Ludwig van Beethoven: Sonata quasi una fantasia, Opus 27, No. 2, 1801, “Moonlight”

Shakespeare’s plays are contained in small in their first scenes. In the same way, the themes of Beethoven’s sonatas are presented in miniature in their first few measures. Beethoven then develops the themes, improvising on what often was a random, insubstantial melody. His imagination was so febrile that it had to be channeled into one direction, because it would go everyone at once if allowed. His sonatas are fences around whirlpools.

To quote the poet James Merrill: “form’s what affirms.” Around the simplicity of the first few improvised notes the walls close in, imbedding that carefree frolic in the lucite of frozen architecture, the vast ascending monolith, the Stonehenge sprung from waving grasses, surrounding a pebble with the solidifying Steuben glass of Beethoven’s technique.

As the poet T. S. Eliot said in East Coker, number two of The Four Quartets, which turns out to be a very good description of the structure of a Beethoven sonata:

In my beginning is my end. In succession
Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended,
Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place
Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass.
Old stone to new building, old timber to new fires,
Old fires to ashes, and ashes to the earth
Which is already flesh, fur and faeces,
Bone of man and beast, cornstalk and leaf.
Houses live and die: there is a time for building
And a time for living and for generation
And a time for the wind to break the loosened pane
And to shake the wainscot where the field-mouse trots
And to shake the tattered arras woven with a silent motto.
….In my end is my beginning.

Only Gould plays the first movement so quickly. Fame has taken its percentage and slowed the Adagio sostenuto (the slow first movement) into a dirge. Victor Borge very sensibly pretends to fall asleep while playing it. Gould understands the rage behind its mourning, the orgiastic Bosch covered over in the pentimento of a Fragonard, and plays it impetuously and tempestuously.

Heinrich Schenker, in his Neue Musikalische Theorien und Phantasien (1896 – 1935),  breaks down pieces into their Ursatz, their fundamental structure, stripped of rhythm and superficial window-dressing. Thus rid of the arbitrary confines of rhythms, ornamentation, and foregrounds, the truth of music may be exposed. Schenker believed that meaning lay in structure, rather than in superficial impositions on the music by the romantic imaginations of performers.

This Urtext became the guide for a new generation of rigorous adherents, resulting in a more minimalist and technically clean approach to classical music, for better or worse.

In the case of Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata, Schenkerian analysis attempts to remove the moonlight and expose the mechanism and its oily gears to day.

Although tempo plays no part in Schenkerian structure, and might instead be thought of as an attempt by the performer to match the electricity in the hall with his own pulse, playing the triplets faster keeps the structure more apparent, and replaces sentiment with passion. To me, the beat of those triplets moves the action forward; there is an urgency to the rippling, a waterfall just over the horizon (the third movement), which contradicts Beethoven’s annotations. Many musical markings might seem to stem from the characteristics of the piano on which the piece was written. A particularly beautiful note (caused by the way in which the felt on the hammer was randomly compressed) will cause the composer to underline or stress that note, either structurally or in notation. A very loud piano is a small, noisy room might have dictated Beethoven’s suggestion of playing the movement delicately and without pedal, in order to stress the simplicity of the piece.

The actual melody is beneath the accompaniment; the seven notes in octaves in the left hand are in fact the melody. Nothing very much happens in the right hand during the first movement, an early form of easy listening which may account for its popularity. But by the third movement, the triplets become full-blown arpeggios running the length of the keyboard.

And the second movement is just the bass melody from the first movement (played in octaves, so you won’t miss it) put into the right hand (in single notes, because you can’t miss anything in the treble, notes there are like sopranos). There is a further inner voice in the left hand in the second movement which repeats the first movement octaves as well, so that the second movement could also be said to have its melody both in the right hand and in the left hand. This descending melody inverts during the trio, so that, rather than descending as the first movement’s octaves do, it ascends, syncopated, also in the left hand.

The third movement uses the triplets from the first movement, a three-note filigree now become a four-note rampage. While each arpeggio has one more note than a triplet in the first movement, each one of its four-note riplets is used as a stand-in for only one note of a triplet. That is, it takes three full arpeggios to imitate one triplet. The trick is that each arpeggio can use either its first note or its last note, its thumb or its pinky, to replace one note of the triplet. And so sometimes I stress the first note of each arpeggio, and sometimes the last note. This happens very rapidly. Despite being one of the most well-known of all Beethoven’s passages, this rocket-like ascension into the sky is actually the accompaniment.

The lower note of the drumbeat in the bass (which bounces between two notes) is actually the melody. Note how it goes down a step every four measures, until the original octaves of the first moment melody have been duplicated.

Of course, the Yeti doesn’t play the other two movements, so you will have to wait for the Beethoven and Schubert album to hear anyone play this passage in such an exaggerated and blasphemous fashion. The pianist Rudolf Serkin plays everything very evenly, not about to take sides, in his classic and perfect version of the sonata.

However, merely playing the notes without at least trying to bring out the structure and the meaning hidden in all these pieces is a barn without the cows, a field without the sheep. I am convinced that classical music can be played in a more personal way, rather than a metronomic wash which ultimately hides the emotion behind a perfectly even mask. As Proust and Nabokov use a Latinate reversal of sense, putting verbs at the end and subordinating meaning to qualifying clauses, as I might even be accused of doing here, in order to distance the naked and trembling subject from the skeptical audience with screens and mirrors, so I would accuse musicians of being unconsciously trained to soothe the raw nerves of anxious composers with the practiced Dulcamara sleight of hand of the mustachioed virtuoso. In stooping to wear one’s heart on one’s sleeve, the merry accordionist must in fact strain credulity with his exaggerated lunges and parries, if only to return the chords to their complex origins.

In working backwards from the point of composition and re-composing the pieces, emphases appear which are helpful in the exegesis, but which might ultimately be melded into the background once the shape and meaning of the notes are clear.  Some middle ground between my own structural exaggerations and the silken symmetries of Serkin might suffice for listeners already attuned to the hidden cairns in the fields, the sermons in the stones.

Oscar Wilde in Intentions said that Wordsworth found only the sermons in stones which he had already hidden there. There is certainly the danger of inventing messages of one’s own devising, rather than excavating more resonant Rosetta Stones, and so humility must try to ride shotgun on the overly naive “revelations” of the eager archaeologist. Caveat lector.

That being said, let me bumble on into the simple depths. The chords at the end of each arpeggio simply repeat the idea of the arpeggio as a chord. They are the individual pinwheel notes bundled up into one explosive burst. The fast episode after the five arpeggio passages plays the main octave “melody” from the first movement upside down, again in the left hand. When staccato chords appear in the right hand, it is the left hand which plays the same inverted melody. The chords get bigger and the melody switches to the right hand.

Once you get in the habit of listening for the disguised melody in the left hand, in the bass, or as an echo in the right hand, the excitement of the piece stems from the inventiveness of how the melody time-travels between the dimensions of the hands. The chromatic scale, trill and random leaf-fall down the piano near the end of the third movement, just before the coda, I use to bring out the notes of the melody which are hidden in the chromatic scale. As my teacher said, “A scale always has meaning. It must never be just a scale.”

The final arpeggios tumbling into the deep bass are simply the triplets of the first movement, going down rather than up – that is, inverted. So nothing has happened that wasn’t predicted by and contained in the first measure of the sonata. Understanding how Beethoven varied the scantest of materials into the most massive of sonatas explains how he composed, and you can follow his thinking as he improvises new ways of treating his very banal melodies, a process he refined with his early variations on dreadful melodies by mediocre composers, until this technique reached its apogee with the Ninth Symphony, in which a simple melody is played in all sorts of different styles until it erupts in the cataclysmic chorus and its final quick march to the exits.