Moonlight (Sonata No. 14) by Beethoven

Moonlight (Sonata No. 14) by Beethoven

The Piano Sonata No. 14 in C-sharp minor, Op. 27 No. 2, Quasi una fantasia, popularly known as Moonlight (German: Mondscheinsonate), was written by Ludwig van Beethoven in 1801 and published in 1802. The score is dedicated to Countess Giulietta Guicciardi. It is one of the author’s most famous works, along with the first movement of  the Fifth Symphony, the piano trifle Für Elise and the Ninth Symphony.

Piano Sonata No. 14
“Moonlight Sonata”
Name The Piano Sonata No. 14
Alternative name Moonlight
Composer Ludwig van Beethoven
Catalog Opus 27, n.º 2
Tonality C sharp minor
Composition date 1801
Publication date 1802
Dedication Countess Giulietta Guicciardi
Style Romanticism
Genre Sonata
Duration about 15 minutes
Number of instruments 1: piano alone
Number of movements 3

History of Moonlight


The composition of the piece was developed during the summer of 1801 in Hungary on a property belonging to the family of Count Anton II Brunswick. Ludwig had met in 1799 in Vienna Therese and Josephine, the daughters of this count, who were first his pupils and then struck up a great friendship.

The two sonatas that make up opus 27, No. 13 and No. 14  “Moonlight”, are entitled “Quasi una fantasia” (“Almost a fantasy”). The term, which refers to the distancing of form from the classical sonata of Mozart and Haydn, was used by Beethoven with some freedom. While earlier sonatas, such as No. 12, or those of his last period, such as No. 28, also introduced changes in the genre and carried other titles, such as “Große Sonate für das Hammerklavier“.


The first publication of this opus was carried out by the publisher Giovanni Cappi in 1802 in Vienna. On 3 March 1802 the Wiener Zeitung announced the joint publication of the sonata Op. 26 under the title “Grande Sonate” and the two sonatas Op. 27 under the title “Quasi una fantasia“. The cover of the first edition of this sonata is in Italian and reads as follows:

“Sonata Quasi una Fantasia per il Clavicembalo o Piano-forte composta e dedicata alla Damigella Contessa Giulietta Guicciardi da Luigi van Beethoven, Opera 27 No. 2. In Vienna presso Gio. Cappi Sulla Piazza di St. Michele No. 5.”

“Sonata almost a fantasy for harpsichord or piano, composed and dedicated to Miss Countess Giulietta Guicciardi, by Ludwig van Beethoven. Op. 27, No. 2. [Published] in Vienna at Giovanni Cappi’s house at Michaelerplatz no. 5.”

The “damigella” or young lady referred to in the previous dedication was his student, the 17-year-old Countess Giulietta Guicciardi, with whom he was said to be in love. She was the daughter of Count Guicciardi, a Triestine character who in the spring of 1800 had been transferred to Vienna as an advisor to the Bohemian Chancellery.

The family was related to the Brunswicks, close friends of Beethoven and the artist soon counted Giulietta among his aristocratic disciples, not accepting any remuneration for the lessons in which he was very demanding as a teacher. In those days the musician was approaching thirty years old. After some time, the relations between teacher and student became a warmer affection. This can be seen in his correspondence, since after a very melancholy letter written to Wegeler, the master addressed another in which he said:

“Now I live happier. You can never imagine the lonely and sad life I have gone through in recent times … This change is the work of a loving, magical girl who loves me and whom I love. […] After two years I have enjoyed again some moments of happiness and for the first time I think that marriage could make me happy, but unfortunately it is not my position and I can not think of getting married.

Giulietta Guicciardi, dedicatee of Sonata No. 14 (Moonlight)
Giulietta Guicciardi, dedicatee of Sonata No. 14 (Moonlight)

The nickname Moonlight became popular after Beethoven’s death. It arose from a comparison made in 1832 by the German poet and music critic Ludwig Rellstab between the first movement of the piece and the moonlight of Lake Lucerne.

Structure and analysis

The sonata consists of three movements:

  • Adagio sostenuto, in C-sharp minor (2 2)
  • Allegretto, in D-flat major (3 4)
  • Presto agitato, in C-sharp minor (4 4)

The performance of this work lasts approximately 15 minutes. Although there is no direct testimony as to the specific reasons why Beethoven decided on the title for both pieces that make up Op. 27 as Sonata Quasi una fantasia, it may be significant that the arrangement of the present work does not follow the traditional model of a sonata movement of the classical period that followed the pattern:  fast – slow [fast] – fast. Instead, this composition has a weighted trajectory until the end, keeping the fast music contained until the third movement.

In his analysis, the German critic Paul Bekker states the following:

“The allegro movement introduced by the sonata gave the piece a certain character from the beginning… that subsequent movements could complement but not change. Beethoven rebelled against this defining quality of the first movement. He wanted a prelude, an introduction, not a proposition.”

I. Adagio sostenuto

The first movement, Adagio sostenuto, is written in the key of C-sharp minor, in alla breve time  and adopts a modified sonata-allegro form. According to Harding the structure of the Adagio could be described as an irregular binary form, but it contains the essential characteristics of the sonata form.Its style is similar to that of the lied in ternary form.

The main theme is borrowed from a German ballad as noted by Theodore of Wyzewski. For his part, Edwin Fischer attributes the atmosphere of this movement to a feeling of mourning. In one of the manuscripts of the German master there are numerous sketches of the scene of Mozart’s Don Giovanni in which Don Juan kills the Commander. After these sketches the passage is noted in C-sharp minor, showing an evident resemblance to this Adagio. Analyzing such evidence, the character is not that of a moonlight romantic but that of a solemn funeral hymn.

It begins with an octave in the left hand and with figuration of ostinato triplets in the right. Hector Berlioz called this melody “lament.” The predominant dynamic is pianissimo (pp) “very soft” and only in some passages reaches the piano (p). It is also indicated that “this piece should be played very delicately and without using the mute pedal” throughout the first movement.

The first movement summary scheme
Part Section Degree Tonality Beats: from-to
Presentation of the theme First sentence I (tonic) relative → major C # minor – E major 1 – 9
Mode change   E major – E minor 9 – 10
Second sentence less than the relative greater → new dominant E minor → B minor 10 -15
Mode change   B minor – B major 15
Codetta dominant → → G sharp 15 – 28
Development/Transition   Dominant → tonic pedal G # → C sharp minor 28 – 42
Reprise of the theme First sentence I (tonic) relative → major C # minor – E major 42 – 46
Second sentence relative greater tonic → E major → C sharp minor 46 – 51
Mode change   C-sharp minor → C-sharp major 51
Codetta New tonic → change mode → 7a of Sun. by E major. tonic → Fa # major. → is # min. → is major. 7th → do # min. 51 – 60
Final queue tonic do # min. 60 – 69

II. Allegretto

The second movement, Allegretto, is in D-flat major and in 3/4 time. It is a minuet with trio, which curiously is in C-sharp major, the enharmonic key of D-flat major. It is unusual for both to be written in the same key. Both the minuet and the trio present a simple binary form but the conventional return to the first theme does not appear. The character is quite gentle and smooth, which contrasts with the next movement.

The second movement summary scheme
Part Section Subsection Degree Tonality Beats: from-to
Scherzo First sentence First half-sentence I (tonic) → V (dominant) Db major – the b major 1 – 5
Second half-sentence → I (tonic) Db major 5 – 9
Second sentence   I (tonic) Db major 10 – 17
Development  Melodic line  of development I (tonic) Db major 18 – 24
Resumption of the theme I (tonic) Db major 24 – 38
Trio Theme   I (tonic) Db major 39 – 47
Development   I (tonic) Db major 48 – 64
Resumption of the Scherzo (as above)        

III. Presto agitato

The third and final movement, Presto agitato, is in the opening key, in 4/4 time and follows the sonata form. It is an experiment by Beethoven consisting of rapid arpeggios, scales and a skillful game of questions and answers between the two hands. The difficulty of execution is very high, in contrast to the previous movements. This same musical feat is performed by Beethoven in Sonata Op. 27 No. 1.

The third and final movement summary scheme
Part Section Subsection Degree Tonality Beats: from-to
Exhibition Main theme area Theme I (tonic) C # minor 1 – 8
Theme Codetta V (dominant) → I (tonic) G # minor → C # minor 9 – 14
Brief resumption of the theme (transition to the second theme) I (tonic) → dominant V) C # minor → G # minor 15 – 20
Subtheme area Theme V (dominant) G # minor 21 – 25
Codetta to the theme V (dominant) G # minor 25 – 32
Queue of the exhibition 1st closing theme VI (supradominant) the largest 33 – 42
2nd closing theme V (dominant) G # minor 43 – 57
3rd closing theme V (dominant) G # minor 57 – 65
Development First theme   I (tonic) → IV (subdominant) C # minor → F # minor 66 – 71
Second theme   IV (subdominant) F # minor 72 – 87
Dominant pedal (development tail)   V (dominant) → I (tonic) G # minor → C # minor 88 – 102
Resumption Main theme area Theme I (tonic) C # minor 103 – 110
Theme Codetta V (dominant) → I (tonic) G # minor → C # minor 111 -116
Subtheme area Theme I (tonic) C # minor 117 – 120
Codetta to the theme I (tonic) C # minor 120 – 128
Queue of the exhibition 1st closing theme II (supratonic) D major 129 – 138
2nd closing theme I (tonic) C # minor 138 – 152
3rd closing theme I (tonic) C # minor 152 -158
Tail of Recovery I (tonic) → acc. 7° dim. C # minor → B # min. 7th dim. 158 – 167
Final queue First Theme   I (tonic) C # minor 168 – 177
Cadence with arpeggios       177 – 190
Third closing theme   I (tonic) C # minor 191 – 196
First Theme   I (tonic) C # minor 197 – 201

Pedal indication

Autograph score, of which the first page has been lost.
Autograph score, of which the first page has been lost.

Beethoven included in the opening of the first movement the following indication in Italian regarding the use of the pedal:

«Si deve suonare tutto questo pezzo delicatissimamente e senza sordino»
(It must be played with the utmost delicacy and without mutine[s]).

The way to achieve this, both in current pianos and in those of the Beethoven era, is to step on the sustain pedal throughout the movement, or at least use it throughout the movement but re-operate it when the harmony changes.

The modern piano has a much longer suspension time than instruments of Beethoven’s time, so a constant application of the sostenuto pedal  creates a dissonant sound. On the other hand, performers who employ an instrument built on a historical basis, whether it is a restored antique piano or a modern instrument built on historical principles, are better able to follow Beethoven’s directions to the letter.

To carry out the performance on a modern piano several options have been proposed:

  • One option is to simply change the sostenuto pedal periodically when necessary to avoid excessive dissonance. This is seen, for example, in the pedal marks supplied by Casa Ricordi in its publication of the sonata.
  • Charles Rosen suggests the half pedal or release the pedal with a split second delay. The half pedal is a technique that involves a partial pressure of the pedal, which is usually used to simulate the shorter support of the  pedal of the early nineteenth century.
  • Joseph Banowetz proposes to use the sostenuto pedal. The pianist should press the pedal cleanly and let the sympathetic vibration of the low strings provide the desired “blurred” effect. This is achieved by silently pressing the lowest notes of the piano before starting the movement and then using  the sostenuto pedal  to keep these dampers up throughout the movement.

Reception of Moonlight

The work became well known in its time. Hector Berlioz commented on the first movement of the sonata the following: “The adagio is one of those poems that human language fails to qualify”. Beethoven’s pupil Carl Czerny called it “a night scene, in which a pitiful ghostly voice sounds in the distance.” The popularity of the movement became so exasperated that Beethoven remarked to Czerny: “I have surely written better things.”

Influence and legacy of the Sonata No. 14

The sonata in C minor and in particular its third movement constitute a source of direct inspiration for Frédéric Chopin in the creation of his Fantaisie-Impromptu, which is a tribute to Beethoven. It manifests the tonal relationships of the three movements of the sonata, the chord structures, and even share some passages. On this question Ernst Oster writes the following:

“With the help of the Fantaisie-Impromptu we can at least recognize what particular features of the Sonata in C minor ignited Chopin. In fact, we can consider Chopin as our teacher when he points to the coda and says, “Look, this is great. Look at this example… The Fantaisie-Impromptu is perhaps the only case in which a genius reveals to us – if only by means of his own composition – what he actually hears in the work of another genius.”

Carl Bohm composed a piece for violin and piano called Meditation, Op. 296, in which he adds a violin melody over the first unaltered movement of Beethoven’s sonata.

Moonlight in popular culture

This work has inspired numerous musical artists of all musical genres around the world to create their own versions. Both adaptations and interpretations of the original piece have been included in many soundtracks of movies, television shows, video games, etc.


First movement

  • 1960 – “Moonlight Becomes You”, piece of the album White Satin by British jazz pianist George Shearing that is inspired by the famous Adagio.
  • 1966 – “Past, Present & Future” song from the self-titled album by the soul group The Shangri-Las includes an accompaniment based on the first movement.
  • 1969 – “Moonlight Sonata”, piece included in the album Six Hours Past Sunsetin which the composer Henry Mancini makes his version of the original.
  • 1969 – “Because” song included in Abbey Roadby The Beatles that shows a strong inspiration in the Adagio.
  • 2000 – “The River” track from the album Sad Clown Bad Dub IIby the American rap group Atmosphere uses a base in which a version of the opening movement of the sonata is heard in a  faster tempo than usual.
  • 2001 – “Piano & I”, song from the album Songs in A Minorby Alicia Keys that includes elements of the first movement of the sonata.
  • 2016 – “Better Than Yourself (Criminal Mind Pt. 2)” by Lukas Graham is also inspired by the Adagio.

Third movement

  • 1995 – “See Jim Run, Run Jim Run” by composer Tommy Tallarico is a version of this move for the video game Earthworm Jim 2.
  • 2016 – “Mugen Climax”, song by Japanese J-pop girl group °C-ute that uses the third movement as part of the base.

Inclusion in soundtracks

  • 1994 – Immortal Beloved, film by Bernard Rose with Gary Oldman in the role of Beethoven, in which  the Pathetic Sonata performed by Murray Perahia is part of the soundtrack along with many other works of the German genius.
  • 1995 – Misery, film directed by Rob Reineren whose soundtrack features the Moonlight Sonata performed by Liberace.
  • 1996 – Detective Conan: in this Japanese manga and anime series episode 11 titled “Sonata in the light of the moon” in Spain; “Murder(s) in the light of the moon” in Latin America; and “Moonlight Sonata murder case” in North America. The case revolves around murders related to this sonata.
  • 1996 – Resident Evil, video game in which Jill Valentinetoca this piece when interacting with the piano to activate access to one of the rooms of the mansion.
  • 1999 – Shadow Man, video game in which it was used as a prologue theme and one of the characters of the game, Jack the Ripper including in his battle as a boss an altered and reversed version.
  • 2002 – The Pianist, film by Roman Polanskien whose soundtrack includes this sonata.
  • 2003 – Elephant, film by Gus van Santen which you can hear the Adagio of the sonata.

References (sources)