Pedalling the Moonlight Sonata – Practising the Piano

Beethoven wrote the Sonata No. 14 in C♯ minor (Quasi una fantasia), Op. 27, No. 2 in 1801, dedicating it the following year to his pupil, Countess Giulietta Guicciardi. The title “Moonlight” was given not by Beethoven, but by poet Ludwig Rellstab; even though Rellstab dreamed this up five years after Beethoven’s death, his nickname stuck.

At the start of the first movement, Beethoven directs the performer to hold down the sustaining pedal throughout the whole movement, so that the strings are never damped. Above the opening bar, Beethoven instructed “Si deve suonare tutto questo pezzo delicatissimamente e senza sordini” (the entire piece should be played with the greatest delicacy and without mutes), followed by another direction between the staves “semper pp e senza sordini.” “Senza sordini” is an instruction to play “without mutes,” or with the dampers raised off of the strings – or, in other words, with the pedal down. Beethoven must have meant something important by this, since he felt it necessary to give the same instruction twice.

Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata

On the pianos of Beethoven’s time the sustain was shorter than the pianos we have today, and this effect surprisingly subtle. Obeying Beethoven’s marking literally on a modern piano, with its much longer sustain, produces chaotic and immediately unacceptable results. However there are ways of pedalling artfully that recreate the type of effect Beethoven was after. I’ll show you in a minute how to produce an aura around the sound, obeying the spirit if not the letter of Beethoven’s instructions. But first listen to Matt Bengtson demonstrating the opening on a fortepiano:

Beethoven would have remembered a day, not so long before, when pianos were equipped with a handstop that lifted the dampers away from the strings. Think of it like a switch – it was either on or off. The player would have engaged the pedal stop for a while, to produce a certain effect, before disengaging it and playing without pedal.

In short, the pedaled sound is still a special effect for Beethoven as it was for Haydn, and he used it above all for contrast. The first movement of the “Moonlight” Sonata is perhaps the only exception in his work, a unique essay in tone color: here he wanted the entire piece to be played with pedal, to be played, in fact, delicately and pianissimo without ever changing the pedal, that is, without lowering the dampers to the strings. (Charles Rosen, Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas: A Short Companion, p. 108)

Mark Beeldharing sheds more light on this, in relation to the type of piano Beethoven would have known. Again notice how completely acceptable the sound is with the dampers fully away from the strings.

Fractional Pedals

Last year I published a video that demonstrates how we use fractional pedalling to reduce or temper the resonance of our modern piano. I use this all the time in my playing and teaching, and once you get good at it you’ll find it an indispensable part of your technique. Since a picture is worth a thousand words, allow me to show you in this video.

Now of course Beethoven did not specify half pedaling, fractional pedalling or anything remotely similar because, as we have heard, the effect is completely satisfactory on the pianos he was used to with the dampers completely away from the strings. What interests me is the effect implied by the words senza sordino, only achievable on our instruments if the pedal stays close to the top – adjusting it where necessary by a thousandth of a squillimeter (or the mere twitching of a big toenail). At no point does the pedal go all the way down to the bottom, nor does it come back to the top.

If you struggle with this (and it does take a while to master) I offer some ideas on late pedal changes in this video I made for Pianist Magazine a couple of years ago. It’s another way to create a similar effect.


Video Series & Annotated Study Edition

If you enjoyed this article then you might be interested in our videos and study edition which give step-by-step guide to playing the first movement of the Moonlight Sonata with detailed advice on style, tempo, pedalling, fingering, practice method and technique – especially on how to avoid tension when projecting the melodic line.

These resources can be purchased from our store for £11.99 as a stand-alone product or are available with an annual subscription to the Online Academy for £119.99 per year.

Please click here to find out more about the Online Academy or click here if you’d like to to subscribe.

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