Beethoven’s piano masterpiece
It’s one of the most beautiful and recognisable pieces ever written. And it transfers brilliantly from piano to guitar, as Bridget demonstrates.
This classical piece is one of Ludwig van Beethoven’s most well-known piano solos. In fact it’s one of the most familiar of all classical pieces, and is recognised by almost everyone whether they know what it’s called or not: the moody and evocative Moonlight Sonata. The piece was originally called Quasi Una Fantasia, meaning ‘almost a fantasy’ and the title Moonlight Sonata only came after Beethoven’s death, when music critic and poet Ludwig Rellstab compared the effect of tune to that of moonlight shining on Lake Lucerne.
The usual format for a Sonata is three movements, the tempos of which are normally fast, slow, fast. But this piece breaks that mould with a slow and extremely melancholy first movement. Tragically, Beethoven lost his hearing towards the end of his life and the Moonlight Sonata was written in the early stages of his deafness. The piece was dedicated to Beethoven’s pupil, 17-yearold Countess Giulietta Guicciardi to whom the composer had proposed a marriage. The marriage - to this obviously much older man - was forbidden by the parents of the Countess and the piece’s tragic quality has made a strong impression on many listeners. Indeed, John Lennon is said to have loosely based his song Because from The Beatles’ Abbey Road album on it, in order to capture the same sad mood.
The French romantic composer Hector Berlioz is quoted to have said, “It is one of those poems that human language does not know how to qualify”. Beethoven himself, however, became exasperated by the popularity of the piece saying, “Surely I’ve written better things!”
Piano music arranged for solo guitar is always compromised by the fact that we cannot play as many notes simultaneously as a pianist is able to. So some editing is necessary to make it physically playable, while striving to maintain the harmony, voicing and spirit of the piece.
Also, in order to play it effectively on guitar it has been transposed from the original key of C#m to the far more guitar-friendly Am. This not only makes it easier to play, it actually makes it sound better on the guitar, as it uses the natural resonance of the instrument in that register - and of course some open strings - to good effect. Purists might balk at such downright blasphemy, but we’ll risk their wrath this time in the knowledge that Ludwig himself would have probably loved the idea.
If you enjoy playing this piece try arranging other famous classical tunes by Bach, Mozart and Schubert for the guitar. Many of them translate really well and it’s most educational, a really worthwhile challenge and also a lot of fun. And of course you can also transpose pieces to more familiar keys should the opportunity present itself.
Anyway, I’m sure we’ll be returning to this idea in the months to come so, as always, your suggestions are most welcome.
PIANO MUSIC ARRANGED FOR SOLO GUITAR IS COMPROMISED BY THE FACT THAT WE CANNOT PLAY AS MANY NOTES SIMULTANEOUSLY
NEXT MONTH Bridget arranges the Oboe Concerto in Dm by Alessandro Marcello
Beethoven: his Moonlight Sonata, a tale of unrequited love