top of page


Piano Sonata No. 13 in E-flat major, op. 27, no. 1, “Quasi una fantasia”

Piano Sonata No. 14 in C-sharp minor, op. 27, no. 2, “Quasi una fantasia” (“Moonlight”)

January 19, 2020: Paul Lewis, piano

Beethoven, like Mozart, was famous for his ability to improvise both in formal and informal settings, and his pieces in fantasia style—free form stringing together of inventive figures, rhythmically unfettered gestures, and “strange effects” (often unusual harmonic progressions)—probably originated as improvisations. Previous to his two Opus 27 Sonatas, he and his predecessors Mozart and Haydn had written one-movement, multisectional fantasias or incorporated fantasia passages into sonata movements, but in 1800–01 Beethoven boldly expanded the fantasia idea into an entire multimovement structure. His label “quasi una fantasia” for his Opus 27 Sonatas reflects this new outlook.

In the first of these, the E-flat major Sonata, Beethoven runs all four movements together, making inner connections between movements. Modeled after Mozart’s celebrated C minor Fantasy, K. 475, the wonderfully imaginative E-flat major Sonata has unfortunately been overshadowed by its ultra-famous companion piece, the Moonlight Sonata. Beethoven composed the E-flat Sonata for his pupil and patron Princess Josephine Sophie von Liechtenstein, née Fürstenburg.

The first movement unfolds in an unconventional three-part fantasia form, beginning at a novel slow pace with an unassuming air that gives nothing away about the power to come. The contrast with the fast, dancelike middle section is startling. The figuration here suggests Beethoven improvising in fantasia style.

The C minor scherzo shows another kind of fantasia figuration—little three-note groups of broken chords in contrary motion. Beethoven evokes the hunt in the contrasting trio. When the scherzo returns, the three-note groups become ingeniously offset between the two hands.

The brief slow movement makes its luminous entrance in a new key that holds over a common tone from the close of the previous movement. The graceful opening melody returns in higher register with elaborated accompaniment after a “middle section” in which much of the tune occurs on afterbeats.

Beethoven concentrates the weight of the Sonata in this tour-de-force finale, for which he crafted an inspired quasi-contrapuntal main theme and combined sonata and rondo form. In his surprising conclusion he recalls the slow movement in a subtle variant, before dashing off in a presto coda based on the second two notes of his main theme.

A discussion of the Moonlight Sonata no longer necessitates a protest against its nickname, which was not attached by Beethoven, but by music critic H.F.L. Rellstab, who likened the first movement to “a boat passing the scenery of Lake Lucerne in the moonlight.” It has also been clear since chronicler Otto Jahn’s conversations in 1852 with the Sonata’s dedicatee, Countess Giulietta Guicciardi, that Beethoven did not have her in mind when composing the work in 1801. Commentators had come to exaggerate a romantic relationship between the two when it was supposed that he wrote the “moonlight” movement as a love song to her. In fact, Beethoven dedicated the Sonata to her in replacement for a dedication (for the Rondo, op. 51, no. 2) that she had let him “take back” for another dedicatee.

As it turned out with Countess Guicciardi, Beethoven seems to have followed his typical pattern of bestowing his affections on a lady of high social station until she married someone else. As to “her” C-sharp minor Sonata, Beethoven became annoyed at its immense popularity, stating to composer Carl Czerny, “Everybody is always talking about the C-sharp minor Sonata! Surely I have written better things.”

Beethoven’s designation “fantasia” here refers to the hypnotic effect of the slow first movement, which sounds like a free improvisation in its harmonic plan and continuous figuration, though in fact it combines conventions of ternary and sonata form. The middle movement, which Liszt aptly described as “a flower between two abysses,” makes a bow to Classic grace. Its trio emphasizes a rhythmic idea that Beethoven had already introduced in the first section.

The devilishly difficult Presto finale presents another kind of fantasia figuration, which with its savage ferocity surely resulted in broken strings on the pianos of Beethoven’s day.

The first theme is fashioned from agitated arpeggios that lead to jabbing repeated chords, and though the second theme provides a slight relaxation, the agitated feeling persists in the accompaniment. What is so remarkable about this movement is that its ties to conventional sonata form are completely overshadowed by its radical gestures and textures, features of Beethoven’s improvisational, fantasia style with which he meant to astonish his listeners.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

bottom of page