Composed in 1801; Published in 1802
This work, the most famous sonata in existence⎯and one of the most atypical⎯owes its nickname not to Beethoven or any ingenious publisher. Rather, the credit goes to the German poet and critic Ludwig Rellstab, who wrote that the first movement reminded him of “a boat visiting, by moonlight, the primitive landscapes of Lake Lucerne.” One is tempted to wonder whether the sonata would have achieved its popularity without that evocative nickname, and also to lament that the first movement is by now so hackneyed that its magnificence is often overlooked. Moreover, the entire piece, surely one of Beethoven’s finest creations, is all-too-seldom performed in recital. (Interestingly, when the sonata was first published, it was the finale that gave the work its almost instant popularity.)
This work and its less-known companion, the Sonata in E flat, Op. 27/1, represent Beethoven’s earliest attempts to create works whose continuity spreads over all the movements, with the weightiest moments occurring toward the conclusion, rather than the opening. The dividing lines between movements are clearer here than in Op. 27/1. Still, the Moonlight’s effect is also cumulative, leading us from the utmost solemnity of the first movement, through the gracious, ultra-brief respite provided by an untitled minuet (termed by Liszt as “a flower between two abysses) to the passionate, unremittingly tragic Finale. Interestingly, there is little contrast within any of the movements: each seems to be cut from only one piece of cloth.
Theoretically, the opening movement can be parsed into a structure containing all the elements of Sonata allegro form. However such an “analysis” barely describes this wondrous composition, which sounds more formless than possibly any other movement he wrote. Two characteristics of the final movement, which is in a far more recognizable sonata-allegro form, bear noting. The first three notes in the right hand are identical to the accompanying triplet figure in the opening movement. Also, as in several other of his sonatas, the movement seems to run out of steam shortly before the conclusion of the work, and pauses briefly before heading for the final bar.
—Notes by Robert Silverman