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The Moonlight Sonata

One of the most recognizable pieces of music from Jane Austen’s era is surely, The Moonlight Sonata. A supremely romantic piece, it’s emotional depth and complexity would no doubt have appealed to Austen’s most musical heroine, Marianne Dashwood.

Miniature from Beethoven's belongings, possibly Julie Guicciardi.
Miniature from Beethoven’s belongings, possibly Julie Guicciardi.

The Piano Sonata No. 14 in C-sharp minor “Quasi una fantasia”, Op. 27, No. 2, popularly known as the Moonlight Sonata, is a piano sonata by Ludwig van Beethoven. Completed in 1801 and dedicated in 1802 to his pupil, Countess Giulietta Guicciardi,  it is one of Beethoven’s most popular compositions for the piano.

Dedication page to "Moonlight Sonata".
Dedication page to “Moonlight Sonata”.

The first edition of the score is headed Sonata quasi una fantasia, a title this work shares with its companion piece, Op. 27, No. 1. Grove Music Online translates the Italian title as “sonata in the manner of a fantasy”. (Directly translated “sonata almost a fantasy”).

The name “Moonlight Sonata” has its origins in remarks by the German music critic and poet Ludwig Rellstab. In 1832, five years after Beethoven’s death, Rellstab likened the effect of the first movement to that of moonlight shining upon Lake Lucerne. Within ten years, the name “Moonlight Sonata” (“Mondscheinsonate” in German) was being used in German and English publications. Later in the nineteenth century, the sonata was universally known by that name.

Many critics have objected to the subjective, Romantic nature of the title “Moonlight”, which has at times been called “a misleading approach to a movement with almost the character of a funeral march” and “absurd”.  Other critics have approved of the sobriquet, finding it evocative or in line with their own associations with the work. Gramophone founder Compton Mackenzie found the title “harmless”, remarking that “it is silly for austere critics to work themselves up into a state of almost hysterical rage with poor Rellstab”, and adding, “what these austere critics fail to grasp is that unless the general public had responded to the suggestion of moonlight in this music Rellstab’s remark would long ago have been forgotten.”

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