Why Do We Love the 'Moonlight' Sonata?

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Moonlight

hide captionBeethoven finished his Piano Sonata No. 14, nicknamed the "Moonlight," in 1801.

Tom Hahn/iStockPhoto

It has been recorded by everyone from Geza Anda to Dieter Zechlin. Forward-looking, iconoclastic modern pianists record it; so do classicists, and big-name stars give it a try. With more than 80 available recordings, pianists continue to return to Beethoven's "Moonlight" Sonata.

"Surely I've written better things," Beethoven said of his Piano Sonata No. 14 in C-sharp minor, Opus 27, No. 2. So why does everybody play the "Moonlight"?

Beethoven specified that the piece's famous first movement should be played "Quasi una fantasia" — almost a fantasy — and it has certainly inspired many a fantasy, passion, and parody. But maybe the answer lies somewhere in the 13 different versions heard here.

Note: This essay was first broadcast in 2000.

Five 'Moonlights,' 1st Mvt.

Cover for Beethoven: Piano Sonatas

Artur Schnabel

  • Artist: Artur Schnabel
  • Album: Beethoven: Piano Sonatas
  • Song: Piano Sonata No. 14 in C sharp minor ("Moonlight"), Op. 27/2

Artur Schnabel's recordings of Beethoven sonatas still remain definitive; his brisk "Moonlight" was waxed in 1934.

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  • "Piano Sonata No. 14 in C sharp minor ("Moonlight"), Op. 27/2"
  • Album: Beethoven: Piano Sonatas
  • Artist: Artur Schnabel
  • Label: EMI
 
Cover for Annie Fischer

Annie Fischer

  • Artist: Annie Fischer
  • Album: Annie Fischer
  • Song: Piano Sonata No. 14 in C sharp minor ("Moonlight"), Op. 27/2

The Hungarian pianist Annie Fischer recorded this enduring version in late 1958 and early 1959.

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  • "Piano Sonata No. 14 in C sharp minor ("Moonlight"), Op. 27/2"
  • Album: Annie Fischer
  • Artist: Annie Fischer
  • Label: EMI
  • Released: 1996
 
Cover for Beethoven: Piano Sonatas Nos. Pathétique, Mondschein, Appassionata

Emil Grigoryevich Gilels

  • Artist: Emil Grigoryevich Gilels
  • Album: Beethoven: Piano Sonatas Nos. Pathétique, Mondschein, Appassionata
  • Song: Piano Sonata No. 14 in C sharp minor ("Moonlight"), Op. 27/2

Originally from the Ukraine, Emil Gilels performed this slower interpretation live in Moscow in 1968.

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  • "Piano Sonata No. 14 in C sharp minor ("Moonlight"), Op. 27/2"
  • Album: Beethoven: Piano Sonatas Nos. Pathétique, Mondschein, Appassionata
  • Artist: Emil Grigoryevich Gilels
  • Label: Brilliant
 
Cover for Beethoven: Favourite Piano Sonatas

Vladimir Ashkenazy

  • Artist: Vladimir Ashkenazy
  • Album: Beethoven: Favourite Piano Sonatas
  • Song: Piano Sonata No. 14 in C sharp minor ("Moonlight"), Op. 27/2

Before Russian pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy branched out into conducting, he cut this classic 1978 study.

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  • "Piano Sonata No. 14 in C sharp minor ("Moonlight"), Op. 27/2"
  • Album: Beethoven: Favourite Piano Sonatas
  • Artist: Vladimir Ashkenazy
  • Label: London
  • Released: 1997
 
Cover for Beethoven: Piano Sonatas Nos. 13, 14, 17, 21

Maurizio Pollini

  • Artist: Maurizio Pollini
  • Album: Beethoven: Piano Sonatas Nos. 13, 14, 17, 21
  • Song: Piano Sonata No. 14 in C sharp minor ("Moonlight"), Op. 27/2

The Italian pianist Maurizio Pollini ventured this version of Beethoven's Opus 27, No. 2 in 1991.

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  • "Piano Sonata No. 14 in C sharp minor ("Moonlight"), Op. 27/2"
  • Album: Beethoven: Piano Sonatas Nos. 13, 14, 17, 21
  • Artist: Maurizio Pollini
  • Label: Deutsche Grammophon
  • Released: 2001
 

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