Monday, March 17, 2014

30 For 30: Moonlight Sonata by Beethoven

I turned 30 on February 18th. I want to celebrate this, and get myself back into writing, by spending a few weeks rambling about the 30 things that have meant the most to me over the years. These will be from music, movies, books, videogames, and maybe even art and other things for good measure. I feel like my life has been much more about the things I've experienced than it has the people I've known or the places I've traveled to, and these 30 things have helped to make my 30 years more than worth all the innumerable bad things. Expect heartfelt over-sharing and overly analytical explanations galore! In part 17, learn the true title of what I refer to as "the most beautiful and sad thing I've ever heard."

Back in 2012, I was dating and living with someone who was majoring in trombone performance at a local college. When studying an instrument at the college level, you not only have to be in several performances yourself, but you have to attend those given by other students, too. So in a few months I got a crash course in classical music and associated styles, and I saw way more live music in a few months than I had in my entire life up to that point combined. I even bought my then-girlfriend a huge assortment of vintage classical records. But as much as I learned and as much as I heard, classical music is just not my thing and I know now it never will be. I ended up liking the 'New Music' and experimental stuff way more than the classics, so that was kind of strike one. Strike two was that the music is too intellectual and requires too much reading; even the emotive pieces sound to me like a mathematician plugging in the right formula of notes to simulate emotion instead of it being music as a channel for emotion. And strike three was that my favorite piece of classical music remained the same as it was before I had my education in 2012. To a classical music fan it's such a popular and obvious choice as to be asinine, but I can't help it: Moonlight Sonata is the most beautiful and sad thing I've ever heard.

Except that it's not really called Moonlight Sonata, and it's not all beautiful and sad.

Well, never say that Whiskey Pie isn't educational. For you see, Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata isn't actually called that. The official title is most often written as Piano Sonata No. 14 In C-Sharp Minor “Quasi Una Fantasia.” Furthermore, what everyone is familiar with and thinks is the entirety of the song is only the first movement of three. Admittedly there's something to be said for colloquial shorthand so that whenever we hear it we don't have to say the full title and can instead go with a simple question of “that's Moonlight Sonata, right?” For the purposes of the rest of this piece, I'm going to keep saying “Moonlight Sonata” and trust you understand that I really mean Piano Sonata No. 14 In C-Sharp Minor “Quasi Una Fantasia.” Say that three times fast.

I'm fairly sure the first time I heard this song was in a cartoon or movie. It's one of those classical songs that has been used so many times in so many different places that you don't always notice it. Using Moonlight Sonata to indicate that something is sad, or juxtaposing it against something decidedly un-sad for the ironic humor effect, has been done to death in movies, TV shows, and cartoons. I remember even a more modern cartoon like Ren & Stimpy used a lot of classical music, so it's possible that was where I first heard Moonlight Sonata. No matter how or where it's used, though, this song still hits me right in the chest. This is one of the most famous and ubiquitous songs of all time yet it somehow retains every bit of its power even if it's a Muzak version in an elevator or it's in a TV commercial for a car or some god damn thing.

As someone who has always been drawn to the bittersweet and melancholic in life, it only makes sense that I'd love Moonlight Sonata. To my mind it is the origin point of all sad music that came afterward, even though this is only strictly true of that famous first movement of the song. But it's hard to beat that part for establishing a mood, for getting a visceral reaction out of people. On any given day I can listen to all three movements and by the end I am in a totally different state of mind and mood, transported away by a single piano playing a piece from over 200 years ago. While it's very likely that no trace of my time on this Earth will survive 200 years into the future, I know that Moonlight Sonata will.

No comments: