Motivic Use in Beethoven’s Piano Sonata 20, Op. 49 No. 2
This article is an academic paper I wrote nearly a decade ago. I am still fascinated by the complete control that Beethoven has over his motivic materials, and the way that these motives affect the harmony, which is why I am adding it here. If you are taking advanced piano lessons, I hope this analysis will help you make better choices about interpretation. You may also read Taro’s post on Foreign Bodies for his thoughts on how strange and interesting moments arise in music when motivic function, and harmonic progression come into conflict. Before reading, you should download the pdf version of the Score and the Motive Guide and listen to the music. I’ve also embedded the pdf in the bottom of the article in case you prefer to view them here.
There are no major surprises save one when one listens to this piece or does a harmonic analysis. There is, however, a great amount of harmonic and motivic activity in this piece, derived mainly from several recurring motives. I will run through the interesting parts of this piece as they appear chronologically. Because of the many variants of each motive, I have not designated different labels for each variant.
Measure 1 exposes our first motive, an ascending triplet eighth-note arpeggio on the tonic chord G. Immediately following is our first variant, a triplet, but this time descending and compressed (a step then a skip) which arpeggiates a 7th chord. The
motives are very closely related in this piece. Motive a gives rise to motive b in the second measure. The b motive is an entirely descending stepwise 3-note group. This first playing of b has the first variant of motive a dovetailed to its end. Motives c and e are
heard at the same time as motive b. Motive c is a 3-quarter-note group whose first and last note are the same (g) separated by a lower neighbor (f#). Motive e is a truncated form of c, comprised of only the initial half-step. But the most interesting is motive d. It is labeled in the score as a minor third. What is important about this motive is not that it is a third, but that the first note is expected to resolve to a particular tone, and the second note is one tone higher than the expected resolution. Motive d is first seen across the barline separating m. 3 and m. 4. It is the b4 to d5 jump. The b note is contained in a G dominant 7 chord. In this instance b functions as the third of the chord and the leading tone to c. If it is to follow its tendency it must resolve upwards to c5. It doesn’t, however, and instead jumps up to d5. The move to the d can be considered an appoggiatura; it could also be explained as the correct place for the b to go if the leap is considered part of a lager motive (a4-b4-d5). This would be the inversion of motive a’s first variant. The d5 eventually does go to the expected c5 but by then the bass has moved and we really don’t tonicize C. This is important, as we will see later.
It is interesting to note that in the first four measures we hear all of the major motives, and that every element in those measures is somehow comprised of those motives. The first really interesting use of motives (besides how they are all derived from each other) is the combination of motives a and b, by dovetailing them together. The last note of motive b is the same as the first note of motive a1. This can be considered a motive in itself, but I must consider it two, seeing how the compression and elongation of a yielded b. This b+a1 motive begins in the bass in m. 2. It begins again in the soprano on the third beat, but this time in inversion. See example 1. This is why the b4 must jump to d5 and how motive d is formed.
Measure 6 is the same as m. 2 but just an octave higher with some ornamentation. We find the same things just discussed in the lowest voice of the arpeggio pattern and the melody. But what comes next shows the complete unity of this piece and the intricate overlapping and recombining of the motives. The arpeggios in mm. 6-7 can be explained by a two-voice analysis, a sustained tone in the higher voice, and the b+a1 motive. But this isn’t nearly as interesting as the arpeggio in m. 8. This arpeggio can be picked apart in three different ways. See example 2. The lowest voice can be considered motive b inverted. The upper tones, depending on which you consider, can be seen as either c or the inversion of c. I propose that it is both. Just as the b+a1 motive was played against its inversion, here c is played against its inversion in the arpeggio. Simultaneously, b is played in the soprano against its inversion in the low voice of the arpeggio. Beethoven seems to have a thing for playing these motives against their own inversions. This excerpt is seemingly so simple, but comprises two motives simultaneously played against their inversions. And it is so subtle!
Motive e gives rise to the chromatic run in m. 8, part of the reduction process here. Measures 9-11 yield a trick that Beethoven will do often. The lowest two notes in m. 9 are c and e, the lowest in m. 10 are b and d, but there is only one lowest note in m. 11. [This is because Beethoven is able to take any two voices and make them one or any one voice and make it two by using a combination of motives b and c. See example 3.] Beethoven combines motives b and c, which in m. 11 converge on the c note.
Measures 9-10 are parallel to mm. 13-14. If we look at the melody of mm. 13-14 in light of mm. 9-10 we notice that d#-e in m. 14 is expected to be a c#-d like m. 10. We also expect the ii6 chord in m. 13 to resolve to a I6 or even a V. Neither of these happens. Our b motive strikes again! The d#-e movement begins a tone higher than is expected. This allows Beethoven to stay on the same chord, though he changes it slightly. The ii6 becomes a II or V/V allowing us to eventually itonicize the dominant, D, by virtue of motive e, which turns c into c# and thus ii into V/V.
Measures 15-20 are basically liquidation leading to the second theme. They are nonetheless full of motivic fun. The arpeggios are obviously variants of motive a. What is interesting is the harmony and the quarter notes in the upper voice. We will begin with the harmony. In the constant changing between V and I6 4, the movement of the f# and a of V to the g and b of I and back to V produces two sets of motive c. See example 4. While that is going on, if we exclude the triplets in the high voice, the quarter notes produce a version of a1 overlapping with its own retrograde inversion. See example 5.
The second theme occurs next. It is entirely derived from the motives of the firsttheme. I will start with the melody. See the score for this. It begins at m. 21 with motive c based on the tonic (as was the first instance of c). This is then followed by an inversion of motive c ornamented. The ornamentation of c actually shows us motives b and d again. Instead of e-f#-e, the e goes to g (motive b, a tone one higher than expected) then resolves down to the f# and then the e, which produces motive b. At the same time, in the bass, an inversion of c is played against the first c in the melody (we have seen this before) and then another inversion of c against the ornamented version. But another c, however picky it may seem, also exists in m. 21. The a-g-a movement in the arpeggio could be considered another c, constituting three simultaneous c motives.
Measures 23-24 expand on the previous two. In the melody Beethoven uses the combination b+c trick to give us two voices. We then follow with the ornamented c that has a third below it, another unornamented inverted c. The b motive is played in the bass against the b added in the melody in m. 23 as the c motive is played against the two inverted c motives of m. 24.
The melody evens out a bit rhythmically and it is no surprise now that every three pitches can be considered a b motive. See the score mm. 24-27 and beyond. The accompaniment in mm. 25-26 is derived from two c motives as marked in the score. The accompaniment then moves to a single g in mm. 27. This is the b+c trick again. The low voice then moves by half steps upward (motive e) to bring us to the dominant just as it did in mm. 13-14. Beethoven then re-employs a lot of these tricks in a restatement. Then come the linear passages.
These lines (mm. 36-52) are mainly liquidations of motive a, but also motives c, d and e. The entire body is comprised of the triplet motive which is obviously motive a whether it occurs in the melody or bass, stepwise or skipwise. What is interesting (as
marked in the score) is that when the runs are separated by quarter notes, the last note of the first run, the repeated quarter notes, and the first note of the second run usually forms the c motive or occasionally the b motive. They are marked in the score. Beethoven uses the same b+c trick to move between two and one voices here. He also combines two b motives together to get a longer 4-note motive. Further, in mm. 49-52, instead of playing on the a motive as done earlier, he uses the e motive as a basis for movement of the quarter notes which is the difference between scale degrees 3 and 4 in m.15 and scale degrees 7 and 8 in m.49.
After the repeat there is a harmonic shock. After cadencing on D major, we get d minor in m. 53. We initially think that we have gone to the parallel minor by virtue of the e motive, but not so. It is actually the iv of a minor. In this section we don’t get too many
new tricks, but a few. The motivic use is labeled in the score. There are some notable events though. In m. 58 we have a g-f#-g in the melody, the c motive —but wait— there are 16th notes, the only 16th notes in the piece. What is he saying? Beethoven is trying to emphasize what is coming next, the augmented sixth chord. This chord is not random, but another combination of a motive and its inversion, in this case motive e. This takes us to the V of e minor solidifying the move from a minor to e minor.The melodic bits in mm. 59-63 are just recombinations of motive c (and or e depending on your reference point). Measures 64-65 get to expand a little bit on the e motive, which expands into b motives. This is part of the retransition.
There are no new tricks until m. 73. Well there is really not a trick here, but the absence of one. This is the first time we don’t have our d motive and we actually temporarily itonicize C. We even modulate there for a short time. By giving us the proper resolution of the V/IV chord in G (namely to C) Beethoven tells us that it is time to go back home. This is an important section because it addresses the tonal problem raised by the f natural. And this problem is finally resolved in mm. 108-109 when we are finally solidly back to our tonic key in m. 110.
The movement ends by cycling through some old ideas as it did in the exposition. The harmony changes every 2-4 beats throughout the piece except in cadential spots where the harmonic rhythm speeds up. When you review the score note that I have taken the liberty of not marking every instance of the motives, and have only really marked their first couple of uses of each type in each section. Beethoven has produced in this subtle movement a work in which all elements were derived from careful use of the motive.
I can’t believe this channel has existed for over 2 years and we haven’t yet done an analysis on Moonlight Sonata by Beethoven, probably one of the most famous piano pieces of all time. But today’s the day!
In today’s video, we’re going to look at all three movements – yes, there are three movements, beyond the iconic slow first movement – and talk a little history and analysis.
The purpose of this video is to give you a deeper insight into this lovely sonata, whether or not you’re a music nerd or everyday general music fan. We’ll play clips from the piece so you can get a sense of what it sounds like, and talk a bit of history, theory and style.
Let’s get to it!
Moonlight Sonata by Beethoven: General info
The actual title for Moonlight Sonata by Beethoven is “Piano Sonata no. 14 in C# minor, op. 27 no. 2”. It was written in 1801, and aside from being popular over 200 years later, it was pretty well-loved in Beethoven’s day as well.
It wasn’t always called “Moonlight Sonata” – on the first edition, Beethoven gave the piece an Italian subtitle, “Sonata quasi una fantasia”, which translates to something like “Sonata almost like a fantasy” (A fantasy is another music genre, and much more improvisational).
Shortly after Beethoven’s death, a well-known music critic named Ludwig Rellstab made the comment that the first movement sounded like moonlight shining upon Lake Lucerne. That comment caught fire, and within a decade it was already being published as “Moonlight Sonata”.
Inspiration for Moonlight Sonata by Beethoven
Frederic Chopin was said to have been inspired to write his Fantaisie-Impromtu because of this piece, as a tribute to Beethoven. I love this quote by Enst Oster, who writes,
“… With the aid of the Fantaisie-Impromptu we can at least recognize what particular features of the C♯ minor Sonata struck fire in Chopin. We can actually regard Chopin as our teacher as he points to the coda and says, ‘Look here, this is great. Take heed of this example!’ … The Fantaisie-Impromptu is perhaps the only instance where one genius discloses to us — if only by means of a composition of his own — what he actually hears in the work of another genius.”
The title “Moonlight” sonata makes it sound like this is a rather romantic sonata, and people have speculated that it was meant as a sort of love song to Giulietta Guicciardi, Beethoven’s 17-year old piano student who he dedicated the piece to.
However, it’s much more likely that the inspiration came from a darker place. In one of the original manuscripts, Beethoven had notes from Mozart’s Don Juan, also in C# minor, from the scene where Don Juan kills the commander. This indicates to us that Beethoven envisioned more of a funeral feel to this movement, as opposed to a romantic feel.
It was also written in his early thirties, around the time he was starting to deal with his hearing loss and his music style was changing. When I listen to this, I don’t hear a story of lost love – I hear a story of death and turmoil.
So Beethoven was heavily influenced by Mozart’s death scene in Don Giovanni, and Chopin was later inspired by Moonlight Sonata for his Fantaisie-Impromtu. Ahh, the cycle of (music) life!
Overall structure of Moonlight Sonata by Beethoven
So let’s look at the overarching structure of this work, which generally runs about 20 minutes. It’s got three movements:
This is typical of the Classical-era genre – sonatas are almost always 3-4 movements long. What is unusual about this sonata is the tempo choices. Usually sonatas are fast-slow-fast, with the slow movement sandwiched in the middle. The first and last movement are almost always quite brisk.
But Beethoven goes slow-medium-fast in this sonata, which was really unusual, and a testament to his rule-breaking. He enjoyed saving the most important movement for last, and did so in other sonatas (op. 27 no. 1, and op. 101).
1st movement: Adagio sostenuto
The first movement of Moonlight Sonata by Beethoven is the one that most people are familiar with – you’ll recognize it right away when we take a listen.
The movement as a whole is quite quiet and somber, mainly piano/pianissimo with a few crescendos – it never grows beyond that, which is really quite restrained for passionate Beethoven.
Some famous musicians, such as Hector Berlioz, really loved the movement, saying,
“It is one of those poems that human language does not know how to qualify.”
Carl Czerny, Beethoven’s piano student, also quite enjoyed it, as did many listeners in Beethoven’s time. This actually frustrated Beethoven, who said to Czerny, “Surely I’ve written better things.” It’s like Radiohead with Creep all over again.
Let’s take a quick listen to a little bit of the introduction and first subject, to get the tune in your head while we talk.
Moonlight Sonata: Rhythmic Ostinato
Throughout the movement, we have a rhythmic ostinato – Beethoven’s triplet pattern that continues without fail throughout the entire movement. This gives the piece a “rolling” feeling – it feels as though it’s swaying back and forth.
The melody of this movement is very fleeting – it creates a feeling of little peeks of light shining through the pitch-black lower notes. The melody practically glistens.
On a personal note, learning this movement was a revelatory piano experience – some of you have probably experienced this with pieces you’ve learned. That magical feeling like you’re witnessing pure genius, as you unfold it note by note, chord by chord. I remember the first time I learned to play the tense second theme, and being completely blown away by the brilliant harmonies.
That’s one of the reasons I’m such a fan of playing Classical music. When else do you get to personally witness such genius, up close and in your own home? I get the same way when I go to art galleries – it can bring you to tears.
1st movement: Technical details
So let’s get into some technical details. The first movement is in a weird version of sonata form (for a normal version of sonata form, check out this video). It’s got a first subject (mm. 1-5) and a second subject (mm. 15-23) in the exposition.
The development section is really short (mm. 23-42), which is one thing that sets it apart from other more regular sonatas. We usually expect the development section to take the themes from the exposition and spend time twisting them around, but Beethoven doesn’t go there. This part is almost like a short bridge.
And then we have the recapitulation, where the first theme (mm. 42-46) and second theme (mm. 51-60) are brought back, with the second theme being in a different key the second time around.
Finally, we have the coda (ending) from mm. 60-65, bringing the movement to a close.
We’ve already mentioned that Beethoven intended this movement to be “almost like a fantasy”, which means it has an improvisational feel to it. This means he decided to shirk a lot of the common harmonic progressions and “rules” of sonata form, which gives this movement a much freer feel.
There’s a passage in the middle (the development section) where the melody drops and the notes run up and down the keyboard – this, to me, has a really distinct improvisational flair to it, almost like a little cadenza. Play around with rubato (flexible tempo) and expression in this part especially.
Let’s take a quick listen to that part from the development section – it’s full of diminished chords, and very tense.
Performed by Allysia
1st movement: Recapitulation
The final clip I want you to listen to is from the recapitulation. It’s the second theme, which we haven’t yet listened to. You’re all probably familiar with the famous first theme (which we started the listening with), but this second theme is my favorite. It’s really powerful, and always feels exciting to play.
Some practice suggestions
If you’re learning this on the piano, or plan to soon, it’s a great place to experiment with the una corda, or “first pedal”. This is most of my students’ first introduction to using the softening first pedal, and sounds great in the pianissimo sections. And you want to use this pedal while simultaneously using the damper pedal as well.
Another challenge of playing this is that the melody notes in the right hand are mainly performed with the pinky, and, as such, it’s really easy for that note to disappear, instead of cutting through the accompaniment like it’s meant to.
I was personally inspired by Claudio Arrau for my interpretation of this movement – he plays very slow, and with incredible expression. The triplet pattern never sounds mechanical, and his melody is so clear.
2nd movement: Allegretto
Of the three movements, this is the one that people are generally the least familiar with. It’s your average minuetto and trio, and pretty unremarkable.
This movement reminds me of a palate cleanser. The first movement has a really strong flavor, so you need a little plain food and drink to reset your palate for the equally strong flavor of the final movement.
So I don’t think it’s unremarkable because Beethoven was phoning it in – I think it’s unremarkable very deliberately. Anything more would have been “too much”, too overwhelming.
Franz Liszt described the second movement as a “flower between two chasms”, which is much more poetic than my food analogy.
On the technical side of things, this minuetto and trio is a little unusual because both the minuetto part and the trio part are in the same key. Usually the composers will switch up the keys, but Beethoven kept things really simple.
It’s interesting, too, that this minuetto and trio is in the key of Db major. The first and third movements are in C# minor, which, if you picture a keyboard, is actually the exact same note as Db. We call these keys “enharmonic”, meaning they’re different names for the exact same note on the piano.
The reason many composers choose to write in Db major instead of C# major is because it’s easier to digest. Look at the following:
The flat version has a couple white keys, whereas in the sharp version, literally every note is played sharp. It’s hard to mentally digest that.
The same goes for writing in C# minor versus Db minor. So if you’ve ever wondered why composers write in enharmonic keys (C# instead of Db), that’s usually why.
Let’s take a quick listen to the minuetto (first part), and we’ll follow it directly with a clip from the trio (second part).
See credits at end of this post
3rd movement: Presto agitato
This is a really exciting movement, and one that I featured in the video “Classical Music for People who don’t Like Classical Music”. The mood is dark and heavy like the first movement, except this time it’s loud and fast and exciting.
It’s best described as ferocious, powerful and passionate, and it’s the movement that requires the most skill. The first movements are pretty doable for a late intermediate student, but this last movement is quite advanced (something you’ll be able to tell when you listen to it).
Let’s take a quick listen to the start of the exposition (this movement is in sonata form, which we’ll talk about shortly), so you can get the tune in your head.
3rd movement: Analysis
Interestingly, you’d think this would be a movement littered with fortissimos, blasting out through the whole piece. But the powerful sound of this movement isn’t achieved by blasting out a stream of loud notes – rather, it’s a few well-chosen accents in a sea of quiet playing (with the odd, short fortissimo section) that makes it have impact.
Valentina Lisitsa’s interpretation of the final movement is my favorite – it’s so fast and fluid and exciting. I urge you to check it out!
Let’s jump to the technical side of this movement. Like the first movement, it’s written in sonata form. You’ve got the exposition (mm. 1-65), development (mm. 66-102), recapitulation (mm. 103-158), and coda (158 to end).
It’s an incredibly cool movement and I urge you to check it out in full, but for now let’s take a quick listen to the development section. I want you to take a listen to all the parallels from the exposition – it starts off virtually identical, except with some twists and turns. For example, the development section blasts off on a major chord.
When you listen to the full version, you’ll hear all the ways in which the development section completely turns the exposition on its head.
After the development, the recapitulation occurs, which is basically identical to the exposition, with a few minor changes.
If you enjoyed this video analysis of Moonlight Sonata, you might want to check out some of our other similar videos:
Clair de Lune by Debussy
Goldberg Variations by Bach
Canon in D by Pachelbel
And don’t forget to check out some of our Beethoven videos, such as:
A Brief History of Beethoven
The Music of Beethoven: Six Favorites
Credit to: Performed by Paul Pitman on piano (2nd and 3rd movement), published by Palo Alto: Musopen, 2014
Credit to: Allysia Kerney (1st movement) and Rob Hillstead.