Posts Tagged ‘sonata’

Both of Beethoven’s two piano sonatas, Op. 27, bore the subtitle of ‘Quasi una fantasia‘, or ‘almost a fantasy’. Nevertheless, it is the lesser-known No. 1 that became known by this name, for the popular, misunderstood and rather hackneyed second sonata has taken the title of ‘Moonlight’. It was the music critic Ludwig Rellstab who, in his 1824 novel Theodor, bestowed this name on the first movement of the piece. He was not the first to associate the piece with the night: Czerny, one of Beethoven’s most successful students, called it a ‘night scene’.

There is no evidence that Beethoven had moonlight in mind. In fact, Czerny likely got the nocturnal associations from his friend Field, who invented the nocturne. Czerny, himself a prolific composer of the genre, would not be unfamiliar with its characteristic style – cantabile melody, broken-chord accompaniment – which is heard throughout the first movement of Op. 27 No. 2.

By prescribing the mood of the piece, Czerny and Rellstab have unwittingly stripped the sonata of an important element: That of a fantasia. A fantasia is a piece that breaks free from restrictions, flouts convention and lets ideas flow naturally from the mind and sentiments from the heart. Thanks to Czerny and Rellstab, every time a pianist plays the piece, she thinks of moonlight over a lake, instead of engaging the imagination that is an integral part of a fantasia. Even if the interpreter does not have lunar intentions (or deliberately avoids holding them), the listener cannot but feel there is, for we have been instilled since an early age the notion that the sonata is about the moon.

Music is an art. What is art? Art is a way of expressing ideas that leaves room for interpretation. It is not the artist’s job – lesser still, the job of interpreters – to fill in every detail, capture exact ideas, and tell the audience – reader, listener, theatregoer, admirer of fine arts – what to think. The greatest masters do not weave ‘seamless celestial robes’ (天衣無縫); to use a Cantonese phrase, when you draw a figure, you don’t have to draw in the intestines, too (唔洗畫公仔畫出腸). This poem from Li Qingzhao is an example:

昨夜雨疏風驟,濃睡不消殘酒。試問捲簾人,卻道海棠依舊。知否?知否?應是綠肥紅瘦。

Last night a sprinkling of rain, a violent wind. After a deep sleep, still not recovered from the lingering effect of wine, I inquired of the one rolling up the screen; But the answer came: “The cherry-apple blossoms are still the same.” “Oh, don’t you know, don’t you know? The red must be getting thin, while the green is becoming plump.”

(Translation courtesy of Lucy Chao Ho, Seton Hall University)

Who was the soul who rolled up the screen? Some say her deceased husband; some say a servant girl. Some say he was a figment of the poet’s imagination. We will never know, nor do we need to know. Generations of interpreters can decide for themselves. For the same reason, I prefer listening to Op. 27 No. 1 rather than its celebrated sibling. I cannot escape from Rellstab’s moonlight.