Beethoven′s ′Moonlight Sonata′: To the moon and back to Germany | Music | DW | 06.09.2019
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Beethoven's 'Moonlight Sonata': To the moon and back to Germany

A timeless classical music hit, Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata" is the inspiration for this year's Beethovenfest in Bonn. It's been performed all over the world and has even been sent into outer space.

"That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind," Neil Armstrong famously said when he landed on the moon in July, 1969. Although the director of the Bonn Beethovenfest, Nike Wagner, didn't think of the 50th anniversary year of the moon landing when she chose "Moonlight" as this year's festival theme, it is certainly appropriate.

The theme is taken from Ludwig van Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 14,  also known as the "Moonlight Sonata," which has remained popular for centuries. According to Wagner, it also fits into a current trend.

"The moon is in fashion right now," she told DW. "You can look up the 'Moonlight Sonata' on the internet and there are millions of clicks. Everybody connects the 'Moonlight Sonata' with Beethoven." 

Bonn's Beethovenfest takes place from September 6 to 29 and includes performances of Beethoven's music, as well as the works of many other famed composers.

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 Caspar David Friedrich Two Men Contemplating the Moon. (Gemeinfrei)

Painter Caspar David Friedrich captured the moon's romance in "Two Men Contemplating the Moon"

There's something about the moon...

Mankind's fascination with the moon dates back centuries. For the ancient Greeks and Romans, the moon was a symbol of power. In Christian iconography, it adorns images of Mary and represents salvation and divinity.

In 1609, Galileo Galilei is said to have recognized the uneven surface of the moon for the first time through his telescope.

There have also been numerous artists, musicians, writers and filmmakers who have taken up the theme of the moon in their work. From romantic transfiguration in the moonlight to frightening demons who appear on the dark side, the moon is often artistically portrayed as having has two faces.

The series of compositions "Night on Bald Mountain" by Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky evokes images of witches gathering under the moonlight, while painter Caspar David Friedrich captured the romantic magic of the moon in his famous painting from 1819, "Two Men Contemplating the Moon."

"Two of our events have a satirical approach to the old dream of landing on the moon," pointed out the Beethovenfest director. "But we're even more interested by how moonlight is reflected and experienced in art — and there are extremely strong examples of this in music."

Beethoven didn't have moonlight in mind

With its melancholic character, Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata" is regarded as a forerunner of musical romanticism. But that wasn't its original title. "Beethoven didn't call it that himself," explained Wagner. "He called it 'Quasi Una Fantasia' because he reversed the traditional sequences of movements."

Normally, a sonata begins with a fast movement, but in this piece, Beethoven chose a more leisurely tempo for the start. "This first Adagio of the 'Moonlight Sonata' is imprinted in the memory of the whole world, and it is a beautiful movement that has a lot of dreamy, romantic egoism within it," the festival director said.

Read more: How to celebrate Beethoven? The festival named after him shows the way

Director of Beethovenfest Nike Wagner (picture-alliance/dpa/O. Berg)

Beethovenfest director Nike Wagner

It was only a few years after Beethoven's death that the poet and music critic Ludwig Rellstab likened the first movement of the sonata with the moon shining on a lake, and thus coined the title "Moonlight Sonata."

Several different variations of the piece will be performed during the Beethovenfest. Renowned pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard will play it on a modern grand piano, while Dutch musician Ronald Brautigam will perform it on a fortepiano, similar to how it would have sounded in Beethoven's day.

A version of the sonata for horn and piano composed by Giselher Klebe in the 1950s will also be performed. "This is the goal of the Beethovenfest: to play everything in different variations to show the immense richness of music history up to the present day," explains Wagner.


Read moreFrom Scorpions to Beethoven: Ursula von der Leyen's playlist for the army

The night belongs to the moon

Music dedicated to the night was also in fashion before the Romantic period. Baroque composer Antonio Vivaldi wrote his concerto "La Notte" ("The Night") for flute and orchestra in 1728. He was interested in portraying the sounds of nature, such as thunderstorms and wind.

Flautist and recorder player Dorothee Oberlinger (Johannes Ritter)

German flutist Dorothee Oberlinger recorded her recent album in the middle of the night

"The night itself, Nux in Greek, is personified as the mother of heaven and earth and the daughter of chaos," explains flutist Dorothee Oberlinger, who will perform at the Beethovenfest. Among other pieces, she will play Vivaldi's work. "It begins with the throbbing heartbeat in the flute and the strings," describes Oberlinger, "then the ghosts come and spread fear." After a quieter interlude which Vivaldi titled "Sleep," ghosts reappear at dawn to spread what the musician describes as "musical chaos." 

From the contemplative Sephardic lullaby to the secrets of the lovers at night, the musician has recorded all facets of the night with Italian ensemble Sonatori de La Gioiosa Marca. Their recent CD, Night Music, was even recorded at night in the vineyards of a church in Italy. "We usually record at night because the mood is very intimate and you are very concentrated," says Oberlinger of her unique choice of atmosphere.

Beethoven's 'Moonlight Sonata' goes to the moon

Incidentally, Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata" has already landed on the moon. Fascinated by the technology of receiving sounds from the moon on earth via radio, artist Katie Paterson sent the notes of the "Moonlight Sonata" as an encoded Morse code to the moon in 2007 as part of her project "Earth-Moon-Earth." The signals, which were reflected from the moon's surface and returned to the earth, were then decoded and turned into sounds once again.

Some tones of the "Moonlight Sonata” were lost in the echo and disappeared in the deep craters of the moon. Paterson's eerie "Moonlight Sonata," is part of exhibition at Salzburg's Museum der Moderne, "Fly me to the Moon," held until November 3.

All other versions of the "Moonlight Sonata" and other nocturnal tunes from Antonio Vivaldi to Arnold Schönberg, can be heard at the Beethovenfest in Bonn.

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