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As Beethoven's Sonata No. 14 in C sharp minor (Op. 27, No. 2) casts its dreamy, nocturnal spell, it's hard to imagine that Beethoven wasn't gazing upon his beloved, bathed in moonlight, as he penned the hauntingly-beautiful, polyrhythmic first movement (marked Adagio Sostenuto). Despite Beethoven's own sentiments that "Surely I've written better things," fellow composer Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) described the first movement as "one of those poems that human language does not know how to qualify."
This most well-known of Beethoven's sonatas, however, was not unofficially named "Moonlight" until well-after Beethoven's death when, in 1832, German music critic and poet, Ludwig Rellstab, expressed that the meditative first movement reminded him of moonlight reflecting on the waters of Lake Lucerne.
When the piece was written in the summer of 1801, Beethoven had fallen passionately in love with his 17-year-old pupil, Countess Giulietta Guicciardi. In fact, the Moonlight Sonata was eventually dedicated to her, although only after the composition originally intended for her was assigned to another patron. Giulietta accepted Beethoven's marriage proposal, but with her parents' forbiddance of the union, their life together was never to be.
The first movement is so beloved and has garnered such fame that many probably fail to realize that two additional movements take listeners on an impassioned journey that only Beethoven can forge. Often thought of as a bridge between the first and third movements, the second movement, a charming, dance-like scherzo marked "allegretto," was described by Franz Liszt (1811-1886) as "a flower between two chasms." In the third movement, marked "presto allegretto," the calm waters of the first movement are broken by a stormy cascade of notes, sending revelers far from the calm of the moonlight into a place of unbridled passion and impetuousness. Perhaps, then, it is no coincidence that it was in 1801 when, according to some accounts, Beethoven began expressing grave concerns about his impending deafness - no doubt a time of great uncertainty and turbulence.
The technical simplicity of the first movement lies in stark contrast to the third movement which, with Beethoven's many complex, often-ignored markings, is daunting for even the most virtuosic of pianists. Those who might unfairly relegate the first movement to "cliche" status will be rewarded with second and third movements that are anything but commonplace, creating a piece that, in its entirety, takes listeners and players on a quintessentially Beethovenian journey.