months with two movements of this sonata, coaxing it into a classical form as much as it would go. On Christmas Eve, I played my sonata—the two movements of it that existed that day—and let my fingers wander over the keys in a conscious attempt to listen to what might come next. Out spilled a pastorale filled with overlapped resonances. It is quite different from the other movements, and it is comes from them in some way, but takes into account other voices, I hope.
Beethoven did not spring into existence from nothing. He made his way to Parnassus in the usual fashion with teachers and textbooks. One of his teachers was Joseph Haydn—and that should surprise no one who has played Beethoven's more accessible piano works. Maisie Brown shares the gem that is Fur Elise. The middle section of that piece reads a great deal like many Haydn sonatas—but it includes a fiery section that is all Beethoven.
Haydn's D major piano sonata shows off the roots of Beethoven's beginnings very well. There are vibrant passages that resolve to satisfyingly incomplete minor chords. There is a lovely poignant melody worked out in ever-increasing complexity. In the final movement there is a coda that begins with a dramatic chord. It's easy to see that Beethoven wasn't inventing from nothing—he was innovating from a great height.
Beethoven's music seems to resonate for everyone. It has held the attention of musicians and listeners for centuries including Dmitri Shostakovich. The last piece Shostakovich wrote before he died was his Viola Sonata. This piece clearly quotes “The Moonlight Sonata.” It makes new music of it, and ends with a profound return to the simplest of musical relationships. Julia Howell helps me share the final movement of this sonata. As Julia put it “the ghost of Beethoven appears, and then you die.”
I will perform this music at several upcoming concerts. I'll play a Music as Meditation that includes this music on Tuesday, January 30th at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Eastern Slope in Tamworth, New Hampshire at 6:30 PM. Admission to that concert is free. Donations to offset the Fellowship's expenses for heating and piano upkeep will be collected.
Another performance will take place on Saturday, February 3 at Tin Mountain Conservation Center in Albany. The concert is titled “Beethoven's Reach” and is presented by Mountain Top Music Center. Tickets cost $25 and proceeds go toward furthering Mountain Top's mission of enriching lives through music. The Concert starts at 7:30 PM. Tickets may be purchased online at mountaintopmusic.org or by calling 603-447-4737.