A Look into Different Interpretations of the First Movement of Moonlight Sonata: The Piece that Portrays an Assortment of Emotions by
Music History 70: Beethoven
Ludwig Van Beethoven's Quasi Una Fantasia, later named and more famously known as The Moonlight Sonata, is a piano piece that can be portrayed and analyzed in a multitude of ways. The piece was published in 1801, during a period of great experimentation in Beethoven's music. This can help explain how the piece addresses a broad range of emotions that vary from romance to frustration to anger. The first movement is full of all of those feelings and more, however it is the pianist who decides which of them will triumph over the rest. Pianists do so through techniques using musical aspects such as tempo, dynamics, accents, and syncopation to name a few. This paper will discuss four different interpretations of the first movement of the Moonlight Sonata performed by a diverse range of musicians. The musicians include German classical pianist, Wilhelm Kempff, American piano legend, Wladziu Valentine Liberace, contemporary jazz pianist, Lenny Marcus and myself, an amateur pianist.
Beethoven originally named this piece, Quasi Una Fantasia, which translates to "almost a fantasy". Fantasy does not mean dream-like in this context, instead it is an improvised piece of music. The idea of the piece being improvised really works with the nature how the first movement functions. This in not only because the movement is not in traditional sonata-allegro procedure but because it is full of chords, arpeggios and runs that are just laying there on the staff waiting to altered through musical techniques using improvisation. When musicians play the Moonlight they have the ability to improvise and mix in their own style and technique to the piece in order to portray specific emotions that leave their audience surprised and hopefully very pleased.
The first interpretation is performed by German pianist, Wilhelm Kempff and was recorded in 1965. Wilhelm Kempff came to fame in Europe by the 1950's. His purpose of recording classical music was to probably keep the musical appreciation of classical music alive in Europe, and eventually the United States. Of the performances being analyzed in this paper, this one is the truest to classical Beethoven. He doesn't alter the original score, he merely uses his own techniques to get his ideas across to his audience. I believe he did not want to change anything about the music because he was performing at a time when Germany wanted to be at the top of the world and hold up the tradition of "German superiority" (dated back to Beethoven's lifetime). Beethoven is arguably the greatest German composer, therefore staying true to Beethoven's score is like staying true to the creative greatness of Germany
If one was to have a "typical" idea of what the first movement of the Moonlight Sonata should be played like, it is probably very similar to Kempff's. He plays it molto legato and adagio. This gives the performance a relaxed and carefree quality that takes the listeners to an almost dream-like state. He pays a lot of attention to the dynamics that Beethoven noted in the music. He plays it soft (piano) and doesn't put too much stress on any given note, even at points in the music where tension arises. His tempo remains slow (adagio) throughout the movement. Although there a slight change in the dynamics at certain climatic points, there is not dramatic changes, say from piano to fortissimo. For that reason, the feeling of relaxation is constant throughout Kempff's performance and the anger or darkness that some people associate with the Moonlight Sonata is not present.
Kempff makes this piece more lyrical than instrumental, as though someone is singing the melody. I think this is because he plays the harmony so soft and smooth and that causes the melody to be that much more clear and dominant....
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