Sonata in C# Minor (Sonata quasi una fantasia)


Beethoven’s Sonata in C# Minor (Sonata quasi una fantasia), Op. 27 No. 2, is surely one of the most famous pieces of music of all time. Completed in 1801, it was dedicated to his student, Countess Giulietta Guicciardi. The name "Moonlight Sonata" was not given by Beethoven but comes from German poet and music critic Ludwig Rellstab who, five years after Beethoven’s death, compared the effect of the first movement to moonlight shining on Lake Lucerne.

The form is ambiguous. It could be called modified sonata form, with several harmonic surprises, but Donald Francis Tovey avoids the issue by labelling it: "Continuous melody on an enormous scale with elements of development and recapitulation"1. There is one texture throughout the movement – ghostly right hand triplets against a slow-moving bass line in octaves, with a funereal melody on the top. The movement is full of harmonic surprises and colour.

At the start of the movement, Beethoven wrote a lengthy instruction in Italian: "Si deve suonare tutto questo pezzo delicatissimamente e senza sordino" ("This whole piece ought to be played with the utmost delicacy and without dampers"). Does the instruction to use the pedal throughout mean to change pedal with each harmony, or to keep it down for the entire movement? The effect of the undamped strings on pianos of Beethoven’s day gives considerably less resonance than on our modern instruments, the intermingling of the changing harmonies causing less offense. The vast majority of today’s pianists change the pedal when the harmonies change, although it can be effective to use late pedal changes that cause momentary blurring (legatissimo pedal).

Given the popularity of this movement, I decided to make my own series of video walkthroughs that guide you through the piece step-by-step. You will find advice on style, tempo, pedalling, fingering, practice method and technique, especially how to avoid tension in the right hand as it is called upon to play both the soft triplet accompaniment and to project the melodic line on top.

1 Donald Francis Tovey (1931), A Companion to Beethoven's Pianoforte Sonatas (Bar-by-Bar Analysis). ABRSM, p. 104

Resources & links

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