[1.II.25.1] Beethoven's Moonlight, 1st Movement, Op. 27, No. 2
The most notable controversy about this movement is the pedaling. Beethoven's instruction "senza sordini" translates to "without dampers" which means that the pedal should be down from the beginning to the end. Most pianists have not followed this instruction because on modern concert grands the sustain is so long (much longer than on Beethoven's piano) that the mixture of all those notes creates a background roar that is considered crude in conventional piano pedagogy. Certainly, no piano teacher will allow the student to do that! However, Beethoven was not only an extremist, but loved to break the rules. The Moonlight is built on contrast. The first movement is slow, legato, pedaled, and soft. The 3rd movement is the extreme opposite; it is simply a variation on the first movement played very fast and agitato – this is confirmed by the observation that the top double octave of bar 2 in the 3rd movement is an abbreviated form of the 3-note theme prominent in the 1st movement, discussed below (see section III.5.6 for discussions of the 3rd movement). There is also a glaring contrast between the dissonances and the clear harmonies that give this first movement its famous quality. The background dissonance is created by the pedal, as well as the ninths, etc. Thus the dissonances are there in order to make the harmonies stand out, like a sparkling diamond on a dark velvet background. Being the extremist that he is, he chose the most harmonious theme possible: one note repeated three times (bar 5)! Therefore, my interpretation is that the pedal should be down throughout the piece just as Beethoven instructed. With most pianos, this should present no problems; however, with concert grands, it gets difficult because the background din becomes louder as you play and you still have to play PP ("sempre pianissimo"); in that case you might reduce the background slightly, but never cut it out completely, as it is part of the music. This is not the way you will hear it in recordings, where the emphasis is usually on the clear harmonies, eliminating the background – the "standard" convention for "correct" pedaling. However, Beethoven may have decided to break that rule here. This is why he did not put any pedal markings in the whole movement – because you never have to lift it. Having decided to fully engage the damper pedal throughout, the first rule in learning this piece is not to use the pedal at all until you can play it comfortably HT. This will enable you to learn how to play legato, which can only be practiced without the pedal. Although it is played very softly, there is no need for the soft pedal in this piece; moreover, with most practice pianos, the action is not sufficiently smooth, with the soft pedal depressed, to enable the desired control at PP.
Start by memorizing HS, say bars 1-5, and immediately commit it to mental play. Pay attention to all the expression markings. It is in cut time, but the 2 first bars are like an introduction and have only one LH octave note each; the rest are played more strictly cut time. Beethoven tells us immediately, in bar 2, that dissonance is going to be a major component of this movement by inserting the octave B in the LH, jarring the audience with a dissonance. Continue memorizing in segments until the end.
The LH octaves must be held. For example, play the LH C# octave of bar 1 using fingers 51, but immediately slip the 4, then 3 finger onto the lower C#, replacing the 5, holding this lower C# down. You will end up holding the octave 35 before you reach bar 2. Now hold the 3 as you play the B octave of bar 2 with 51. In this way, you maintain complete legato in the LH going down. Using this procedure, you cannot maintain complete legato with the 1 finger, but hold that as long as you can. In the transition from bar 3 to 4, the LH octave must come up. In that case, play the F# of bar 3 with 51, then hold the 5 and play the next G# octave with 41. Similarly, for bars 4 to 5, play the 2nd G# octave of bar 4 with 51, then replace finger 1 with 2 while holding it down (you may have to lift the 5) so that you can play the following chord of bar 5, fingers 521, and maintain the legato. The general idea is to hold as many notes as you can, especially the lower note for the LH and the upper note for the RH. There are usually several ways to do these "holds", so you should experiment to see which is best for you in a particular situation. The choice of a specific hold procedure depends mostly on the size of your hand. For example, the LH octave of bar 1 could have been played 41 or 31 so that you do not have to replace any fingers; this has the advantage of simplicity, but has the disadvantage that you need to remember that when you start the piece. Throughout this piece, use the "finger replacement" method to hold as much legato as possible. You must decide on a specific replacement procedure when you first memorize the piece and always use that same one.
Why hold the note legato when you are eventually going to hold all the notes with the pedal anyway? Firstly, how you depress the key depends on how you hold it; therefore, you can play a more consistent and authoritative legato by holding. Secondly, if you lift the key but hold the note with the pedal, the backcheck releases the hammer, allowing it to flop around, and this "looseness" of the action is audible – the nature of the sound changes. Moreover, as commander of the piano, you always want the backcheck to hold the hammer so that you have complete control over the entire piano action. This degree of control is extremely important when playing PP – you can't control the PP if the hammer is flopping around. Another reason for holding is that it provides absolute accuracy because your hand never leaves the keyboard and the held note acts as a reference for finding the following notes.
Music – how to make music? Bar 1 is not just a series of 4 triplets. They must be logically connected; therefore, pay attention to the connection between the top note of each triplet and the bottom note of the next triplet. This connection is especially important when transitioning from one bar to the next, and the lowest note often has melodic value, as in bars 4-5, 9-10, etc. The RH of bar 5 starts with the lowest note, E, and the music rises all the way to the G# of the 3-note theme. This theme should not be played "alone" but is the culmination of the arpeggic rise of the preceding triplet. If you have difficulty reaching the RH ninth of bar 8, play the lower note with the LH; similarly, at bar 16. In these instances, you cannot completely hold the legato in the LH, but the legato in the RH is more important, and the lifting of the LH can be made less audible when you use the pedal later. However, if you can reach it easily, you should try to play the ninth with the RH alone because that will allow you to hold more notes in the LH. Although the first note of the 3-note theme is an octave G#, the top note should be distinct from, and firmer than, the lower note. Bars 32-35 is a series of rising triplets of increasing tension. Bars 36-37 should be connected, because is it one smooth release of that tension.
The beginning is PP to bar 25 where there is a crescendo, decreasing to P in bar 28, and returning to PP in bar 42. In most cresc. and decresc., most of the increase or decrease should come near the end, not near the beginning. There is an unexpected crescendo in bar 48, and an abrupt jump to P at the first note of bar 49. This is the clearest indication that Beethoven wanted a clear harmony superposed on a dissonant din created by the pedal.
The "ending" starts near bar 55. Be careful to observe the cut time; in particular, emphasize the first and third beats of bar 57. What appears to be a normal ending is indicated by the (wrong) accents on the 4th beat of bar 58 and the 3rd beat of bar 59. The first chord of bar 60 is a false ending. Most composers would have ended the music here; it is the same chord as the first chord of this movement - a characteristic of standard endings. However, Beethoven often used double endings, which makes the real ending more "final". He immediately picks up the beat and leads you to the true ending, using a nostalgic recapitulation of the 3-note theme played by the LH, all played PP. The final two chords should be the softest notes of the entire movement, which is difficult because they contain so many notes.
For HT play, this movement presents no problems. The only new element is the holding of notes for legato which requires extra control over both hands simultaneously.
Once you have memorized the whole movement and can play it HT satisfactorily, add the pedal. If you choose to keep the pedal down all the time, the melody of the top notes in bars 5-9 can be played as an ethereal apparition superposed on a background dissonance created by the chord progressions. Beethoven probably chose this construction to demonstrate the sonority of the new pianos of that time and to explore their capabilities. This observation supports the idea that the dissonant background should not be completely eliminated by judiciously lifting the pedal.