Memphis, Paris, London, Poland: mid 20th century
Germany, 1801; Russia mid 19th century
Speaking in tones
Elvis, waiting to begin recording in the studio, sits at the piano and plays a few bars from the Moonlight Sonata. Do you know this? he asks the engineer as he walks into the room. He probably does, Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata is one of his best-known compositions.
John, sprawled on the couch listening to Yoko play the rippling triads from the Sonata, asks Yoko if she can play them backwards. She can, and so, the first inklings of the Lennon–McCartney song Because. John placed Beethoven in his pantheon of great artists and so does Chuck Berry, the composer of the hit single Roll Over Beethoven. Before a live-to-air performance in 1960s Paris, he said: “This is a song about a man who had a lot to do with music … as a matter of fact a relished memory in my mind he was. And a good musician might I say so. This man was named Beethoven … ladies and gentleman, I ask him to forgive us. Rollover and listen to a little of this.”
Ludwig approaches the piano as if to torment it. Is it a threat, a thing to overcome? He writes the Moonlight Sonata in 1801 and dedicates it to a potential ladylove. He hopes the dedication will be an inducement, if you know what I mean. But it doesn’t work. She’s not interested. It wasn’t originally called the Moonlight Sonata. Beethoven called it ‘a sonata but almost a fantasy’. The name it is now known by was given much later and by someone else. The ladylove is long gone but the music endures. Pianos and bodies go together; so do pianos and sex.
Tolstoy knew this. If you read his novella, Family Happiness, you can hear the Moonlight Sonata. Play this, Sergey says to Masha, opening a book of Beethoven’s music. And although Masha fears she won’t play well, she finds it impossible to refuse. Sergey retreats into a dark corner of the room as she begins to play. Soon he stops her. He doesn’t think she plays the scherzo quite right although the first section was ‘not bad’. Masha is pleased with the modest praise and blushes. Later, after marriage and children, Masha is in a state of despair because she thinks Sergey has fallen out of love with her. She sits at the piano and starts to play the Moonlight Sonata. Why doesn’t he love her anymore, why let her go on socializing when he hated it so much? This is good, this working things out in step with the Moonlight. That’s what I like to do.
When I need to work something out I take a seat at the piano and start working my way through Moonlight Sonata.
I was a holy thing to you. And now, I am a bird without wings, a fire without fuel, a dead sea. I have come to nothing for you. The wind blows north and the wind blows south and the wind is strongest in my heart and the storm is coming in. I brew hate for you and the wind can’t blow that away. The sun can’t melt it and the fire can’t burn it. There is nothing on this God’s earth that can restore me to you but for your wanting. And your wanting has fled because I was a holy thing to you and now I am bound to this earth never again to soar the bright, blue sky..
In the ghetto that is Lodz in Nazi occupied Poland, the House of Culture organise another concert. Maestro Leopold Birkenfeld, a Viennese concert pianist, performs the Moonlight Sonata. The audience is enchanted. In a year’s time, Birkenfeld, along with many others from the ghetto, will be murdered at the Chelmno death camp.
…Utter mystery, I say: mysterious and strange. Untamable nature! Wind, tempests, floods, sun, famine, blood. Only the earth abideth forever. You and me, we are like a flower in the field, the wind passes over us and we are gone.
Theodor W. Adorno, the German philosopher, said we don’t understand music. Rather, music understands us … when we think we are closest to it, it speaks to us and waits sad-eyed for us to answer.
Like Montaigne’s ‘essai’ we can only really make an attempt at an answer and answers hardly ever come intact. I think the Moonlight Sonata is an attempt – a good one too. So is The Beatles Because and Chuck Berry’s directive to Beethoven. These are all experimental ‘becauses’ and the ones that speak most profoundly to us are the ones that come from who knows where? Because the sky is blue …