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The Story Behind Beethoven's "Moonlight" Sonata: Henle's New Edition by Perahia and Gertsch

In March, I will be presenting a showcase at the Music Teachers National Association Conference in Chicago on Henle's new edition of the Beethoven Piano Sonatas, edited by renowned pianist, Murray Perahia, and Norbert Gertsch. To me, this is a wonderful resource for aspiring pianists to gain access to the minds of one of the most perceptive and sensitive artists of our era. In this edition, Perahia and Henle partner together to produce an excellent blend between performance and historical scholarship by carefully examining and staying as faithful as possible to the composer's autograph and manuscripts. Additionally, Perahia often provides his own performance remarks, theoretical analysis, and historical research––all resulting to a completely unique and cerebral approach to the Beethoven Sonatas.

At the showcase, I plan to center my talk on how one can use this edition to gain better understanding in performing and teaching the Beethoven Sonatas. One of the examples that I plan to discuss is his ever popular work, "Moonlight Sonata." In his introductory remarks, Perahia (along with multiple scholars) shares how Beethoven did not come up with this popular nickname, but rather, a critic stated that the first movement reminded him of "Lake Lucerne resting quiet under the light of the moon at twilight; the wave thuds against the dark bank; gloomy wooded mountains rise up and divide this sacred region from the world; swans move through the water with whispering rustle, like spirits, and an Aeolian harp makes its complaints of longing, lonely love mysteriously from the ruin. Silence; good night!”

What I found particularly interesting among Perahia's remarks was that he explores Beethoven's fascination of the Aeolian harp, an instrument that was popular among poets, writers, and musicians during the composer's lifetime. The instrument is truly unique––essentially a wooden box with strings and sounding board, and is "played" by the blowing of the wind (name comes from Aeolus, the Greek god of wind).

Furthermore, Perahia suggests that the marking, "delicatissimamente," along with Beethoven's indication to maintain a continuously pedaled and sustained tone, might convey the fantasy on the idea of an Aeolian harp. Indeed, in the first edition, Beethoven simply titled, "Sonata quasi una FANTASIA." Interestingly, after examining the manuscript, Perahia mentions that Beethoven clearly thought of the chords and harmony first before adding the decorative, arpeggiated figures later. When learning about this, it all seemingly clicks together––I think about the stories of Beethoven improvising this movement before Guiletta Guicciardi, the work's dedicatee and a possible love interest of the composer.

There are many performance ideas in the first movement that Perahia suggests, but to examine every point that he makes would be far too cumbersome; however, his reductive analysis of the first movement has made me rethink tempo choices and how I would shape the long phrases in this movement.

I have been enjoying this new Henle edition of the Beethoven sonatas, and I am learning new things about these timeless masterpieces! #constantlearning #Beethoven2020

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