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Beethoven's so-called "Moonlight" Sonata is fully titled "Sonata quasi una Fantasia".

Google translates this literally to "Sonata almost a Fantasy", but I'll assume it means more like "Sonata in the style/manner of a Fantasy".

As a Sonata is a specific musical form - albeit one which evolved through the eras - and a Fantasy is a free, improvised piece which doesn't follow any form, is this title not an oxymoron?
How can something written with a defined form be "like" something without one - aren't they mutually exclusive?

To my mind, it's a bit like saying "Counterpoint in the style of homophony".

Contradictions aside, does this title offer any hints as to how it is to be performed; would it be any different were it simply "Sonata"?

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It certainly sounds like an oxymoron to me. From what little I've read about Beethoven, it seems in keeping with his unique character. –  Wheat Williams Apr 27 '12 at 15:43
    
www.imslp.org/wiki/Piano_Sonata_No.14,_Op.27/2_(Beethoven,_Ludwig_van) -this link has the sheet music and multiple performances of the piece. –  American Luke Apr 27 '12 at 17:35
    
Another weirdness is that the tempo is, IIRC, Andante; but everybody plays it super largo. –  luser droog Apr 27 '12 at 23:40
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@luserdroog The music I have is marked adagio sostenuto, but it's notated as a quarter note equaling 50bpm, so I would say "super largo" is pretty accurate, actually =) –  jadarnel27 Apr 28 '12 at 2:46

2 Answers 2

up vote 4 down vote accepted

The other one in the same opus is also a "Sonata quasi una Fantasia" and is more obviously one. It doesn't break down cleanly into movements but appears to start a movement, suddenly go into another one, and then come back to the first one again. A "Fantasia", for instance one of Mozart's, has a kind of "anything goes" improvisatory feel, where a "movement" doesn't really end but just before the final chord has a transition to a completely different idea. Often the first idea comes back later in the piece.

The "Moonlight" is less of a "Fantasia"; maybe Beethoven just wanted to have two pieces named "Sonata quasi una Fantasia" in the same opus number. There are two Fantasia-like things about the Moonlight: 1. The first movement really is an oddball piece. Sonata first movements are usually fast, dramatic pieces. This one is more-or-less in "Sonata Form" but not like any other sonata or symphony first movement. 2. Each movement is supposed to be played immediately after the previous one without pause (although there are no transitions as in a fantasia).

Now for performance practice: Look up what Andras Schiff has to say about this piece, if you can find it. He gave a series of lectures in London that were recorded and available online from The Guardian (newspaper in England) for a short time. Most pianists play the first movement much too slowly. Note that it is marked in 2/2 time (C with a line through it, sometimes called "cut time"). Adagio sostenuto, two beats per measure. The figuration (triplet accompaniment, "dunt - da - Dah" in the treble) comes originally from a short passage in Mozart's "Don Giovanni". (Schiff says that as a student Beethoven copied this passage by hand; the copy still exists in a museum.) The piece is actually a funeral march, not four steps per measure but a very slow two steps per measure. According to someone (Czerny? I forget who), Beethoven himself played it at half-note = 60.

Beethoven tells you to keep the damper pedal down for the entire first movement, and he means it. Should this be done on a modern piano? Well, the typical good-quality grand pianos of Beethoven's day had the same sustain time as modern pianos. I know because I've played some of them at the Frederick Collection. (Schumann's "Papillons" shows that his pianos had long sustain times too.) Beethoven uses the effect in another sonata as well. He liked this effect: it's like playing music or speaking in a vault or cave. Perhaps this is a funeral march that marches right into a large mauseleum. Remember that it also must be played very delicately and always pianissimo. He says so right there in the first measure.

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+1 "right there in the first measure." It's very easy to skip a marking you don't understand. . People are like cats; get away with it twice and it's a habit. Even coming back to the same old piece for the 1000th time, I frequently notice little markings I didn't even see the first 999 times. It's almost like a macro/micro-cosm thing. Can't even really play measure one without knowing how to play the whole thing. –  luser droog Apr 28 '12 at 22:12
    
Excellent answer, thanks. –  Widor Apr 30 '12 at 9:24

When you listen to it, does it feel like a sonata? Or does it feel a little bit looser, with a wee bit of unstructured-ness about it.

That's what I always read into it, anyway: a hint of the fantasy, as well as a hint of the fantastic.

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A beautiful moody piece in any century and so very very Beethoven. –  filzilla Apr 27 '12 at 18:32

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